Learning to Observe

With the right background, an observer can find so much more value in their observations. But when the background of the observer is different than the intended audience, an observation can become a huge liability.

14th April, 2013

As designers, we all like to think we base our solutions on good, firm observations. We see a problem that needs to be solved, we observe the situation and the people who are struggling with it, and we propose solutions based on those observations.

But our backgrounds and beliefs will skew what we derive from our observations every time. We don’t think they will, or we underestimate the extent to which they do. But they do. And they will. Unless we learn how to guard against our ingrained beliefs and biases, and learn how to see things from our customer’s point of view, and not our own.

I recently heard an amazing story about an organization building low income housing (Lo Barnechea) in Santiago, Chile while watching Urbanized. It’s a great story of a panel of experts who got it all wrong by misinterpreting their own observations. And by all wrong, I mean about as wrong as you could possibly get.

A mountain landscape with a series of apartments in the foreground.

The panel had a job. They needed to figure out what people moving into the low income housing needed more: a bathtub or a water heater — they couldn’t have both. The decision makers tended to choose the water heater. Luckily, they realized it was worth looking into the choice a little deeper. Upon further investigation they realized the people unanimously chose the bathtub.

How could a team of expert policy makers, politicians, and professionals be so wrong? Fortunately, they were able to realize their error before making any firm commitments. The people got their bathtubs!

The “expert” point of view

This was a big budget project for dozens of homes. It was worth investing in serious research and planning. They didn’t skimp on investigating how people moving into these homes actually lived — they genuinely cared and wanted to do the right thing.

Everyone had access to public showers and used them regularly. Since they could bathe, obviously their next priority would be to get access to hot water for more basic sanitation needs (washing food, clothes, shaving, etc.). Even though they could boil water on a stove, it was rarely used this way. A water heater is something they’ve never had access to and would fundamentally change their lives. To the experts, it was obvious — it couldn’t be anything other than a water heater. Duh.

At this point nothing seems too far out of place. There’s some interesting logic based on real observations. They’re not operating on guesses and assumptions. By many people’s standards of “customer-centric design” they are doing everything right.

The “customer” point of view

Even though the people moving into the houses have access to bathe, their value of privacy was never explored or understood. They’ve managed without controlling the temperature of water up to that point. To them, going from cold and public bathing to cold and private bathing was far more important than access to hot water. 100% of the people interviewed wanted the bathtub. That’s all of them, not one single exception. Take that, experts!

As soon as I heard the word “privacy” I slapped my forehead. Now it all made sense! Privacy is such an important part of my life, I can’t imagine not having it. It’s so ingrained in what I do, it didn’t even occur to me that someone else could be lacking privacy or how valuable access to privacy might be to them.

This may seem blindingly obvious. All you need to do is ask them how much they care about privacy! In the moment, though, it can be extremely difficult to know to explore every emotion, every motivation, every priority, every feeling. Sometimes it’s just not reasonable to expect that you can gather all the relevant background to make a great choice. You may have to rely only on what you can observe. This is dangerous, but the risk can be mitigated if you can relate to what you observe differently.

Effort should indicate a lack of satisfaction

Seeing people use public facilities to bathe doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a solved problem. Even though someone has the ability to do something doesn’t mean they’re satisfied. Look at where people are spending their time and how much effort they’re investing in the problem. If they’re walking hundreds of yards and investing hours out of their day to bathe, they’re showing you how valuable it is to them. Optimizing around that behavior could be much more valuable than you think.

People were boiling water for food and some other household chores, but it didn’t take up a lot of their time. That’s a good indicator that it’s not, at this point, a critical part of their lives. Don’t get distracted by the excitement of doing something new, it may not as valuable as you think.

Investigate anything that people are spending unusual amounts of time or energy on. You might uncover a huge motivator of their behavior. This can open up entirely new ways to empathize with the people you’re trying to help.

Beware of your observations

Don’t let your background and beliefs get in the way of extracting useful information out of your observations.

With the right background, an observer can find so much more value in their observations. But when the background of the observer is different than the intended audience, an observation can become a huge liability. Follow up every observation with a “why?” instead of immediately associating meaning to it. That might just save you from choosing the water heater.

Originally published on my Medium account as Learning to Observe.

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