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The Matter

5 Reflections for better Immersion

Sydney, 16th July 2013

Field research, immersion, observation, shadowing… whatever you wanna call it, that raw and confronting bit of design research is what I’ve been up to the last couple of weeks on our latest project at work.

Is been a while since I’ve hit the streets to do this type of stuff, the last time was in 2012 in a cheerful but desperately underprivileged scheme just outside Dundee in Scotland. Yet even in (mostly) middle class Sydney it’s been nice to be reminded of the challenges, the stress, the high’s and the craft involved in talking to complete strangers about their sometimes pretty intimate experiences.

Researcher badges from the Snook studio

I’m sure the likes of social workers, journalists and whatnot get some sort of basic training in these things, but as a designer I’ve only ever learnt this stuff through good old trial and error. So after some reflections I’ve tried to make a list of a few things I use to help me in digging for those insights of gold.

  1. Fight or Flight – first things first, when I’m approaching someone I always make sure I never walk directly up to them. There’s probably some evolutionary thing at play there, but I’ve simply noticed that it makes people a bit defensive and threatened. Instead I deliberately craft an indirect route, I try to look occupied, I might check my phone and I make sure to avoid eye contact. Finally when I’ve shimmied my way into good proximity I politely introduce myself with what I hope comes off as an endearing, not a salesman’s, smile.
  2. I’m not trying to sell you something – no matter what comes out of my mouth in that first 15 secs I know they’re not hearing a word, all they want to know, is ‘What does this girl want from me?.’ So my strategy is to squeeze out as many non-marketing words as possible in order to redeem myself and break down some reluctance, words like… researcher, designer, (sometimes student), independent, not-from-the-government have worked in the past.
  3. Humble pie – maybe it helps me feel more comfortable which in turns puts my subject at ease, but I dress down for field research. No collared shirts, no blazers, no heels or flashy jewelry etc. This process is about listening to their stories, its not about me, so I try to dress neutrally. I think this helps minimise any hierarchy or judgement issues and gets focus back on the subject of discussion.
  4. Give em an out, to get em in – A response I’ve got a lot lately is ‘How long will this take?‘ and I’ve found this question actually helps me make a point about control. As soon as they feel they’re driving the discussion it shifts from being an tolerable annoyance to a chance to share or vent. I always invite them indicate when they need to go but more than once I’ve had people take phone calls mid interview only to tell me to wait so we can finish our chat.
  5. Sharing is Caring – I blame this trick alone for vox pop fatigue, but if I do just one thing it’s this…care! Now I’m an introverted person but I just can’t help myself get wrapped up in real stories and real truths. This excitement can’t be faked because in many ways it’s the reason I became a designer. The obvious upside of all this caring is that my subject can sense I’m geniune and feed off the good energy, which hopefully giving me just that little bit longer to dig for gold.
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