Harness Your Curiosity About What Makes People Tick

Many of us are a little scared of being in front of a “real person” so we use the “I’m an official researcher; I must analyze everything” attitude as a shield.

Search for Empathy

Bringing empathy to design is very important if you want to add meaning to the products and services we create. In this series Indi Young (author of Mental Models and founding partner of Adaptive Path) shares her thoughts about this subject.

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Most of us designers are introverts – socially active introverts, possibly. We’re not usually the type of folks who just walk up to strangers at a cocktail party and start a conversation. We have other skills. We can see where something has gone wrong in an experience or a communication, and we like making things better. But we don’t usually thrive on being around other people all the time.

Getting outside our routine surroundings takes a little effort. You have to ask for names of people to talk to and find out if they’re willing to talk to you. Much of this can be done by recruiters or social media these days, but I swear you have to get out and talk to people. Don’t let a glass pane materialize between you and the participant (read: camera lens, laptop screen, touch screen). Technology puts us at a remove from the people we want to empathize with. Conversation puts us in their head. When someone suggests, “Set up two video cameras, one at regular speed and one on time lapse to try to find patterns in behavior, and then do some casual shadowing observations without the cameras,” it smacks of being too caught up in the researcher/analyst role. You can only guess at what is going on inside people’s minds and hearts. You must ask them and listen to their stories to find out for sure.

How do we do this comfortably? Harness your natural curiosity about the way other people think. You like making things better—but for whom? Question yourself. Usually you can make things better based on your own perspective, but to understand someone else’s perspective you need to do more than observe and interpret.

Indi Young

Indi Young is a problem solver by heart. She is the author of 'Mental Models' (Rosenfeld Media) and has been working as a consultant on web applications since 1995. In 2001 she co-founded Adaptive Path. Indi has worked with many different clients, including Visa, Charles Schwab, Sybase, Agilent, Dow Corning, Microsoft, and PeopleSoft.

One comment on this article

  1. Eddie James on

    This is so true. I have watched many usability sessions and have conducted 100s of my own. I’m often surprised how researchers don’t engage with the participant, but treat them in a clinical manner.

    I take a different approach. To me, it’s just a conversation and it’s all about them. I want to know what their life is like. What makes them happy. What’s on their minds. What are their fears. Will the product I’m testing really solve their problems?

    I want them to be honest with me. To do that they have to trust me. I’m honestly curious about them and I think that makes participants feel more comfortable.

    I’ve had participants voluntarily show me pictures of their kids, pull up blogs devoted to their dogs, even reveal very personal texts that were sent to them. They did this because they wanted to share something that wasn’t necessarily in the “script” but related to what we were talking about and they had a real world example that they thought I could use.

    Being curious about participants definitely gives better insights.