Apr 04 Why Design Research Makes Me a Better Person

Claire Carlson shares what she learned about the power of empathy during a recent project with a client who has a big vision for the future of America.

A 2016 Pew Study on Partisanship and Political Animosity showed just how divided Americans have become. The study emphasized the chasm that exists between political parties, and revealed that more than half of all participants believe those from other parties are more closed-minded than other Americans.

Regardless of your reaction to this study, or your general political views and experiences, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced divisiveness over the past year. The increasingly insular nature of our lives (especially our digital lives) during the election was well-documented, and this confirmation bias permeates to many other spheres of our lives too.

These feelings of polarization were fresh when I started an engagement with a new client, almost immediately following the presidential election.

Like many engagements, our work with this client included design research with consumers.  And as always, we set out to better understand the needs, perspectives and motivations of the people served by our client – in this case, people belonging primarily to the ‘American culture at large’ described by Murray above.

Maybe it was the freshness of the election, or perhaps it was the target population of this client, but during this engagement I internalized the personal value of design research in a new way as we talked to people across the country.

The thing about design research is that it forces us to talk to people that we don’t know. We talk to complete strangers about deeply personal topics like health, death, family and finances. Sometimes we even go into their homes and meet their significant others, children and pets.

Over the course of three weeks, we met 19 different Americans and saw almost half of them in their homes. I met a woman who is excited about the prospect of new manufacturing jobs in her far-ring suburban city, who splits shifts with her husband to share their one car and cares for her grandson in many of her hours off. I met a young man who regrets not pursuing more education after high school, has a sketchbook full of elaborate pencil drawings, and is a primary caregiver for a small girl who wandered in and out of our conversation. And I met a successful entrepreneur, who is proud that he helped a fast food worker gain a more sustainable job. By putting a face on different perspectives, I checked assumptions for our project, and let go of some of my own beliefs.

As strategists and designers, the objective of these design research conversations is to build empathy and gain an understanding that will enable us to develop more effective solutions with our clients. As a human, I’ve found it impossible to not also build empathy at a personal level.

When I sit down with a stranger, and their child is running into the room, or their dogs and cats are nosing around the holiday decorations, it is pretty easy for me to find common ground.

But this experience requires me to leave the comfort of sameness.

I’ve noticed that when work or life or the morning news is stressful, my tendency is to turn inward and to find stability in routine and close relationships. I’m grateful for the opportunity (and necessity) to leave this uniformity for my job and hope that the perspective I gain from this work will continue to push me outward in more areas of my life.

Claire Carlson
Claire Carlson

Claire is a strategist who enjoys learning about the intersection of psychology and culture, and about how patterns and stories shape individuals and communities.