Understanding Sierra Leone

Post by Federica Carugati, Tate Rider, Lindsay Gorman, and Mohamed Yassine

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As the class moves forward on the stimulating and surprising path of design thinking (DT), we find ourselves reflecting on the fuzzy contours of objectivity and on the tension between individual users and scale.

As we unpacked the interviews we were told to a) focus on our user and b) dig deep into the motivations behind his or her assertions. For example, we unpacked an interview with a paramount chief who had been drinking, and within his seemingly incoherent ramblings we seemed to be able to unearth some seemingly profound nuggets of insight about his needs (e.g. a tension that exists between his position of relative helplessness vis-à-vis the mining companies versus his perception as a powerful figure within his community). From here, we could use the needs of this “extreme” user to develop insights about the issues that other paramount chiefs faced in Sierra Leone.

Still, as we went through the exercise, these guidelines struck us as profoundly contradictory. How are we to focus on what the user did and said during the interview, and then extrapolate his or her thoughts and feelings without necessarily forcing ourselves—our preconceived notions, our logics but also our fundamental ignorance—upon him or her? We are not suggesting we should strive toward complete objectivity and give up on DT because it fails to achieve an idealized goal. We are suggesting, however, that we need to think hard about the potential pitfalls of a method that aims at putting humans at the center of the design process, but that, in order to do so, places other humans in charge of representing the former’s needs.

Moreover, the focus on individual users brings up another problem—that of scale. If the user’s deep-seated needs are our Golden Fleece, then how do we know that we are not designing for an utterly unrepresentative component of the system we are trying to understand? Post-its may be cheap, but prototypes, even at their early stages, are likely to entail costs—if only in terms of time and effort. If the guy who famously designed the wheeled suitcase was lucky enough to reach a mainstream audience while designing for extreme users, he remains one of the few who could say to have gained something by ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Others may not be as lucky.

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