Empathy and Radical Solutions

Post by Aparna SurendraImage

As we cycle through the design process with a fresh challenge, I’ve continued to reflect on DP1. Most significantly, I’ve been thinking through ways to move from exciting insights to innovative solutions. A friend taking her first design class said it best: “The process is exciting, but my solutions feel… obvious. Helpful, but obvious.”

The d.school has some wonderful examples of truly innovative projects, with Embrace being the most popular (as an aside, I think every student who spends time at the d.school thinks, “If I have to hear about Embrace again, I swear I’ll…”). In any case, moving from insight to innovation can be a struggle.

In analysing why, my first response is — we’re too wedded to our initial ideation scribbles. This makes our solutions logical but, ultimately, incremental. The one class that pushed me to a more radical solution set used an interesting pedagogical strategy — I made a 2-minute video of my solution, screened it in class, collected feedback on the most compelling narrative threads, and then deleted the video (ouch!) to return to ideation. It was work-intensive, but forced me into a much more uncomfortable and generative space.

The second response, which ties well to our empathy work in EPA, is– an intuitive ability to crawl the systems space. In other words, understood how your user operates within a system and why. Understand how other agents operate in the system and why. For example, one insight arising from our work in EPA: The user doesn’t trust the cops Why? They didn’t thoroughly investigate X or Y incident Why?  Because the cops know that many EPA residents are undocumented, and stricter protocols would bring in ICE. As you move to a systems analysis and colour in different users and their motivations, you can re-configure yourself to intuitively (not conceptually) understand the way the system works. At this point, you can go on the journey with your user— you no longer have to ask ‘Why don’t you trust the cops?’, you ‘get’ it. In a sense, this is empathy in its purest form.

With Sierra Leone, I struggled to colour in the whole systems map, and move from a conceptual to an intuitive understanding of the problem space. I had huge holes when it came to understanding NGOs and government motivation, and this (somewhat unconsciously) limited my ability to ideate creatively around the problem. If you don’t know the rules, how can you break them? If you don’t understand the connections within the system, how do you intentionally strengthen, exploit, or by-pass them?

In EPA, I’ve already started developing a strong (intuitive) understanding of the systems map. Since our initial Saturday interviews, we’ve spiraled out to colour in a larger number of actors and motivations. In many ways, I think EPA’s small physical space has facilitated this. In Sierra Leone, rural villages were extremely insulated from one another (a function of physical distance compounded by poor infrastructure).  EPA, however, spans 2.6 square miles. While the experiences of EPA residents vary by demographic and other factors, they interact within the same space – the same restaurants, laundromats, middle schools and – in some cases — landlords. The most tangible consequence of this is the co-existence – however fraught—is a shared community fabric, and community ‘touchstone’ experiences.

Every user lives with the same physical backdrop and, for me, this provides a more tangible connection than national affinity or similar story of exploitation (Sierra Leone).  With each EPA interview, my team makes more connections within and between issues spaces.  I feel extremely excited about this project – I hope that our extensive empathy work can push us into a more radical solution space!


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