This isn’t a new diagram for anyone familiar with my writing. Its a diagram I’ve been using to explain where my work fits into the innovation development process since I first saw it on Luke Wroblewski’s blog back in 2006. However, I’ve just been struck forcibly by the realization that there’s a very important piece of this process that’s missing. And that is Interpretation.
What do I mean by Interpretation?
Lets start by taking a look at the ever popular user centered design process, simplified in linear form, although we all know there are numerous feedback loops and iterations constantly happening in real time.
The understanding we seek in order to conceptualize and design emerges from the immersion in the new operating environment we wish to enter. This where we go and meet people and talk to them and watch and listen and learn. Its when we get back and analyse our findings that our aim is to synthesize them in the form of actionable insights that can drive the design and development of a new product, service or business model. The space between Insights and Design is when and where we conceive the ideas we wish to develop into workable constructs. Its a given that the process isn’t as linear as diagrammed and ideas and concepts occur much earlier but what is critical, and this is what I realized today, is in how we interpret our findings from the field.
This is the bit I’ve circled in red.
This is where our assumptions, especially those we don’t recognize, and our presumptions, are most likely to let us down. Two people, present in the same user observation study, meeting and listening to the same people, can interpret the raw data in very different ways. So much of this has to do with our preconceived ideas of the target audience not to mention especially important when you’re looking at such a study in a culture and society very different from your own, that its no wonder specialists in the field of design ethnography or user research keep emphasizing the need to able to step outside of yourself in order to observe and understand someone else.
While this is naturally important in all kinds of human interaction, it becomes far more crucial in the context of a professional user research project.
That’s why there are any number of case studies and examples of products and services that fail to match people’s needs or meet expectations *even* after extensive and expensive exploratory user research studies.
Did we manage to interpret our findings correctly? Did we understand what someone was saying in the context of their own culture and mindset and society? Or did we interpret their words and actions from the perspective of our own frame of reference?
I’ll end this with a simple example that comes to mind as I write this. A couple of years ago I was in the field for a small solar power manufacturer who could not comprehend why the very sensible decision of being able to save oodles of money on kerosene by investing in an affordable solar lamp was not being made by his intended target audience. Why were they not purchasing this product even though it made so much sense to do so?
In fact, it turned out, the real question was, did it make sense to the potential customer in the context of their own cash flow, income stream and household management?