You have observed restaurants, supermarkets and surgeries – just to mention a few. You have identified a specific issue related to the products or services that are offered in such public spaces: queues at check-in or check-out, out-of-stock products, plastic bags, and so on and so far. And finally, you have delivered in-class, dramatized presentations in which you have showcased the results of your observations and provided recommendations for mitigating the issues that you have identified.
This blog post is meant to offer what in business terms is often called a “post-mortem review”: A reflection on what went well, and what could be improved. Instead of commenting on each group, I will offer a general summary. I will leave it with you to make the connection with your own work and to decide how this feedback can be used for the purposes of improving your future observations and problem solving.
Empathetic observations of activity systems. It became clear that the best recommendations were based on empathetic observations of actors, and their connections with other elements that constitute the activity system in which they are embedded. The key words here are 1) empathy and 2) system: When conducting observations, it is important to empathetically put yourself into the shoes of the actors that you are observing: for example, what do they hear, see, and feel? If you observe without empathy, your recommendations will turn out to be just ineffective, because they will not address the needs of actors. It is equally important not to isolate actors from the broader system of which they are part: In activity theory (Engeström et al. 1999) terms, there are no single actors: Rather, there are actors, objects (or objectives), instruments, communities, rules and divisions of labour. If you miss out one of these, your recommendations will turn out to be simply ineffective, because they will neglect key aspects of the issues that you are trying to address.
Keep it simple and don’t try changing the world. The best presentations kept it simple by focusing on a specific and hence manageable issue. Here, “simple” does not mean simplistic – rather, it means “small”. The key is narrowing down to a specific yet relevant issue. Design professionals take into consideration the budget and time constraints that they have when planning their design projects – be it creative work, problem solving, or product development. This is the fundamental challenge of design management: being creative and at the same time managing creativity. The one cannot do without the other, and vice versa. It is quite straightforward that in one week time and with no budget, you cannot – and should not try to – change the world or the activity system, to say it in Engeström et al.’s (1999) words. Addressing a small issue is not trivial, and will make a big difference to the people that you are observing.
Don’t tell, show. Great presenters didn’t tell how good their recommendations were. They showed. This involved showcasing the observations, dramatizing the issue, and then proposing recommendations that are grounded in theory and research. Once the work of showing is done, recommendations can be made more appealing to the audience by intertwining emotional and rational messages. Pictures can be combined with figures to show how recommendations can make a big difference, by addressing a small issue. Arguments can be substantiated by data (e.g., statistics) that show how relevant the issue is, albeit (apparently) small.
Hope it helps!