Journal || October 2016

Why I Do What I Do

Kevin Shane

Keywords: Human Centered Design, Development, Design Thinking

We spend a lot of time sharing our work, and are constantly looking at opportunities to make the Quicksand practice and the human-centered design process more accessible, while exploring its value and meaning in the varied contexts we work. Through our communication efforts we attempt to illustrate our impact from taking a people-centric approach. This involves a lot of “what” and “how”, with some “where” and “who” mixed in. We often fail to share “why”.

What drew each of us to Quicksand initially is intensely personal. The collective group at Quicksand is united by a belief that taking a human-centered approach is the best process for driving real, sustainable change. In simple terms, we believe accounting for the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors of the people a product or service is being created for is critical for its success. Listen to people, share these insights, and use them as the foundation for developing something great. We do it because we have seen its effectiveness time and again.

As an American living and working in India, my friends and family tend to poke me for as much detail on what life is like as possible. Oftentimes, and this is likely a function of being so far from home for so long (nearly 5 years now) and working in some challenging contexts, the question most people need answered is, “Why are you doing this?” What’s interesting is the many ways that question is asked: in exasperation, out of genuine curiosity, or even with thinly veiled anger or condescension.

My why was very self-centered and driven by a desire to find fulfillment in my professional life, while seeking adventure in my personal life. I’d had many jobs in different sectors that all left me feeling a bit empty. You spend so much time “at the office” throughout your life, and I felt like I needed that time to tangibly contribute to improving the quality of life for others. I’d initially heard of Quicksand via a job posting for a communications person for their sanitation initiative Project Sammaan. It was a perfect fit for both sides, so I moved to Delhi and started this adventure.

Listen to people, share these insights, and use them as the foundation for developing something great.

My exposure to human-centered design is through Quicksand, and this education has largely been experiential: I’ve learned a great deal about the process by practicing it. For the sanitation project, this meant spending a lot of time in the slum communities where we would build our facilities to engage with people and learn about their lives. Those first few visits were challenging in so many ways, not least of which from seeing people genuinely not much different from you enduring very difficult conditions. The reality that it was our responsibility to ensure in some measure that they received “better” really hit home.

We oftentimes find ourselves guilty of being too wordy or too bogged down with the vernacular of our practice. My colleague Rikta hilariously refers to this as “jargon monoxide”. This can cause the magic of what human-centered design practitioners do to get lost: to identify a challenge and creatively and collaboratively make things better.

Over the last 5 years I have applied these processes primarily in the development and humanitarian contexts. Due to this, we have witnessed some human conditions that are impossible to ignore or forget due to their severity. What leaves a real lasting impression though is the people that you meet, particularly on an individual level.

As qualitative researchers, we have to identify stakeholders or subjects to study. But once you step into another person’s daily experience, they are not a “research subject”: they’re an Ahmed, or John, or Luol, or Rebeka. They’re people sharing with you in astonishingly honest ways what their lives are like, who they care about, and what challenges they face. All the while they are doing what so many find too humbling: they are asking for help. It may be something small, or it may be something life threatening, but whatever it is, they are facing something they lack the wherewithal to address on their own so they are reaching out for assistance.

We talk a lot about empathy. I’ve written a lot about empathy. Due to this I have a friend who outright groans in exasperation whenever the “E” word is uttered. It’s hard not to turn to it in explaining what is both needed to utilize the full potential of human-centered design and what is the chief by-product of practicing it. HCD is a self-fulfilling prophecy if you allow it to be.

You always try to find some separation in life between personal and professional. The challenge with HCD is that at some level you will have to blend the two together. You’ll need to feel what the other person’s experience is like and to attempt to look at the problem or challenge through their eyes. When this happens in the development or humanitarian contexts, it can be very emotionally fraught.

It’s hard not to turn to [using “empathy”] in explaining what is both needed to utilize the full potential of human-centered design and what is the chief by-product of practicing it.

This year I was a part of an education project that involved research in one of the world’s largest refugee camps. Our project’s primary focus was to improve the learning experience for primary school children, so we spent most of the time there with kids. A colleague and I interviewed two 12-year-old boys and they told heart-wrenching stories of the atrocities they’d seen and the hardships they’d endured just to escape, things that no one should have to experience let alone children. One of the boys got frustrated and pointedly asked, “What are YOU going to do to help?”

My why at first was seeking out a sense of adventure, living abroad, and doing something I could feel proud of. Living up to the responsibility we bear for those we work for, and in always trying to find an honest answer to that young boy’s question has become the why now.

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