The Genteel
June 13, 2021


Illustration by Jen Chow


Social experiments are fun, because people are so unpredictable. They are full of surprises! I recently pilot-tested a customer research exercise with some teammates at Nurun, a digital advertising agency in Toronto. The idea was to let them get their feet wet with design research as Nurun moves towards increasingly collaborative work within our teams. What was really interesting to me was the human tendency to gravitate towards judgment and familiar stereotypes versus curiosity and empathy. It's instinctual. 

The world can be a chaotic jungle. We navigate through it by organising what we see into familiar categories in our brains. It helps us quickly understand our surroundings and reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. It streamlines our lives. While these mental buckets are great for efficiency and survival, much more effort is needed for us to unravel life experiences that can tint our perceptions. 


The challenge when we're trying to understand our customers, clients and end users, is to shift from looking and judging to actively observing, understanding, empathising and appreciating a person's experience in a given moment or process. There needs to be a certain level of curiosity, caring and appreciation for the person's experience. It's not easy, but when done well, can create opportunities to offer meaningful experiences for others, filled with all kinds of utility.

How can we rediscover that curiosity and innocence toward our surroundings and the people we encounter? Travel and culture shock can throw us into a state of healthy awkwardness and sensitivity; there are more cost-effective ways to get a fresh perspective though. Of course, it also depends on the project and domain, but some empathy-inducing research methods can be valuable. 
Role-playing, experience prototyping, design fictions, empathy maps, and physical devices like empathy suits are some methods/techniques to name a few. MIT's AgeLab has been using a full body suit called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) to help researchers and students better understand the needs and experience of an aging body through physical sensation.


Research methods aside, a couple points of inspiration that get my curiosity flowing are photographer Jason Travis' photo series called "Persona" and Keri Smith's How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum. If you have any anecdotes, inspiration, or curious habits to share, I'd love to hear them here or via twitter @jenchow!

It's Only Human to Judge was originally published in:’s-only-human-to-judge/

Illustrations by Jen Chow.



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