I worked to fill gaps in local recovery after a tornado struck my hometown in 2011. I engaged in what was essentially seat-of-the-pants systems architecture, which I then refined and expanded upon through fieldwork in many disaster areas. It worked well, not because my methodology was perfect, but because I've lived the entire feedback loop. I had, at the core of all of my design decisions, a deep understanding of the survivor, the volunteer, the technology and the ecosystem of aid.
In the years since, I've been able to share what worked and why about my system, but I've been unable to advise others on how to recreate the deep understanding at the core of it, besides telling them to "go do it and see how it feels."
My time at the d.school has helped me realize that I'm not sure how to advise others to approach designing for a user that's overwhelmed, perhaps hostile, and just plain tired of people asking them what they need. There’s something there. Disaster survivors, sexual abuse survivors, chronic patients - there are quite a few profiles we design for that have difficulty readily offering critical feedback. These people need more of a warm-up than, “I’m running an experiment, can you tell me what’s wrong with it.”
I recently discovered a group called “Gap Filler” in Christchurch, New Zealand. My contact, Gap Filler Trust board Chair Ryan Reynolds, describes Christchurch as having lost the capacity for critical feedback. He says there are a few reasons for this. Community members are no longer interested in participating in experiments or visioning exercises, and to suggest that good-hearted efforts are not ideal would be seen as rude or unpatriotic.
Gap Filler is pioneering what they call a “propositional mode of recovery.” They ideate, build a prototype, then watch. If the community engages with a refrigerator lending library in an abandoned lot, they continue to iterate and heighten resolution until it is a library. If the experiment is ignored or vandalized, they don’t pursue it. They’re collecting feedback without asking questions.
I’ve decided to spend the remainder of this fellowship not trying to prototype a solution, but rather trying to build methods for people working in situations with a tired or broken feedback loop. I'll be teaching a pop-up course next quarter called Design for the Weary -- the title of a blog post I wrote for the whiteboard back in January. It will convene a small group of students and community members with a base level of design-thinking methodology to workshop and field test tools for gaining quality feedback from these groups.
It won't be lecture-based. Instead, it will be a series of meta-experiments engaging "tired" subjects in the feedback stages of the design process (empathy, prototyping and testing). The course will end with our having published a collection of these tools for public use.
In the spirit of truly embracing the decision to learn more, I recently started project work with a home-dialysis device company and will be leading a design cycle around their training program for chronic patients. I have not "lived" either side of this interaction, so I can approach these interviews and testing sessions with an unbiased eye for what works and what doesn’t.
Do you have ideas about how to design for the weary? Have you found yourself in the situation of the users I've described? If so, let me know in the comments or drop me a line on Twitter at @CaitriaONeill.