Talking With Teens

Bumper sticker with an edit.

Talking with teenagers about food can be difficult. So many of my conversations have gone like this:

Me: “Why don’t you eat school lunch?”
 Student: “It’s nasty.”
 Me: “Ok, what does nasty mean to you?”
 Student: “I don’t know.”
 (crickets) (and more crickets)

At the, they teach us to stew in the ambiguity, but sometimes it feels like I’m roasting.

Our young folks have incredible ideas and can offer great insights when they are provided the space to do so. Empathy engagements offer us “adults” the opportunity to learn from our students and understand their needs in order to be able design programs and experiences that speak to them.

There are several approaches to empathy:
 1. Immerse: Experience what the user is experiencing, i.e., walk a mile in their shoes. 
 2. Observe: View users and their behavior in the context of their lives, i.e., be a fly on the wall. 
 3. Engage: Interact with and interview users through both scheduled and short ‘intercept’ encounters, i.e., talk to folks.

For my empathy focused design sprint, I chose to “engage” with students in order to get a deep understanding of how teenagers think and talk about school meals. I thought this would be easy since I talk to young people as part of my job, but boy was I wrong. My first interview was rough. There were quite a few moments where I thought I just needed to get up and walk out in shame, but I kept going and kept asking questions. Later on, when I was unpacking the interview, I realized how much I actually learned from the student even though the interview felt like it was a failure. I took away three big things from this experience:

First, be prepared. 
Write out your questions and spend time thinking about who you are going to be speaking with.

Second, everyone bombs their first few interviews. 
Interviewing is an art and it will take some time to figure out your style. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail a couple times. Just be sure you fail forward and learn from your mistakes.

Third, even when it feels like everything is going wrong, keep going. 
Some of your greatest insights might be one or two questions away.

After the turbulence of my first interview, I realized I needed a tangible tool that I could bring to the interviews in order to provoke conversation and make the experience more relaxed and fun for the kids (and myself). I needed every interview to be as fruitful as possible due to limited time and resources, and I didn’t want to inhibit the potential of the experience due to my burgeoning interviewing skills. Having an engagement tool that could enrich the conversation would be invaluable for me.

After taking a moment to survey existing interview tools and not finding a perfect fit, I had an a-ha moment — I could design my own. This may seem like an obvious realization, but sometimes the obvious isn’t the easiest to spot when you are stressed and feeling overwhelmed. This is a better representation of what the means when they say stew in the ambiguity. Sometimes you need to embrace the state of not knowing the solution in order to find the solution.

In order to design an effective engagement tool that students would utilize, I decided to go to Target for inspiration. Why Target? Well, it’s where all of the cool kids shop, of course. Just kidding. I went to Target under the assumption that the store would provide me access to a wide variety of stimuli that young folks engage with on a day-to-day basis, and an added bonus would be that the Target marketing team would have already selected for me what young people identify as cool and fun.

When I arrived at Target, I walked the toy aisle, book section and games section for a couple of hours, taking in all the experiences that young people engage with when having fun. It was a great learning opportunity, and from it, I developed a deck of playing cards inspired by an eclectic mix of items that I encountered in the store.

Empathy Cards (Reach out and I’ll send you the full deck.)

Why did I decide to make playing cards and not a different game? This decision was inspired by seeing so many of students playing with Pokemon style cards during the meal period. A deck of cards would provide a familiar experience while also providing something new enough to peak their interest. In addition, a deck of cards would enable me to traverse an assortment of “mini food experiences” with a simple shuffle of the deck. I could use zombies to prompt thoughts on what types of food they consider valuable and use culinary challenges to learn about what types of foods they enjoy making.

The cards turned out to be super helpful while interviewing students. When chatting with a group of young folks, the deck of cards made the conversation flow with ease and got the students engaged from the very beginning. When doing one-on-one interviews, the cards allowed for me to have a conversation starter when one-word responses began. Turning the interview into a game also shifted the power dynamics and enabled the students to control the experience. This led to richer insights and more laughter.

Empathy engagements take time (to design and execute), which is a limited commodity in many large systems. However, without engaging our communities and really understanding their needs, our work can produce futile and unused services and products. Take the time to listen and learn from those you are designing for. It’s is a valuable investment in order to create meaningful change.