Trekking through the desert to find perfect drip irrigation. Super farmer, a destitute family, the monk on a cell phone. A hierarchy and social structure becoming apparent. Welcome meals, sweet drinks, fruit, sponge cake, chatting for hours, escaping a sandstorm, watching branches fall down, lightning strikes. Knowing the way in a no name dustbowl town. Motorbikes parked in front of us. Drawing a map of the world to show them where home is. Beers with Barry in a street-side bar watching the monsoon rains roll in.
When you’re working in hard places, being even a little bit inconspicuous is really, really difficult. But the point is not to be invisible, the point is to ensure that people see you and don’t care. If you can achieve this, you’ll begin to see a real neighborhood. No one will alter behaviors because of your presence and people will show you their truest selves. Patterns, norms, and outliers will begin to emerge and you will learn things that structured interviews or surveys could never uncover. This kind of learning is the starting point to good design.
Take a good long look at your feet. If you were born at the starting line wearing a nice pair of running shoes, that was luck. Sheer luck. The most important thing you can do now is help those who had to start the race a mile behind you, barefoot.