My Research Journey (so far)

I recently had the opportunity to work with a knowledgeable and thoughtful woman in Poland on an Acumen+IDEO joint. It was a human-centered design course aptly named, “The Course for Human-Centered Design”. Though there’s a lot to reflect on for this journey, I wanted to relate my experience of doing the research for this course to the research for my Designlab project. I’ll be explaining some of my assumptions going in, learnings, and some failures.


One very clear thought I had going in is that I’m a friggin’ pro at empathizing. I had a career in it, for christsakes. At the same time, I thought that everyone already understood empathy and its importance in any field where you have to interact with people. To me, that it was a no-brainer. So at first, I had difficulty grasping why there needs to be a course on the subject. It was only after I had a clear example within my family of people’s inability to empathize (another story, another time) that I began to re-explore the idea of empathy within myself.

The very knowledgeable and thoughtful woman in Poland explained to me that there were different types of empathy: there’s emotional empathy where you know how someone feels because you either have been in that position or you are able to place yourself in that exact position to feel what they feel. On the other hand, there is intellectual empathy where, with enough supporting fact, you can understand how someone might feel in a situation. However, you do not take on their emotions and feel what they feel. With intellectual empathy, you do not assume you know what they want or will do as a result of these feelings.

This is where things got jumbled for me. I started probing her with all sorts of there-are-no-dumb-questions questions (sorry Sonja!) because I wanted to make sure I understood what I was hearing. I didn’t know everything about empathy? That’s preposterous! I spent a decade feeling the anger, happiness, fears, worries, and annoyances of my customers and then acting appropriately based on what I would want if I were in there shoes. Though that worked well for a career in customer service, it’s a somewhat different story within the realm of UXD.

Exercising empathy allows you to conduct thoughtful and thorough research. But letting go of the assumptions that come with empathy allows you to truly be open to possible solutions.


Here are some major insights for each of the projects I’m currently involved with:

IDEO Course

Challenge: How might we enable more youth to become social entrepreneurs?

Interviewed: 5 people (a total of 13 people between the two members of the team)

Major problems:

  • The entrepreneurial spirit is low to non-existent amongst young people in countries like Poland.
  • Because of this lack of presence, not very many people are aware of social entrepreneurship as a viable career path.
  • Once they are aware, there is very little support within their communities for them to achieve their goals
  • Opportunities to learn are not very engaging (lectures vs. workshops)

Major insights:

  • Young social workers use social media in all aspects of their lives
  • Entrepreneurial skills are easier to teach than social sensitivity
  • Young people like being taught through engaging, participatory means

He Sisters

Research goals:

  • Major pain points while shopping, e.g., sizing, inventory.
  • The ideal categorization of items
  • The ideal customer service experience
  • The lengths shoppers will go to find what they are looking for
  • Why do shoppers buy vintage vs. new?

Interviewed: 3 people and conducted 1 observational inquiry

Major insights (so far):

  • Thrift shopping is all about hunting for trophies and the “thrill of the find”.
  • Thrift and vintage shopping is about being a unique snowflake (vs. buying new).
  • Because thrift shopping is a very tactile and interactive experience, it’s hard to imaging what it would be line online.
  • Online shopping would be much more worth it if there was free shipping and returns.
  • There are little expectations for customer service at thrift stores, however at vintage stores, employees are expected to know about their stuff.

So how has my research journey been? Amazing. In addition to exercising my new-found empathy skills, I had the opportunity to meet and get to know impressive people doing impressive things. I heard about the time a seasoned non-profit professional staged her first protest. I heard the pains of a young man who wants to to open up center to support disadvantaged youth but can’t because of exorbitant bureaucratic fees he still had to pay from his time in jail. I also learned more about why we love doing the things we do (and how we actually hate it). I listened to multiple people describe “the thrill of the find” when referring to thrift shopping. I listened to the same people describe that same experience as “exhausting” or “a huge pain”.

However, there have been some failures too. I’ve broken some interview rules such as: asking the interviewee how they would go about solving my problem; cutting people off and asking close-ended questions; leading them to a certain answer. I knew I was wrong when the words slipped out of my mouth but I was more curious about where it would lead than trying to cover up my mistakes. Sometimes I lucked out and got some great insights, other times I was faced with some annoyed looks — that I’m pretty sure I projected. All-in-all, these are failures that will slowly get sifted out as I do more and more interviews.

I am currently in the process of synthesizing all these interviews. One big difference between what I am doing and what I’ve done before is looking at the bigger picture. I’ve been so used to helping people on a one-on-one basis that I’ve been tailoring each solution to their own personal needs. Now I need to take what I’ve learned and spend some quality time understanding the opporutnities for design that probably won’t be apparent to the people experiencing these problems on the ground.