Sharing Another’s Story

Storytelling & Human-Centered Design

The very nature of our work is to engage with people in their context to understand their thoughts, perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes about a particular product, service, or challenge that they face. We do so by identifying target personas that are representative of the key stakeholder sets we create with our clients at the onset of any engagement. These stakeholders are the intended end-users or beneficiaries of whatever intervention we are designing or lending our expertise in the construction of, whether a tangible product, system design, or anything in between really.

Identifying representatives of a particular stakeholder group is a nuanced, sensitive activity. You need to make sure that you drill down to the most important individual or group of individuals, in the most appropriate physical location, and at the most opportune time of day, year, or month. You then build out from there to the tertiary yet still important users sets. The challenge or theme of the particular engagement you are working on by and large dictates who you will be working with, or at least helps to direct efforts in the same. That said, it does take a skilled, experienced design researcher to ensure that you are talking to and observing those that will add the most value to your engagement.

Stakeholder from a project in Tanzania

Once this is done, and the physical locations for the study are identified, you can head out “into the field” and begin the work. This typically involves conducting a series of interviews and visits to people’s homes, places of work and leisure, houses of worship, markets, and any other location that is typical in that person’s daily life. You will also likely spend a great deal of time just observing and documenting, striving to enact real empathy and step into another’s shoes to experience what their reality is like and, by extension, glean a bit of insight into how these inputs become drivers of a particular behavior or belief. This then forms the basis of the ideation and design phase of a project, which is the real “meat and potatoes” of a client-facing engagement.

But how do you ensure that the individuals who provided the insights have their story heard? How do you adequately capture and share these stories so that they retain their saliency, which is all too often lost in translation as you shift from context to conference room? How can a human-centered design practitioner ensure that the voice of the end-user or beneficiary stays resonant throughout all remaining phases of a project?

A Visual Approach

At Quicksand, we employ a host of multimedia approaches to help capture and share the voices of the people we are fortunate enough to work with. These not only help to ensure that we are well equipped to revisit and reflect on the field interviews and activities, but also allow our clients to share in the experience of engaging with those they are looking to design solutions for.

Filming a workshop in South Sudan

From the inception of our practice we have championed visual ethnography as a means of capturing and sharing insights from the field. Quicksand’s clientele tends to lean more towards an international roster than a domestic one despite our base in India, which makes this visual practice particularly important: one of the key challenges in working with foreign clientele is context setting owing largely to India’s unique and manifold cultures and their physical manifestations in terms of infrastructure, practices, and beliefs.

Looking at a work beyond the subcontinent, though and particularly in the African context, and one can also see the importance of visually conveying another’s reality when looking purely through a socio-economic lens. Empathy as a concept is relatively easy to wrap one’s head around, but it becomes increasingly difficult the more one shifts from abstractions to specifics (i.e., what living in the constrained confines of an urban slum, walking miles to gather water, having to live off of less than a few dollars per day, living without access to adequate electricity and water let alone Internet access, etc.).

A visit to our Vimeo page provides a good glimpse at the body of work we have created in the film space. That said, and remarkably, these are only the films that we are able to share publicly. For every one of these, there are at least 5 more that must remain private due to proprietary considerations for our clients. Ranging from a minute or two to upwards of 15–20 minutes, these films endeavor to show people, places, and things in their natural light and with an eye for letting the story tell itself in an organic and unforced manner. We are cognizant of the unique natures of the places we are fortunate enough to visit. In fact, the concept for our latest promotional film was born out of a conversation about the multitude of countries (e.g., Cambodia, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Mali, South Sudan, Tanzania, etc.) that our 15-person team had visited for work in the past year. We wanted to share snippets of each of these places to show that, though there are obvious differences in each setting, our shared humanity and the universality of our human-centered approach are enough to ensure a capacity for connection anywhere we go.

Audio in Our Practice

Beyond films and photos, we are constantly on the lookout for new ways to share people’s stories and the life and rhythm of the places we visit. Of late, the team has gravitated more and more towards audio, with people making a concerted effort to capture soundscapes from our travels, and even just our commutes to and from work. Our Soundcloud account features a lot of these, and will eventually house the podcast we’re working on and will launch soon. It’s remarkable at times to listen to the recordings from various cities and countries. They are from seemingly mundane experiences in the places they were recorded, but can be really transformative and evocative when listened to elsewhere; one’s mundane is another’s remarkable.

We’ve also sought to mix as many media together as possible to drive impact of experiences with our clients and partners. In a recent workshop, we made a “mediascape” that featured a series of images that were representative of specific stakeholder sets (in this case students, teachers, caregivers, community leaders, and NGO staff as it was for an education project in a refugee camp) along with salient quotes from each. At the end of each set, though, were slides that shared short (~1–2 minute) sound bites from specific interviews with a stakeholder from each group. These slides included images of the interviewee, as well as a brief bio of them. We had each of the workshop participants engage with this mediascape to conduct a proxy field research of sorts. More than any other activity, this stood out in participants’ minds as it made the beneficiaries “more real”. We had managed to shift the perception of these individuals from research subjects to real, flesh-and-blood people by providing them a literal voice.

Driving Connection & Empathy

It’s this last component that makes storytelling so vitally important to our work. We tend to work in some extremely trying and challenging contexts, such as water and sanitation in India’s urban slums, in Africa’s malnutrition space, addressing access to financial services for tribal populations, reducing plastic use in Cambodia, and more. In all of these, the sheer numbers around a particular issue make it challenging to contextualize or fully grasp. Looking at sanitation in India, you’re talking about more than 600 million people open-defecating due to a lack of adequate infrastructure and educational outreach. However, if you’re able to bring this down to an individual level by sharing one person’s story, you increase the chances of humanizing an issue and connecting people. And when that level of connection occurs, it makes it nearly impossible for someone not to act.