Jen, Peter, John. DR Congo 2016

Friends First. Then Design.

Genuine Connections and The Messy, Wonderful World of Good Design

I’ve been trying to understand what it is we really do at since I got here. It’s harder to do than you might imagine. Sure, there are beautiful, inspiring, and impactful designs, a committed, experienced team, and a series of partners and communities with whom we work to co-design and create impact in the service of an improved future. Those are the things that people see and the things that I end up describing when I talk about the work to friends and family.

But there is something else here that moves me deeply, that I think sets the work that does apart, and that’s much harder to describe. It’s the value placed on creating genuine, lasting connections with people as a first step into good design, and on a recent research trip to Cape Town I began to think about the importance of that first step a little more deeply again.

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The first time I saw it was when my Launchpad co-lead, Jen Rose, and I were doing some research together in Indonesia in 2014. I remember standing in a working class neighborhood in Jakarta, observing the goings on out on the street while Jen went into a home to talk with a mother, Ibu Yoyoh, and her kids. We were exploring potential business models for a consumer product and it was our first few days in this community.

An hour passed and the heat was relentless even with a small breeze. Another hour passed and I walked down to the corner of the block to chat to some people taking shade under an awning. We shot the shit, talked about work, family, what it was like to live in this community — all passive and part of the foundational research that we do.

After chatting for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, I saw the door to the house open and Jen and Ibu Yoyoh walked out together. They didn’t say much but Ibu Yoyoh had a hand affectionately across Jen’s shoulder and they were smiling at one another. As they parted ways, there were gestures and hugs and waves and laughs and damp eyes and it looked for all intents and purposes like a mother saying goodbye to her daughter.

I asked Jen when she walked over to me what they’d been talking about and she smiled a little, “Oh, just chatting.”

It was clear there and then that so much more was going on in their interaction. And for the past two years I’ve been working with Jen and trying to piece together what it was.

Outside Ibu Yoyoh’s House.

In April 2016 we spent a few weeks in Cape Town while working on a project to understand how best to help organizations innovate. It’s not a small question and answering it involves putting ourselves proximal to people we think are creating interesting, impactful businesses, and learning from them.

In our interactions with founding teams and would-be innovators, there was always a recurring question, one which, at its surface, sounds so basic. They all wanted to know, how do I talk to consumers?

As I listened to teams ask us the same question again and again I began to realize that most of these project teams or startups have taken funding from someone, most of them have built teams, a lot of them have a product or service ready to launch — some have even launched — but very few of them had ever spent any significant time with consumers, or even begun testing the basic assumptions that their ideas are built upon.

I couldn’t help but ask myself why.

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Jen’s answer to the question I asked her in Jakarta back in 2014 stuck with me for a while. Her nonchalance had caught me a little off guard and it seemed to me that she knew something that I didn’t. I had created plenty of good relationships and done strong research but no old ladies had cried for my leaving. Lots of them had cried with Jen.

There are functional things that we do in the work of designing and launching new ventures. The depth of craft required to do business design or communications design or interaction design or industrial design is necessary in this work and we rely upon that depth heavily. But there is something more personal that conditions our ability to do design research and surface the insights that form the basis of good design.

The scene in Jakarta has played out again and again wherever we go. In Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, DR Congo, Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa, the States, everywhere, there is a sure thing that will happen during our research and continue to happen during our subsequent design work, Jen will create a relationship with someone in a community where we are working and it will be meaningful for both of them. They’ll talk, share time, cook together, wash clothes, take a nap in front of the TV, play with the kids, anything.

They’ll do the things that in life we do with the people we care the most about.

Me and Dorothy. Rosemary and Jen. Nairobi 2015.

Thinking about these moments with Jen and other experiences that I’ve had while being invited into the homes and lives of people all over the world, I think I know why some of the teams we worked with in Cape Town seemed so reticent to get out and spend time with the people that they are looking to serve. The simple answer is that it’s really hard to open yourself up to proper human connections.

Exposing the emotional side of yourself is one of the things that allows you to connect with people. We all know that, but to actually do it you have to accept that the connection you are creating may end up changing your outlook on life, or in the context of launching a business, that your ideas might have to evolve as your understanding of the problem does. In fact, I would say you have to accept the fact that this connection will change you and will ultimately change your ideas for the better. Without that humility there really is no starting point for good design.

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When I look at the research we’ve been doing with organizations and startups recently, a simple thought sits front and center in my mind. And it’s a thought that I think describes what it is that we really do at

To create impact we must build organizations and businesses that are based on sincere, genuine connections between people. That’s a pretty straightforward thought but describing what that connection actually looks like is less obvious. When I presented a first draft of this piece to Jen her response was typically matter of fact and deceptively simple and, to be honest, there’s no way I could write it any better nor can I think of a better description of how to create the moments that lead to strong design.

In Jen’s own words:

“When I was in Ibu Yoyoh’s home that day in Jakarta, my goal was to have our hearts beating at the same rate. Because when our heartbeats are the same, that’s when we are both comfortable enough to have a genuine connection. That connection will take us deeper than any research question guide.

“My approach is simple: smile and listen. I try to give her the attention she deserves and I try to give her my ear. And in return, she is giving me something very precious. Her time.

“And while this sincere moment between the two of us is happening, my brain is paying attention and capturing every detail of what is taking place. Where does she look when we are talking — At me? Out the window? Down at her hands? How does she interact with her kids, her neighbors, her husband? What did she decide to hang on her wall? It’s a lot to take in: both the conversation but also what’s not being said.

“A lot of times when I’m walking to work, or when I’m on a plane, I think about Ibu Yoyoh, I think about Rosemary, I think about Jack, I think about all of the friends I’ve made over the past two years. Making friends comes first. Then comes the research — if you want to call it that.”

All those shared moments.

To be sure, this approach is not for everyone. Creating a genuine connection can’t be one-way and it can’t be fleeting. It’s not transactional. It has to be real. And yes it’s hard and it’s messy and it keeps you up at night and you feel great and you feel like shit and you feel confused and frustrated and energized and the rest and all at once.

You have to carry part of the relationship with you when you leave and, because of that, you can never really leave. Because of that you have a duty, an obligation, and the most compelling possible reason to be relentless and deeply thoughtful in your push for impactful design.

Design like those relationships you’ve created depend upon it, because they probably do.

For organizations trying to innovate and create an impactful businesses, getting out there and creating some relationships in the service of nothing more than the relationship itself seems to me to be a good starting point. It certainly is not all that needs to be done, but it is the starting point to understanding a problem and designing an appropriate and impactful response to it.

From the relationships that we have created over the past two years have flowed trust, empathy, and love and from those things have come relentlessness, action, and a willingness to commit to truly understanding and addressing a problem. And from those relationships, I think, has come innovation and impactful design. And a whole ton of friends.

Team Amka, DR Congo 2016.
It does get weird on occasion. Jakarta.