The ‘open sesame’ to working on a foundational design research project with a ten-person team

Sarah Fathallah
Nov 27 · 6 min read

“It’s so beautiful!” my colleague Nilar exclaimed, as we were browsing photographs and illustrations of sesame affecting pests and diseases. As a novice and lowkey insectophobe, these were the kinds of pictures that haunt my nightmares and make my skin crawl, yet here was Nilar, an agronomist by trade and research coordinator in our team, appreciating the beauty in these creatures. This was the kind of interaction that made me realize just how vastly different, yet compatible, the skills and knowledge of our team members were.

A mere three weeks prior, we had all met for the first time, in what became a joint Proximity Designs and Studio D Radiodurans team researching the sesame farming ecosystem in Myanmar. Proximity, a socially driven organisation that designs and delivers affordable, income-boosting products for rural families in Myanmar, and Studio D, a research, design, and strategy studio specialized in running international ethnographic research studies, have a sustained working relationship, marking this engagement their fifth. Nevertheless, the team, composed of 7 people from Proximity and 3 people from Studio D (including myself), had highly varying research skills and experience working with people from another culture. The 7 to 3 ratio made sense. After all, the team was to be curated to ensure a careful combination of three types of experiences: (1) domain and subject matter expertise, (2) context and local culture expertise, and lastly (3) process expertise.

Working with a team of this size can be tricky. Field studies are all about swiftness, agility, and the ability to execute huge amounts of work in a short period of time. Going into it, I realized how the structural conditions for a successful project were there. The client was committed, as demonstrated by the resources invested and time dedicated to completing the study. The team was motivated, as Proximity Designs underwent an internal “pitch” where employees could compete their way into being a part of the study team. And we were about to operate a relatively well oiled machine, as Proximity and Studio D had already teamed up on a similar study exploring the rice ecosystem beforehand.

Yet, I kept wondering what about the team, the sum of the individuals, made everything “click.” To try to decipher the intangible ways in which a team of ten people with wildly different backgrounds could successfully come together, I remembered Mike Monteiro’s You’re My Favorite Client, in which the author outlined a number of signs the client of a design consultancy could observe to know that things are going well. The book provides too many of those signs to address here, but I wanted to focus on three that particularly stood out to me.

Team members understand why

This is all about understanding the context that drives the decisions made by the team. With a foundational study like this one, the scope can be so broad that it can become intimidating and difficult to envision exactly what will come out of it. Before our team left for the field, Proximity organized a send-off party in their Yangon offices. Dozens of employees were present, not just to wish us luck and safe travels, but to let us know what they expected us to bring back, and why they needed it. Representatives from the organization’s farm technology, farming advice, and finance teams weighed in, spelling out exactly why we were setting off to go on this field study, what it meant for their activities, and what it meant for their mission and raison d’être as a whole. Did we feel the pressure of an entire organization’s expectations manifesting right in front of us? Yes. But did we understand why? Also yes.

Team members argue

As Monteiro put it, “arguing is a good sign (in moderation). This means people [are] invested in what they’re doing and passionate about the results.” I remember distinctly an instance where representatives from Proximity came to visit the team as we were making sense of all the data we had been collecting for weeks. A question was asked about the use of agricultural machinery in sesame farming. It started with the initial soft mutterings of a group of people in recall mode, firing their brain synapses to remember which interview, which set of notes, which framework had the exact data we needed. Soon enough, the voices in the room became louder. “Different machines are used throughout the harvesting process.” “No, no machines at all.” “Actually, just the one tractor, used for tilling and ploughing.” “Yes, but only for those who can afford it, otherwise it’s just ox-carts.” Finally, deliverance came when one of us brought unequivocal proof. “Well, the Dry Zone household survey says almost no one uses machinery for threshing or harvesting, but 60% of households do for land preparation.” Everyone nodded, as the soothing feeling of a group of people who just reached a consensus settled. Because, for a fleeting moment, everyone cared enough not just to find the answer to that question, but was willing to contend for it.

Team members form relationships

People begin to bond and form relationships when a project is going smoothly, because it’s a sign that they don’t just get along, but that “they enjoy working with one another,” wrote Monteiro. Right after the final presentation and workshops bringing the field study to a close, the team met in a quiet meeting room one last time, for one last team ritual. We gave each other bottles of our very own sesame oil, one we sourced and milled and bottled and carefully wrapped. With the oil, we exchanged words of gratitude to acknowledge something we appreciated about one another, or learned from each other. Actual streams of tears were shed. Not because the project came to an end, but because with it came the realization of what it means to put our newly formed relationships to the test of thousands of miles of distance and a collection of Viber stickers to express the quirky emotions we could no longer see on our faces.

When it’s all said and done, the end result is the true mark of the success or failure of our efforts or planning. When It Rains, It Pours is it. It’s our labor of love, of endurance, but more so the culmination of our research, sensemaking, and articulation of opportunities for the sesame ecosystem in Myanmar. If you’re interested in sesame as a crop, in smallholder farmers or rural Myanmar, or simply in what the outcome of such a foundational study looks like, you can learn more here, and get your hands on your own copy of the report here.

Editor: Sarah was part of the Studio D team working in partnership with Proximity Designs to conduct foundational research in the sesame ecosystem. The printed report was designed and produced by Studio D imprint Field Institute. For more on our methodology of bringing together cross cultural teams read The Field Study Handbook. Photos: by the field team.

Sarah Fathallah

Written by

Otherwise known as سارة فتح الله. Moroccan social designer and researcher. More about my work at

Studio D

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