I arrived in Delhi in early 2018, to start my job as a Design Researcher. Research is an integral part of design, forming the base of any design project. It’s a fundamental skill that students are taught as part of the foundation of their design education. What we do at Treemouse is Ethnographic research. At first glance, it is easy to mistake it for ‘market research’ from a commercial point of view. But they are not the same. This is not about statistics, but about stories. Not about numbers, but narratives. Doesn’t involve computation, but conversation and observation. It is a way to understand an individual and her environment through her perspective.
The week I joined the team, I was immediately absorbed into an on-going ethnographic research project about a certain skin condition for a large Indian pharmaceutical company. My first site visit was a trip to the massive Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in central Delhi. I must admit, I was intimidated by the number of people in that labyrinth of wards, waiting halls and consultation chambers. I immediately found myself in the middle of an Immersion Theater production. People here and there were groaning while their relatives stood by; they were lying on stretchers, suspiciously covered from head to toe with blankets; there was even an instance of a sudden loud thud followed by a piercing wail that emerged from one end of the atrium. Some people rushed in that direction; I stopped on my tracks to watch chaos unfold, but my teammate pulled me away in another direction. There was work to be done, people to be interviewed. I was flustered within minutes of entering the building.
I have never been fond of visiting hospitals. They are grim establishments where everyone else looks sicker than you are and that make you worry about contracting their illnesses as well. I wouldn’t claim that that field visit went great for me. Well, I saved myself from doing anything disastrous, but I wasn’t of any particular help to the two other researchers whom I had gone with. The reasons for my seeming ineptness that day were that, firstly, I am not a person to start a conversation with a stranger, unless I absolutely need to. Secondly, Hindi is my third language, which I started using in conversation just about four years ago. I came back exhausted from witnessing the encounters of that day, but with resolutions of working on my communication skills and beyond that, conversational skills.
The thing about the practice of ethnographic research is that you never leave the job behind at the workplace at the end of the day. It makes sense to me to think that I’m a researcher, full-time. Every person I encounter, is an opportunity to practice for future interactions. Every conversation is a preparation for the next one. So I decided to use this massive library of people that I come across everyday and extract narratives for practice.
The following weeks saw several instances of me initiating and sustaining brief conversations with strangers like my Uber and Auto drivers. To start off, I stuck to simple topics like the weather, the traffic and mobile network connectivity in Delhi. These conversations would most certainly involve one question. “Aap south se ho kya?” (Are you from south India?) That’s when I would get defensive and say “Yes, but I have been living here [in North India] for 5 years now.”, so as not to sound completely naïve in a new city. A protocol for concerns of personal safety, I’ve been advised to follow. With closer associates like my landlord, I prodded further about who their family members were and what they did, over breakfast. Eventually, I got comfortable with the idea of exchanging a few words with unfamiliar human beings, to be polite, if nothing else.
Another exercise I started doing, was to play with Hindi words to make puns. Not only did it make me flex my linguistic abilities, it turned out an easy way to break ice at my new workplace. I kept getting better at it and now I make them compulsively. I’m rather pleased with myself at having achieved this level of skill in the language. Maybe, I’d soon be hailed a Pundit (Punditended). These new habits actually made a difference on how I confronted ensuing site visits.
The next time, I returned to the hospital for another round of interviews, a lot more self-assured. I did a pretty good job of having extended conversations with patients about their experiences with the disease, their hopes, fears and aspirations in relation to the condition. I believe, it’s just about being mentally prepared to handle the sensory overload of a new environment when you’re a researcher on field. Knowing what to filter out and what to retain. The progressive familiarity with the subject that comes with more conversations also helps set directions for interactions. The picture that secondary research paints is always, to a certain degree, different from the landscape that you draw from your primary research findings.
After a long day on the field, one is completely exhausted, physically and mentally and avoids any kind of conversation. Words become sparse and researchers keep discussions to a minimum, unless they are about the day’s findings. Decisions like where to have dinner or what to eat are resolved without deliberation. The researcher’s brain takes longer to retire from work. It mulls over the events of the day and compiles all the information gathered. Within few weeks of working on this project, I was interviewing patients even in my dreams.
Of the many things I’ve learnt in the past few months, one thing I know well is that — curiosity, spontaneity and adaptability are some keys to a good field experience. You can never expect what the next site would offer or how the next subject would respond to you. It makes sense to just be prepared for anything, mentally at least. Discomfort and awkwardness may be unavoidable in certain situations, but it is important to acknowledge, rather than avoid these feelings. These are intuitive cues that help one remain sensitive to a subject’s position in the interaction. At the end of the day, it boils down to having a civil conversation with another human being, whatever the intention behind it might be.
As a fledgling, I have a lot of questions and doubts about the practice. Some of these get answered by my more experienced teammates, and some answers I find in books. Yet, the most is to come from experience. I aim to discover my own answers, construct my own opinions. Those that inherently agree with the individual that I am. I expect a long journey, wish me luck?
Madhu is a researcher with Treemouse, curious to understand how fibers of behavior weave to build functioning fabrics of complex systems. She is constantly thinking about how design can adapt to stay relevant, beyond consumerism. She likes to rebel, challenge paradigms and look at design and design practices critically. Madhu is rather funny and entertains the office with her puns. She loves Broccoli and is fascinated by anything Japanese.
Follow Madhu’s journey & a lot more on www.treemouse.com