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The power of narrative in human-centred design

Wednesday, 31 August 2016   (0 Comments)
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We recently chatted to Anne-Marie Hanna, a video producer and content manager who is currently completing her MPhil in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Anne, who currently works with the Design Thinkers Academy, has a passion for social innovation and the developing world and spent the bulk of 2015 exploring her interest around how alternative narrative frameworks and story creation processes can inform innovation.


What is your understanding of Human-Centred Design?


It is my understanding that Human-Centred Design is still fairly new in terms of how it is understood and how well known it is in the mainstream. It is more practice based, than theory based, and in that way it has not fully pollinated as a standard and accepted design practice. Human-Centred Design is the practice of design, whereby the end ‘user’ of a product, process or service is placed at the very heart of the 'design process'. The intention is to deconstruct power in the design process – the consumer becomes the ‘expert’, and the designer becomes responsible for ‘translating’ real needs.


It places a lot of focus and importance on the ‘voice' of the people or person who is being designed for and relies on interviews, observations and interaction with those who will be impacted by the outcome of the process. It is shifting processes from ‘designing for’ to  ‘designing with’ and in theory replacing the act of  ‘interpreting’ what people need with really ‘understanding’ what they need – by asking them first. This approach is becoming increasingly more important, in order to find solutions that are relevant, sustainable and suitable for the context in which it is being applied.


Where do you see a gap when designing with people?


For a truly human-centred approach to take place, it requires the designer to really hold the space for end users to be the ‘experts’, and to facilitate a process whereby they feel comfortable enough to share their honest feelings, fears, thoughts and needs. I think that it is very seldom that enough attention is paid to truly understanding how to authentically achieve this. Creating a space where ‘deep truths’ can surface is challenging for everyone involved.


Why is deep listening a challenge?


This is not only difficult because it requires the designer to understand him/herself in an entirely new way, seeing things completely free of any bias or assumptions of their own, but also because it requires the people who are part of the process to really know themselves. They are required to identify their needs, and to be able to communicate that. It bridges the gap between being passive recipients of imposed design-solutions, and having agency and ownership over their own story.


This is a challenge for two reasons. Firstly, it asks the ‘user’ to communicate what their real fears, thoughts, opinions, needs and desires are, and for the designer to understand and translate those accurately. Secondly, it means that before they can share these needs and desires, the users need to identify what they really think and feel, and that is not always easy. In fact, that is the hardest part.


Do we have real ‘agency’ over our own stories?

Globally, we are a culture of consumers who have become so used to being told what we ‘want’ or ‘need’, and we adopt those stories as our own. We are also consistently exposed to the same stories or types of stories in various contexts, and in framing our own stories we do so by adopting the same stories we have come to associate with certain contexts, perpetuating realities without questioning them. They become ‘fixed’ narratives. For example, we understand that when it comes to sexy brands and products we ‘advertise’ and when it comes to social causes we ‘raise awareness’.


When it comes to commercial products or ideas we ask for ‘investment’ and when it comes to social good we ask for ‘donations’. We frame our stories within certain environments the way we have come to understand those environments and in doing so we powerfully influence the systems that govern our reality.


Additionally, the strains and stresses of everyday life leave very little space for us to really connect with what it is that we truly feel, fear, think, want, or need. Whether we are sleep-deprived mothers, burnt out business owners or confused youth with too many choices, it can be challenging to separate ourselves from the ‘fixed stories’ we have come to claim as our own and truly create the space and time to connect with what our deepest needs and desires truly are. Consequently, we often have no real ‘agency’ over our own stories. In the context of social innovation where the design process is about addressing challenges like poverty and resource scarcity, the people at the heart of that process operate in survival mode. Being asked to identify what they really want and need, let alone communicate it, is often something they have not experienced before.


Is there a need for mindfulness in the process?


Human-Centred Design practitioners understand their research phase to be rooted in ‘deep listening’, in being ‘empathetic’ towards the people who share their stories with them, and to be ‘mindful’ as they immerse themselves into the various contexts – making sure to see and experience things without judgement or bias. What comes from these insights are what shape the stories they use to inform prototyping and iteration phases in Human-Centred Design. However, in order for them to imagine truly new systems, products and services, it is critical that the practitioners are not limited to being informed by insights that are rooted in ‘fixed stories’, locked in the experience of existing systems.


Is there a place for storytelling when innovating?


Absolutely. I believe it to be the heart of innovation. I believe it is essential that we gain a deeper understanding of how we might regain a sense of true agency over the stories we tell. In learning how to create the space for deep truths to emerge, from a place that is authentic and meaningful for those who are part of the process, we will truly innovate.


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