Co.Design

What's The Secret To Design Innovation? Extreme Immersion

Legendary design researcher Jan Chipchase shares his strategy for looking for the Next Big Thing in a foreign land.

Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt (Harper Business).

There’s a particular type of traveler that many of us know: the tourist who never strays from the well-worn path of landmarks and tourist traps, who only sees the side of another culture that has been handpicked for people like him, and returns home with a very predictable—and incomplete—experience. Then there are those who like to explore, to get lost on purpose and let the unexpected find them. Unlike the first form of travel, those who allow themselves to get lost in the new environment have fewer guarantees and a greater risk of disappointment (and mugging), but there is also an infinitely greater chance of new and unique experiences that will prompt new ideas and points of view.

Just as travelers can easily fall into tourist traps in the name of efficiency and expectations, even the most highly trained and skilled ethnographic researchers can get bogged down through rote practice.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, the typical international design research study goes something like this: the team jets into a new locale, checks into a corporate hotel, syncs with a recruiting agency, and bounces around the city in taxis to conduct contextual interviews, returning to the corporate hotel at the end of the day enthused and physically and mentally spent. The team’s taste of local flavor tends to be incidental—a snatched meal, half an hour to shop for essentials, a late night out on the town once the interview notes are written up. Repeat this process for a couple more cities, and by the time they get together to synthesize their findings the team has worn out its enthusiasm. Are they informed? Kinda. Are they inspired? Depends.

But there’s a better way to do it.

It starts with the scouting process, looking for the neighborhoods where the team can get a sense of the denizens’ everyday lives. That means fanning out from the city center, looking for residential areas with a mixture of industry and local commerce. Rather than corporate hotels, I try to have our team stay together in a house: usually a rental property, but occasionally with a host family. It’s cheaper than a hotel, we get to embed ourselves in the culture, and it brings the team closer together. (When the project goal includes design we often call these “pop-up studios,” with the setup mimicking much of the larger home-base studio setup, albeit with adjacent living accommodation.) Nothing says camaraderie like taking a one-minute shower to save some hot water for your five fellow team members.

Other researchers tend to hire their local assistants through an employment agency that can provide them with experienced help. I prefer to go through the local university and hire students—not just any students but smart, socially active ones. They take us to inspirational pockets of the city for our daily team debriefs, give us access to their social networks, and attune us to the nuances of local culture. A fresh set of eyes on a project means a fresh perspective and new ideas on the table. Whenever possible I try to make room for the students to stay with the rest of the team.

Instead of guides and translators, I usually try to hook up with fixers, the secret weapons of international journalism. They have some of the strongest local connections and understand the ethnographic hustler’s social tap dance: controlling interactions just enough to get to the questions, then letting the interviewee control things from there so they can provide meaningful answers. When we arrive in country, we don’t have much time to get acclimated, but whatever time we can manage tends to be the most valuable time we have. That’s when we break out our secret weapons—or more likely, head down to the nearest bicycle shop to pick them up.

Cruising through the city on bikes doesn’t feel like work, but it gives us a chance to rapidly engage with the environment on a human level. We get to experience the flow and the tempo and cadence of the city. Most important, it puts us on the same plane of urban life as the other thousands or millions who occupy the city.

One of my favorite ways to do this early on in the study, and one of simplest, is to wake up with the city. Gather the team before dawn, find an appropriate neighborhood, then cruise around together while the shopkeepers are lifting their shutters, as newspapers hit the pavement and locals step out for their morning constitutionals. The morning rush for essentials—from coffee or chai to fresh pastries to rice porridge—is a ritual virtually everywhere, making it ripe for cross-cultural comparisons. If there’s a long line, all the better: our job, after all, is to strike up conversations.

Some conversations end up being more revealing than others, and those are the ones we seek out. The key is to find the spaces that are most conducive: where people hang out, talk openly, and feel safe enough to give a stranger the time of day— because we’ll routinely approach them and ask for it. Barbershops can be particularly promising, so I’ll go for a shave (sometimes twice a day) and chat up whoever’s around. If we can string out the conversation long enough to do an interview for the study, great; if the participants feel comfortable inviting us into their homes to do the interview, even better.

We spend a fair amount of effort making sense of all this data at every step of the process, and by the end of our time in a city the live-work space feels like Mission Control, with every inch of wall space covered in maps of the city, participants’ profiles, and hundreds if not thousands of observations, quotes, and insights. In and among it all are the gems that can lead to the Next Big Thing.

Buy Hidden in Plain Sight for $17 here. Visit the author’s site here.

From the book HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: How To Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jan Chipchase. To be published on April 16, 2013 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

[Photos by Cliff Kuang]

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3 Comments

  • Georgio Romano

    This is a great
    article and reminds me of something written by ENPC PHD Deisgn and
    Innovation professor Gregory Polletta
    www.enpcmbaparis.com/polletta-... 

    In a recent blog post called " When design matters - Google buys a design
    co.: Mike and Maaike" www.ignitiate.blogspot.com/201.... The intent is clear, Design-centric studios are at the centre of
    technological direction, consumer value, brand perception, and of course
    functional development

  • Karen Herman

    Like every recommendation here, especially hiring students at local universities as assistants and biking a locale to get a quick read of the environment. Living local and experiencing the culture is so important. Excellent recommendations all around and applicable to design projects in the states, too.

  • Hamish

    Excellent article and all true. Initial immersion is my favourite part of a project, but it's unfortunately rare to have the time or budget to really absorb all you need to, before strategy and design work has to begin. There again, too much immersion can become overwhelming too - at some point you have to sort and identify what's important and what isn't.

    I often try to allow an extra day on client trip visits to get away and explore the surroundings. If that's not possible, we try to split the team, so some go to client meetings while others explore and take photos. There's a lot of great research you can do on the internet, but nothing beats being in a place and experiencing it first hand to get to understand it better.