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Lessons In Design Research From An Unlikely Source: Poetry

IBM design researcher Meghan McGrath shares how working in literature–including a stint at a poetry journal–helped her better serve users.

Lessons In Design Research From An Unlikely Source: Poetry
[Photo: courtesy IBM]
Meghan McGrath is a design researcher at IBM for security on the mainframe. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: How did you get to this position? Did you take a curvy road to get here?

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Meghan McGrath: On paper, it would look almost cartoonishly curvy. Before IBM, I toggled between working with literary organizations and oral history projects, and ethnography.

There was the Alan Lomax collection, for example, where we were cataloging historic folk song recordings. At Narrative magazine, it was reading through poetry submissions and putting together recommendations based on those. Or during graduate school, working as a Digital Heritage Management Consultant in Australia, the goal was to create an endangered language database that would sensitively meet a set of political and cultural requirements.

Projects like these look pretty disparate on paper, but there are common threads at the heart of them. Even though literature, history, and design are different disciplines, they teach you to ask the same kinds of questions. As a design researcher, you’re hunting for insights about users, then mobilizing a design team through storytelling and feedback. It was a curvy road, but it eventually led to my current role at IBM.

What parts of your inter-disciplinary background do you use every day in your job at IBM?

I think there are a lot of intersections—sometimes a surprising amount—between this current role and working for, say, an oral history archive or editing a poetry journal. You’re paying attention to the things humans care about, identifying themes, and trying to communicate something about that.

Even though I previously hadn’t worked with the IBM Design Thinking methodology, it felt familiar in a lot of ways to the problems you’re solving in those other jobs around ethnography, around the articulation of problems through literature.

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It dovetails well, I think, into the work of a design researcher, because you’re working closely with users and starting to synthesize data and trends that come up. Then, in order to take those insights into the real world, you need to have the buy-in of stakeholders, and the technical team is going to help bring that vision to life. Being able to articulate the user endpoints in an impactful way does draw on some of the things that poetry is seeking to do, because you’re trying to transfer this emotional experience.

[Photo: courtesy IBM]
Talk about the project you’ve been working on at IBM and the role that design plays here.

I’m on the IBM Z mainframe security team—every time you swipe a credit card or book an airline ticket, it goes through a mainframe computer, and so our focus is on keeping that information safe.

How do we help the people who are in charge of keeping that safe? It quickly became apparent that in the security space there are these uniquely interconnected workflows, and it was important to make those workflows intuitive, to anticipate bottlenecks, and to minimize communication breakdowns. One example might be: when a cryptographic key needs to be changed, who has input on when or how this is done? Who has the final word? How does that happen today? We needed to tease out the nuances of how that workflow plays out in real life, in order to anticipate our users’ needs and design with those in mind.

What has your user research told you about how to create more human-centered security products?

Security is an emotionally charged topic, and it’s fascinating to be doing user research in this area. Data breaches are not just about a system breaking down, but also reputational risk. There’s a lot of genuine stress and pain around that.

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We kept hearing from our clients that a large part of data protection was tied to audit and compliance. They needed to be able to show that data was protected—and we needed to understand how best to help them do that. It wasn’t easy, though. You ask people about audit and their hair stands up, because it’s a sensitive area, and sometimes even painful to talk about. But it’s also something that’s really important to get right.

Our notes were filled with workplace humor, and most of that was around the audit process and the things about it that were so painful to users. Sometimes in high-stress environments, it’s easier for people to talk about those things in more oblique ways. We realized that two of the users who we’d thought were collaborating, often had a fraught relationship. Across industries and geographies, we found this to be the case. So the team really took what they heard about the audit process and used that to revisit the way we were providing a solution.

How do a designer’s emotions play into creative decisions? Do you think it’s important?

Empathy is so core to what we do in design. Empathy is not only helpful in terms of understanding what the user problems are, but empathy is critical for spurring them into reality by getting the buy-in of stakeholders, by being able to tell the story of those users.

When I started doing ethnography 10 years ago, I apprenticed for the Veterans History Project and for an oral historian, interviewing World War II veterans about their experiences during war, which, like security, is not an easy thing for people to talk about.

You can’t begin a conversation talking about the things that are the most difficult. But we would ask about the food at boot camp, because that was something people always had a funny story about, often warm stories about their friends. It was important for us as the ethnographers to build a relationship with them and to let them know that we were their advocates. If they could help us understand their lives better, then we could help make the experience better for them, address some areas of critical concern for them. The relationship between the ethnographer and the stakeholder is symbiotic and has to be built carefully.

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What was it like for you to bring these lessons to your work at IBM?

Within IBM there’s been a push toward design thinking and interdisciplinary teams, meaning that our whole team—engineers, development, and design—have gone through the design process together. When we reached a point where we were ready to act on the insights from our user research, it was easier because we had already been on this journey together.

And much like the work I did at the Veterans History Project, I’ve found that user research is most valuable when we hear something unexpected. It’s a moment of truth, and it can be difficult, but it can also be an opportunity to provide something better. During a client site visit last year, for instance, we had a user point out that one of our workflows differed slightly from what he would do, and he explained why. It surprised us, but when we went to validate with other users we found that this newer workflow had a lot of value. We decided that even though it meant doing the work of pivoting, this was a change worth investing in. Ultimately, we provided a more impactful solution because of it.

What’s fascinating is how your career today connects right back to where you started; truly poetry in motion.

Some of my favorite poets are poets of miscellanea, with a knack for throwing all these mundane things from the real world into their writing. Dean Young has this poem where he talks about King Lear done by sock puppets, or a polymer that contracts in response to electrical current. I think the responsibility of a design researcher is to push past assumptions, and to recognize the seemingly mundane details of everyday life that could lead to more successful human-centered design.

Our users don’t wake up into this generalized world and go to work. They sit in traffic, they buy underwhelming sandwiches in the cafeteria, they look at cat videos, and maybe they go into their office, and they’re really busy and interrupted all day, or maybe they’re very isolated. It’s helpful in design research to understand the small pieces of their realities in order to design something that will fit into that reality well.