RE-STOKED! Issue 1: Evidence & Empathy (11/7/14)

Editor's note: We launched a tinyletter called Stoked! that goes out Friday evenings to more than 100 people. If you'd like to receive it, you can sign up here. We're going to cross post each week's essay on the blog as well. We hope you enjoy it.


We've been listening to Serial, a spin-off podcast from This American Life. It's a single story told episodically - a true story, about a crime. It's a whodunnit told long after someone was found guilty and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. It's riveting, you should subscribe right now.

But the reason we're particularly interested in this as design researchers and product strategists is that it's a high stakes, artfully constructed demonstration of the best form of our practice. Sarah Koenig, the host, must balance both evidence and empathy - she wants to understand the facts, but she must also understand the people

To do this, she tries to recreate the timeline of events that led to a teenage girl's murder; she runs experiments about memory (how well do you remember where you were, what you did, who you talked to six weeks ago?); she visits the scene(s) of the crime; she compares conflicting and inconsistent testimony. And then she tries to imagine alternate explanations and missing facts, to reckon with other people's memories of events and of their emotional experience of those events.

Where it will lead is hard to know. They're only on episode 7. 

We should be doing this when we try to develop products and brands. We should listen to more than the facts. We should look at more than the data. We should try to understand how the facts, the feelings, the likelihoods and the possibilities all blend together to create a reality that is not a Platonic ideal, but a good explanation of what probably has happened or is happening, and that can provide a good map for what to do next. 

And if you want to know what you should be collecting as a design researcher, look no further than Serial's blog, and the section on maps, photos, etcWe're particularly inspired by the candor and transparency of this reckoning. Everything Sarah and her team discover, they share, openly discuss, and debate. We should do this with our teams and clients.  We have to record what we see and hear, and we have to gather artifacts and data. We have to question what these things mean, how accurate or helpful they are, how much they challenge our closely held beliefs or confirm our biases.

When we begin to look at all these pieces side by side, we can then begin to piece together the mosaic of what is happening. We can begin to find the truth. That truth - in our comparatively low stakes worlds of product development and marketing - is the gateway to identifying a real problem worth solving, and to discovering the solution, too.