How do we discover what people need—before they know they need it?
Jane Fulton Suri, a partner with the design firm IDEO, is considered a pioneer in using psychology and ethnographic research as part of the design process. Or to put it another way: She helped the world of design figure out how to get inside your head. When I interviewed Fulton Suri for GLIMMER, we spoke at length about her quirky origins in the field. It all began when Fulton Suri, a trained psychologist, was asked by the British government to help unravel a mystery: Why were users of a certain type of lawn mower chopping off their own toes, and what could be done about it? The following are her edited comments.I was involved in government-sponsored research and I was looking for ways to reduce accidents involving consumers who were using power tools. And there was one particular problem involving a lightweight lawnmower with a rotary blade and an electrical cord. Because the machine resembled a traditional upright Hoover (vacuum cleaner), this led to a sense among people that it was a casual piece of equipment like a Hoover and you could use it in your carpet slippers or your flip flops. But the bigger problem with the design was that it had an “on” switch in the grip. This meant that people were turning it on accidentally, just as they were carrying it through the garden—while wearing their flips flops! And people were losing toes that way.
When I was asked to look into this type of problem, I’d start with trying to understand the context. That means you don’t just read the accident report—you need to understand the equipment and the people using it. We’d visit people who’d been involved in incidents and have them re-enact it for us, with tools. You have to get out there and go to people’s homes, and then get them off the sofa. I’d say, ‘Okay, now take me into the tool shed. Show me where you were and what you were doing.’
For many of these people, it was kind of cathartic in a way because they had someone who was interested in them but who wasn’t going to tell them how stupid they’d been. I would say, ‘Right, now let’s figure this out together so it doesn’t happen again.’
To get people to share the truth of what happened, I was using all of my psychology skills—perception, cognition, interrelating with people and getting them to open up and remember. And at the same time that I was asking people to show me how they cut the lawn, I would be projecting myself into that situation to think, Would I make the same mistake in this situation? And what might prevent it from happening?
We figured out that what was needed was a much more deliberate, double action to turn on the machine—like pulling a lever and pushing a button simultaneously—as opposed to just gripping the handle. And because of our actions, the design of the machine was changed and the problem was taken care of. But what was frustrating to me, at the time, was that I was being brought into the process after something had already been designed. It was the same thing when I worked with companies back in those days—I was invited to participate after the fact. And it just always seemed obvious to me that if you could have seen these problems in the earlier design phases, many of these problems could have been avoided.
IDEO was the first to really embrace having a psychologist on staff. For a design firm to do this was unusual at the time and it was a risk. Most of my work had been about looking at things once they were proven to be problematic. There was no tradition of having someone from the social sciences come in at the early stages of design, to try to anticipate problems and needs in advance.
When it comes to using psychology and human factors in design, I think it’s all a question of how you do it and why you do it. I do think honestly there are ethical issues at stake here—and I’ve tried to inculcate in IDEO a sense that this is not about exploiting what we can learn about people. At root, it has to be seen as a socially responsible thing to do.
And I like to think that’s the way we approach it. If you go back to having that conversation with someone who’s cut their toes off, the idea is you are engaging them in the solution to a problem that we’re all trying to solve. But it must be about engagement, rather than ‘I’m treating you as some kind of lab rat I can study.’
Of course, it’s not as simple as saying that if we only know what people want, we’ll give them better products—because we may just end up giving them high-fat foods and sugary drinks. But I think we should be looking for a deeper truth in people’s lives—because deep down, people want to be healthy and happy and to live a good life. If we can figure out how to help them do that, then we’re fulfilling the potential of design.
Many people grow up with the idea that the world just is.Butdesigners grow up with the idea we can make the world be. That’s not to say that’s only designers; it’s a certain mindset that has to do with believing in the human ability to change the world, instead of having the sense that ‘This is the way it is, and it’s going to be like this forever and ever.’
It’s an area I find fascinating—because I think, when it comes down to it, everybody has the capacity to see the world that way. And of course, within their own frame, everybody does design. Everybody designs the way they organize the kitchen, for example. They have their own systems for everything within the world that they feel they can manipulate. But I think as we go forward with the new possibilities for communication and technology, that world that people can manipulate is increasing—people are starting to believe they can exert much more influence in the world around them.
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