Seeking Analogous Inspiration

Tins of Inspiration

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning

I once heard a quote by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard. He said that “It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning” and I think he was absolutely spot on. That phrase has stuck with me and as a designer I’m constantly challenging my clients to try and put aside what they think they know in favour of undertaking research which does in many cases prove them totally wrong. So it’s in this spirit that some of my colleagues and I have recently signed up to undertake the free online IDEO +ACUMEN Human Centred Design Course, and inevitably, I’ve found that opening myself up to learning more about a topic I think I already know quite a bit about is enabling me to learn new things.

The design challenge that my team has set itself is: How can we design new ideas that enable people to make healthier food choices, who through a life changing event care for someone. It’s a topic that is close to our hearts and we are excited to be treating the challenge as a live project, running it through the Innovation Lab.

This week our task has been to plan our research. This is an area of design that I have previously felt quite comfortable with. The team are pretty experienced in ‘small e’ ethnography, or ethnography-lite as we like to call it; contextual long interviews and observations. But having focused a great amount on end user based research, deriving my empathy through the stories they tell, one of the things that I hadn’t done a huge amount of myself was seeking analogous inspiration. At its core, this simply means finding out more about the activities, emotions, and behaviours that make up the experience of a particular design challenge, but by experiencing and observing scenarios that whilst are similar in context, are in fact different than your design challenge.

The whole concept of analogous inspiration got our team quite excited. We determined that essentially, what we were looking at as part of our challenge was how it felt to suddenly have a life changing event (becoming a carer) that you had no control over and how that would impact upon your life (particularly around food and healthy eating). So following a bit of brainstorming the team decided that we might draw some parallels to our challenge, some analogous inspiration, if we ourselves found our lives unexpectedly disrupted. What if one morning, out of the blue, we received a phone call simply telling us that we were unable to use our car that day. Surely we could glean inspiration and empathy from this? So it was decided that we would all have responsibility for making the call to one of our colleagues, on a day of our choosing, and without prior warning. In turn we would receive a call from a different colleague when it was our turn to ‘absorb’ ourselves into our research. We decided that it would be fun if we shared our experiences through twitter, so set ourselves the goal of tweeting pictures and commentary about how the disruption was impacting upon our day; we used the hashtags #MyNewCommute and #MyNewCommuteToWork. I made the call to one of my colleagues @JoKilcoyne on Tuesday and unbeknown to me another colleague Trina had also made her own call to @ArrenRoberts. So on Tuesday Jo and Arren both found themselves juggling school runs, nursery drops offs, and after school parental taxi services without the use of a car, and on Thursday Trina found herself doing just the same. You can track their days’ on twitter.

Arren Roberts

Image: @ArrenRoberts arriving for work following his cycle-train-cycle commute

Jo waits at the bus station

Image: @JoKilcoyne experiencing the delights of traveling to work by bus

It was an odd situation to be put in. It isn’t often that you get to call your colleague and deliberately put them in a situation you know is going to cause them so much grief. It was also in the back of my mind that one day soon, I would be sat on the edge of my bed at 7am staring at my phone and contemplating my own analogous event. Today turned out to be that day.

My wife works three days a week, and Friday 13th March was one of the days that she didn’t have to work. So I immediately knew that the disruption wasn’t going to impact on anyone other than myself. If I had received the call on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday I would have had to work out how I was going to get my two 14 month old boys to day-care, as that’s my job when my wife has to work. My choices would have been walk the 3 miles with them in their pushchair, call a taxi, or call my dad. All had draw backs.

  • Taking the pushchair would have meant I got a nice walk, but it would have been around a 4 or 5 mile walk to work and the boys would have had to endure an early morning 3 mile ride to the child-minders, which might have been a little chilly depending on the day, and I would have arrived to work late.
  • Calling a taxi would have been a reasonable option, but that would have added an unexpected cost to my commute and I know that Jo had already had problems ordering a taxi that took child seats when she had tried earlier in the week, and whilst I know that one of those quirky laws that we all get to hear about in pub quizzes means that we don’t strictly need to use them in taxis, there was no way that I would have wanted to hold both boys without the safety of a three point harness for the 3 mile car journey required.
  • Calling my dad would have disrupted his day of decorating (perhaps he would have welcomed the distraction) and as my parents already provide so much support to my wife and I in relation to childcare, would have meant that once again they were helping us out at the expense of their own plans for the day.

So I dropped lucky. I knew that it was just going to be me and bike, and bearing in mind my relatively short commute (3 miles if I go directly to work), and the traffic at this time in the morning, I probably wouldn’t get to work much later than usual. In fact that was exactly the case. Now I really like cycling. I’ve got a road bike and cycle for leisure. But I’d be being honest if I said that I’m a fair weather cycler. Today it was raining and miserable. I decided to use my MTB and I can’t say that I enjoyed the commute, but it made me think that on nice days when I don’t have to drop the boys off and I’m required to be in the office all day without the need for work based travel, I should do it more. The main drawback to it is the fact that our office doesn’t have showers, so I was always conscious that I needed to ride more like Mary Poppins on a Sunday afternoon jaunt through Regents Park, than Bradly Wiggins blasting up the Mont Saint Michel in the Tour de France. I was pleased to pass another cycling commuter en-route. He was traveling in the opposite direction and looked like a bike was his regular mode of commute; he was wearing proper cycling kit, and rather than carrying a rucksack he had panniers. It looked like if you were prepared, and could work out a system, it might not be so bad. As we passed he gave me a knowing nod, and I felt like I was part of a new club I didn’t know existed. Knowing that someone else was in a similar position to me raised my spirits. I arrived at work in pretty good physical shape, and with my clothing in pretty presentable fashion, although even though I’d worn top to toe waterproofs, it seems that muddy water tends to gets in everywhere. I started work feeling uncomfortable, damp and little bit miserable. On reflection my morning before I left home hadn’t been any more comfortable. I hadn’t been able to switch on my autopilot whilst getting ready as I’d had to do new activities like transfer my laptop and note books into a rucksack, which I spent 10 minutes trying to find, and I wasn’t able to spend too much time with my boys as I had to dedicate it to pumping up my bike tyres and finding my rucksack; this put more pressure on my wife than I would have ideally wished to. All in all I had a thought provoking experience, one that despite the weather, I should incorporate more into #MyRegularCommute. But I felt a little bit of a fraud, Arren and Jo had to sort out childcare and travel on public transport over a distance of around 20 miles to and from work. I’d had to sort myself out and cycle only 3!

Simons Kit

Image: @simon_penny not my usual work kit

My ride home was a lot more pleasant. The rain had stopped and I found that it gave me time to reflect upon the day and put my thoughts in order. In fact on my ride back from work this evening I found myself thinking about another analogous event that was perhaps a bit closer in context to our design challenge. 14 months ago my wife and I had our lives tipped upside down and inside out by a wonderful life changing event; the birth of our two boys. However, no matter how wonderful and positive our life changing event was, it was none the less disruptive. For quite a considerable period of adjustment we didn’t know what day it was let alone what we were going to be eating for lunch and dinner. I remember we had a visitor who told us that their friend, who also had twins, had told him that the best gift he and his wife had received following the birth of their children was a weeks’ worth of ready meals. We were lucky enough to receive several ourselves in those early days and weeks, with relatives bringing us Marks and Spencer wine and dine deals and home cooked food they had prepared for us to heat up. On the days we didn’t have those meals we found that we would resort more and more to things which we could get from the freezer and throw into the oven. We ate a lot of frozen pizza in early 2014, and more than our usual quota of take-away. I remember my wife and I commenting on how poor our diet was becoming. Even though we were both well used to using the internet we still found finding time to order shopping online difficult, so we neither had the time to cook a healthy meal, or shop for it. Our life had changed and we had a different set of priorities to those we had before; we had become carers.

On reflection I think that both #MyNewCommute and the events that followed the birth of my sons have provided me with the analogous inspiration I was looking for. Certainly reflecting on my emotions and feelings in those first few days and weeks following the birth of my sons has provided me with huge amounts of empathy for people who find themselves in a caring role in perhaps less happier circumstances. Your priorities do change. You focus less on the needs of yourself and more on the needs of the people you care for.

This enjoyable exercise has certainly given me some food for thought and will help the team construct the topic guides we will use when we go and conduct our contextual interviews with carers. You can see how all of the team got on by following their journeys at #MyNewCommute and #MyNewCommuteToWork.

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