S2, Ep. 8 - Design 101: Discover

June 12, 2024

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Hello, welcome to responsible disruption and our first episode of the Design 101 series. I'm your host, Sydney Johnson. Today we're embarking on a journey into the heart of the design process, focusing on the crucial discover phase of the double diamond model. Joining me today is Rhea Kachroo, a talented service designer from J5 Design.  Rhea let’s her work change her with a unique ability to approach design with deep empathy and a willingness to learn. She creates growth in herself and those she collaborates with. She believes change isn't always the result of The Big Bang. It arrives as small ripples that come from showing up to work, thoughtfully and authentically. Growing up as a child of immigrants has given Rhea and understanding that not all systems are built with everyone in mind. This understanding allows her to bring an open mindedness to her work, crafting ethical containers and space for diversity of thought. Rhea, thanks for joining us.


Thanks for having me.

01:04 SYDNEY: Awesome. And listeners, I'm thrilled to announce that this is just the beginning of a four part series in the upcoming episodes. This season, we'll be delving into the define, develop and deliver phases of the double diamond process, completing our comprehensive journey through the design process as a whole. Each episode will bring new insights and perspectives building on the knowledge we've gained today, so before we get into all of that Rhea, I just want to hear about your own personal journey as a designer and how you found your specific focus or niche in this type of design. Can you tell me about that.

01:38 RHEA: Sure. I started with a deep desire to work in policy and policy design. That's where I landed right after finishing university, as a policy analyst. I quickly realized that the way we design policy often lacks consideration for the end user. Our engagement felt distant from the people we were deciding for. We assumed we understood the problems without truly knowing them, leading to incorrect solutions.

Through this experience, I realized my passion for good design. Designing processes to achieve solutions became as important as identifying the problems. I pursued opportunities that allowed me to focus on strong process design, engagement, and deep human-centered design. This journey included roles as a policy analyst at Mckernan University, where I ran the Affordable Housing Solutions lab at Innovate Calgary and worked on a social innovation hub. Today, all these experiences have led me to deeply consider the design of processes, policies, and programs.

03:10 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. Kind of tagging on that a little bit. What are some of the key lessons that you've learned throughout your career that has shaped this approach to design in your perspective?

03:23 RHEA: I think the biggest lessons I learned were at the beginning of my career, being really excited to do meaningful and deep engagement and seeing the disconnect between the idea of that and what it looks like in practice. Just the amount of investment that it requires to design good engagement, to conduct it well, to actually work with the people that you're designing for in meaningful ways, and moving away from this idea of engagement as extraction, and thinking about it differently. Like that's a really big one is around. What does engagement mean? How do we engage people in meaningful ways, and what is our responsibility in giving something back to the people that we're engaging with? Because that is also part of the work. I think another lesson which came from the work and also from everything that's around the work is how hard it is or how poorly designed the places that we work, in the ways that we work, and the ways that we show

Grow up how they're designed really poorly for most of us, and how that also affects the work like as a person who is neurodivergent as a woman, as an immigrant and the child of immigrants, there's so many layers to my experience that aren't reflected in the workplaces that I was in, or the ways that I wanted to show up. I think one of the biggest lessons in my career has been that all of those things are actually really meaningful, important ways of seeing the world. And I want to work in spaces with people and on projects where that's not seen as a detraction, but actually in addition to the work and where those experiences guide my work and inform the ways that I show up and how I work. Then the last one is just like thinking really intentionally about the ways that I'm showing up and like what you said from my bio about how changes often ripples like that also starts with me. So having a reflective practice, thinking deeply about how I work and how I show up in projects has also been really important, especially in the last two or three years of my career as I've been thinking about that more deeply.

05:57 SYDNEY: Yeah. Amazing. And these lessons that you've learned, how do you see them changing or not changing the role of service design or a service designer in today's landscape and in the projects that people like us work in.

06:15 RHEA: When we think about service design or design in general, we are often looking externally into how do we design something that is better than how it is now, which is really important because so many of the things that are designed, so many of the systems that we live in were only designed from one perspective. But I also think that it's really important that we're thinking about ourselves in that process and not as separate from it. For me, all those lessons really bring me back to this idea that I will not see systems transform completely in the ways that I might want them to in my career. But the way that I can support systemic change is by thinking deeply about how I'm working. So, I think as service designers and as designers in general, it's really important to pay attention to the ways that we're showing up, the ways that we're structuring projects, and the ways that we're doing everything because that is really what creates ripples. I think about myself as not separate from the work but constantly part of the work. If there's something that I want to see at the end of a project, like if I want to design a program that is rooted in relationality, care, trust, and authenticity, then I also have to remind myself of those values from the beginning of the project and in the ways that I'm working.

07:57 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And so it's not so much like your perspective on what the work is, but more about who are you in that space and taking whatever role you are taking in in that work to come to fruition.

08:13 RHEA: Yeah, and I think for a long time, just because of the way that we're taught things, like we're taught to be impartial or not participate in the process or be an external observer of the things that we're working on, which sometimes is important depending on the work that you're doing. But more often than not, I don't think that's the case. I think that so many of the things that we work on are important to us, meaningful to us. We have some kind of story or emotion attached to those things, and so that's a valuable perspective and part of who we are, and we should bring that to the work.

08:59 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. So kind of getting into the technical pieces a little bit for those that aren't aware, you know using the double diamond model or not. Can you give listeners an overview of the design process or a design process from your own point of view?

09:17 RHEA: Sure, so I will loosely use the double diamond model. Basically, when you're starting with the design process, you really want to start with the discover phase, which is all about trying to understand the current problem as it's been brought to you or as someone has explained it, and then kind of looking at all the things that you know about that problem to see if you know enough about it and if you're looking at the right problem. Then you go to the define phase, which is with all the information that you've gathered in relation to this problem, are we solving the right problem? Do we need to change the question that we're asking? Do we need to rewrite the problem? Have we looked at all the people that are involved? So it's really about starting from a place of like, what do we know about this problem? Is this the right problem? And then going to a place of redefining that problem and naming the things that might still be missing or what we want to dig deeper into.

The second half of the double diamond is around developing. So, thinking about the problem that we defined, doing more research to understand different people's positions in that problem, and then starting to think about what potential solutions or answers to that problem might be. Then you move into the delivery phase, which is often about how can we take all the information that we know and either provide some potential solutions to the problem or go back to redefining what we might need to learn more about or if there's still missing gaps. I guess it's about tying a bow on all the things that we've learned and then thinking about if we need to go through this process again and again.

11:20 SYDNEY: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it's worth highlighting that it's a linear way of understanding a non linear process.

11:27 RHEA: Yeah, totally.

11:30 SYDNEY: So there may be while we're talking about one phase, the discover phase, it might show up in many places throughout a project or an initiative that's using this kind of approach.

11:41 RHEA: Yeah. And I think you go back and forth between all the phases many times depending on what you learn. What you're missing? Something that changes the directory of how you understand a problem space or stakeholders or whatever you're working on.

11:56 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And with the discover phase, which is kind of the focus of our episode today, why is that part so important?

12:06 RHEA: We often approach design with the idea that whatever problem we're seeing is the only way to see that problem, but we forget that we're looking at it from one perspective or one side of the issue. The story that I like to use as an analogy is the story of six blind men and the elephant. So there are six blind men, and they're feeling different parts of the elephant. One man is standing at the back and feeling the tail of the elephant. He says, "Oh, well, this is a paint brush." Another man is standing by the leg of the elephant, putting his arm around it, and says, "Oh no, this is the trunk of a tree." Then one man is holding the nose of the elephant and says, "No, this is a hose." I think about how we all have different perspectives on a problem. Sometimes, as the people trying to solve the problem — whether we're an organization delivering a program or a funding body providing resources — we think we know what the problem is, but there are many assumptions in how we frame it. Unless we take the time to do enough research and look at all the different perspectives, we might miss important aspects. We need to name what we're seeing and try to put it together. It's like realizing we're looking at an elephant, but someone sees only the legs, another sees only the tail, and another sees only the trunk. What is actually happening, and how can we deeply understand different people's perspectives and how this program or initiative is impacting them?

13:57 SYDNEY: So within that process, how do you feel that empathy shows up?

14:04 RHEA: I think that unless we take the time to develop and build empathy for the people that we're designing for, nothing that we create or no solution that we come up with will actually address the problem that we're trying to solve for. And I also think that as humans and people who are deeply connected to each other, the only way that we can do really meaningful work and design things to be better is by hearing people's stories and rooting our work in relationality. A lot of the reason that so many parts of the system and so many programs and so many things don't work is because they're designed without empathy. They're designed in boardrooms where people have decided what a problem is and have decided what the solution needs to be without actually understanding why. So, without hearing people's stories or without understanding what gets in the way of people being able to address an issue, we can never understand what we're actually solving for.

15:26 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And it's also if we don't have empathy, then we also can't understand what it might feel like for our services or the things that we're creating to feel like in practice or what it feels like to experience the problem that we're looking at and without that, then we don't have the full picture.

15:49 RHEA: Yeah, I have an example of something that just happened recently, which is a really small example. I was facilitating a workshop and there were a couple of Indigenous people in the workshop. We had hosted it in a space that the organization had picked, a cabin-type setting with a Pioneer theme. Going into that space, I didn't think anything of it. I designed the workshop as I generally would have. During one of the breaks, I went outside and one of the participants was walking, so I started chatting with them, asking how they were doing and how they were feeling. They shared that they were having a really hard time being in that space because it brought up memories of their parents and grandparents going to residential schools, and being in environments that were rooted in pioneer construction with white tablecloths, cutlery replacements, and a specific way of eating that didn't include their cultural symbolism. The paintings of rivers in the space depicted a world that excluded their Indigenous culture and worldview. They were overwhelmed by this experience, which was completely different from everyone else's in the workshop.

This incident made me realize that I hadn't thought deeply enough about the design of the workshop to ensure that everyone felt safe in that space, which we had assumed was fine for everyone. Talking to them helped me understand their experience better. They also mentioned a previous workshop where a bell was used to signal transitions, which was triggering for them because it reminded them of the bell used in residential schools. Empathy, I've learned, isn't about us being able to understand everyone else's experience, but about giving space to other people's experiences and what they're feeling. It's about designing things to meet the needs of many, not just a few.

18:34 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you for sharing that story because I think it's also a good example of if we look, if we're only focused on our part that we're playing like our role, like your role in that was not to find the space. And so your role was to design the work. And yet this choice of the space, even though it wasn't your responsibility, had a massive impact on the outcomes of that workshop for that participant and could have had an even bigger one, depending on how many other people might have felt that way. And so it's a good reminder that design work is also about always understanding the context in which your work. So what strategies do you use to ensure that you know when you're understanding the problem? Understanding more about the people who might be experiencing it, or figuring out what the real problem is, whatever it is. How do you ensure that the insights gathered during that discovery phase represents that full range of person?

19:36 RHEA: There are a couple of things. One is that it's hard to know if you'll always get the full range of perspectives you're trying to incorporate. So for me, there's a bit of humility in that approach—I don't know everything and I likely will miss things. Keeping that open for myself and the people I'm working with allows us to create space for the tension that arises when trying to include many perspectives. Knowing we may get it wrong means being prepared to change something or add room to include a previously excluded group. It's important to acknowledge in whatever we produce that there was this tension, and though we tried our best, it may not encompass everyone's perspectives. There's always room for deeper engagement and understanding.

The second thing I wanted to add is that the discovery phase doesn't ever stop. It's not a stop-and-start process. So yes, there's this idea that at the beginning we'll try to include as many perspectives as we can, as we understand them now—the people looking at this problem, those who've asked us to solve it, and many stakeholders they believe are important to hear from. As we define more and move to deeper understanding throughout the process, we'll discover perspectives we've missed. Another important piece is leaving room for that, as we won't get it right from the beginning. If we take the time to deeply understand the problem, we'll hear from many perspectives. I try to create room at project starts to hear from as many people as possible, interviewing folks, immersing ourselves in context, and really understanding what's going on. But also recognizing the discovery phase doesn't stop—we'll continuously bring people back into the process to ask if what we're learning, hearing, or our insights are correct as we design solutions and include more perspectives throughout the process.

22:11 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. It's not one and done. And it's also not being about being perfect out of the gate because as you say, you can't be. So it's having some of that grace with yourself and with the team that you're working with and also setting the expectations around that is like when we when you run up against something that you thought it was one way and it's actually another way that's actually the entire point of engaging in this process, because if it was perfect the whole way through and everything you thought that was going to come to fruition did well then that would be magical, but that's just not the way.

22:50 RHEA: The world works. Yeah, and it's not a perfect process. It's just one way of trying to do something better.

22:57 SYDNEY: Yeah, exactly. Maybe in 100 years, they'll have a completely different other process that works even better than that was maybe discovered through this process. We'll see. Or I guess we won't cause that's 100 years. But yeah, how do you handle those situations where you know some of those initial assumptions turned out to be not correct and maybe those pieces that you thought were true actually turned out not to be true. When that leads to contention with different stakeholder groups or different people in the process? How do you handle that?

23:35 RHEA: So, I think one of the really big things that I try to do for myself on a project team and with the folks that we're working with is to maintain a constant reflective practice. That means checking in with myself and the project team as we work on something: What are we learning that might be testing our assumptions? How is that changing the nature of our work? What tensions are we holding in the work that we're doing and what we're learning? Being able to name those things as they come up as part of our project management, I think, is really important. And then with the people that you're designing for or your client, bringing some of that reflective practice into the way that you host meetings with them—like being transparent throughout the process, working with them through the journey of that work so that they can participate in engaging with stakeholders and hearing people's stories.

I think it's really hard to argue with a person's story when you're hearing it and developing that empathy. If I do all the engagement work and then come back to you with deep, personalized information that isn't tied to a human, it's a lot easier for you to not want to buy into what I'm saying. If you haven't been along the journey with me, doing engagement and human-centered design to understand the problem from multiple perspectives.

Part of the work, part of what we do, is holding space for these tensions that will come up. It's not necessarily a negative thing, but creating the space to sit in it, to call out people's discomfort, and to create space for them to work through it. Then we can move to a place of how do we move forward with this new information, setting expectations that this process will happen constantly as we go into this work. As we learn more, things will change. Will you be okay working in that complex ambiguity?

26:02 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to touch on something that you also said at the very beginning of our conversation too, which was that one of the important lessons to learn about engagement is to try to avoid making it extractive. And can you talk a little bit about what that means and then some of the ways that you combat that?

26:23 RHEA: Yeah. So I spend a lot of time looking at other worldviews or ways of doing things, whether that's Indigenous or my own culture's ways of hosting people. I try to see these as sources of inspiration. There are a number of Indigenous practices and scholars advocating for the revival of visiting as a research method. It's about having a conversation where both parties contribute stories, creating understanding between us rather than one-way extraction. I think a lot about how to create safe spaces for people we're asking to help us understand something. Is it having tea in their home or a comfortable space, rather than taking from them? Can we use art or arts-based engagement processes to encourage sharing things they might not otherwise share?

So, how can we integrate our own relationships and knowledge into this work and design opportunities to have meaningful conversations? For instance, in our current project on understanding lived experiences of mental health, if deep relationality is a core value, how can I leverage my existing relationships to engage in discussions about mental health? I often consider alternative ways of understanding the world beyond traditional research methods. What cultural practices and less extractive approaches rooted in relationships can I draw inspiration from? Additionally, it's crucial to meet people where they are, compensate them for their time, and ensure access to childcare, transportation, and participation.

29:09 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that there's something else in there about telling people what happens with it, like allowing them to continue to be a part of the process like I know when I've seen research for, for lack of a better word, or this this kind of engagement fall down is when people get exhausted because people come and ask them questions all the time and then they leave and then they never hear from them again. And so it's also about building those pieces into... if you're going to use someone's time like show them what it did, show them what came out of it. And I think that builds a lot of trust and then their willingness to participate again so that you know, you're not burning bridges for other people that want to investigate the same thing.

29:59 RHEA: It sounds like you're exploring some really insightful concepts around engagement and its deeper impact. Two things stood out to me in what you said. First, the idea of engagement as respite is intriguing. How can we redefine engagement so that it provides a source of rest rather than being extractive? What would that look like in practice? Secondly, I resonate with your belief that the process itself should be transformative for both the designer and the participants. How can we integrate this idea into our work? Perhaps by hosting interactions in non-traditional settings and using diverse methods to gather information, such as board games or casual walks, to foster relationality and comfort. These are crucial aspects I often reflect on—how engagement can be rooted in both respite and relationality.

31:14 SYDNEY: You know something? I think about all the time is if I if I know that it's not going to be possible to come back to these folks later as I just said, you should do. But let's say we're in, we're in a situation where, you know that's not going to be an option. Can you design the engagement to give them something of value in the engagement? So whether then it's respite or it's just like a fun experience or it's, you know, whatever might be of value to them or that community is coming together or it's social engagement or whatever it looks like it's finding out what might be valuable and giving that to them as your engagement.

31:55 RHEA: Totally. And I think another thing that I would say is, when we're designing engagements, yeah, it's when you focus on it not being extractive, a good way to do that is to think about what different communities and people see as valuable. So can we have engagement over a meal and what does that mean? What are the ways that they would want to engage? We worked with an organization called Islamic Family and they wanted to talk to their donors about affordable housing. And so during Ramadan, they had after meals on Fridays, and they invited folks to join them, so they're breaking bread over this beautiful meal. And then they're also playing a board game with the people around them and their families that they brought around affordable housing. It's a very beautiful way of engaging people that's deeply rooted in culture and relationality. It felt like it wasn't extractive because there was this element of being in a collective around an important day and celebrating something.

33:07 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. It's almost like an added bonus as opposed to the main thing that...

33:15 RHEA: And I think if we can reframe our engagement as an opportunity to show the community a possible future. So whatever problem we're trying to solve and the solution that we're deciding for, there's often some values that that solution will be rooted in. And how can we use engagement as an opportunity to really root in those values and offer something to the community, a different way of being, a different way of coming together, a different way of talking about something that gives them something and also helps us with our engagement.

33:53 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's some criticism sometimes of design research in that because it is so different from maybe traditional or academic research approaches, but it obviously shares some DNA in that you can see similar activities come up, but then everything that we're just talking about may or may not have a place in in more traditional research. But what would you say to the kind of critiques of this approach to engagement?

34:23 RHEA: One thing is that there's no perfect way to do engagement because we all come with our own biases of what engagement should look like and what the quality of the data and quotes that we're collecting is because some people would argue that with a survey you get you could answer like 20 questions. You have written responses. There's a clear data set that's being collected. It looks the same across the board as you give it to different people. But then the other side of that is that not everyone has the same level of literacy. Not everyone will want to complete a survey. Not everyone thinks in those ways. And so I think that criticism is fair and should be there, and we should be asking questions around why are we doing things in this way? And I also think that there should be the opportunity to do engagement in lots of different ways depending on the community that you're engaging with, depending on the solution that you're designing for. And just because there are traditional modes of engagement and research, that doesn't mean that they're 100% correct. And just because there are emergent ways of engagement and research, that doesn't mean they're correct. But the measure of success should not be rooted in that. It should be in which way is getting us solutions or answers to questions that deeply meet the needs of people, and I think we get caught up a lot in one right way and that's just not correct. There isn't one right way and there isn't a perfect way that will give us all the answers that we want but it's about trying and failing and trying again and trying to do things in ways that are rooted in the values of the future that we want to see, or the solutions that we want to see.

36:27 SYDNEY: This beautifully set and the perfect note, I think to wrap it up on. Thank you Rhea for sharing all of your really valuable insights about the design processes as a whole, but also of course the discover phase particularly. I really appreciate you coming on the show.

36:46 RHEA: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was awesome.

36:50 SYDNEY: Listeners stay tuned for our next Design 101 episode, which will feature probably a few episodes later than this one, in which we'll dive into the define phase of the design process. Until then, keep exploring and innovating, and remember to make your engagement non extractive until next time.

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