Design research

design research at work

Since 2015, I have been working as a design researcher alongside my work as a journalist.

Through this work, I have developed expertise in design thinking, project management, user experience, as well as the ecosystem in which apps and services are created. I am adept at recruiting participants, conducting ethnographic interviews (in English, Dutch and Japanese) and incorporating design techniques such as iteration, divergence + convergence, and visualisation of insights into research reports. I have also led and participated in countless co-creation labs and strategy workshops for corporations on design thinking and future-casting.

Ethnographic fieldwork in Zimbabwe. Credit: Studio D Radiodurans

In 2015, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Japan and Zimbabwe for design and research consultancy Studio D, before joining Amsterdam-based research agency for STBY [Standby], whom I continue to work for on a project basis as an associate.

The Studio D report in Zimbabwe was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and explored the impact that mobile money has on the behaviours of a population that has minimal access to formal banking infrastructure, and is coping with hyperinflation and its after effects. You can read it here.

Between 2016-2018, I worked for STBY, a service design research agency in Amsterdam. Together with a small team, I delivered qualitative research projects, including: design briefs for climate challenges around adaptation and the future of energy in cities for What Design Can Do; a report on perceptions and behaviours around sustainable food for the Dutch government; and multiple reports based on citizen workshops and co-creation labs on perceptions, conflicts, desires around bicycle parking and space for pedestrians for the Amsterdam City government. You can find an interview with me and Bas, a co-founder of STBY, on how we conducted the research for a climate challenge here.

Running a co-creation lab in Amsterdam for STBY

Ethnographic research feels like coming full circle. I majored in social and cultural anthropology at university. What I learnt dismantled many of my assumptions about the world and the social constructs I had taken for granted. It taught me to constantly interrogate the origins and reasons behind actions, thoughts and beliefs. That reconfiguring continues to inform all of my work today.

I once gave up on my dreams of becoming an anthropologist, thinking I had to do a postgraduate or a PhD if I wanted to do fieldwork. Instead, I channeled anthropological perspective into my work as a journalist, teasing out the cultural logic at play in the everyday actions and decisions of those I spoke to, and explaining cultural context to readers unacquainted with that society or milieu.

In one sense, journalism and ethnography go hand in hand. They both require you to be alert, notice everything, imbue the mundane with meaning, and explain strangers to other strangers. But where sometimes in journalism certain details are eliminated if they distract the reader, ethnography leaves space for even uncomfortable truths that do not “fit” the narrative.

Coming back to Europe in 2015 made me realise that the West is still a very ethnocentric place. Orientalism is, unfortunately, alive and well. But it’s now companies, not countries, that perpetrate condescension, exotic stereotypes, or misportrayals. I believe every company needs an anthropologist on board to better understand their users, clients, and those affected by their work.

Of course, it’s not only our understanding of “exotic” cultures that anthropology enriches. Many businesses don’t know how their products and services are actually used in the wild. Ethnographers, who show how people create meaning about their own worlds in their everyday activities, can teach them companies a lot about the subcultures or groups even within their own society.

Living in Japan was good training as an anthropologist. Working in a different culture and in a different language invited daily reflection on how and why I, or we, or they, do things the way we do. It taught me to question the knee-jerk judgments and baseless proclamations and instead search for reasons and cultural context. This quote, from longterm Japan resident and scholar Donald Richie, explains it well:

“Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing… The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding.”

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