Take in Your Context by Design

Lee-Sean Huang, founder and creative director of Foossa, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about the way designers view context.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So lots of smart people know that it’s important to pay attention to context in anything you do. But designers seem to have a certain knack for it. Would you agree?

Lee-Sean Huang: Yeah, I think so. People who are not familiar with designers and what they actually do may have a stereotype of an artist or other type of creative person who looks at the world as a blank slate they can project their own vision on. But that doesn’t really exist. Everybody comes from their own context of culture with their own baseline assumptions, whether they are conscious or unconscious. There is a context of the rest of the team that the designer may be working with. And there is always a system or ecological context in which a designer’s work will eventually exist. I’d say that we notice those things more than others. ...

I think that a designer can look at something like the typography of a sign or some aspect of the built environment and read it in almost the same way a literary scholar might read a text. It’s a part of being acculturated in the profession. You develop a sensitivity to things that people who haven’t spend as much time in design culture might not notice.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s assume for a moment that everyone has an equal interest in context. Do you think there are certain tools or techniques that designers can use to learn more about context than some other person who might be equally motivated?

Lee-Sean Huang: It’s tricky because I think a lot of it is unconscious. I think a lot of it has to do with looking at something like a picture or a landscape or a streetscape and asking, “Why was this designed the way it was?” I think we are more aware of the intentionality of most of the things in our environment. We ask about the “why” of things that might seem arbitrary or obvious to other people. Even if we can’t answer that question, it opens up aspects of our environment and social systems, because we’re so aware that they were designed by somebody.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So because you work with the Legos, you’re more aware that everything is made of those Legos.

Lee-Sean Huang: Right.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: How else does that awareness change the way you view the world?

Lee-Sean Huang: It’s a kind of literacy — a visual literacy, an experiential literacy. Whether it’s an environment I’m moving through or something I’m building myself, I ask questions that I wouldn’t ask without that literacy. I don’t have that kind of literacy in sports, for example. If I see something on ESPN, it all just blends together for me. I imagine that many aspects of the visual world or interactions feel similar to people who don’t have those languages.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I wonder if it also gives you a feeling of agency. Here’s what I mean. My wife is an artist and has a strong spatial sense. She moves the furniture around in our house all the time. If she’s helping a friend clean her apartment, she might suggest a different way of arranging the chairs or something. But I would never think to make that suggestion because I don’t normally think of rearranging furniture at all. It’s like the awareness of earlier design gives you the license to design.

Lee-Sean Huang: Right, and it also makes it a lot easier to picture what all those future arrangements of the furniture might look like in your head. You can think of your wife moving furniture around your house as prototyping for the next space or the next design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell me about a project where heightened awareness of context was critical to the success of the design?

Lee-Sean Huang: Sure. I worked at an agency where we often did rapid-response social media campaigns for nonprofits. But oftentimes it was like trying to graft an olive branch onto an orange tree. People would say they wanted to use social media to reach out to people, but they didn’t realize that it would force them to change aspects of their core business. If it takes two weeks to approve any external e-mail or message, you can’t respond nimbly in the way that sort of campaign requires. Even when you’re providing a service for a client, you often face these questions of whether their culture is compatible with the tactic or intervention you’re recommending.

Here’s a more specific cross-cultural example. I was doing a project in India on how to distribute clean drinking water in what were essentially slums. The context there was that they had access to free drinking water from the government, but it wasn’t really safe. The alternative was bagged, filtered water that was really expensive. Our clients had come up with a system that could filter and distribute water much more cheaply. It came with a cost, but it was a much lower cost.

So this was a project where we really had to meet people where they were and think about how they made decisions when they had such limited means. They made calculations like, “Okay, sometimes I need to drink this free water, even though it will make me sick.” Even people who had cell phones made those calculations. From a Western perspective, that makes no sense – people here think of plumbing as coming before cell phones. But when you fully appreciate the context of how people distribute systems like cell phone towers versus indoor plumbing, it makes more sense.

It’s just one of many examples about how, as a designer, you always have to be careful to leave behind cultural assumptions about how your target users behave.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think I’m seeing a pattern here. You know, I have virtually no awareness of air pressure. I couldn’t tell you what the air pressure is in this room right now. But I imagine that if you’re an alpine climber or a deep-sea diver, you’re aware of it even when it’s not that important. It seems to me that designers must get so used to switching between different contexts that you end up with a heightened awareness about it. You have a sort of sensor that goes off in your head that says, “I’d better check for context,” because you know what happens when you forget about it.

Lee-Sean Huang: Yeah, it’s an interesting analogy. Maybe more than other professions, we have to work across different fields or come into context with people from different backgrounds and contexts. Within a short period of time, you might have clients from a law firm, from a private company, from a government agency. You have to quickly become aware of the language they’re speaking and how to meet them where they are.

Actually, it’s a good metaphor because it really is a sort of kinesthetic sense, a spider sense. I think it’s something everyone is capable of, but not everyone hones it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me that designers also have that kind of spider sense for changes in context. Could you tell me about your experience of that as a designer?

Lee-Sean Huang: One timely example of this is designers who have been working across different platforms or devices. When you watch Spider-Man at the movies, it’s different from when you watch it at home, even if you have big speakers. And that’s different from when you watch it on an iPhone on a bus.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems like especially now, design is being thrown up against those kinds of context problems. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you design a mobile device. Then your company starts selling it in a new country and no one understands how to use it. I imagine that rapidly becomes your problem to solve.

Lee-Sean Huang: Right, and many of those things aren’t technical problems or technical issues. Look at the cross-cultural experience of something like Twitter. Twitter gives you 140 characters. In English, we all have a sense that that’s not very much — it’s one or two sentences. But in much more compact languages like Japanese or Chinese, you can say a lot more. So you just can’t tweet the same things in different languages.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You’ve lived and worked in cultures all over the world. Have those experiences taught you anything in particular about the ways designers process context?

Lee-Sean Huang: When people are learning a new language, especially young kids, they often go through this silent phase where they actually understand everything, but their brains are still making connections and becoming comfortable enough to speak. With designers, there is something similar. Clients often want to know designers’ insights right away when they’re dropped into a new culture or a new context. But I think designers are often hesitant to respond, though, because they’re doing that same thing, taking the time to digest what’s going on.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What’s something that designers do to understand context that you wish everyone learned how to do when they were in, I don’t know, third grade or so?

Lee-Sean Huang: It’s actually something kids already do: ask “why” about everything. It usually annoys their parents and they tell them to stop.

Another thing that designers habitually do is analyze the context of something while simultaneously projecting alternative outcomes. In most areas of life, there are researchers who are trying to describe what’s going on and other folks who are more prescriptive. But designers sort of bridge that gap by asking about how you would get there or what might be the steps in between. It comes from their ability to sketch things out or prototype. They present those ideas in ways that they can be critiqued or validated. They gather feedback as part of their research. They built experiments to see that changing air pressure in action. That makes whatever you’re trying to understand more concrete for everyone.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Yes, I think that’s the superpower. Here’s what I mean. I saw “The Dark Knight Rises” with a friend of mine who is a writer. Neither of us really liked the ending of the movie. I went to get a drink with him afterward, and when I told him I didn’t like it, he explained why he thought the writers had ended it that way and how he would have done it differently. And what I realized listening to him is that this wasn’t some sort of extra layer of analysis he was doing. This is just how he watches movies. I imagine that’s how designers see the world – your potential designs are a part of your observation.

Lee-Sean Huang: Yeah. We’re respectful of context. We’re respectful of the languages people are speaking. But there’s also nothing we won’t touch. We like to mess with things. We mess with them in order to understand what they are. To go back to your earlier analogy, we know things are made of Legos, we like to play with Legos… but we also like to figure out how to break the big Lego tower apart or make something else out of the exact same pieces.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well sure – designers constantly have to revise or throw out their own work for one reason or another. I’m sure that builds a sense that any design that’s out there in the world can also be revised.

Lee-Sean Huang: Yeah, I guess so. It’s a kind of detachment. Designers certainly have a reputation of throwing out their own “babies” because they’ve done enough prototyping to find out that they won’t work. I think it does make you see everything as being just one iteration away from something better.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Is there any other advice you would give to non-designers who want to view context in the way that designers do?

Lee-Sean Huang: I’d recommend trying to live in someone else’s context for a while, even if you don’t have an immediate reason to. Some classic examples are adaptive design classes where the students who aren’t in wheelchairs have to use wheelchairs for a day, or the CEO who disguises himself as a customer. You can often reach some customer service breakthroughs based on the horrible things that happen.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: There’s something in what you said that I’d like to emphasize. I think lots of people see someone in a wheelchair and say, “Oh, how awful that must be.” But it seems to me that designers have some extra thing in them the says, “I’d better actually try out the wheelchair before I make any assumptions about it.” Does that seem right?

Lee-Sean Huang: Right, I think you’re on to something. Designers are determined to move beyond feeling bad. They don’t just want to understand what someone can’t do, but what they can do, and how they do it, and what it feels like to do it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s a kind of experimental empathy that goes beyond surface feelings. Can you think of an instance where you were the guy who insisted that the client actually go try something in the way we’re describing?

Lee-Sean Huang: I’ve been lucky in most of my work that clients have been pretty open to those kinds of experiences. I do remember a course I taught at the School of Visual Arts last semester where my students were working for a food co-op. The people who were using the co-op didn’t really reflect the demographics of the neighborhood, and they wanted to know why. My students suggested that they actually ask some people from the neighborhood what attracted them to food at various stores.

It seemed like a sort of obvious starting point to them, but some of the insights they came up with blew the clients’ minds. I think the difference was that instead of asking them, “Why don’t you use our product or service?” they were asking, “What motivates you to do the things you’re doing now?”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That’s such a design story, though. It seems to me that designers are the people in my life who look at really vexing problems and say, “But look at all the interesting information here!” It’s like the rest of us are teenagers who are home by themselves looking at a pantry full of food and complaining that there’s nothing to eat. We’re just not willing to make a sandwich.

Lee-Sean Huang: I think it’s more like one of those cooking shows where they give the contestants strange ingredients like a basketful of live squid. You can make a seven-course meal out of almost anything, but you have to be a master of your craft.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So go back to those folks whose minds were blown. What’s your advice to help those folks hold on to those insights when the designers aren’t around anymore?

Lee-Sean Huang: I think you have to remember that it’s an act of courage to step outside of your world and into somebody else’s, especially if you don’t know how everything works there. You may not speak the same language, either literally or metaphorically. Good designers model that behavior for others. In the example from SVA, the students led some people from the co-op on a scavenger hunt through some of the other stores in the neighborhood. They made it a game so that they felt more comfortable poking around, asking people things, seeing it through their eyes.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What also seems important to take away from that story is that the designers themselves had only recently become familiar with the environment. I mean, it’s important to remember that designers are often just as lost as everyone else in these new contexts. They just know how to work with it.

Lee-Sean Huang: They’re using it to test hypotheses. It’s really a lot like any other use of the scientific method. You may never have perfect knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that research isn’t valuable. You just need to do enough research to design something and test it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.