Start with why? Empathy-driven approach to understand any problem
Maria Lutsiv
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12 Oct 2020
14 min
hashproductivity
Why do companies struggle with a lack of communication and how do we deal with it at Devima Solutions.
Over years of work, we’ve dealt with different stakeholders in all ranges of spheres: media, insurance, beauty, metallurgy, e-commerce, etc. They were of different sizes, distributed in different parts of the world but there is something that they all had in common. Most stakeholders are human beings who are either senior project managers or experts in the sphere.
Framework for addressing complex challenges
Today I want to talk about design thinking and its influence on our day to day work. I bet this notion is familiar to you and you probably have practiced it in real life. Want to take it one level up? I want to share some insights that we've gathered during the first touch with any project: stakeholder interview and the preparation for it.
Design thinking is our best tool for sense-making, meaning-making, simplifying processes, and improving customer experiences. Additionally, design thinking minimises risk, reduces costs, improves speed, and energises employees. Win-win concept, right?
Design thinking provides leaders with a framework for addressing complex human-centred challenges and making the best possible decisions. I want to approach the first 2 stages of the framework, namely empathy and definition of the problem.
Misunderstanding

Misunderstanding is inevitable in the course of communication, especially when people are from different cultures or mediums.

There is a model in translation that is called “encoding and decoding model of communication”. In Basic terms, humans communicate through a process of encoding and decoding. The encoder is the person who develops and sends the message.

Encoding is the process of turning thoughts into communication. Decoding is the process of turning communication into thoughts.

decoder-encoder

A semiotic gap always occurs during this process. It happens in any act of communication, not only translation.

Every and each person has a unique perspective. The culture we’d grown in, family values that were passed to us, expertise in the sphere that we were learning for years, coworkers, society, books... Everything that we've dealt with had a tremendous impact on our lives. It is what makes us unique.

And every person makes its own surroundings with people with the same or similar outlook. Why? Just because he or she feels comfortable among those people, in the comfort zone. But there are so many people that live absolutely different lives. Here comes the gap!

Our goal is to minimize that gap. The most effective way to do so is to clarify every uncertain part and confirm it between encoder and decoder ( 2 collocutors ). Every verbal and written communication must be confirmed. In this way, you are sure that you are moving in the same direction as your collocutor.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg

Sometimes, misunderstandings happen even when you have spent a lot of time on communication. So what is the issue?

Well, It is essential to distinguish the person's desires from his needs. Sometimes when we say something doesn't necessarily correspond with what we need. Yes, it sounds crazy. Let me give you an example.

If at the end of the 19th century a man was asked what he desired, most likely he would say, I want horses to be more powerful. If you start from this, you need to bring a new breed of horses but if you understand that he really needs to move faster, there is a chance to discover a car.
Research

And if you want to find out what a stakeholder (or any person) needs I would advise you to start with the research. Background research is very crucial. As simple as that may seem, this is the part where many researchers come up short.

A lot of people neglect this step justifying it as additional wasted time. In fact, by doing quality research you may save tones of time.

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

— Charles Kettering

In this case, you know exactly what information gaps you have to fill in. You look professional in the client’s eyes during the interview, furthermore, you can make accurate estimates which are fundamental for future accurate time management.
Most likely our stakeholders are the experts in some peculiar sphere. They would expect you to understand the hidden meaning of words they say, even without realizing it. Before the interview, everything that you know about the project is a hypothesis. Our task is to buster all the myths (like Adam and Jamie did in a well-known entertainment television program on Discovery Channel “Mythbusters”. They were taking myths, tall tales, and urban legends and giving them scientific treatment to determine their validity. Myths are proved true, probable, possible, improbable, or busted. The system is quite similar when it comes to preparation for the interview) .

Extract as much useful information from any possible source as you can and create a list of questions.

Sometimes, you would think you know the answers but hold your horses, it may seem absolutely logical to you but is it really logical to people who are going to use it? Well, that's a brilliant part. You might guess. You should guess! We live in a wonderful time full of information, which is easily available. Yes, the information might be wrong or falsified (check The Great Hack or Social Dilemma documentary films), but with thorough research, you can find as much information about your target audience as you have time for. Finally, you can find out if it's true.

Foster empathy-driven approach

We do like to talk about empathy in the design community. It's an essential part of understanding the needs of your users. but empathy should be used while communicating with the clients as well.

Try to concentrate on the way of thinking rather than words itself. For instance, when you try to learn a foreign language, thus you try very hard to compare it to your mother tongue in all aspects, but not taking into account that people who are using it live in different cultures, have different behavior norms, perhaps even their understanding of the world differs from yours significantly. You might give up and fail in understanding it correctly, hence it’s always better to perceive a new language like a new experience, distancing yourself from what you already know and stay open to something unknown.

Design Thinking is all about challenging assumptions and established beliefs, encouraging all stakeholders to think outside the box. This fosters a culture of innovation that extends well beyond the design team.
The interview
Well done, you are prepared. You have a list of questions. But do not take it as a precise guideline, let the conversation flow go naturally and logically. If we’re interested in having the work resonate and propagate, the narrative becomes an essential component to communication, because nothing moves as quickly and spreads so far as a good story. Start by really understanding the root of the problem because what’s at the surface may not tell you the whole story.
But remember, people like to talk about themselves and their businesses (like a lot). They are neither software developers, nor product designers, they don’t work with development and yes, they don’t know what kind of information you need at what point. It’s your job to extract all the necessary information. Always lead the conversation. You own only a limited amount of time.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions about simple things. People tend to shy away from asking clarifying questions because of how others might perceive them: no one wants to look stupid. Yet the goal here is to document your stakeholders’ understanding — not your own — which means you should absolutely ask clarifying questions, even if you think you know the answer.
Confirm
Be a few steps ahead regarding grasping the points of possible misunderstanding. Every verbal and written communication must be confirmed. Do not delay your response, even only to confirm the acceptance of the message.

At last, misunderstandings can be reduced with the well-developed flow of clear and accountable communications. We call it “ shared understanding”.

Take notes when communicating with team members, the management, or other stakeholders. Don’t solely rely on your memory as it often fails, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Repeat
Repeat your communication and ask the team members to repeat what you have said. Make sure that the message is received well, even when communicating about a less urgent matter. As long as the message means something to the project, it should be repeated.
The summary
The morality of the article is that there is no one easy universal way to solve any problem, you need to raise empathy to be able to really understand any project, even the one you have no prior expertise in. That is what makes us professionals. Hence, how do we know exactly how to help you win? Simple as it is, we ask. We tend to ask the right questions. Use design thinking as a complex approach, not easy but highly effective.
Design thinking succeeds when it finds ideal solutions based on the real needs of real people.

As a matter of fact,

“People ignore design that ignore people.”

— Charles Kettering

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Table of contents
Framework for addressing complex challengesMisunderstandingResearchFoster empathy-driven approachThe interviewConfirmRepeatThe summary
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