Throughout Raising Places, the design team members in each of the six communities have been hard at work engaging residents. From brainstorming together at the Ideas Lab to gathering feedback during the prototyping sprint, working with community members has been a central part of the process. By now, teams have engaged hundreds of participants, but they each got their start by learning from a smaller set of resident experts using design research.

South of Market (SoMa) design team member Tetet (right) interviews a community resident during her team's research sprint.

Design research is a type of qualitative research that helps inspire new ideas. In order to create new things, we first need to truly understand the challenge we’re hoping to address and assets we can build upon. In other words, we need to make sure we’re solving the right problem, and not just jumping to conclusions based on our own assumptions.

As Raising Places design team members embarked upon their research, they were guided by three principles:

Prioritize lived experience

The best way to grow our understanding (and debunk our assumptions!) is to learn directly from the people who face the challenges we hope to address and rely on the assets we hope to leverage. Every person is an expert in their own experience, so our teams sought out people with direct experience with the topics they wanted to explore. For example, when the team in Hudson wanted to learn more about youth employment in their city, they reached out to both teens and local business owners to hear their stories. Both of these types of people had personal experiences to draw from that gave the team a rich view into different aspects of their topic area. These one-on-one conversations helped the Hudson design team better understand and empathize with each person who shared their perspective – providing human details and nuance to otherwise unwieldy challenges.

Be in context

Once we know who we need to learn from, the next step is meeting them where they are. Not metaphorically – literally going to meet them, where they physically are. Sometimes this can be challenging. We might think, “Oh, they live on the other side of town and I’m short on time. I’ll just give them a call instead.” But design research emphasizes learning from people in their context for two important reasons: 1) Meeting in person helps build a relationship, and people who trust you are more likely to feel comfortable sharing honestly. 2) A person’s environment helps prompt stories, and it can provide more detail than they may be able to recall or describe to you from afar. In short, the research will be deeper, more honest, and more interesting – that’s worth a trip across town. In fact, a design team member in North Wilkesboro found themselves riding the local public transportation shuttle with a mother who was trying to get to the grocery store. Joining for that hour-plus ride, covering just a few miles, left a deep impression and led to valuable learnings for the team as they sought to more clearly understand the challenges around healthy eating in their community.

A photo documentation from a North Wilkesboro design team member's observation of a family's grocery shopping experience.

Keep a (really) open mind

Design team members prepared for their research by drafting open-ended questions to help guide their conversations. However, they also prepared to go into each conversation with a “beginner's mind.” Rather than being stuck in the rut of our assumptions and only listening for what we already know, we need to be ready to hear new and surprising things. The magic of design research comes when participants lead the conversation in unexpected directions and share stories about their experiences that give us deeper insight into their own reality. While prepared questions offer a place to start, design team members also needed to be flexible and encourage participants to direct the conversation toward the experiences and stories that they think are most important to understand. When the team in Valley of the Chiefs set out to learn from residents about paths to homeownership for young families, they actually discovered through conversations that the more pressing issue centers on existing owners and the need to maintain their homes and property. By being open to their conversations shifting course, the team could gather deep information about this underlying issue and work to address it.

Design research is an approach to learning that digs beneath the surface and helps uncover the “whys” that are connected to the “whats” we can see in behaviors and statistics. The process is intentionally personal – building relationships with participants and learning details of their challenges, motivations, decisions, emotions, and actions. It’s also incredibly flexible – able to be adjusted for any context and to learn about any topic.  

“[The team’s research process] changed all of us from the inside. It also changed the people we interviewed. There were people who said that to actually be truly heard and listened to, without judgement and with caring and openness – it gave them hope and confidence that the world could be a better place. It was completely transformational on a relational level.”  – Heather Murphy, North Wilkesboro convener, The Health Foundation, Inc.

Is there a challenge area that you’d like to learn more about in your own community? Here are four design research methods to try:

1. A contextual interview is a semi-structured conversation that takes place in a participant’s environment, using the space and its objects to prompt for stories. For example, the team in Hudson interviewed local business owners in their stores and offices to learn about their hiring processes.

2. During an observation, you learn about the details of an activity, event or place using all of your senses. The North Wilkesboro team learned about the activities of buying groceries and planning meals by observing families as they shopped.

3. In some cases, you can also learn by approximating the experience for yourself through an immersion. This method focuses on an activity, but in this case you are the one doing it rather than a participant. One of the ways the team in Valley of the Chiefs learned about the homebuying process was to actually step through part of it as if they were a prospective buyer.

4. Add a bit more structure to get the conversation flowing by trying a guided activity, such as a tour, photovoice, or creative exercise. This method can be particularly useful with younger or shyer participants. In the South of Market community, the team engaged a group of teens in an activity using sugar and salt – they traveled the neighborhood marking the places that stood out to them as either sweet or bitter in their experience.

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