News & Opinion

Hidden in Plain Sight

Sally Haldorson

May 23, 2013


It must be a lot of pressure to live up to the billing of "James Bond of design research" and the "Indiana Jones of technology for the developing world. " I mean, what do you wear? A tux with a dusty brimmed hat?

It must be a lot of pressure to live up to the billing of "James Bond of design research" and the "Indiana Jones of technology for the developing world." I mean, what do you wear? A tux with a dusty brimmed hat? Action adventure movie references aside, Chipchase takes us on a rollicking global adventure in his new book, Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers, which hit the bookshelves in April. Design research, Chipchase explains in his first chapter, "Crossing State (of Mind) Lines," concerns itself with identifying the unmet needs of customers. And if you can spot those, then you can be ahead of the curve in terms of innovation.
Often, when people cross a threshold from one state into its alternative, or when they avoid crossing that boundary by taking an action to steer themselves away form the borderline, it's a matter of maintaining standards of acceptability and appropriateness. For designers to understand what lies within the boundaries of acceptable use and what lies outside those boundarieas, they need to understand the contexts in which things will be used, and the range of likely conditions that will change that context in some way. In the same way that a testing laboratory can help us understand the boundary between normal and extreme (and probably out-of-warranty) use of a product, design research helps us understand the boundaries of normal behaviors.
But where to look? Chipchase's answer: in plain sight. Look for patterns of use, for every day objects that can be improved on. You needn't create something new out of whole cloth; instead, you can identify how an existing object might be ripe for an evolution. People use 'things' to identify themselves by, Chipchase explains in "The Social Lives of Everyday Objects," and are eager for not only new items but for meaningful items.
It may seem arbitrary to take a simple everyday item and suddenly imbue it with powerful symbolism, but in our modern culture of branding and conspicuous consumption, just about every product on our shelves can be construed as some metaphor for personal identity. We use the word superficial pejoratively to describe people who are overly concerned with such symbols, yet we're all concerned with them to some degree, because we all use objects--from over ones like jewelry and cars to subtle ones like the reading materials we stop in our bathrooms--as tools to communicate aspects of ourselves.
Stay ahead of that curve, and you tap into what's 'next.' And if you want to narrow the focus even further concentrate on the objects people carry. Literally. There are very few items which are indispensable to people. Chipchase says in "You Are What You Carry." Most of us carry a wallet, phone, and keys, Chipchase explains, so think about how those three items are redundant. Could the next invention be one that allows our phones to work as keys to our houses and as a method of payment? It's already happening! What else is indispensable to us, beyond what we carry in our hands? Our cars? Zipcar. Our groceries? Peapod. Now the challenge is to figure out how to refine those solutions even further and make them more accessible. Because accessibility matters. All of those innovations above are all well and good, and may improve the lives of most users, but Chipchase also asks us to wonder who high design leaves behind. For people who are illiterate, for example, design that does not rely on text is desperately important. And, Chipchase reminds us, we are all illiterate at some point in our lives.
Illiteracy is, arguably, fundamental to the human condition, in that every single person lacks at least some amount of knowledge that other people possess, and every deficit of knowledge comes with the cost of being unable to perform certain tasks without assistance. Nobody is expected to know everything. Everyone is illiterate in some regard.
Which restroom do you use when the signs on the door are in a foreign language? How do you learn how to use your new cell phone's technology if you can't read? These are questions Chipchase compels us to ask, however, he recognizes in "The Great Tradeoff" that it's a compromise. You can't make "everything" for every person, to riff off a popular phrase. People will adapt and users become adept at figuring out other ways of making objects work for them, and maybe some people will be left behind. "The idea of an "optimally" designed product has its allure, but optimal for whom and for what purpose? ... And given that there's more than one notion of optimality, how do you reconcile the differences? And who gets to decide?" The answer isn't readily available, but Chipchase believes that it is the designer's responsibility to always aim for "creating meaningful products and services" because "the poor can least afford to purchase poorly designed products and services...." Chipchase ends his book with an appendix of "The Eight Principles of Design Research" that will help keep his insights on design research front of mind. Ultimately the closer you look at what is hidden in plain sight, the less remains hidden from view.
From all these little things, all these lenses into life, you'll have the means to a greater appreciation of how the world works. You may use this knowledge to get more out of your vacation, to develop a greater sense of "being there," which will ultimately remind you what you like and dislike about life back home. You may draw inspiration from the creative ways that people make do with the limited resources that they have. Or you may use these newfound insights to reimagine your business and bring a rich palette of ideas to bear on the challenges you and your customers face.

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