Approaches to design for change: design-led ethnography
The great thing about secondary research is that all of the hard work has been done, but I’ve realised some of the most valuable and authentic insights are drawn outside of the domain of scholarly sources.
In using adapted social-science methods like semi-structured interviews and cultural probes, designers can develop a deeper sense of empathy through the lens of an individuals responses. In my case, this meant seeing the issue of climate change on a level that extended beyond the semantics of science and politics.
To help the process, I first outlined a series of signpost questions that would direct the scope of the interview:
My primary objective was to uncover the interviewees dominant position on climate change and the broader context around how and why it came to be.
Given the very casual and candid nature of the interview, I chose to record the findings in writing. I wanted to be able to extract the key points of what was being said and construct a mind map on the go that visualised emerging themes and their connections. In all honestly, this wasn’t the best approach as it disrupted the flow of the conversation and meant that I was in two minds at once. In saying that, I still gained some great insights that I think I may have missed if I weren’t frantically looking to connect the dots.
Prior to undertaking the interview, I supplied my interviewee with a consent form that delineated the details of the process and gave a general scope of what was involved. They signed, I signed and we began…
I opened the interview with a typically vague and amorphous question: what is your stance on climate change in one sentence?. The response I got was swift, succinct and filled with apathy.
“The world is going to shit.”
To my delight, the semi-structured nature of the interview gave space to follow tangents that lead us both to some really interesting insights; particularly in relation to where we find information and how (or if) we action it in our own lives.
For my interviewee, their apathetic stance on climate change was rooted in their high school education. They were given a basic overview of the science surrounding it at the time and have since used that to filter the information they now receive from various media sources. I found that I followed a fairly similar approach and we agreed that it was difficult to have confidence in our own opinions because we felt under qualified.
My interviewee also revealed that they relied heavily on documentaries to shape their attitude to climate change. They made particular mention to the series ‘Life After People’ and noted how a speculative approach was most interesting to them. Touching on future technologies, they believed that the way forward was through new technologies and an investment in futuring practices, rather than a return to agrarian roots as is often promoted. This really resonated with the designer in me and sent us down the path of future imaginings.
One of the things that I found most unexpectedly interesting was that my interviewee seemed to understand climate change best when it was distanced from their own local environment. They made mention of the times they’d travelled/lived overseas and how this enabled them to clearly see and experience the effects of rising temperatures. While this may have only been a coincidence, it seems to coincide with the studies that depict climate change as something too distant and abstract to have any gravity in our own immediate lives. We seem better able to understand something that is not too close to home.
They also revealed a sense of personal helplessness as they see us as being at the mercy of a corrupt system that disincentives positive change. I felt myself nodding in agreement but also wanted to query further.
What do you do in your day to day life to have a positive impact?
They mentioned that they mostly made the switch to cleaner products, recycled and were definitely in favour of clean energy but that they didn’t feel personally or at least directly responsible for climate change. The take home?
The climate change issue is steeped in emotion and struggles to fit neatly with our current realities. Its demystification relies on a willingness to confront personal bias and discomfort as much as it does scientific evidence.
To gain further insight into climate change from an empathy-led design point, I created a cultural probe that was given to five people between the ages of 20 – 26.
In terms of framing my probe, I have found myself really drawn to various cultural interpretations of climate change and so designed something which focuses on the way we construct and perceive the natural world. It’s less focused on data and instead emphasises the stories we tell ourselves. Ultimately I’m seeking to understand how our subconscious narratives shape our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
The user is given the kit and asked to complete the activities over the course of one typical day. They are to notice their movements throughout the day at various seams – with a focus on the spaces between where they are going.
The movements are tracked with a continuous line map which is made retrospectively (at the end of the day). They are then asked to plot out various points on the map and highlight the times that they were outside.
This culminates to a creative task, which is to pick one of the points on the map, mark it as place (x) and then write a postcard to your imaginary grandma from there as if it were a tourist destination.
While it’s a fairly ambiguous exercise, the point was to get the participants to use emotive language and construct narratives around their environment. My assumption was that those who chose an external environment would use very positive, rich language and those in an internal space would struggle to describe it in great detail.
tl;dr – I thought that people that were more connected to the natural environment would be more affected by/interested in/aware of climate change.
My probe was given to 5 people between ages 20-25. I received 4 completed kits back.
There were two parts of my probe that I felt were successful in relation to gaining insight into my vein of research.
The first was the associative word task. Listing several dominant climate change stakeholders, I asked the participants to list the first word that came to their mind. All of the answers were similar in sentiment despite using different words.
Politicians were described as “untrustworthy”, “blind”, “sneaky” and “dishonest”. The reactions were noticeably negative, leading me to assume that politicians hold less power than they seem to in terms of influencing individual behaviour/opinion.
Scientists were described as “knowledge”, “nerdy”, “clever” and “strange”. There’s a sense that they’re positioned as some kind of other, not entirely relatable but respected nonetheless. I’m tempted to question the research that undermines the influence of scientists on the layperson.
The other task I found to be particularly informative was the creative writing task. While this was developed on a whim to support the continuous line mapping exercise, it ended up being filled with unanticipated nuggets of gold.
I found that people used incredibly emotive language when describing exterior spaces. They tied the weather with their emotions (e.g. feeling lonely, drizzling rain). There’s a sense that our emotional landscape is intimately connected with the physical environment and leads me to see this as a crucial access point for reimagining climate change.
Things I’d change
I think my task was a little too abstract in the sense that it didn’t provide me with much cold data. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I could have benefited from more balance within my probe.
I’d also expand on the continuous line map further by getting them to list emotions that correspond to particular places. I think there’d also be merit in getting people to do that task on a weekend, where they have more control over the places they choose to go.
To sum it up;
People don’t always behave as you’d expect them too.
All of my subjects believed in climate change and felt that humans were responsible. At the same time, they all tended to be slightly apathetic towards the issue and didn’t tend to moderate their behaviours.
This didn’t vary greatly between those who spent much of their day in nature, and those who were indoors more frequently.
People seem to like routine and comfort more than they like change.
While there’s general consensus that something is happening at the hands of humans, people are reluctant to act in any really committed way.
As a researcher, I have to remain aware of my own biases and assumptions.
The climate change conversation really suffers from bias, particularly in terms of the denialist rhetoric. People tend to see what they are looking for and disregard the rest, so even if the information is available, it is unseen, ignored or misinterpreted.
There’s a very palpable sense of guilt that surrounds the climate change issue. This seems to be particularly true in the 20-25 year old age bracket. The guilt tends to be relative to the individuals own inaction and shows an obvious disconnect between beliefs and behaviours.
Reframe the conversation. Climate Change is enormously complex. People that aren’t scientifically minded tend to distance themselves from the issue. It seems that creativity and imagination are invaluable tools in reframing the conversation and showing climate change in a more relatable and human way.
Ozaslan, M. 2014, Step, Saatchi Art, viewed 22nd September 2016, <https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Collage-Step/719541/2227555/view>>