Musings Opinion People Personal Accounts

How my tools as a Design Researcher have helped me handle these tumultuous times

Words: Ishika Mukherjee
Ishika Mukherjee

What a time to be living through. In the last few months we’ve seen the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, endured lockdown, witnessed the fall of major economies, mourned the tragic deaths that led to the urgent acceleration in the anti-racism movement and infinite more conflicts emerging or saturating across the globe. On a personal level, people have lost jobs, been furloughed, or have had to work remotely – each in its own way drastically changing our lives and more often than not, our priorities.

I’ve been one of the luckier ones in the fact that I’ve been able to keep my job and continued working remotely. As a design researcher, my role is to connect with and understand people – dig deep into their implicit behaviour, their needs and their pain points in order to design integrated services that empower people and the planet. To do this, I use an array of techniques, tools and skills. 

Of late, what’s been interesting to me is that a lot of these design research tools have come in quite handy, as I’ve navigated the tumultuous times we’ve been faced with. The most obvious (and yet underrated) was thoroughly checking my sources. Now, while the majority of my work is to do with actually spending time with people and learning about them first hand –  we also do a significant amount of secondary research. This includes reading through and taking insight from research that has already been done –  like market research or research papers or surveys. The decision as to how we choose what information to take in, comes from evaluating the source and understanding their accuracy. This practice came in super handy when the Coronavirus first hit and we were all left to sift through piles of unregulated information (and misinformation) regarding the virus we knew so little of. It has since kept me well-armed to cut through the noise of often exaggerating media, and focus on reliable sources like government websites, WHO and medical experts.

Another practice that has kept me sane, has been the 5 whys –  asking a sequence of whys to get to the root of our users’ needs. In design research, we use this to better understand our users so that we’re not left solving superficial problems without reaching the core of the matter. But lately this is how I’ve handled my anxiety around the uncertainty of the future as well. Every time I’ve found myself thinking of catastrophes, I’ve asked myself why I think that could happen and then followed that up with a number of why’s (or questions) to reach the crux, which is usually the fact that I don’t possess enough information that actually signals doom. 

The 5 whys have also come in useful when trying to educate myself and the people around me about anti-racism, micro-aggressions and implicit prejudice. We all have biases, and to discard them, we first have to undress them and understand where they’re coming from – hence, a sequence of whys. 

Another tool – one I almost left out because of how much of a buzzword it has become of late – is empathy. In research, the whole point of conducting user interviews, focus groups, and such, is to understand the user as they are – not as we think they are, or even as they think they are. How we do this, is by listening deeply, reading between the lines and observing people –  their body language, their pauses and the emotions that flicker across their eyes. All cues to what they’re actually feeling. Operating in this space where all our mental states are shaken up, instead of asking people the “hi, you okay?” I try to notice, ask questions like “how are you today?” Or “what’s been occupying your mind lately?” and really listen, not just listen to respond, but really listen to how people are.

There’s also going one step further and listening without judgement. As researchers, our job is to understand, not change our users’ state or behaviour – at least not immediately. So we tell the people we speak to that ‘there are no right or wrong answers’. We give them the space to be themselves even if that might not be what I want to hear. We also make sure of that by not interrupting people or countering their statements with “but why don’t you try…” or “have you considered …” or “when that happened to me, I …”. IRL this looks like having unselfish conversations –  instead of offering advice, just listening, instead of thinking about what I would have done, thinking about what they did. This has helped me connect better with my friends, colleagues and family, helped me feel less alone, and more purposeful. This has also helped me take better care of my own mental health and become less judgemental and more conscious of my own thoughts and patterns. 

Now, while I’m very thankful for the practice of design research for teaching me the tools that have played out to be so crucial in these wary times, on further introspection it struck me odd. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if being a more human human made me a better researcher, as opposed to the fact that being a good researcher has made me a more human human? 

Which led me to ask, why is it that I had to be a researcher in order to be a better equipped human? Answer: because the tools to question, think critically, listen actively, and be empathic were not given much importance through my years of schooling. These are known as ‘soft skills’ in a world that applauds ‘hard skills’. 

Why? Because since industrialisation, we’ve aimed for maximum efficiency and productivity over everything else. 

I could ask why, but I gather you see where this is going. So I’ll ask ‘what if’? What if we make the shift to valuing our human-ness, our interpersonal connections, our deeper consciousness and ability to think critically without prejudice, more? What if we lace our education system with more ‘soft skills’? What if we change empathy from being a buzzword to being elemental?


Ishika Mukherjee is an interdisciplinary designer and researcher with a background in design research, service design, content creation, editorial writing, and architecture – and an acute interest in social innovation. She uses research from human experience and behaviour, distilled into actionable insights to aid the process of creating optimistic design that empowers humans to be more human. She likes to tell stories, drink strong coffee and read compelling fiction. And eat cake.

You can follow Ishika’s work on Instagram.

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