Eclectic Curiosity

Creative Generalist Q&A: Jane Fulton Suri

Posted on November 15th, 2006, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Interviews, the eclectic curiosity interviews. No Comments

Jane Fulton Suri is chief creative officer at IDEO, with special emphasis on the contribution of human insight, creative practice and design thinking to client companies. She came to design from human factors psychology to pioneer the integration of social science-based approaches with design, grow a flexible community of practitioners, and evolve human-centered design methods, including empathic observation and experience prototyping, across the company’s client projects worldwide. In addition, Jane published a book last year about intuitive design titled Thoughtless Acts?.

In your BIF-2 presentation last month you remarked that observation, intuition, empathy and imagination together make up “the empathic economy”. Please elaborate on what you meant by this.

I shared several examples in the talk at BIF-2 that illustrate how observation, intuition, empathy and imagination about customers/end-users/consumers can inspire and inform innovation. This is no longer a very new idea; at least in progressive companies, it’s a fairly widely accepted and well-established approach to innovation. When I refer to “the empathic economy” I’m talking about a future possibility – about a huge opportunity for innovation in which a similar level of empathy and imagination might be applied to the many different kinds of people who populate the business ecology of a particular industry, not just customers/end-users/consumers. In an empathic economy the provider/supplier of goods and services would be keen to reach an empathic understanding not just of consumers, but also of many other people within the business network upon whom business success depends: the farmer who grows/gathers the raw material, the processor who creates the basic technology, the distributor who ships it around, the sales-person, the trash collector (think “life-cycle” and interdependent human network).

By calling it the “empathic economy” I’m emphasizing that part of the inspiration and motivation for innovation that comes from creativity sparked by emotional, human, empathic resonance with other people’s conditions, not only the more traditional functional analyses of interdependencies that might be more common. As our networks and supporting technology become more sophisticated the interdependence between many different kinds of individuals across the globe becomes more apparent, more accessible and more visible. It seems natural that companies will/can soon have a much broader view of sources and opportunities for innovation in their business than simply around the offer that they make to a consumer.

Also in your BIF-2 presentation, you noted that companies that “connect to the humanity in all of us can unleash the creative capacities that everybody has”. What organizational processes and structures encourage such a connection? How has IDEO encouraged it?

In part, this is a matter of fostering an organizational cultural in which people all respect, even like and enjoy, one another, one another’s ideas and diversity in different work-styles, knowledge and skills. That comes from leadership both living and behaving in that respectful way and in bringing in people and conceiving projects that promote it within the organization. An organization that doesn’t do that internally will have a hard time encouraging others to participate with it in creative ways. Processes and practices can help by establishing behaviors and activities that involve listening, making sense, and encourage sharing of ideas in an
atmosphere of positive energy and critique. Part of it then is about seeking opportunities–activities like observation, rough prototyping, role playing, personal story-telling, brainstorming, deep dives–that allow people to leave behind (physically, literally and metaphorically) the traditional limitations of “the workplace” and formal roles to ask, look, try and learn new things, take risks, experiment and “fail” without fear of retribution. Space too, the quality of workplace and furniture elements makes a huge difference. Human behavior and creative capabilities need spaces and furniture elements that are flexible and accommodating to a wide range of activities – from individual to group, from passive to active, from study to play, from talking to making, reflective to stimulating. And location matters too – what do you see when you look out of the window, or step out of the door? People? Beautiful cityscape? Good places to eat? Nature? Being readily able to connect with a variety of pace and levels of stimulation in the environment–urbanity, natural landscape, activity, quiet, community, humanity–seems to be crucial to that unleashing.

In your experience, what type of personality typically makes the best observer?

I find that curiosity, open-mindedness, and imagination are important. It helps to be non-judgmental, able to move easily from noticing detail to thinking about patterns and the big picture, perceptive about (their own and other) people’s behavior, motivations, and personally genuinely interested in other people’s points of reference.

On the whole, do you think that generalists may understand human factors better than specialists? If so, how come? If not, why not?

I think there are very many different kinds of specialists who are helpful in understanding human experience and our responses to the designed world. Human experience is very rich and complex, so many factors are at play…physiological, neurological, hormonal, biological, psychological, emotional, cognitive, social, sexual, organizational, cultural, spiritual, ideological, contextual, motivational, attitudinal, visual, tactile, auditory…on and on. These are all human factors. I think that we come to good understanding when specialists of deep and different kinds are able to generalize and integrate their specialist knowledge and insight – from specialists in other things. Design thinkers are specialist integrators of this kind…but I don’t think that being integrators makes us generalists.

Can you elaborate on that? Why do you not consider integrators to be generalists?

To my mind integrative thinking doesn’t preclude deep expertise. It does involve a willingness to go beyond the traditionally accepted limitations of that expert knowledge though, to fold in other factors and work with other diverse ways of viewing an issue.

A lot of what your team does is deciphering, explaining and altering various experiences – all of which involve a keen awareness of context, complex systems, and inter-relationships. How do you approach the complexity of evaluating, communicating, and re-engineering an experience?

This is where an human-centered observational and empathic approach can really help. As you say, all the elements that make up experiences are very complex when viewed objectively. But since experience is subjective, it is wonderfully refreshing and most useful to look at that kind of complexity through a human subjective lens and ask simply “what does the experience feel like from this perspective?”. Literally seeking to understand the experience, the journey through time and space, for someone else. That perspective automatically integrates all the contributing elements into a whole and helps you appreciate the interdependencies in a way that doing only objective analysis wouldn’t. It also lets you imagine and mock-up/prototype changes to one or more elements and explore how that might affect the context, or the overall experience. You can enact, role-play or literally try out your “re-engineered” experience following the journey of that specific experience whether it’s navigating through a new airline check-in system, conducting a medical procedure or buying a new pair of jeans.

What is the most misunderstood aspect of human factors research?

I think a big misunderstanding is the belief that human factors is about research. I think that human factors is about design. Research is an important activity within the context of design, but it’s important to understand that the value is in application, in answering “so what?”.

Your 40-person human factors team at IDEO is necessarily multi-disciplinary. Can you offer a story that illustrates the value of multi-disciplinary collaboration?

IDEO employs about 500 people globally, of whom about 40 or so are design professionals with a human-science or social-science related background of some kind. All our project teams comprise designers of many different backgrounds: engineering, interaction design, industrial design, writing, film-making, psychology, anthropology, business etc. The idea is that team members work in a highly collaborative interdisciplinary way that we call post-disciplinary – it’s about seamless integration, so it’s hard to pull out distinctive contributions. You will see examples of work on the Lifeport kidney transporter, Marriott Towne Place Suites, Bank of America’s Keep the Change debit card; or in Thoughtless Acts?: the design for SFMoMA’s new entrance, the Heartstream defibrillator – all are examples of post-disciplinary teamwork where human insight has inspired and informed the final design solution in an integrated way.

I’m curious to learn why IDEO uses the term “post-disciplinary” (rather than multi- or inter-disciplinary). You mentioned in an earlier response that the factors are understood by specialists – is that not inherently disciplinary?

We use the term “post-disciplinary” not to diminish the role of discipline and expertise as a foundation but to communicate the idea of going beyond it, not being limited by a disciplinary stance in collaborative teamwork. Working collaboratively on teams is both about what you bring (your depth, your “discipline”) and about how you apply it (your breadth, your integrative thinking). I like the term “inter-disciplinary” too, in that it emphasizes action in the creative spaces between disciplines.

What has been the most surprising or interesting response to your book Thoughtless Acts??

Surprising and interesting, though obvious in hindsight, was the extreme polarization of response. People either love it or hate it. Those who love it seem to enjoy responding to the challenge the book throws out, to look at the images, to think about them and the behavior and motivations behind the depicted actions or evidence. The enthusiasts engage with the open-ended intent of the book and its invitation to bring their own ideas and perceptions to bear. People who hate it seem to want to receive more from the book, to have more didactic content to read and also find it frustrating to look at images without captions alongside them. The most gratifying thing for me personally was to learn early on that a group had formed on where people are submitting images and tagging them as “thoughtless acts.” What makes me happy about that is that the idea has captured some creative imaginations and is encouraging people to notice and speculate about the many small human traces that are all around us—and that was what I’d hope for.

Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations, people, books or websites that you find especially inspiring?

On a daily basis my colleagues and the clients are a huge source of inspiration for me—always challenging, questioning, curious. And my husband is a woodworker, so he also inspires me everyday with his understanding of materials and his craft in making beautiful things. I’m very lucky that I find the ordinary everyday interactions of people, places and things, our continual cleverness and confusion endlessly fascinating—and especially so when I get to travel to new places with less familiar traditions, language, artifacts and ideas. I have a very favorite radio program (such old technology!). It’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She has a way of connecting with the people she interviews—writers, musicians, film-makers and artists of all kinds—that brings out the very best in them. She so evidently enjoys the people she interviews and so is able to reveal a level of personal intent and integrity in their work that makes me want to engage with it too.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Jane. Cheers!

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