Slice of Life: Observational Comedy & Design Research

Published on December 6th, 2019

Slice of Life: Observational Comedy & Design Research

Designers and comedians both slice life with atypical angles. Comedians do a much better job of engaging broad audiences with their insights. How might designers better communicate their research? In my view, by taking a note from the best design thinking lecture I’ve attended.

“Is this a solution?”
“What?! It’s a meat slicer!”

The room crackled with delight, teeth popped with laughter, and my eyes burned as the water I had been drinking got painfully re-directed through my nose.

The day after the lecture, a friend asked if I had any takeaways.  “I think Seinfeld could’ve been a great designer”.

The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship recently hosted David Schonthal (IDEO, Kellogg School of Management, Pritzker Group) for a lecture titled, “Question 0: The Hunt for New Ideas.”

Schonthal guided the audience through a series of touchstones picked up through his experiences applying design thinking to solve hard problems for organizations large and small. Schonthal’s gift for story-telling lassoed the audience’s attention, but the two-step, story-meat slicer punchline is what remained in my thoughts for days after the event.

Schonthal offered the following:
Imagine you have arthritis – your joints are inflamed, making it painful to move around. Walking sends jolts of pain up your legs. Turning your head feels like a guillotine is at your neck. Hand-writing notes feel like your fingers are being slowly pulled off.  It’s like torture! Fortunately, there is medication to help patients manage their symptoms.

This is torture too! Patients with arthritis have difficulty completed the hand movements needed to open the pill bottle. The medication is strait-jacketed inside an orange plastic room, making some users pivot to astounding workarounds. To begin to understand how this observation played out in patients’ actual lives, Schonthal and his team embarked on user research. The team found one patient that claimed to have little to no difficulty accessing her arthritis medication.

The patient was an elderly woman living alone. When it came time to renew her prescription medication at the pharmacy, she would take the pill bottle home, walk into her kitchen, power up a deli meat-slicer, and slice the top of the bottle off.

“This is an incredibly unsafe way to open a pill bottle!”

But the patient used this workaround because she needed to take her medication and could not otherwise reliably access the pills with her arthritic hands. She had been relying on this method for several years. This user behavior would have gone unnoticed if the team hadn’t asked.

The team exhibited curiosity and care, two critical components to effective design, and Schonthal’s lecture enlivened the team’s process by honing the audience’s attention on the absurdities otherwise taken as normal. Sound familiar?

“Hey, what’s the deal with airplane food?”

Jerry Seinfeld is worth nearly one billion dollars. While his career has had controversial moments, the underlying skill set that made him so valuable is worth noticing. Seinfeld called out abnormal things everyone had taken to be normal and shared his insights in a way that made others begin to call the world out too.

Designers can include observational comedy in their arsenal of communication styles. Design thinking entails observing the world with fresh eyes, which if done successfully, can yield punchy insights. These can incite change if communicated in a compelling manner to stakeholders. Observational comedians have nearly perfected the art of capturing the attention of the everyday public. This offers at least one more tool for designers to navigate the difficult task of communicating for change.

Calling out normalized abnormalities can be met with surprise and delight. Designers’ insights can end up locked behind slide decks, inaccessible for people that need to be brought into the conversation if a change is to be implemented sustainably. Slice it open!

Maheen Khizar, Rice University Class of 2020, Jones College.

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