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More than checking the empathy box

Fjord's Martha Cotton on building a continuous practice of human understanding

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Martha Cotton was 30, waitressing, and running a community theatre when she took a job "watching people make dinner." Twenty years later, she's leading Fjord's design research practice for North America. In retrospect, she says, the connections make a lot of sense. In a recent interview with dscout, Cotton explains her approach to helping Fjord's designers make meaningful decisions based on empathy for people and tells us about the new "MBA for ethnographers" she's organizing for EPIC.

dscout: Theatre has always been a big passion in your life, and you have a graduate degree in “Performance Studies.” But here you are with a thriving career in design research. Was there a point where one led to another, or have those been two separate pursuits for you?

Martha Cotton: I’d always wanted a life in theater, so right out of college, some friends and I started a theater company, and we did a lot of work on the notion of theater for social change. I even did this Northwestern graduate program called Performance Studies. A lot of it focuses on how we perform in our lives and our cultures. I was fascinated with it.

A few years later, I was 30 and still doing theater and singing, and to earn income I continued to have mundane jobs during the day, like working in restaurants or doing data entry at a newspaper. I told a friend, “I really want to find a day job that doesn’t suck.” She said, "Well, my boyfriend has this job where he watches people make dinner." I thought that sounded like something interesting I could do for a little while.

So I got a job at Elab and literally that was my entry to this career that I've now had for 20 years. It turned out that my background in Performance Studies, where theater and anthropology meet, was very relevant grounding. Within a year of being an ethnographer, I realized my job pulled together all these skills that I didn't know I even had or that could work together. My experience producing theater, my curiosity about the human condition, and the cultural anthropology courses I’d taken in graduate school came together. It was all about being collaborative and highly creative.

What's your reaction to being described as a “people nerd”?

I think it's as interesting to understand the choices people make around lunch as it is to understand global issues of business, so I thought it fit me right away. But you can't stop at being nerdy about people. You have to translate that nerdiness into something meaningful. You have to be doing the research for a reason.

What’s your big plan or goal this year for your new role at Fjord?

Fjord has always done design research but it was under the philosophy that a good designer is also a researcher—someone naturally curious about people and who includes a component of discovery in their work to do good design.

They didn’t have an explicit globally organized practice, so I came to Fjord to develop a design research practice. My job is basically to think about two things at once: First, I have to be incredibly inclusive with designers to help them get better at design research. I'm creating reference materials for them and training them on best practices.

At the same time, I’ve created new roles that have the title “design researcher,” which didn't exist before. There were only designers, and some of them did research. So, I’m carving out a rationale for using the expertise of dedicated design research experts, because there’s value in having someone with deeper expertise in actual research practice. Doing those two things is basically my obsession for the year.

Has it been easy to get buy-in for design research, or to tell designers, "We're going to bring in researchers who aren’t actually designers?"

Oh, definitely. People are excited about it and thirsty to learn more, which is fabulous and refreshing. They see value in having experienced researchers who can say, "This seems like the right methodology, and here are some references." Instead of designers being left to re-discover things, like, say, a set of behavioral modes, we can direct them to great content that’s already out there to learn from and help them do better work.

Ten years ago, design research was considered very cool, but it was not done very often. Now it’s mainstream. Before, I spent my time helping people understand what ethnography was, what the value was, and why they should buy it or do it. Today, some clients still need to be educated about this work and the value of it, but I don't need to have those conversations daily anymore. In my six months at Fjord, I have never had to explain to a colleague what design research is or why we should care.

Design thinking, and to that end, “empathy,” seems almost trendy now. But if that approach is “in style,” can it go out of style?

I teach design research at Northwestern at Kellogg to business students who are not going to be designers or researchers, so that’s actually something I've been thinking a lot about and have heard discussed at EPIC. I feel like people want to “buy” a way to have empathy.

Your boss shouldn’t say, “Did you do the empathy?” because the answer should be, “Of course, all the time.”

For instance, I’ve had someone ask, “When do we do the empathy work?” OK, that’s better than not having empathy at all. But, the point is not to “check a box” on empathy. The promise of design-thinking is that you continually solve problems driven by ongoing development of empathy. Your boss shouldn’t say, "Did you do the empathy?" because the answer should be, “Of course, all the time.”

Is there anything happening to "replace" design thinking, or a shift to something new that people think is a better approach?

I don't know if it's getting replaced, but there's been a push that my colleagues have been calling “a shift from design thinking to design doing.” It's meant to be a way of taking a less-tangible, theoretical, abstract concept and helping people get tangible with it. It’s about helping people understand how to behave when you're a design thinker, because you can't just sit in a two-hour lecture on design thinking and say, “OK, I got it.”

So this idea of moving from “design thinking” to “design doing” emerged because of a feeling that design thinking was just getting lip service—that people were saying “we get it” without knowing how to apply it?

Absolutely. Design thinking is a way of behaving. It actually means, “We should behave in a certain way, we should be collaborative, and here are some ways to develop empathy for the people you're creating solutions for. Let's go practice them.”

At EPIC, an anthropologist gave the example of a designer walking around wearing a blindfold, and then saying, “Now I know what it's like to be a blind person.”  Sure, now you have empathy for what it's like to not see, and that’s a good thing, but that’s not enough. That's just checking the box. There's more to being a blind person: What is it like to be blind and live in the world and use products and services?

I'm not saying that you should spend years studying the blind population, but there's a level of depth needed to develop meaningful empathy. Meaningful empathy is where really profound products and solutions emerge to support the population you're designing for.

Is there a way to know when you've checked the box versus when things have become meaningful?

This is one reason why Fjord and I came together. They saw me as someone who wasn't going to over-privilege research purity and craft over good, collaborative, efficient work. But there's a whole practice and rigor for helping designers make meaningful decisions based on empathy for people. We’re just telling designers, “Let's discover that for you.”

There must be times where you see people “checking the box,” and know they should take it further. How do you approach that without being preachy?

I spend a lot of time working with teams to think about what they want to learn. Skipping that step leads to a world of hurt. It's very common to conflate a project’s objectives with the research objectives. If the project objective is to develop a banking app, that's clearly not your research objective.

It can take literally 15 minutes to align on four or five really solid objectives. I've really worked with teams on templates for research planning—asking themselves, what do we truly want to understand about this human experience? When a team nails its research objectives, it opens up a whole world of what you could do to meet those objectives.

Martha is speaking at People Nerds San Francisco in May! Learn More

What else are you up to for 2017?

I always love going to EPIC because it's where my people are. I'm volunteering this year to help launch an online education program that will live outside the annual conference. We are offering two initial courses: a mini MBA for ethnographers, and an introduction to semiotics. It's a bit of an experiment because we've never done this before.

It’s a labor of love and something I'm very excited about. Registration just opened, and the courses launch in April.

It's interesting to think about how ethnography might work with online learning.

Right? Given the nature of collaboration and exchange of ideas you would hope to have when learning about these topics, online learning doesn't necessarily jump to mind. But it's a design challenge: We want to offer more meaningful content to EPIC members, and we want to make it interactive and also make it accessible to as many people as possible. We could hire instructors to physically run workshops in different cities, but that’s not necessarily reasonable because EPIC has members all around the world. So we’re giving this online thing a whirl to see how it goes. Instructors we brought on have been really excited to figure out how to make it work.

Lately at dscout, we talk a lot about whether researchers are getting out of our bubble enough. Are you making any special effort in that area?

I really love to listen to podcasts to tell me the minutia of what's happening in different pockets of the United States because it’s actually relevant to what my job is.

For example, there's a team that I'm coaching that’s doing field work with lower socioeconomic segments of the population in Mississippi and Louisiana. Our participants are energy customers who don't pay their bills, so they're talking about something that's emotionally wrought. Having a sense that I’m a middle class white American from Chicago, if I see a podcast that's about an issue with education in rural Kentucky anytime soon, I’m going to check it out. Media like these podcasts can help us constantly have a touchstone with different parts of American life, and I think that’s important.

Do you consider yourself an anthropologist, strategist, or design researcher?  

That's such a good question. Having worked with many anthropologists, I don't feel I can call myself an anthropologist because I don't have a degree in anthropology. I guess I call myself either a consultant or a design researcher.

That being said, I introduce myself to my clients as an anthropologist all the time. First of all, it makes them really interested. I'm usually in the room with a bunch of designers and engineers and it’s like saying, "Hi, I'm different." It helps them see that an understanding of people and cultures is going to happen here. Which is what I do, so it makes sense.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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