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Curating Context

Design researcher Yasmine Khan on what museums can teach us about communicating research insights.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Yasmine Khan has been a believer in qualitative learning since long before she got involved in UX design or research. As a middle school art teacher, she’d seen firsthand how her students engaged more deeply with a topic when they were actively constructing learning experiences themselves, as opposed to being lectured to from the front of a classroom. She got a masters in Educational Media with a specialty in Museum Design from RISD, and wrote her thesis on how the informal learning that takes place in museums can help people more fully develop creative critical thinking skills.

“The beauty of the museum exhibit is that it’s not saying that there’s one way to know something,” Khan says. “It’s giving you information and context and emphasizing that your experience and perspective matters. It’s saying, ‘However you want to take this in and absorb it, you're going to construct the knowledge on your own.’”

It was an insight Khan would return to in 2016, when she became the inaugural Design Researcher at Credit Karma (CK), after logging time as a UX designer at CK, Autodesk, and Wells Fargo. (She has since joined Even Responsible Finance.) She was charged with building out CK’s research team and functionality, and with making sure the product teams were actually leveraging her work in their development cycles—a task made more difficult considering the sensitivity of information Credit Karma deals with. Khan realized fairly quickly that handing off a research report wasn’t doing enough to help her colleagues absorb the findings she was collecting. So she turned back to the principles she’d advocated for in education, and the power of the museum exhibit as a place for informal learning. Khan began programming learning workshops, putting together “mini-museum” spaces and engaging her colleagues in interactive exercises to share her knowledge, becoming a kind of de-facto curator of CK’s user experiences. The result? Workshop sessions where colleagues forget to look at their phones or computers, and, Khan says, engage in real discussions about the relationship between trust and comprehension.

dscout sat down with Khan to chat about the realities of learning and the power of the museum-model.

dscout: Have you always been a People Nerd?

Yasmine Khan: I've always had a lot of interest in observing different people—I grew up in Southern California, and watching different cultures interact was a huge part of my life. I'm half Mexican, half Pakistani, and my family includes people who are Mexican Mormons and half Chinese/half Pakistani and Muslims and Christians. Neither of my sets of grandparents spoke English. I really understood from a young age how many different types of people there are in the world, and I think that baseline has allowed me to be really open in terms of how I understand people.

When you have so many cultures that are part of you, you almost have no one culture that defines you. It really does become about the people then. I could never attach myself too deeply to any one culture because there were others that also belonged to me. And I’m American. This culture also belongs to me. My touchstone for those cultures really became the people in my life.

You took a bit of a circuitous path to get to where you are—you started out studying neuroscience, but then switched gears and became an art major, and eventually a teacher.

In my 20’s I taught art to junior high and high school students, in part because I felt like that was a really powerful way to support democracy. In a democracy, it’s essential that we encourage people to think for themselves, and so much of that has been taken out of schools because of things like standardized testing and No Child Left Behind. But art requires you to construct a point of view, it’s a way for people to understand their own voice and how it matters. Often times, art is controversial. It also forces you to confront grey areas where there's not a black-and-white answer for everything. You have to dig deep within yourself and find a point of view and communicate with others and embrace conflict and uncertainty. Those are the things that really impact people, and make them feel like they’re growing intellectually. And they aren’t the things that you get from studying for a Scantron test. It’s the same in the business world in some ways. You can hit your key objectives and revenue targets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re impacting people in the way you want. You have to think about, what is it we really want to do for people?

A lot of your work—as a designer, a researcher, a teacher—has been based around the idea that there’s a correlation between informal learning and creative critical thinking, and you’ve touted the power of the museum model as a qualitative learning tool.

Museums to me were always these really precious places. There’s something about being in a museum and connecting, it’s almost like going to church. I'm not a religious person, but I feel like some of my museum visits have been sort of akin to going to church. You're connecting with these perspectives that move your spirit or that you have so much reverence for.

There's a great book by Carol Duncan called “Civilizing Rituals,” that talks about the museum as a temple. And museums definitely have that quality: they're quiet, and they have these unspoken rules about the reverence and the respect you should pay to the art. But museums are also these really radical spaces, full of so many conflicting ideas and irreverent voices. When you start really looking at art up close and reading about the artists, you realize these are people who are saying “there is more to the world than what meets the eye.” And for me, that’s how I learn—walking around and exploring things.

You can hit your key objectives and revenue targets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re impacting people in the way you want.

Yasmine Khan

It was when I was teaching that I first began to think about the power of the museum as an education tool. The traditional classroom view of education has been that students start out with empty brains and it’s the teacher’s job to take this static knowledge and give it to them. And I’d done that, stood at the front of the class and asked kids to sit still and answer straightforward questions. But I felt bad when I would do that, because that’s not how I learn. Out in the world is where I enjoyed learning. And the more modern approach is constructivist education: where people construct learning on their own. It’s not saying that there’s one way to know something. It’s giving you information and context and emphasizing that your experience and perspective matters. It’s saying, “However you want to take this in and absorb it, you're going to construct the knowledge on your own. We're going to give you some things to put things together and whatever you walk away with knowing is meaningful in its own way.”

A lot of museums really lean into this, giving you prompts and open-ended questions to get you to reflect and ultimately come to your own conclusions. It's that act of allowing a student to draw their own conclusion that really makes for a good teaching and learning experience. And after hitting my head against the wall in the corporate world for a while, I realized that’s important there too: making space for your stakeholders to construct their own knowledge. You can hit your key objectives and revenue targets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re impacting people in the way you want. You have to think about, what is it we really want to do for people?

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

Connecting that experience to the learning process is something that you’ve continued to do. At Credit Karma you’ve started running “mini-museum exercises” to share your research findings with your colleagues.

Yes. We’re a super data-heavy, data-driven company, so I’m always using a lot of quantitative data for context. But it’s also important for us to bring in the stories of people behind those numbers. Because ultimately, when you’re dealing with credit and personal finances, it’s a deeply personal issue.

When I first moved into specializing in design research I would make these beautifully designed reports. I would give them to people and some people would read them or part of them, and some wouldn't. Everyone always had different takeaways and we weren’t truly coming together around it. That was sort of my “Aha!” moment where I realized that, as a researcher, I was also in effect like a teacher at the company. And just sharing decks and reports was making me a bad teacher.

I'm fortunate to work right in the center of San Francisco, and it’s a great community with talented people very happy to share ideas. I went to an event hosted by Facebook which was part of their “Elegant Tools” series and met a design researcher who was talking about these games—sort of like boardgames—that she used to engage people. A light bulb went off for me. I thought, “I know how to do that! I actually have a whole bag of skills to engage people in interactive ways.” So I started developing the idea of the mini-museum exercise.

I know a lot from what I’ve learned, but I can’t force them to see it exactly the way I see it. Making space for that, internally, is a big part of my process.

Yasmine Khan

As opposed to writing a report, it’s a lot more work up front. But it really pays off in the long run. There's a lot of different ways we construct the workshops, but ultimately instead of me telling them the answer, it’s getting them to come up with their own answers. I’ve shown a series of quotes from users about our product and asked people to grade them on scales of trust and comprehension. They have to think through: what is this quote telling me about how a customer feels? Is it an example of someone trusting us, not trusting us, understanding us, not understanding us? I repeated it with different cross-functional groups, and it generated this great conversation about the relationship between comprehension and trust. That helped us prioritize making the product easier to understand in order to build trust and engagement. I’ve also done workshops where I’ve taken video clips from remote interviews and asked people to write down anything they think is surprising or worth noting, or anything that they have questions about or are concerned about. Then we very methodically go through the design thinking process, silently voting on the most important observations, and unpacking those to come up with insights and ideas about opportunities to go after and problems to solve.

Ultimately, it requires me to give up control. I can say, “These are my takeaways,” but I have to also be okay with my colleagues who are in the workshop having a different perspective. At the end of the day I respect their agency and ownership and point of view. I don't know everything. I know a lot from what I've learned, but I can't force them to see it exactly the way I see it. Making space for that, internally, is a big part of my process.

And what’s beautiful about it is 80% of what the team comes away with after the workshops is what I would have told them anyway in a report. But it’s actually in their heads, and not just on paper. And then there’s this other 20%, made up of insights and realizations that I didn’t even think of. It’s helped me realize that my agency in the space isn’t about just telling people what’s up, it’s about making space for them to figure it out for themselves.  

But they do.

Yes. Another big part of what it does is slow people down, and stop them from solving problems until they are aligned on what the real problems is.  During discovery workshops I have to coach people so that they aren’t detailing solutions yet. During discovery, we should still be trying to identify what the problem is we’re trying to solve, based on what our customers are telling us. But human brains are wired to jump to solutions. A lot of the process is me pulling the reins and asking people to slow down, work together, and make sure we understand deeply and authentically what users are dealing with. The danger with coming up with the solution without aligning on the real problem that needs to be solved, is that three months down the road you may realize: “This solution isn’t fully feasible, we have to try something else.” If you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place you thrash trying to make the right adjustments. Worse, if you skip problem discovery and jump to solutions you realize: “Oh, the problem we solved wasn't actually a problem people have. We solved the wrong thing.” It can be frustrating at first for people to slow down, but once they do they realize, “This is way better. We're all on the same page and we feel really good.”

Slowing down really ties back to the exhibit structure, doesn’t it? Because you can hand someone a research report and they may flip through it, but you won’t actually be there to witness how much of it they take in. But at an exhibit, at the museum, you literally have to physically walk through it, which takes time. If you ran through it, it would be obvious—not to mention rude—and of course everyone would know immediately that you hadn’t really thought about what you were seeing. With the exhibit, you have to take a chunk of time to actually see it.

Absolutely, and and there's actually this really interesting neuroscience aspect of that too, of how the spatial physicality helps you make meaning of things. When you’re doing spatial reasoning, if you’re looking storyboards all over the wall, you’re actually taking in information in three different ways. The first is through your ventral stream, which is processing “What am I seeing?” The second is via your limbic system which is processing “How do I feel about it?” And since it’s not on a series of screens but spread out over a wall or room, the third way is through your dorsal stream, which is spatially mapping where everything is. The proximity of one thing to another and how space one element takes us vs another makes an impact. When you are activating those three parts of your brain at once, the learning happens more deeply. It's so much like “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A spatial experience helps you understand concepts more efficiently, and helps you reach shared understanding in a much more efficient way.

And have you seen the process make a difference in terms of how people understand the research?

Absolutely. This past fall we were working on a new initiative and we had two teams with two sets of designers working hard but thrashing a bit. The conversations were mostly structured in terms of abstract objectives and data. The more that people started working on the problem, the more they realized that they were not on the same page, and just going in circles. I had done some ethnographic research and came up with a  three-hour workshops. We examined stories and trends, and we literally walked around the problems together, examined maps together, and watched videos together. It gave us things to talk about in simple human terms. Our VP of Design told me it made a big  difference afterward: “You gave us real stories to attach to and talk about,” he said. “It really helped the team understand, ‘Oh, this is why we’re doing this.’ It wasn't these abstractions." Once I'd turned it into stories about people, even complex ones, everyone could kind of relax and say, "Okay, I get it. I know people. Let's talk about how we're going to help people."

Speaking of helping people, you mentioned earlier that when you’re talking to someone about their credit, it’s very personal. It’s sensitive information and it’s also often a sensitive topic. Does that factor into your process at all? Empathy is such a huge part of research, but it must be really front and center for you.

Sensitivity and security are such big factors for us, and we have a lot of steps in place to make sure that we don’t record any personal identifying information with our user research. That’s part of the security  piece. But the other part is  sensitivity in getting people to share deeply personal stories. Sometimes, I’m talking to people about things like bankruptcy or getting into stressful credit card debt, and asking about issues they feel deep worry or shame about. As a researcher, you can be very clinical in your approach to that, but my approach is to be warm and inviting. To say, “I know I'm about to ask you some questions that are tough, and I want you to know that I'm not judging you. The reason I'm asking you this is because it's really going to help us to understand what different people are going through so that we can help. You're not the first person I've talked to who had this experience, so you're not alone. And thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s really helpful.” I try to make a person-to-person connection. Of course, I have to draw a line at a certain point, like if they start asking me questions, I have to remind them that it’s an interview. But I really try to be warm and authentic and say, “Hey, I'm a person. I actually care about your experience and I care about you. I know this is really hard, but let's talk through it.”

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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