Episode 45 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with design strategist and researcher Tanya Rabourn. Tanya’s focus is on service innovation for social impact. She’s currently based in Dubai, but she’s also lived and worked in several other countries. In this conversation, we discuss the role of research in understanding the people and cultures served by design.

It was fascinating to hear Tanya discuss her work. I was intrigued by the opportunities and challenges inherent in doing research in cultures different than our own, especially when we don’t speak the language. Among other things, Tanya mentioned the importance of trust in effective collaboration:

it’s really important for a team to have a high level of trust, because collaboration is greatly facilitated by being very open about sharing what you’re working on. The faster that you can share, the better collaboration will be. And if there’s a high level of trust on the team, you don’t have to feel like, “Oh, I can’t share this with the rest of the team until it’s perfect.” So, the higher that level of trust and comfort with working in the open, the better collaboration is.

She also called out an intriguing tension when doing design research with people from different cultures:

Part of what I’ve been doing, as I’ve worked on these projects, is of course to provide any sort of coaching or instruction about how to do human-centered design or how to do user experience design. And at the same time that I’m doing this, on one hand, I’m giving them the tools to participate in creating this technology, not just using it, but also creating it. But at the same time, I’m imposing a certain set of practices that perhaps doesn’t need to be the only way to do things, right? And so, there’s always this tension between empowering people to participate in these design practices that will allow them to — at a larger scale — create the technologies they use. But at the same time, it can be just another way of imposing outside practices and silencing local ones.

In other words, design is itself a sort of culture, and in doing the work we’re inducting our collaborators into that culture. While this may ease communications, it also risks downplaying the insights and work styles of local collaborators. A thoughtful observation, and one I’ll be considering when conducting research work across cultural divides. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 45: Tanya Rabourn on Ethnography