Posted August 16th 2010 at 8:58 am by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Using Anecdotes to Foster Interpersonal Understanding

DtM_Firefly_Design_Review(from left to right) Alicia Lew, Dr. Steve Ringer, Dave Duncanson, Emily Edwards, Elizabeth Johansen, and Liron Azrielant sharing thoughts at a concept design review. Photo by Timothy Prestero from Design that Matters.

“Look for metaphors in your daily lives that you can apply toward illustrating and clarifying ideas. Personal stories can also be incredibly effective in helping to create context and meaning. Personal stories are often tied to personal values, and using these to frame a problem or goal can give the team a sense of the values associated with a project and how to prioritize them.”

~ Nancy Duarte, from How to Become a Better Manager… by Thinking Like a Designer by Jimmy Guterman, MIT Sloan Management Review 2009

In the end, we are all human. We will never have the same feelings about statistics as we do about personal stories. Personal stories are memorable, meaningful, and full of color. In French or Foe?, Polly Platt describes the power of personal anecdotes in fostering a sense of understanding between foreigners and French people in situations as diverse as buying a loaf of bread to succeeding in a job interview.

Be Personal. Pour it all out. They want to be coaxed. And they want to be interested, even amused, if possible. It’s a strategy that works all over southern and central Europe. My seminar alumni tell me it even works in northern Europe, England and the U.S. I call it Persistent Personal Operating, or PPO: Human beings come first.

~ From French or Foe? by Polly Platt, p. 75 – 80

I found Platt’s advice to be invaluable both on a study abroad trip to Paris, and in my professional life when explaining insights and strategies to team members, clients, and other stakeholders. For Design that Matters’ project designing a phototherapy device to treat infant jaundice in Southeast Asia, I created posters from our field study insights describing four qualities that define a successful device: effective, maintainable, user-friendly, and comforting. Below is an image of the poster describing the components of effectiveness including light source, appearance, and fit into overall treatment. Each component is described with yellow post-its and then backed up by photos and direct user quotes or anecdotes on blue post-its to help make each quality more memorable and meaningful.

DtM_Firefly_EffectiveDescription of what makes an effective phototherapy device in Vietnam. Photo by Elizabeth Johansen from Design that Matters.

In a recent design review for the phototherapy project, one discussion centered on how both the reality and appearance of effectiveness are critical to encouraging frequent use of a phototherapy device. I spoke on a high-level about the importance of the device appearing effective to get buy-in from staff and parents alike, but it was Dr. Steve Ringer, Chief of Brigham and Women’s Newborn Medicine and frequent volunteer in Vietnam, who was able to bring the point home with this personal anecdote:

The sex appeal of the current phototherapy bed device with lighting from below is low. A doctor I spoke with while visiting hospitals in Vietnam said parents often insist on using more modern-looking overhead lights for treatment of their children. Ultimately, you need buy-in to the therapy. Even in the U.S. when you tell parents their baby has a potentially dangerous condition and we’re just going to shine a light on them, there is disbelief.

Though a single story does not indicate a trend or pattern, quotes, photos, and anecdotes from personal life can be used to bring color to larger patterns found in the field. However, when using personal stories to emphasize an argument or idea, it’s important to make sure the opinion represented is also supported by a larger body of data.

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for eight years as a product designer at IDEO.

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