Designing for Unfamiliar Contexts

Ram Mohan Mishra, Principal Secretary of the Government of Meghalaya, was very intrigued by the phrase “Designing for Unfamiliar Contexts,” which came up in a recent meeting where we talked about how our approach to innovation can benefit the developmental goals of the State. Before we could even begin our presentation, he was curious to know more about it.

We started using this terminology more consciously after we had a discussion about Steve Jobs’ approach to design in our office lately. After Jobs demise, much was talked about his approach to design and little emphasis he gave to user studies. Many in the design and other creative industries have been awed by the ‘Apple effect,’ which they believe has brought back design to the forefront, transforming utilitarian objects to status symbols. While Jobs’ approach may have worked well when it came to designing for the users whose needs, aspirations, and challenges he could anticipate, it would fail when it comes to “designing for unfamiliar contexts.” Sitting in our office in New Delhi, we would not been able to imagine the complexity of challenges faced by the frontline health workers working in rural Bihar. Without immersing in the context through participatory observation, an anthropological method of gaining deeper insights into lived experience, it would have been next to impossible for us to conceptualize products or services that radically improve public health delivery.


The challenge of designing for unfamiliar context however, is not limited to product and service design. Recently, an ex-colleague at CKS and a fellow architect called me to discuss an interesting problem. She wanted to introduce ethnographic methods to the architects in her firm in MBangalore and demonstrate the value such approaches can bring to their designs. This did not come as a surprise as most architects in India do not pay much emphasis to understanding user challenges while designing. In the midst of our discussion though, we realized that ethnographic methodologies can bring in greatest value when architects conceptualize designs of unfamiliar contexts. While it may be relatively easy to design residences or offices, spaces which they experience on a daily basis, it may be difficult to conceptualize what a prisoner’s experience may be like, or a patient undergoing treatment at a hospital, or people with special needs. The design approach of Gallaudet University in Washington DC, dedicated to the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, which my colleague Namrata Mehta blogged about earlier, illustrates the significance of understanding user experiences, not just once but several times.

Considering the multiple layers of complexity of grand challenges we as a nation are facing, such immersive approaches would be required even in contexts that are not completely unfamiliar. If we really want to achieve the developmental goals of our nation, we may have to rethink our approach to design and adopt more participatory and inclusive methodologies as opposed to being completely overwhelmed by the ‘Apple effect.’

About Ekta Ohri

Ekta Ohri has a background in Architecture, Visual and Critical Studies, and Anthropology and is interested in exploring links between design, culture, and lived experience.
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