Anyone looking to solve a problem that matters to our clients begins at the same place – by tapping into our experience. What we learn and retain over time becomes our own personal bank of knowledge and insight and is determined entirely by each one of us. We then see this knowledge as truth and it becomes the framework we use when we encounter situations with clients, team members, or practice partners.

The limitations of experience

Since our only lived experience is our own, we often assume that another person would be something like us, but adjusted for observable differences. This understandable assumption bypasses a far more valuable opportunity to gain insights into someone else’s experiences. Without a lot of work, one finds quite quickly that there are a multitude of life experiences very different from our own. The assumptions we make about others are just that – assumptions – and don’t provide enough information to solve design problems that involve other people in their own real world situations.

Without this key insight, we can unconsciously substitute our experience for those of our clients and this shortcut is highly flawed. My favorite examples are from observing research environments as an organizational designer, where it’s not uncommon to find a nicely designed nook, with bookshelves and a window to nature. Just as often, we are surprised to find that this nook becomes home to a copier and bookshelves stacked with copier paper. We’re surprised when the natural light we think will animate all inhabited spaces is blocked by aluminum foil shades to protect displays and other technology. Here is where our assumption that others are pretty much like ourselves gets us into trouble, or at a minimum, blinds us to new possibilities.

Problem or solution?

It turns out that we’re the ones who draw the lines we trip over (to paraphrase Piet Hein). We can’t know the inner world of our clients without asking. As designers looking to solve our clients’ challenges, we have to start with asking and listening, not knowing and telling. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. James Adams, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus, at Stanford, spoke and wrote of the anxiety that engineers (or any professionals, for that matter) experience in “not knowing” and how this anxiety drives a premature rush to solve the presenting problem, which often lies peripheral to an underlying, more important problem, in an attempt to alleviate internal anxiety.

However, there’s an obvious win-win here:

  • Designers don’t have to spend time imagining what it must be like being a scientist, clinician, or technologist. We just have to ask them, freeing us to focus on envisioning relevant and meaningful environments.
  • Stakeholders and users, with well-designed prompts, will reveal far richer insights into the qualities of their optimal environment than any of us could guess – no matter how talented or intuitive we may be. They’ll tell us what matters to them most and what conditions need to be present for them, their teams, and their organizations, to become the best versions of themselves.

A path forward

Paradoxically, self-knowledge is the gateway to learning something important about others – their experiences, mindsets, and aspirations. When we become experts at this, we’ll surprise ourselves with how the lived experience of our clients and people we work with will drive discoveries that inform novel and impactful solutions – solutions that are worthy of the problems we seek to solve.

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