Reflections on being home and abroad


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CBNWEEKLY 17 Dec 2012

Reflections on being home and abroad No matter where we are, basic human needs are in the end very similar. It just takes shifting our focus.

The other week in our IDEO Shanghai office, at a final presentation with a client, I was reminded that my ears and my mouth were not my own. What I mean is, I was utterly dependent on others for communication. I would literally lean to my right to hear our translator simultaneously whisper to me in English, and then lean to my left and depend on my other colleague to verbally convey the essence what I wanted to add to the conversation in Mandarin. Not only was I fascinated by this physical deconstruction of my communication, but I was as intrigued about how well the timing of my apparently important commentary might flow with where the conversation had moved to. The words didn’t flow in perfectly though I am told our delighted client did say this about our work: 眼前一亮. I’m having a lot of these heightened experiences lately. I’ve worked at IDEO for over 13 years, with both domestic and international clients, but had remained anchored in San Francisco until recently. For the last half-year or so, I’ve been living a nomadic lifestyle, working in China, Japan, Singapore and Australia. I felt it was important to engage with the business of design from different vantage points in our company, and as a creative soul, I also needed to get “up-rooted” so I could invigorate my own perspectives on design. “Abroad” is therefore now “home” and this mobile existence within Asia Pacific has heightened my awareness of the surprising similarities between home and abroad. The “borrowed ears and mouth” scenario in this Shanghai meeting made me wonder whether depending on others to communicate meaningfully happens only when one is abroad. I now realize that similar challenges happen also at “home”, even when the ears and mouth are my own. At IDEO, we act as translator, converting latent needs into key insights that highlight opportunities for innovation. In this way, we become the ears and mouth for our clients and people we design for. When I led a project for Bank of America, they asked us to develop products to attract women between the ages of 40 and 58, with children. I don’t know how openly women elsewhere discuss finances, but in North America, money is private, especially for this “boomer women” generation. Given the taboo nature of money, how were we to uncover meaningful insights? One of the research methods my colleague Daniel Kushner and I developed to address this need was “Whine & Dine” – a choreographed group meal, with prompts, designed to encourage people to “whine” and compare perspectives. And compare, they did. Money triggered an emotional conversation for these high-powered businesswomen, who revealed hopes and fears they had for their children. In reality, the age of these mothers did not define their financial decisions and behaviors; the age of their

children did. And so, just as I leaned on my colleagues’ ears and mouth in Shanghai to learn what mattered, our client in Atlanta, who did not speak the language of the mothers, leaned on us as their ears and mouth. The deeper insights we communicated seeded one of Bank of America’s notable successes called Keep the Change™ – a bankcard transaction enabling anyone to save money each time they spend. Working extensively with multinational companies interested in tailoring products and services from home for abroad, I’m reminded of a redevelopment project in the heartland of America that tried to appeal to communities near and far. And it struggled. So, the Kauffman Foundation asked IDEO to create a vision, one that would entice developers to revitalize this oncefamous Jazz district in Kansas City called 18th & Vine. Historically, 18th & Vine was home to famous jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, and Count Basie, as well as baseball stars like Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige. Yet after desegregation, the African-American community moved, and 18th & Vine lost its vibrancy. Great effort was put into preserving the heritage through the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Yet beyond those walls, there was very little to do there. Even the charming buildings we saw were only facades (with nothing behind them), left over from Robert Altman’s movie ‘Kansas City.’ The district’s administrators placed so much emphasis on preserving history and attracting tour groups from as far as Japan, that they were overlooking the daily needs of the locals. Through interpretation, we helped our clients recognize that the focus on succeeding “abroad” overshadowed the benefits of designing locally for their very own market at “home.” In an impassioned town hall forum, we reflected a vision that ultimately attracted a developer to invest.

Columnist: Roshi Givechi Design Director and Associate Partner at IDEO Roshi is happy to answer any questions around innovation and design work in her column. Please send your questions to [email protected]

The point of my stories is this: one’s home base, the place we might take for granted, is full of fodder for innovation if we just look at what’s familiar to us from a different angle. As IDEO CEO Tim Brown has suggested in his blog: “Once a day, deeply observe the ordinary. Good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary.” No matter where we are, basic human needs are in the end very similar. We seek shelter. We connect with people. We eat. We sleep. To regain the feeling of newness, it just takes shifting our focus, looking more carefully, and opening ourselves up to discovering “abroad” right at home.