44. Josh Wasserman: The role of observation in design

Sue Stockdale talks to Josh Wasserman a design thinker and insights expert, about the role that observation plays in the design process, how design can more inclusive and what inspires him to be creative.  Josh recently designed a new pregnancy test prototype for RNIB, which received worldwide media attention, and is thought to be the world’s first pregnancy test which is accessible to those with sight loss. This enables privacy in a process which had previously required the help of a fully sighted individual.

Josh specialises in helping businesses and brands identify and unlock opportunities, building viable product and service experiences that are human-centred, using immersive research, strategic thinking, concept ideation, validation, and development – and always links the solutions to the insight. He brings creativity, imagination and instinct through more than 12 years of industry experience.  Josh believes that good design inspires change, improves lives, and is always relevant.

To find out more about Josh Wasserman, check out his website www.Innovvate.co

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Key quotes in this podcast:

[01.18] “It’s not very often that you get invited to design a pregnancy test for the blind and partially sighted community. And my first reaction was much like anybody else’s, surprise that nobody’s thought about doing something like this already.”

[01.57] “We discovered that there were a lot more issues to the problem that we needed to tackle. And these were systemic issues around poverty and privacy, very, very basic needs that were not being addressed.”

[05.02] “People often tell me what they believe to be the truth. And quite often I find out that people do things completely different to how they think they do things”.

[10.40] “Designing this concept really allowed us to challenge an industry and at the same time, inspiring a lot of people”.

[13.01] “Observation is vital to my line of work. We need to understand the people and the lives of the people and the cultures of people that we’re designing for”.

[17.01] “There’s no common design language for us to know how to design for inclusivity. But as our digital and physical worlds merge, they’re being pushed together.”

[21.35] “I think businesses and organizations and anybody creating a commodity can bring value by understanding our needs and what we need to bring richness and joy and validation to our lives”.

Josh Wasserman transcription: The role of observation in design

Sue: [00:00:00] hi, it’s Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. TodayI am speaking to Josh Wasserman, a product designer, and I’m really excited to find out more about the skill of observation in what we’re going to be talking about today. Welcome Josh.

Josh: [00:00:38] Thanks Sue

Sue: [00:00:39] I must say that sometimes listeners say to me, how do you find your guests for the podcast? And actually I’m using the very skill we’re going to be talking about today. The skill of observation. And it was noticing a piece in the media a while ago now about a product that you were involved in designing around a pregnancy test for visually impaired women. And that’s piqued my  imagination. Cause it seemed to get a global level of media coverage and create a huge level of interest. And I thought, well, this is such a simple thing. I must find out who designed this, which led me to you. So what was that like when you got that great level of coverage around that product that you designed.

Josh: [00:01:18] Well, it’s not very often that you get invited to design a pregnancy test for the blind and partially sighted community. And my first reaction was much like anybody else’s, it’s one of, I think, surprise that nobody’s thought about doing something like this already. And then. It really gets your mind going, because how do you tackle an issue like that? And what we found due to the observation that we took part in is that actually it’s a much more complex and nuanced problem to solve than we initially thought.

Sue: [00:01:56] So what made it complicated?

Josh: [00:01:57] We discovered that there were a lot more issues. To the problem that we needed to tackle. And these were systemic issues around poverty and privacy, very, very basic needs that were not being addressed. And so as a talking point, we discovered ourselves getting quite deep into some of the big problems that the partially sighted community face

Sue: [00:02:24] So this whole bigger question of that we’re part of a system and that one particular issue or symptom or observation can lead you down a rabbit hole to be exploring and considering a whole wide range of other things. How did you then move forward from that? Not realizing that there was a whole series of other bigger questions to be considered. What were your next steps then?

Josh: [00:02:47] Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think as with any design project, we had to define some parameters that we were designing for, and it’s really helpful to build a set of constraints that allow us to [00:03:00] be as creative as possible within these sets of constraints. And that we know that these constraints are going to lead us to something that is ultimately a viable proof of principle prototype. That was our end game. So we did have to do a bit of prioritizing and what we needed this product to do. And so we decided that. By addressing some of these fundamental needs we couldn’t always address some of the other ones. So privacy was something that we found was a major issue that we could tackle. And we wanted to focus on that. So privacy is important to anybody and it’s very, very relevant in the world today across digital interactions with software. And we’re aware more so than ever of how important our privacy is. And so when we discovered that many of the people that we’re designing for from the blind and partially sighted community, we’re having to ask other people what their pregnancy test result was we needed to address that, and we knew that we could, and we knew that things like having an audio feedback on a pregnancy test was not the route to go by. So, those are the kinds of constraints that I’m talking about. We knew that we couldn’t go down certain avenues. And so by creating these constraints, it does llluminate a path for you, but we can’t do that without first conducting observation. , without first immersing ourselves in the world of the people that we’re designed.

Sue: [00:04:39] So how do you do that?

Josh: [00:04:40] I work with recruitment agencies to  help me find the people that I need to speak to. We’re actually conducting this ethnographic research right before any a matter of months before lockdown. So we’re very lucky. What I do is I tend to go into people’s homes and I sit with them and I talked to them and I listened to them and I look around and I see the context of how people are living. I see how people are using things. And I ask people to show me how they do things. I could just phone people up and ask them a series of questions. And people often tell me what they believe to be the truth. And sometimes and quite often I find out that people do things completely different to how they think they do things. So this is part of the value in going into people’s homes and seeing the context of their lives and understanding the nuances and the richness that I get from being in somebody’s home is that I really start to understand somebody’s character. And I start to understand how people are going to use things. And that enables me to get a very broad picture of how somebody is going to interact and [00:06:00] feel about a new product or service.

Sue: [00:06:02] Have you got any examples that spring to your mind about what’s been noticeably different when you’ve done that observation and how somebody is using a product?

Josh: [00:06:12] So something unexpected that did come up with the observation on the pregnancy test project that we weren’t expecting is the different relationships that we have with our phones. That was something that we were thinking about could be a possible root of a solution is to, is to use our smartphones, to maybe detect a pregnancy result. And actually a lot of members in the blind or partially sighted  community have a completely different relationship with their smartphone. The positives and the negatives that we experience over so slightly more nuanced with people that are completely rely on their phone for a lot of things to see. But also there’s actually quite a struggle where there are apps and services available for visually impaired people that get it wrong really badly.

And completely ended up creating something that is insensitive and inappropriate and isn’t suitable for real life examples. And we kept on seeing these examples come up, that was around audio feedback and making an image bigger, for example. And that was the route that we just decided. We’ve seen so many examples of the people that we meet through observation where their mobile phones are, this sort of bittersweet thing that enables them to do so much yet gets it so wrong so many times. And we just weren’t expecting that. And so we decided that we actually needed a product that could work without the help of a mobile phone, and they could sit alone in that user experience unaided so anybody could use it. We’re not asking people to also own a smart phone, essentially. That’s something that we would never have got to. If we hadn’t done this observation in the first place

Sue: [00:08:07] you’re making me think of Josh as you’re describing, that is the question of trust. I’m imagining that a pregnancy test indicator, you got to trust the answer it’s giving you. And I suppose I’m reading into what you’re saying about a smartphone is I’m imagining very important in the lives of the blind and visually impaired users that are relying on it. There’s also something about trusting that and that having something different would be even more important. Am I reading what you’re saying correctly? Where does trust lie in it?

Josh: [00:08:42] Yeah, trust does come into it. I think there are products and services that visually impaired people can use on their mobile phones that does come with trust. I think that brands and businesses have actually done really well to build trust through their digital platforms for visually impaired people. [00:09:00] But it’s not always the case. And I think trust is very heavily linked with privacy and privacy was then linked for us with rights. And there was definitely a sense from our, the people that we spoke to, that they felt that it is their right to know first their pregnancy test result. And they didn’t want to have to put that trust in other brands to tell them their result for them. And so there are examples out there where that is available. You can get your pregnancy test stick read by somebody online. And that works to a certain extent, but it didn’t work for everybody. And there were trust issues that arose.

Sue: [00:09:46] Hi, it’s me again. If the concept of noticing is resonating with you, then you might want to listen to some of our other episodes in our catalog that are focused on a similar theme. In episode 22, chef Andrew Scott talked about how the small details are vital in getting a Michelin star restaurant and an episode 29, Barry Fudge also spoke about how paying attention to details are vital to achieve world-class performance in, in endurance running. So hop on over to the website and take a listen to some of these other episodes. When you finish this one. I’m wondering, what do you think it was about this particular product that really captured the public’s imagination?

Josh: [00:10:30] its one of  those ideas that sort of, it turns your world upside down doesn’t it? It’s like, how can this product not already exist? And then the next question is how can we make one? Designing this concept really allowed us to challenge an industry and at the same time, inspiring a lot of people to really ask the question and that that sort of collective voice and that collective response from everybody is part of the shift that we wanted to harness. We wanted to get that energy. For everybody to go, how can this not exist? That in itself just really inspired people. I think it bought the communities of people suffering from disabilities and those living without any disabilities together. What we’ve created is something with a universal experience. It doesn’t matter whether you can see or whether you can’t see, you can still use this product in exactly the same way. This doesn’t require you to use it any differently. That’s part of what captured people’s imagination about it.

Sue: [00:11:37] What’s the result of your efforts in product design and observation? I guess I wanted to take you back perhaps to your younger self Joel, and hear a little bit about the backstory in terms of what got you interested in choosing this sort of product design as your work. Was it something you were doing as a youngster drawing things using your imagination, or how did it all come about?

Josh: [00:11:59] I think for some [00:12:00] people design helps us understand the world around us. And for those of us that enjoy exploring ideas, naturally it wants to find answers thinking creatively around how to solve them, leads us toward design, maybe as a way to sort of interrogate solutions. From a very young age, I’ve been drawing and imagining what the future’s like for different scenarios. I remember asking my sister having drawn a flying car, what kind of person gets to do this for a living? And she said, well, that’s an industrial designers job. And I still remember that from a young age. And it really stuck with me over the years.

Sue: [00:12:44] So as we’ve been already starting to explore is this concept of observation. And I’m wondering if you can give us an insight into how you observe. I know you’ve already mentioned what you were noticing about how people use things or not. What do you think is important about observation?

Josh: [00:13:01] Observation is vital to my line of work. We need to understand the people and the lives of the people and the cultures of people that we’re designing for. And we can’t really do that without different methodologies of immersive observation. But I also think that observation is just one piece of the puzzle. And I think on a higher level, it’s about information and. It’s my job to be informed. I need to understand what’s going on in the world around me. And I need to be aware of cultural technological behavioral shifts that happening both on a sort of macro and a micro level. I need to know what’s relevant now because that may not be relevant in the near future.

And something else might be relevant. And so I also use what I understand about other brands that I might be working with that makes it meaningful for them. There’s no point in me creating ideas that don’t work for my client. And so to a degree, once I have enough of a steer from these multiple sources of information, I can start to use my rationale and my experience and my instinct to sense whether something’s right. But observation certainly does form a chunk of that. The value of that is really it’s about seeing and understanding on a ground level. It’s about getting to the coalface of the issue and about immersing myself really in the lives and the cultures. If the people that I’m designing and building for,

Sue: [00:14:37] you’re making me think, as you’re speaking, Josh, that you sound like a business leader in terms of somebody running a larger organization from my experience has to employ the very same skills to have, to observe their world and the other worlds around them, what the competitors are doing, and then choose the best course of action. I’m just wondering where the, what you’re not seeing is [00:15:00] actually doing that observation without assumption.

Josh: [00:15:02] It does have to be open-minded that’s for sure. I tend not to go in with assumptions, but I think it’s perfectly, totally normal and encouraged to go and observe with hypothesis. There’s a prelim to any observational practice, which is to get a sense of the dialogue you want to be having, as well as having an open mind. Again, it’s about creating these parameters, which is going to. Ring the most richness and the best insights from the research that I’m trying to do. And so hypotheses built from understanding what’s going on in the world. Cultural shifts trends. Everything that I spoke about earlier is vital to that. And yes, we can’t create something that’s relevant and meaningful for consumers without first speaking to them.

Sue: [00:15:54] Why do you think designers often miss the opportunity to be inclusive in their design ideas and what they’re creating?

Josh: [00:16:01] That’s a good question. I think it’s both. An economic issue and an education and awareness issue. Ultimately industrial design or mass production is designed for the masses. And sometimes we are limited in resources, only create physical products that work for the most people we can. And whilst digital design and service design is more open to inclusive experience. Physical products are still far behind. We’re still surrounded by poorly executed design and or things that don’t work well for those living with disability. I just think most of us don’t really appreciate it until we understand the difficulties many of us face every day. And we need more leaders and thinkers who understand just how easy it is to be more inclusive. There’s no common design language for us to know how to design for inclusivity. But as our digital and physical worlds merge, they’re being pushed together. And we don’t, I don’t think it’s in our interest to try and really pull them apart anymore. We’ll see many more inclusive experiences made available, but I think the future in some areas is very bright for those living with disability.

Sue: [00:17:17] One of the things I think you’ve already mentioned, Josh, it really captured people’s imagination. Here was they were inspired by the product. And obviously our podcast is about inspiration. I’m wondering what inspires you, how and where do you get your inspiration from on a daily basis?

Josh: [00:17:34] I think mostly what other people create. I can’t really remember, or if I’ve ever had an original idea, but it’s, as a collective we’ve progressed, I’m inspired by a lot of things around me that are all sort of pulling me towards them. But. It takes focus and it takes time to really bring an idea to life and to see an idea manifest and to sort of actualize my [00:18:00] inspiration comes from a lot of different places, but it is mostly looking around and seeing what other people are creating.

Sue: [00:18:05] If I turn our attention to the workplace, one of the things that’s been very topical of late is redesigning the workplace because of course we’re post COVID many people, their workplace, and that was their home. And I’m imagining if you were designing for you and perhaps those you work with engage with on a daily basis, the idea of workplace well for you or some of the things that are important. If I give you a blank sheet of paper today, and we’re taking the flying car analogy and you were sketching out the ideal workplace, what would be in it?

Josh: [00:18:38] Okay. I think I’d still have my partner and my daughter in it and my dog, cause they’re my closest office buddies at the moment, but I think we need to start asking ourselves what’s the measure of a successful workplace. Is it simply to be more productive because the portion of time spent actually working in a workplace has eroded and it’s place workplaces have now become socializing, places, exercising, places, eating places, recreation, and so on. And you know, it’s actually those Silicon valley businesses that pioneered that current generation of workplaces understood that for workers to be more productive, they had to love their workplace. And so what’s next. I’m not sure. Personally, I miss the connectivity of working in the same place as others. I do find it promotes productivity. I find it socially rewarding. It gets me out of the house. I don’t want to do it every day though. And I think that’s something that the pandemic, one of the really great value that it’s brought is that actually remote. Have more flexibility to decide when we go into work and commuting across a mega city, like London is not many people’s idea of fun.

And so I think time spending workplaces will remain, reduce for some, for others that jobs simply require them to be there more than others. Maybe these jobs will be the focal points. I imagine there’ll be a lot of downscaling of the physical spaces rented. So it’ll be interesting to see what landlords  are going to do next. I think they’re probably scratching their heads to try and figure that one out. I think they’re the ones that would be looking for opportunities of what future workspaces are like.

Sue: [00:20:22] When asked a question like that I can really see or hear from how you’re describing those different elements. What’s some of the constituent parts from the design process are. Now, if you could just redesign one thing in the world that you think needs to be improved, what would spring to mind? Josh?

Josh: [00:20:39] Poverty, governments, global warming. Can we redesign that? That’d be great. Whatever’s going to make people’s lives better. I’m not yet at the government changing level, but governments, organizations, big businesses. use. Design thinking to implement change. That’s [00:21:00] nothing new. And I think it’s important for many organizations and businesses to be aware of how powerful design thinking can be to create services and products and experiences that are meaningful and rewarding and relevant for people, not just consumers, but for people, consumers is more transactional, isn’t it, it’s more linear. And when we’re designing for people and then thinking about people’s needs and what people want to do and what makes it relevant. I think businesses and organizations and anybody creating a commodity can also bring value by understanding our needs and what we need to bring richness and joy and validation to our lives.

Sue: [00:21:47] Brilliant. It seems like it’s been a real luxury and it sense of enjoyment I’ve had today to get a bit of your time and to have this conversation. Josh you’ve certainly given me a sense of the importance of stepping back and looking at the world from a bigger perspective and how observation is really an important step in that process. So thank you for your time. If people want to find out more about you and connect in with you on social media or the internet, how might you do that?

Josh: [00:22:15] I’d encourage anyone that wants to find out more about my work or to get in touch. Just please visit my website. It’s www.innovvate.co, and innovate has two Vs..

Sue: [00:22:30] Brilliant. We’ll put links to that on the show notes, and I’m sure people can follow up with you there or also on LinkedIn. I know you’re there too, so fantastic. Thank you again for your time today. I hope you’ve enjoyed our experience.

Josh: [00:22:41] Thanks for, yeah, I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s been lovely chatting too. And I look forward to hearing some of your other podcasts as well, coming out soon.

Sue: [00:22:49] Thanks, Josh. Thanks very much. I hope you enjoyed this episode with Josh and it maybe helps you to reflect on what and how you observe things on a day-to-day basis. Next time. I will be talking to Hong Hoang, who I met over 25 years ago in Antarctica and has gone on since then to found one of the leading nonprofit organizations in Vietnam, tackling the climate change and environmental challenges they face. I do hope you will join us then.