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The strengths and drawbacks of design thinking a.k.a. the coffee analogy

Design thinking can sometimes be implemented as UX Design “lite” without the UX Research. It’s great for internal processes: More effective meeting design, gathering employee’s thoughts about their place in the organization, etc. The drawback to it is a basic human psychological fallacy:

We cannot understand how another person thinks or feels without communication

Even when we listen to someone, and think we are feeling what they are feeling, we are in fact feeling our own mirror neurons coming up with a similar emotion and situation that we personally had, and playing that feeling and experience for us. Our brain tricks us into thinking that we are feeling the same way another person is feeling. This is why it is so seductive and natural to imagine that we can feel the way another person feels or imagine that we can “walk a mile in their shoes”. Research shows we humans are especially bad at this imagined empathy, and we are not aware of it. We are in fact only imagining ourselves.

So how do we really know what someone else is feeling?

We talk to them, at length, and listen to the persons in–depth and thoughtful descriptions about how they feel. A further complication is that humans don’t accurately remember how they felt in the past (this can be a problem in some recollection focused survey questions) and they also can’t accurately predict how they will feel in the future (NPS “Will you recommend…”, social acceptance bias, projection bias, optimism, etc.).

Think about it, take a moment and write it down; What did you have for breakfast yesterday? Good. Now, what did you have for breakfast last Tuesday? Did you like it? What will you have for breakfast two months from now? Next year? If your answer was something along the lines of “How would I know?” you are not alone.

The strongest accurate predictor for what a person will do, how they think, and how they feel, is what they are doing today. How they are feeling today. I had coffee today, and yesterday, and the day before that. I like coffee. I will probably have coffee next week. There is a good likelihood I will be having coffee next year. Furthermore, if you watch me drink my coffee, you will see what kind of cup I used, how I hold the cup, how much cream and sugar I put in and how I incorporate it into the drink. You can see me waiting for the steam to dissipate a little before I take a sip. You will see my eyes soften as I drink the coffee, and note what kind of conversation I make after the first sip (small talk? silence? The weather?) as I drink. If you are very observant, you might notice that I have trouble opening the foil on the creamer before I pour it in, because I bite my nails. When I go to clean my cup, it is hard to fit my hand and the sponge in at the same time, leaving a slight coffee ring at the bottom inside of the cup that I have to fold the sponge in half to coax out. You just learned a lot about my breakfast habits, and I bet if you take a moment you can think of what kind of design changes or products I may find useful. This is the strength in predicting and assessing the appropriateness of a product solution in ethnographic research.

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