Language barriers? Not between countries..

All looking in the same direction does not mean you speak the same language..

This week STBY is in Hong Kong to visit UXHK and the global get-together of our Reach Network for Global Design Research. We had a panel discussion with Reach partners from Japan (Re:public), Spain and Singapore (fuelfor), Hong Kong (ApogeeHK), India (Quicksand), France (IDSL), and the Netherlands and the UK (STBY). We discussed the role of User Centred Design in innovation. Lots of words in that sentence already that need unpacking, as we regularly try to do with clients and for potential clients as well.

Despite all the different languages spoken in the room, with people from all over SE Asia, the US and Australia present too, we could understand each other well in English, that is once *plain* English was spoken which was often difficult to do actually. Together, we wondered why we use so many ill-understood words slip into our work?

Take a word like innovation. Most people in our work know it, but they have rather different ideas about what it means. Something new? Something radically new? Something that is an improvement? Something that disrupts a whole industry? Different disciplines use different meanings, different companies have, and different cultures have too. If you work in innovation, with innovation managers, it still happens all too often that your client wants you to specify what the innovative outcome of the project will be in the proposal. Really? If it is predictable it surely is not innovation, is what I normally answer. (Instead we introduce such clients to the systematic approach to the project, and steer then away from the outcome.)

User-centred is another of those confusing terms: Every business puts customers first, right? Design can not claim that it is doing something new with User-Centred Design, nor is it self-explanatory. You have to go deeper: who actually do you mean with ‘user’ and what does putting them at the centre mean exactly? Someone this evening suggested that we should not bother about all those different design approaches, like design research, design thinking, user-centred design, design strategy, etc. It is all ‘design’, he said, and then added a footnote: ‘when done properly.’

I think that is what we use all those confusion creating words for between us: to disagree (ok, and sometimes agree) in detail about what is ‘proper’. Maybe we should try to do that between ourselves and not with clients as well. It can be a struggle to work with clients who do not understand what ‘design done properly’ means, but we do not always have clarity between us designers either. Cultural differences play a role: the need for plain language is not even universal, Virginia Cruz from France explained. If you as a design agency in France talk about what you do in plain words only, clients get suspicious: if it all sounds so simple it can’t be much, they think.

The French like their philosophical approach still today in the global market it seems. They are not alone in being distinctively different on a cultural level though. The different countries in the Reach network around the world all have their own cultures, which translates in different ways of talking to clients, different ways of doing design research and different insights around similar topics. Bringing all these cultural perspectives and local skills together in a systematic and coherent way in one project is the big joy of working with Reach.

In Reach we all speak English, we all ‘speak’ design research, and we all ‘speak’ our local cultures. This brings us together, but we focus as much on similarities as we do on differences. That creates a unique combination of a similar, systematic approach to design research that values a rich variety in content across cultures. But how we communicate that approach is hard in just words, we had to conclude. Funny enough only at the end of the conversations we realised that we had overlooked a typical skill of designers: we all tend to communicate very well visually. Perhaps we should talk about user-centred design in innovation much more visually, with diagrams, drawings, films, photos. Then we at least have a bit more than just a word to argue about: something concrete we can point to and interpret together. With the hundreds of short films we made across the Reach network for clients, that is exactly what we did over the past years. This evening, we learned another value of our own approach.