Traveling to South East Asia improved my design intuition by nurturing empathy and sensitivity toward other people’s lived experiences. I never knew that some islands in Indonesia are majority Muslims and others are majority Buddhist with some Christians scattered throughout the country, all of whom coexist peacefully. I traveled to Yogjakarta, a small town on the island of Java surrounded by two world–renowned temples, Prambanan and Borobudur, the former Hindu and latter Buddhist. I stayed in an up-in-coming hostel within the palace walls. What was once an old, rundown house is now Snooze Hostel, a boutique, affordable accommodation with a homey feel and amazing breakfast options. Inspired by the young owners and their dreams for a successful enterprise, I created a few design research deliverables for this entrepreneurial duo who want to create a curated experience for their guests.

Persona: Know your Audience

Sometimes when we’re caught up in making the idea work, we forget to start with the most important question: who is my audience? Before proposing any solutions, I tried to build a solid understanding of who we cared about and what kept our target audience up at night. My research was informal and scattered, but I managed to fill in the gaps from my personal experience and many hours on the internet.

My first design deliverable is borrowed from marketing—the persona. The template helps us document demographic, behavioral, and emotional characteristics of our target audience. You can either list your assumptions on the first pass or use it to synthesize your interview findings.

Meet Traveler Tito, a late twenties backpacker from America — in design, demographic information doesn’t matter much, but it is important for marketers. He wants to see as many places as possible and soak in the culture as much as he can on a tight budget. When he’s visiting a new place, he walks around for some sight seeing and signs up for activities like diving. Occasionally, he tries to find a reliable internet connection for some remote work he has to get done and spends meal hours searching for cheap local food that won’t upset his stomach. It can be lonely sometimes for a solo traveler like him. Fortunately, he can chat with other travelers for recommendations, take a break, or surf the internet when the hostel has a wifi connection available. Before leaving the hostel, he plans his travel outside the city: he figures out how to get to the bus/airport on-time, where he’s going to stay, and how he’s going to arrive there. He’s motivated everyday to learn something new and take a few cute pics along the way.

Scenario Storyboarding

Once we’ve settled on our audience, we map out the scenarios they may encounter during their experience. I like sketching scenarios since it helps to visualize the context of a particular situation. For example, Travel Tito has his backpack out in the open while sleeping on a bunk bed. For each scenario, document the circumstances that will make them feel sad or happy. On a scale 1-5, 1 being generally unhappy and 5 being generally happy, or simply with emoticons, assign an overall emotion they may be feeling based on the perceived circumstances. Tito feels lukewarm when he’s sleeping since he’s also concerned about security, availability of bed linens, sleep quality, and ambient noise. If you’re concerned about accuracy, validate your findings by interviewing people in your target audience. Interviewing at this stage will likely yield a wider range of scenarios. 

Finally, try your best to order your scenarios according to when they’re experienced and group ones that have similar contexts. For instance, a person will likely arrive to the airport before checking in to the hostel, however it doesn’t matter if showering happens before or after sleeping so long as they are sequentially near scenarios at a hostel.

The Traveler’s Journey

Our last step completes the picture of our audience by displaying their thoughts, emotions, and questions, as well as documenting the value and structure of their experience. Draw a vertical axis labeled emotional scale with a sad (unhappy) face at the bottom and a smiling (happy) face at the top. Place your scenarios across the page from left to right in order and set them vertically according to the overall emotion you assigned. Above each point, list some questions or concerns the person may have to add more context to the diagram. Below the scale, create three rows to label the phases of the journey, the importance or value to the experience, and the user’s goals achieved during each phase.

Traveler Tony spends most his time exploring and living while he travels. He’s at his lowest when he has to work or do his laundry, but thrives when he’s hanging out and exploring. The head and tail of his trip are rocky since it’s mostly planning and making quick decisions. Moments of insecurity diminish his experience while safe spaces like his hostel and organized excursions brighten up his mood.

Problem Sourcing: WhereTF are the Solutions?

Research activities are meant to explore the range of problems a person may encounter and the circumstances of their experience. Notice that a lot of information is reused from one deliverable to the next. Rather than taking up space, repeated insights are repurposed for different visual displays, adding context and persistent assumptions throughout our discovery. In a nutshell, this process is what empathy looks like in product or service design. My primary source of motivation during any empathy-building activity is understanding the shortcomings and highlights of a person’s experience when they travel.

A simple way to start creating solutions from this point is by focusing on the lowest points of the experience and exploring ways that nearby scenarios can benefit. For instance, we can create a planning tool that locates reliable wifi zones at the airport to work, houses boarding pass information, and picks up their laundry before the flight departs. As a general rule in early exploratory exercises, do not limit yourself to what you think is realistic. You’ve come this far with your own intuition; let it guide you through your initial solutions.

In a later post, I’ll introduce you to more design activities for the solution phase. For now, I encourage you to dive deeper into your person of interest by interviewing people, validating your findings, and refining your research deliverables. A solid understanding of your audience lays the foundation for sustainable innovation and an enjoyable product.

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