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  • Writer's pictureSovanpidor Ham

Human Centered Design in a World Outside of the Comfort Zone

Updated: May 22, 2023

Published on Sep 20, 2016

It was a different world. Under the scorching daylight, we trudged along a gravel road, unsure of which direction to turn. There were no neon lights, concrete structures, or ubiquitous Lexus cars that filled the streets of Phnom Penh. The color palette consisted mostly of browns, greens, and blues of the sky, instead of the usual grey. The air felt drier and cleaner.

My research partner, Thyda Eng, and I had just left Dar Commune Hall, having received a blessing from the commune chief himself to "talk to the villagers," without any specific introductions. This was not part of our plan. Naively, we expected people to be waiting for us, eager to share their stories. But that was not the case. We tried calling our local coordinator from the commune, but she was out of range.

"Let's walk around a bit and see who we can find," Thyda suggested, and I was more than willing to go along. This was the kind of initiative and courage that I believed human-centered designers needed. It meant stepping out of our comfort zones of talking to curated and screened "subjects" and seeking something more authentic. I thought to myself, "Heck yes!"

Of course, it was easier said than done.

To make matters more challenging, I was mostly clueless during our time in Kratie. Despite having been in Cambodia for over two years, my Khmer language skills were quite limited. Throughout the five-day trip, I found myself mostly observing silently, rather than actively participating in conversations with the locals. So, when Thyda said, "let's," she was being considerate towards me. In reality, it was all her, on her own.

And bravely, she pressed on, asking me and my son which direction to go, just out of politeness, but relying mostly on her own instincts. Eventually, she found a farmer willing to talk to us. He was happy to share his life experiences, wisdom, and stories. It was a unique story. He didn't fit our preconceived notion of the "rural poor" - he wasn't destitute, although not wealthy by city standards - and he exuded the confidence and contentment of someone who had built a satisfying life on his own terms. This was an aspect we wouldn't have uncovered through coordinated planning, but it was crucial for our understanding of the community. The community encompassed individuals like this resourceful and enterprising farmer, not just the "poor and victimized rural people" that we had primarily focused on during the trip.


The purpose of our trip was broad and open-ended. We aimed to discover what it was truly like to live in rural Cambodia, where the changes brought about by the market economy, climate change, and personal circumstances like illness had significant impacts on residents' lives. We wanted to understand how the cycle of poverty perpetuated and how the world appeared from their perspectives. Personally, I was especially interested in learning how they perceived "development" - the realm of privileges, donor aid, and helpful technologies that we often take for granted.

Despite the story mentioned earlier, most of the people we encountered lived under extremely challenging conditions. Some had little to eat, and it showed in their physical appearance. Some were ill, with limited access to medical care and relief. Many expressed a lack of hope for a better future. The harsh reality struck us all profoundly, and I could see in the faces of each team member the guilt, shame, and discomfort they felt. Internally, I battled the urge to escape the scene during our encounters. Some moments felt contrived, while others were raw and deeply intimate. I experienced anger, sadness, and despair, feeling frustrated by the circumstances


Human-Centered Design, to me, is all about understanding. It's about understanding the problem at hand, understanding the users or beneficiaries, understanding the context, and understanding the feedback when we try something. With this understanding, we can generate new ideas, create prototypes, reframe the problem, and try again.

If our goal was simply to create beautiful things, we wouldn't need consultation. If our aim was to make things functional and add features that are useful to some, we could simply consult our clients and make a list. However, if we truly want to create something that transforms the lives of its users, we must strive for a much deeper understanding of their lives and the context in which our creation will be used.

If our goal was simply to create beautiful things, we wouldn't need consultation. If our aim was to make things functional and add features that are useful to some, we could simply consult our clients and make a list. However, if we truly want to create something that transforms the lives of its users, we must strive for a much deeper understanding of their lives and the context in which our creation will be used.

But understanding comes at a cost - it requires resources such as money, time, and, most importantly, personal effort. Effort to reach out and connect. Effort to suspend our own opinions and beliefs. Effort to see beyond our own consciousness and experience, and step into someone else's world. This is what we often refer to as "empathy." However, by labeling it with a word so abstract and overused, we sometimes forget just how challenging it is to truly empathize with another person.

During our week of interaction with people from various backgrounds and circumstances in four communes around the city of Kratie, we experienced this firsthand. For some of us, it was the first time we had ever done something like this - approaching and talking to total strangers, trying to establish rapport and gain insights into their world. Our objective was vague, without a formal hypothesis or research goal. This open-endedness was partly circumstantial and partly intentional. As we set their intentions before we left, some of the participants expressed their desire to "be with a family living below the poverty line, observing and listening to their story" and to "identify the real problems that need to be addressed."

This approach made our efforts more challenging. If we had a prototype, hypothesis, or specific research objective, it would have been easier - ask a question, get an answer, record it. But we aimed for a more open setting, creating a space for genuine sharing of stories and a deeper understanding of each interviewee. We wanted to actualize the empathy we often discussed in theory and practiced with each other.

In the field, we faced numerous obstacles. Sometimes, no one showed up for a scheduled meeting. Communication between team members was sometimes difficult, leading to shortened interviews. At times, the weight of their stories overwhelmed us, leaving our minds blank. We forgot to ask for names or permission before taking pictures. Throughout this trip, I often felt like a facilitator who was failing miserably. There was little I could do to help each participant gain profound insights and practice this challenging art.

Human-Centered Design, especially the act of listening and cultivating empathy, is a personal journey and practice. It's akin to meditation, which I have been sharing with others as I deepen my own practice over the past six years. I have also introduced it to the InSTEDD team. I can guide others on what to do, but the learning, insights, and benefits come at their own pace for each individual. I cannot expedite their personal growth.

During the interviews and in our post-interview discussions to process our learnings, I noticed occasional moments of empathy. These were moments of connection that went beyond language, thoughts, and reasoning. The teams genuinely felt a closeness to the people we met. Personally, witnessing the beauty and hardship of people's lives out there, even in sadness, I felt a profound connection to their experiences, one that I could have never gained without being present with them. It felt warm, serene, and human to share in their stories and lives.

(words by Akira)

A bit about Akira Morita:

Akira Morita is the founder of Design Kompany, an innovation design and strategy consultancy with clients in North America, Europe, and Asia. With over 13 years of experience as a consultant, he has helped numerous small businesses clarify their messages, express their visions, and foster growth and innovation. Akira takes a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving, using design as a key tool. From 2014 to 2016, Akira served as a resident innovation design consultant at Development Innovations, an initiative funded by USAID. This program aimed to promote and nurture an innovative culture in the realm of social change in Cambodia. Throughout his career, he has also acted as a mentor and coach in various entrepreneurship programs, including Startup Weekends, Startup Journey, and Spoong Ventures.

Although Akira was born in Japan, he received his education in the United States and has worked in several countries, including the US, Japan, Ireland, and currently Cambodia. He is a passionate advocate for open collaborations, advocating for cross-sector, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary exchanges. He strongly believes in the power of design thinking and storytelling as catalysts for behavioral and societal change.

Akira serves as a facilitator at DSIL, Track X, Anakot Asia, and is a founding director of TRYBE, a startup community space in Phnom Penh.



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