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  • Writer's pictureSovanpidor Ham

If You Don’t Go, You Won’t Know: The Logistics of Human Centered Design

Published on Sep 20, 2016

Last month I had the pleasure and luck to join the INSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia (iLab SEA) team on a five-day field trip to practice human centered design skills. We traveled to Kratie, a province 300 kilometers away from Phnom Penh, to interview individuals who lived below the poverty line and had experienced flooding of their homes. The group consisted of the ten-person iLab SEA team (a mix of computer programmers, administration and communications staff), a design thinking consultant from Japan, two staff members from NGOs working in Kratie, and me. The trip to Kratie from Phnom Penh takes between five and six hours and many in the group had never before visited this rural area.

I am a PhD student at Cornell in Information Science, an interdisciplinary department that brings together sociology, technology and design. Though I teach and research information ethics and human-computer interaction, I have a long-standing interest in the concept of logistics, which I have defined in earlier papers [see:] as the “artful coordination of moving people and things.” Logistics can include the classic private-sector big business work of moving commodities (for example, by companies like DHL, Walmart, and UPS), but logistics also includes the smaller scale, and sometimes even mundane, work of getting things and people where they need to be, when they need to be there. What I find most interesting about logistics is the way that it often combines a need and impulse towards control (particularly of how things and people move) and care (going above and beyond for success and emotionally investing in the work). In many sectors, from business to international development to research, logistics is a critical component of success — yet the work of logisticians often goes unnoticed or is given short shrift.

On the day our trip began, we planned to meet at the office at 7 am. As I was hustling up to the meeting point a few minutes before 7, I saw that most people were already waiting around outside the van, looking antsy to leave. After I slid my bag into an opening in the puzzle of things in the back of the van, I learned that two people were late and we wouldn’t be leaving until they arrived. I waited outside the van, nervous, trying to small talk until we left a half an hour later. Once we left, I sat in the van between two female staff and, not ready to fully engage, I listened to music, closing myself into rhythms and my own inside world.

We stopped for breakfast after about an hour of driving. I sat with our two administrative officers and my opening process began: I didn’t eat meat, no, but fish was okay. Sometimes I have coffee but I don’t really like sweet coffee. Explaining these inconvenient preferences of mine was a way to start introducing myself to them: an American woman, a PhD student, teaching human-computer interaction at my home university, visiting Cambodia for the fourth time but returning to the US shortly. I tried to speak some Khmer to them but was self-conscious so would default to a strange mix of English and Khmer. “Speaking both, it is confusing,” they explained. They sweetly listened and patiently tried to understand.

We arrived at Kratie at 1 pm, ate another meal pre-arranged by the InSTEDD logistical officers, then quickly moved to a meeting from 2 until 4 pm with a local NGO. We rested from 4 pm until 5:45 pm, then had a meeting, then had a big dinner, also pre-arranged by our logistical staff.

I lived, that first day, naively and self-centeredly, as if my ambivalent feelings from leaving my comfort zone and embarking on this trip were singular to me. What became apparent over the next few days, however, was that these tolls were real to everyone on the team and that they had consequences for the kind and extent of data we collected, as well as the ways the team interacted throughout the five days.

Our physical and emotional discomfort, however, was offset by the amazing, extensive logistical work that the two administrative officers had done in the lead-up to the trip. They had bought and brought a wealth of presents for our interview participants. They bought water for the car ride. They planned where we would eat meals in advance, reserved hotel rooms with riverside views, and arranged for daily tuk tuks and a van to cart us around to communes thirty minutes away from town center. They looked after the whole team; for example, they noticed my visible change of moods and what I ate, cautiously asking how I felt and if they could help. They ordered lunches to go for us from the hotel restaurant and picked them up at 6:30 in the morning, a half an hour before the rest of us groggily met up at the van. For these lunches, they accommodated my dietary restrictions, ordering eggs for me instead of chicken. They arranged for last minute change to the schedule and got tickets for a boat so that we could spend a morning on an island on our last day. One of the administrative staff made sure to find a seat for me in the shade while we were on the boat to protect my fair skin. These small tasks of kindness and care are what made the trip pleasant – and possible.

Training on how to use a phone application to submit larvae survey data

In a humorous twist of events, we had an unexpected logistical issue when the prime minister of Cambodia decided to stay in our hotel, obliging the hotel staff to ask the rest of the reserved guests to leave. We left our rooms that had been so carefully chosen to overlook the Mekong. The burden was low on most of the team; our administrative staff arranged for the move, leaving the rest of the team just to pack, unpack, and re-pack. This change of plans is the kind of unpredictable occurrence that every logistician comes to expect. Our logistical staff had to be in charge and comfortable in making decisions in an ad hoc manner.

You may be wondering, of all the fascinating details of the trip to Kratie that I could write about, why I am describing these seemingly mundane details of car rides, hotel rooms, and lunches. These logistical tasks, I’d argue, are some of the most pressing things to consider when we talk about ‘human-centered design’ and developing design principles such as ‘empathy’ with a group of people who live far away from us. When we are academically or professionally planning human-centered design, we rarely consider how the money, time, and care that goes into arranging for trips away to the “field.” Often we theoretically want to design for people who live at a distance yet we rarely consider the heft of this distance and the kinds of work required to bring people together. Foregrounding this work and these resources helps us design better and more feasible projects and have more realistic expectations for what is possible from human-centered design, particularly in ICT4D.

The team all agreed that by the end of the trip, there was more work and time required before we could even start to design a solution for the individuals we interviewed throughout the course of the week. But we also were exhausted and had used significant financial resources on this trip. We all went home, I think, recognizing that the kind of commitment required for good HCD for a rural population would be difficult, time-consuming and likely unfeasible for the majority of the group to do on a regular basis.

I will conclude with two take-aways: first, this trip reminded me that the logistical work which touched on above should be put front and center in all planning and theoretical notions of human centered and participatory design. This work is relevant to both the feasibility and the intellectual outputs from doing such design techniques. Second, the design community should better appreciate the administrative and logistical tasks required to do the ‘creative’ work of design. This kind of expertise should be acknowledged as equally important to the work of the designers and researchers.

Words by Maggie Jack

Abit about Maggie:

Maggie is a PhD student in Cornell University’s Department of Information Science. Maggie’s work lies at the intersection of human-computer interaction and science and technology studies. She utilizes her academic background in history of science (AB Harvard University and MPhil University of Cambridge) and professional experience in the technology industry to approach problems of global computing with multiple lenses. She worked as an analyst for the Clinton Health Access Initiaitive in Cambodia before starting her PhD and continues ongoing ethnographic fieldwork and archival research there. She is a FLAS (foreign language and area studies) fellow and a student of the Khmer language and Southeast Asian studies program at Cornell.

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