Learning to Be Inconspicuous

Some thoughts on the first day of field research from John Collery, a business designer at IDEO.org

Design research is hard. Good design research is really hard. Great design research is an art form. I work on IDEO.org’s Launchpad team where we apply cutting-edge design to the problems of poverty. We build all kinds of things, like businesses, products, and technology. With every project, we start this process by conducting foundational research for partners ranging from the largest for-profit companies to the smallest nonprofits. We spend a lot of time in the field and because of that, we’ve refined our research approach and learned how to get to the insights that inform strong design.

When it comes to design research there are two basic rules we try to follow.

  1. The underlying assumptions of any idea must be tested.
  2. On day one in the field, work to be as inconspicuous as possible.

The first one seems kind of obvious—though you’d be surprised—and we will share some of our favorite approaches to testing assumptions soon, but it’s the second one that really takes work and it’s what I want to focus on here.

When you’re working in hard places, being even a little bit inconspicuous is really, really difficult. But the point is not to be invisible, the point is to ensure that people see you and don’t care. If you can achieve this, you’ll begin to see a real neighborhood. No one will alter behaviors because of your presence and people will show you their truest selves. Patterns, norms, and outliers will begin to emerge and you will learn things that structured interviews or surveys could never uncover. This kind of learning is the starting point to good design.

Here are a few things to consider to make an awesome day one a reality.


Working in parts of the world where pasty white Irish men with red beards like me tend to stand out makes becoming inconspicuous especially hard. But again, be inconspicuous, not invisible. First, travel in small groups. This means that, where possible, you should be working with a translator or preferably a fixer who knows the language and its colloquialisms. Surround yourself with people who know the area and the people, not people who claim to know the subject matter you’re researching. There is a huge difference.

Small teams afoot.


Keep notebooks, pens, and cameras hidden for the first moments you’re in a new place. I cannot overstate this. And depending upon where you are, the rule may hold for the whole day. Your gut instinct is probably going to be right on this one.

Once my notebook comes out, the person I’m speaking with and I are in a transaction. I want something from him and he knows it. If I haven’t laid the correct foundations, put the person at ease, and made sure they actually want to talk to me, I’m getting taxed. Maybe I’ll hit a wall of bullshit or be greeted with stony silence but one thing is for sure, it will be difficult to pull value from my research that day.

Recall is a wonderful thing, and those first moments in a new neighborhood or unfamiliar place will stick with you. Put the notebook, pen, and camera away for a little while. And if someone invites you to, eat the food.

Boiled peanuts, jackfruit, samosas, tea, water, and chat in Jakarta. Not a notebook in sight that day.


The main thing you want to avoid is rolling into a community in a caravan of flashy jeeps and exiting en masse. We’ve been there and it’s a disaster. If the folk you’re working with demand big vehicles, park some distance away from your research area and walk in. Alternatively, get a local vehicle, which worked well for us during a design research trip in Myanmar, and works for all of the work we do in Nairobi. Low key is best. Get ready to walk.

We had no bikes. Our truck could not get through. Long walk ahead.

Let Yourself Be Led

Sometimes a situation presents itself where you need to forget your research agenda, forget about your goals for the day, and just be led. It’s the moment when I think to myself that the best possible outcome here is that I’ll be welcomed back to the community tomorrow and the worst possible outcome probably doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s the moment in a neighborhood when you are about to become a scene, you’re about to become the center of attention, and you need to do something to stop that from happening.

I favor brash conversation, the occasional curse word, lots of eye contact, and the willingness to say yeah dude, take me there. My favorite example is from a recent trip to Nairobi to research youth employment. It was our first day in the neighborhood and we ended up amongst a group of people watching their homes being torn down to make way for a government development plan. It was an aggressive, angry, and deeply saddening moment and is one of the enduring memories of my career. It’s a moment that I constantly remind myself of when I think about the need for sensitivity in research approaches.

We work with people who are oftentimes circling the lowest points of their lives and treating those people with the dignity that they want in that precise moment is sometimes the most important thing you can do.

Paul saw me that afternoon standing with my fixer, in shock at what I was watching, and wondering to myself how on earth this situation was going to play out. “You go’n help me mzungu? You got money for me?” He was big and brash and pissed off. There are a few ways I could have approached this. I could have apologized and gotten out of there. I didn’t. I could have ignored the context and begun asking questions about youth employment. I didn’t. Paul wanted to vent so I chose to stay and to be pissed off with him. Over the next few hours I sympathized with him, took the piss out of his Chelsea jersey, and eventually asked him to walk me through his neighborhood, away from the crowd, and to tell me about his life there. Some members of our group thought that I was wasting my time. They were confused why I asked no questions about employment and why really, I didn’t really ask any questions at all.

En route to Paul’s place, Nairobi.

Paul was well known. Everyone we walked past said hello. Eventually, they stopped asking about me. We chatted for hours about nothing at all but in passing I told him we were interested in youth employment. “You’ve got to meet David,” he told me. We did. David was just as keen to chat. “You’ve got to meet Nadia.” We did. Nadia was less keen to chat with me but took an immediate shining to Jennifer, my research partner. Today Nadia forms the basis of a prototype that our partner has been running successfully in-market for close to six months.

Had we turned our backs and walked away after happening upon that scene of destruction, had we ignored the real-time context and begun asking questions relevant to our research we almost certainly would not have been welcomed back into that community and we certainly would not be running a prototype there. Because we stayed, changed plans, and let Paul lead us, we can walk around that corner of Nairobi today and no one really passes much notice. Paul’s friends. Perfect.

Passively Observe

This one can be hard for people to understand because it essentially means coming to an assignment intentionally underprepared. Not unprepared, but open to a degree of ambiguity. We have design tools, research approaches, interview guides, and a well developed understanding of the spaces we operate in. We have deep experience doing this work all over the world. But still, there is strength in coming to a foundational research assignment with an unconstrained view. There is power in thinking that anything, any future is possible.

That is not naivety, nor is it unbridled optimism. It’s the confidence to say that maybe we don’t know everything and that we are open to new ideas. When I want to understand foundational motivations and really dig into the assumptions underlying an idea, I don’t really want to have too many preset opinions about the people I’ll be interacting with or the social structures that condition their day-to-day. I want to rely on a fixer or local contact for context but I want to approach the research with a fully open mind, ready to learn.

We conducted foundational research on flooding in Jakarta recently and some of our most fruitful insights came from spending four hours sitting in a teashop, nursing glasses of sweet, milky tea and just listening. The first man who sat with us made a living digging drainage canals but had been retired for a long time. Between cigarettes, and in the breaks from conversation with his buddy, he told us about a network of disused canals under the area we were in and the volume of water that they had handled in the past. The next few people who sat around the counter ignored us and we watched the world go by testing the caffeine drinks behind the counter and laughing with some local kids.

The delivery guy who pulled up a few hours into our time worked for half a dozen companies, delivering their products to stores in the area. His delivery zones changed with the seasons based upon areas of flooding and where he could drive his vehicle. Over rounds of tea, he told us about his struggles with flood water, how it impacted his ability to do his work, and the methods he had used in the past to get products into neighborhoods after flooding. He played with his phone throughout the conversation and eventually offered to show us what he was doing. He was a GoGek driver, the motorbike equivalent to Uber, and a company that is booming in the traffic quagmire of Jakarta.

A system of disused drainage canals, delivery services and livelihoods impacted by flooding, and an on-demand economy were all alive and well around us and all it took for us to get a candid view into this ecosystem was copious amounts of tea and the patience to be part of the neighborhood for a few hours.

We know that this work is hard and that there is pressure to talk with as many people as possible, to get volumes of information, and to build an understanding of the problem space quickly. These things are all important and, of course, there is no magic-wand approach to getting to real insights. That said, being able to step into a new environment and become relatively inconspicuous is a pretty great start.

If you can achieve this, if people in a new area can look at you and not really care, the systems and structures of social life around you will operate despite of your presence instead of bending toward it. This is where real insights come from and it is the starting point of good research and ultimately, good design.

See you out there!

Painfully conspicuous in the DR Congo. Sometimes it has to be done.

This article originally appeared on Notes from the Edge of Design.

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