What Do You Have in Common with a Low-Income Indian Mother? More Than You Think
Imagine this: You wake up early, as always, to prepare breakfast for your family. Wiping the sleep from your eyes you shuffle to the kitchen and light the stove—out comes billowing black smoke that immediately fills the room. Business as usual. You put on a pot of water to boil porridge. Your 3-year-old is now awake and comes over to watch you cook. They lean against soot-blackened walls and cough chronically as you continue cooking, learning how it’s done. You try to keep low, below the acrid smoke, as you feed the stove and stir the porridge, eyes watering. Breakfast should be ready soon, which is good because the rest of the family is waking up. As the porridge simmers, your mind turns to the day ahead—fetching wood, carrying water, going to market, preparing dinner… Overhead the coal-black thatch roof crouches over you, suspended on a pillow of smoke, but you pay it no mind. After all, it’s been that way since before you were born.
Smoke is known to be toxic. It kills young children around the world at a rate exceeded only by the drama and trauma of childbirth. The negative impact on adult heart disease and life expectancy from cooking in kitchens such as this is well documented. To those who understand the ramifications of breathing smoke and who, importantly, have exposure to other cooking methods, the harm is literally written on the soot-covered wall.
But that’s just the point. You, and the billions of other people who routinely cook their meals in this fashion, don’t know any other way. Your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all cooked like this. And even when you and your peers are informed as to the harm of your approach, you persist. It seems far-fetched to think that a pervasive and ancient cultural practice could be such a vicious killer. Besides, it’s what you know and are comfortable with—it’s what everyone does. So you continue, and the lungs of your family continue to fill with smoke.
Unfortunately, people are not rational actors; we are trained creatures of habit, molded and formed by our culture and personal experiences. Whether you’re a recent heart attack survivor who continues to live on a diet of Big Macs, or an overweight office-worker who watches hour after hour of television, you, and the rest of humanity, persist with habitual behaviors that are illogical and clearly damaging. It’s obvious to an outside observer, and maybe even to yourself, but that doesn’t stop you. Despite infinite public service announcements and articles about the harms of a poor diet or inactivity (to name only a couple of common issues) people resist changes to their accustomed behaviors almost as if their lives depended on it. Which, in a fashion, they do. Their way of life depends on their habitual patterns. And it is this habituated behavior that we, as designers and engineers striving to address social issues, must overcome.
But how do we do this? How do we attempt to tackle millennia of culturally instructed behavior? Contemporary psychological theories of behavior change, such as the Theory of Planned Behavior, tell us that people’s behaviors are based on attitudes, beliefs, and values and that changes in behavior rely on changes in these underlying attributes. Interestingly, the field of human-centered design also emphasizes understanding human values as an integral part of the design process.
As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, tells us, “The way to do it is to go out and figure out what humans actually value.” In the field of design for social impact the theories of behavior change and human-centered design converge and they both clearly indicate that an understanding of values is key: successful designs appeal to people’s values and so do successful behavioral change campaigns.
So how do we understand peoples’ values? Again, David Kelley clues us in:
At some point by observing these people and building empathy for them you start to have insights about them. "Oh, they really do value this." It's not obvious at first that that's what they really value. They say they really don't do something but it turns out they actually do when you observe them.
If the way to understand values is through empathy, how do we build empathy? Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence tells us that,
Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence—which makes sense when one considers that the Delphic oracle gave the advice to “know thyself” thousands of years ago. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives.
Self-awareness, being the first component of emotional intelligence, forms the foundation for the other components (self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill). Without self-awareness we struggle to empathize, if we can’t empathize we will find it difficult to understand people’s values, and if we can’t understand peoples values we won’t know how to design meaningful products for them in such a way that their behaviors change.
Do you, like the Indian mother in our example, understand why you persist in behaviors or beliefs that are unhelpful? Do you understand why you keep smoking, struggle with direct communication, judge people who are uneducated, and all of the other myriad things that you do that you would love to change in your life but don’t? If you understood why you can’t stop eating, might it help you relate to people who can’t stop shopping? If you understood why tradition keeps you cooking the same gross holiday dish even though no one likes it, might it help you understand why a mother might continue cooking over a smoky fire?
Let me take an example from my own life. I live in San Francisco, one of the best cities in the United States for public transportation. I also own a car despite being an ardent believer in global warming, that the world is headed toward serious environmental catastrophe, and that by regularly driving my car I am directly contributing to the problem, threatening the lives of millions. But I can’t bring myself to ditch the car. Why? What am I valuing that is holding me back? It has something to do with comfort (it’s convenient and easy) and familiarity (my family has always had automobiles). If I was to get rid of my car I would have to plan much more (requiring significant extra effort to plan bus routes or rent cars for both routine errands and long trips) and it would require a non-trivial reworking of my lifestyle (how would I get my weekly groceries or go for weekend hikes?). I would also have to explain to my friends and family why I am making the change and that would require confrontation, something with which I perpetually struggle (another family trait).
So, how can I relate to the Indian mother in our example? Can I understand that it might be easier to just keep doing what she has always done? Can I relate to the fact that change takes effort (modifying cooking habits) and involves confrontation (explaining to her family why she needs to get a different stove)? Can I take that empathy and integrate it into the products on which I work? Maybe we can design a stove that can fit into her life in such a way that her cooking habits don’t have to change. Or perhaps we can design a program that reduces family confrontation by making it more affordable. This is where things can get creative as we explore ways of building our products around the values of our end user.
By attempting to look inward at my own experience in order to see what I have in common with a low-income Indian mother, I hope this post has opened a door to you finding your own personal way to connect with her. This is how we uncover the values that will give rise to solutions.
To paraphrase Daniel Goleman, it is by understanding yourself that you begin to understand others. By feeling how your own hindrances are active in your life you can start to empathize with other people who struggle to make changes. Through understanding and empathy you can see what might be holding others back (their needs, wants, values, capabilities, beliefs, fears, etc.) and what they might require in order to change their behavior. Cultivating these capacities of understanding and empathy will allow you to work with others in an appropriate, considerate, and effective fashion. And that’s what design is: working with people to create tools that serve them in a meaningful way.
So I ask, all of you would-be designers and change makers, how well do you know yourself?