The Art of the Insight: Learnings from 30 Years of Curiosity and Empathy

“We need to think about the kind of trust, comfort, and safety that we can provide as leaders and facilitators of these curiosity moments.”
—Jane Fulton Suri

In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO Partner Emeritus and Executive Design Director, and Dean of IDEO U Suzanne Gibbs Howard reflect on the evolution of empathy in design during Jane’s 30-year career at IDEO and why bringing curiosity into your work takes courage.

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Jane Fulton Suri joined IDEO more than 30 years ago, bringing her social science-based perspective to the practice of design and contributing to the development of the human-centered approach. Since then, she’s evolved techniques for observation, design research, and prototyping that have become standard in the design process.

Along the way, she’s keenly observed the evolution of the way we approach design—and what has remained constant over the years.

Observations on Human-Centered Design

Looking back, Jane sees a few different trends in thinking that impacted the way IDEO works today. In the design of physical products, the goal was to create an object that effectively signaled its function to the user. Other designers focused on the meaning people placed on artifacts, rituals, and behaviors and how to incorporate those interactions into their work. In Scandinavia, designers began including the end user in the process early on, focusing on co-creation. As the practice of human-centered design became more defined, the various ways people solved for design challenges came together into a more comprehensive approach, and IDEO pulls from many of these ideas today.

Humanity And Inclusion As Constants

Throughout the development of human-centered design, Jane sees one important aspect as a constant. “What stays the same through all of it—through all of human activity—is the nature of being human in all its richness, diversity, and peculiarities,” she says.

As humans, we share the same iterative process for intaking and learning from information, what Jane calls an “intelligence framework.” We are sensing behaviors in the world and making sense of what we’re sensing, putting things into the world, and then learning from how people react to that.

intelligence framework

Historically, every approach to designing human-centered products and services has also shared a common goal of trying to broaden and embrace diversity in human behavior to provide access to the greatest number of people. This is where extremes research—a technique Jane pioneered—comes into play. By looking at edge cases, designers can create solutions that work for the largest number of people, not just the average person.

New Tools And Challenges For Human-centered Design

While the nature of being human remains, the kinds of problems we’re tackling and the tools we have available have changed dramatically. The emergence of data as a design medium is something Jane is watching closely. We are now able to design augmented intelligence solutions based on rich data that people are constantly generating. She’s interested in how this could help us move beyond the traditional research tactic of interviewing people about their behavior to being able to see evidence of their behavior instead. The ethics of how to use and design with data is something Jane and others at IDEO have been working on recently.

As data science creates smarter systems, Jane sees the intelligence framework humans use applying here as well.

“We’re on this continual cycle of improvement and so should our augmented intelligent machines be very similarly learning so our design isn’t just a finished thing,” she says. “It’s going to evolve through this sense, act, learn cycle.”

Building Courageous Curiosity

It’s hard to predict how human-centered design may evolve going forward, but one quality that will play a leading role is curiosity. Curiosity is central to sparking creativity, but it’s not always so easy to activate, especially in cultures or industries where asking questions isn’t well received. In Australia, for example, “tall poppy syndrome” is when people who stand out—by asking questions or framing themselves as superior in some way—are frowned upon by society.

While studying with a master woodblock carver in Japan, Jane experienced this cultural aversion to curiosity firsthand. She realized that all her questions about how and why to do each step of the carving were not received as she intended—an appreciation for the art and desire to learn—but potentially as undermining her teacher’s expertise or doubting established methods.

This insight is driving her thinking on curiosity as a courageous act and her exploration of ways to make space for curiosity at work since it is such a critical piece of our ability to generate ideas and insights.

“We need to think about the kind of trust, comfort, and safety that we can provide as leaders and facilitators of these curiosity moments,” she says.

To encourage curiosity at work, think about incorporating moments of fun into meetings, changing up your environment to escape routine, and modeling your own vulnerability. It takes time to develop a culture of trust, but small actions can add up to a big impact over time.

To learn more about human-centered design and methods for surfacing insights, check out Jane’s online course Insights for Innovation.

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