The human context of technology

  • Wieteke Agterhoek-Schrijver
  • 09-05-2022
  • 4 min

The world keeps on turning, and technology turns even faster. It all seems that our lives have become easier with the use of tech. However, without taking the needs of real people into account, it’s useless. The human context should be the basis for everything we improve and innovate; humans first, technology second, not the other way around. Let me explain why.

Meet Thomas

Thomas is a close friend of mine. We know each other from high school, we enjoy each other’s conversation and we laugh a lot together. But some time ago, Thomas was frustrated in his job. He decided to search for something else, and he found a new job as Product Owner. He was happy with the new challenge, and I was happy for him. However, after some time, he began to doubt more and more if he’d really made the right choice. He felt that he couldn’t do that work, because he wasn’t a Product Owner. Several friends tried to convince him that he was right for it. But his doubts didn’t go away. When he called me, and he explained once more that he wasn’t really a Product Owner, I answered: “You’re totally right, you aren’t a Product Owner”. Thomas looked at me in astonishment and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Then I said: “You’re Thomas”.

We are all humans

Thomas was identifying himself with his job. But Thomas is, of course, much more than that. He’s a brother, friend, son, nephew, neighbour, sport buddy, partner etc. Just like me. I’m more than a Senior Design Researcher and a Rabobank employee. I’m also a parent, wife, sister, daughter, niece, friend and mother of Yara and Lily.

And during my work at Rabobank, our customers are also much more than just our clients. They’re humans. They’re Marie, Peter, Lisa and Mark. They have their own desires, struggles and fears. And once you understand if Marie, Peter, Lisa and Mark are concerned or proud, you can create the best solutions for them.

Everything starts with empathy

If you want to understand how a person feels, you need to empathize with them as a human being. That includes understanding the context of their complete life. For example: what is her experience with money? What does housing mean to him? Which role does a mobile phone play in his life? How do parents raise their kids? How does he take care of his deceased mother’s finances?

You can easily learn if someone is worried or excited by talking to them instead of about them. That might sound quite simple. And it is! If you use the right research set-up and ask the right questions, you’ll discover a lot. You’ll learn a person’s daily routines, refreshing thoughts, and moving emotions. In the process, you’ll be exploring people and their lives. That’s why it is called explorative research.

Talking to an unknown person might make you feel insecure, because you don’t know which questions to ask and how the conversation will go. But in my eyes, that’s the beauty of it all. Embrace the insecurity and be open to connect with a person. When you’re curious to hear and learn how someone else lives their life, you’ll hear the most surprising and inspiring things. Because if a person says: ‘I don’t use internet banking’, you could conclude that it’s just a usage problem. But if you ask why, she might reply with ‘I don’t trust internet banking on my smartphone’. And then it turns into a privacy problem. Or if someone mentions: ‘I want to raise my kids well’, he means: ‘I’m feeling insecure about how to teach my kids to use their money wisely’. So, when you listen to more than just the words, and ask ‘Why’, you’ll learn much more about them. And that knowledge will definitely lead to great solutions. I can guarantee that, based on many years of experience.

Research is crucial for your business

Exploring people through explorative research is crucial for any organization. Because, when you know how to add value to their life with your product, you stay relevant to your consumers. And then people won’t easily replace your product with something else.

For me as a researcher, that sounds like the best way forward for any company. Luckily, McKinsey can also underpin it with extensive research: consumer understanding has a strong relation to superior business performance​ (article ‘Business Value by Design’ by McKinsey).

So, what else do you need to get up and visit people? Just observe their way of living and ask questions to learn more about their emotional needs.

Graph showing the positive effect of companies who are strong at design on their financial performance.
Effect of customer understanding on company performance.

This is also what we do at the Design department here at Rabobank. Every design process starts with creating empathy. I have two preferred options for that. First, I try to visit someone at their home or work and see with my own eyes what they do there. And second, let people write in a diary and learn about routines and emotions in a creative way (read more about Diary Studies in this blog). But there are many other methods and techniques. Stay tuned for more ways to do human research.

The Double Diamond process is an illustration of the design process and maps the divergent and convergent stages of a design process. The first diamond focuses on understanding and defining the problem, while the second diamond relates to creating & defining the solution.
The Double Diamond of Rabobank.

We should all become better listeners

I assume that many of you won’t disagree with me that focusing on people is important. But I’m still worried, because I receive surveys from my online grocer asking questions about the speed of their grocery delivery. I have some opinions about the quality of their products, and how friendly the delivery guy is. But the survey only gives them answers to their questions. They don’t understand my concerns. And that bothers me. They don’t know how I feel about the issues that matter to me as a user. The grocer might say that they put users at the centre of what they do, but do they really?

And how does that work for you? You might read reviews about your products, and you ask for user feedback. But what do you focus on? On your own KPI and features? Or on how the clients feel about your products and services?

A person’s life consists of more than just a feature. At least, I hope your life does.

So, if you really care about your users, you should know what they really mean. That requires better listening. Not just listening to the superficial words, but also the underlying emotions.

Hopefully you can relieve my concerns and become a better listener. Just seek to understand what a person is saying and meaning. Ask for the ‘Why’. Observe non-verbal cues. Then you’ll learn much more about the real human problems. And then you can solve them with your products and services – using tech.

In the meantime, Thomas is still a good friend of mine, and he dared to start his new job as a Product Owner. It was an exciting move for him, and luckily, he’s enjoyed it ever since. Especially because he’s focusing on what he wants to achieve in life as a human being, and not just as a Product Owner.

We’re all humans, after all.

Note: based on a true story, but all names and jobs are fictitious.

Want to learn more?

Reading tip: What Good Listeners Actually Do, Harvard Business Review.

Want to work with us?

If I’ve inspired you to work at Design department of Rabobank, please check our vacancies on this site.

About the author

Wieteke Agterhoek-Schrijver
Senior Design Researcher

Wieteke is the senior researcher of the design team. She is an experienced international human researcher and service designer. Driven by curiosity and conceptual thinking, she is passionate about exploring human lives and finding innovative ways to improve these lives.

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