How my tools as a Design Researcher have helped me handle these tumultuous times

Words: Ishika Mukherjee
Ishika Mukherjee

What a time to be living through. In the last few months we’ve seen the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, endured lockdown, witnessed the fall of major economies, mourned the tragic deaths that led to the urgent acceleration in the anti-racism movement and infinite more conflicts emerging or saturating across the globe. On a personal level, people have lost jobs, been furloughed, or have had to work remotely – each in its own way drastically changing our lives and more often than not, our priorities.

I’ve been one of the luckier ones in the fact that I’ve been able to keep my job and continued working remotely. As a design researcher, my role is to connect with and understand people – dig deep into their implicit behaviour, their needs and their pain points in order to design integrated services that empower people and the planet. To do this, I use an array of techniques, tools and skills. 

Of late, what’s been interesting to me is that a lot of these design research tools have come in quite handy, as I’ve navigated the tumultuous times we’ve been faced with. The most obvious (and yet underrated) was thoroughly checking my sources. Now, while the majority of my work is to do with actually spending time with people and learning about them first hand –  we also do a significant amount of secondary research. This includes reading through and taking insight from research that has already been done –  like market research or research papers or surveys. The decision as to how we choose what information to take in, comes from evaluating the source and understanding their accuracy. This practice came in super handy when the Coronavirus first hit and we were all left to sift through piles of unregulated information (and misinformation) regarding the virus we knew so little of. It has since kept me well-armed to cut through the noise of often exaggerating media, and focus on reliable sources like government websites, WHO and medical experts.

Another practice that has kept me sane, has been the 5 whys –  asking a sequence of whys to get to the root of our users’ needs. In design research, we use this to better understand our users so that we’re not left solving superficial problems without reaching the core of the matter. But lately this is how I’ve handled my anxiety around the uncertainty of the future as well. Every time I’ve found myself thinking of catastrophes, I’ve asked myself why I think that could happen and then followed that up with a number of why’s (or questions) to reach the crux, which is usually the fact that I don’t possess enough information that actually signals doom. 

The 5 whys have also come in useful when trying to educate myself and the people around me about anti-racism, micro-aggressions and implicit prejudice. We all have biases, and to discard them, we first have to undress them and understand where they’re coming from – hence, a sequence of whys. 

Another tool – one I almost left out because of how much of a buzzword it has become of late – is empathy. In research, the whole point of conducting user interviews, focus groups, and such, is to understand the user as they are – not as we think they are, or even as they think they are. How we do this, is by listening deeply, reading between the lines and observing people –  their body language, their pauses and the emotions that flicker across their eyes. All cues to what they’re actually feeling. Operating in this space where all our mental states are shaken up, instead of asking people the “hi, you okay?” I try to notice, ask questions like “how are you today?” Or “what’s been occupying your mind lately?” and really listen, not just listen to respond, but really listen to how people are.

There’s also going one step further and listening without judgement. As researchers, our job is to understand, not change our users’ state or behaviour – at least not immediately. So we tell the people we speak to that ‘there are no right or wrong answers’. We give them the space to be themselves even if that might not be what I want to hear. We also make sure of that by not interrupting people or countering their statements with “but why don’t you try…” or “have you considered …” or “when that happened to me, I …”. IRL this looks like having unselfish conversations –  instead of offering advice, just listening, instead of thinking about what I would have done, thinking about what they did. This has helped me connect better with my friends, colleagues and family, helped me feel less alone, and more purposeful. This has also helped me take better care of my own mental health and become less judgemental and more conscious of my own thoughts and patterns. 

Now, while I’m very thankful for the practice of design research for teaching me the tools that have played out to be so crucial in these wary times, on further introspection it struck me odd. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if being a more human human made me a better researcher, as opposed to the fact that being a good researcher has made me a more human human? 

Which led me to ask, why is it that I had to be a researcher in order to be a better equipped human? Answer: because the tools to question, think critically, listen actively, and be empathic were not given much importance through my years of schooling. These are known as ‘soft skills’ in a world that applauds ‘hard skills’. 

Why? Because since industrialisation, we’ve aimed for maximum efficiency and productivity over everything else. 

I could ask why, but I gather you see where this is going. So I’ll ask ‘what if’? What if we make the shift to valuing our human-ness, our interpersonal connections, our deeper consciousness and ability to think critically without prejudice, more? What if we lace our education system with more ‘soft skills’? What if we change empathy from being a buzzword to being elemental?

Ishika Mukherjee is an interdisciplinary designer and researcher with a background in design research, service design, content creation, editorial writing, and architecture – and an acute interest in social innovation. She uses research from human experience and behaviour, distilled into actionable insights to aid the process of creating optimistic design that empowers humans to be more human. She likes to tell stories, drink strong coffee and read compelling fiction. And eat cake.

You can follow Ishika’s work on Instagram.


The stairway to self-love in a pandemic

Millennial Empowerment Coach, Bethany Wright explains how best to overcome the anxiety and worry in these uncertain times with her tips on daily rituals, reduced screen time and realistic expectations.

As the uncertainty of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to unravel, it would be fair to say that the fabric of our everyday lives has been completely disrupted. There’s no overnight remedy or expiry date that can be applied to cure the situation, leaving us with little control over life as we once knew it. Understandably, this is causing agitation in households across the world. A global crisis with global anxieties to match.

We’re all used to asserting control over our daily agenda, travelling through the day with activity after activity, wondering where the time has gone. Fast forward to the now, where we feel we’ve lost control altogether and are often left staring at the clock wishing the time away. But, there’s plenty of discovery to be had. And there’s powerful strategies you can implement in order to create your calm. 

Audit, detox, reboot 

There is so much that is out of your control, but focus on what is in your control.

Although it may not feel like it right now, we do have control over what we are available for. We get to choose what we show up for (predominantly in a virtual setting) and what gets our attention; it’s how we invest our time. By working out what your triggers are, you can then establish your own set of boundaries that are unique to your situation. 

If you’re finding that the news is impacting your mood, think about what forms of control you can exercise here. It may be that you need to switch off the notifications popping up on your phone screen, or perhaps avoiding primetime TV where you know the updates are going to be relentlessly paraded. 

It’s important, now more than ever, to be aware of your surroundings and how they make you feel – how is your environment serving you? This also applies to the virtual space. With so much more time at our disposal, it’s likely that you’re spending greater time scrolling through your Instagram feed. And what does that do? Well, it is a surefire way to kickstart comparison. Allow yourself to do a virtual declutter and remove any toxicity that is impacting your headspace. If you find yourself feeling rubbish when you stumble upon certain accounts, temporarily mute their notifications, or unfollow together. You want your space to inspire you, not tire you. 

Be mindful about the words you’re telling yourself too. It’s not just about what you’re externally consuming. Your own self-talk is often more powerful than the words of anyone else, because often you’re the first and only audience to be subject to them. So, be gentle and kind with yourself. This is unchartered territory, trust that you’re doing the best you can. 

Lean inwards: the power of right now

Lead your day with love. We often look to external resources, forgetting our most powerful resource: ourselves. By tapping into your core, you’ll be able to keep yourself grounded in the midst of the madness. We’re all going to have wobbly weeks, wobbly days even. But if you do, take note and listen to your body. There’s just as much power in a pause as there is a pivot, so give yourself a breather and allow yourself to shut off and unplug. Because to relieve it, you’ve got to feel it. 

If you find your mind is running away with itself, worrying about the what ifs, zone in on what you have in that moment. Replace the “what if” with “in this moment, I am” and follow the sentence with 3-5 things that you are. For example, it may sound something like this: “In this moment, I am safe, loved and sheltered.” This surthrival exercise helps you to home in on the present moment, enabling you to shut off from the anxieties of future possibilities. 

Another great technique to practice is gratitude. By writing down a list of things you’re grateful for each morning or night, it can help to raise your vibe and transform your mood. Especially when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed. Think about your blessings; what good happened in the day, what made you smile. Ultimately, it comes down to looking at how you be, do and have. So, block out some time in your day and start journaling away. 

Breathing is also a powerful self regulating system that brings you back to the present moment. A simple reminder to yourself that you can get through it. So if anxiety is showing up for you, remember to take a deep breath. Focus on the breaths you take, and visualise a calming view. 

Do what feels good 

It’s time to create your own aesthetic and trendset your way through the quarantine. If you fancy a day Netflix and chillin’ with ice-cream and pyjamas, then go for it. If you feel empowered to maintain productivity and commit to your online business, all power to you. 

We’re all going to have different priorities. Some days we’ll feel on top of the world, whereas others we may feel burnt out and lack energy. It’s a rollercoaster, and we’re all trying to ride the highs and lows. 

In this time, tensions are high and we find ourselves dipping into the panic zone a bit more frequently without the usual comfort blankets we’d normally turn to. So, it’s important that you take a step back and re-evaluate. What do you really need today? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. So remember to drop the pressures you may be putting on yourself and do what feels good for you. 

Choose yourself and take ownership over your happiness. Make it your primary intention and allow yourself to let go of your expectations. Embrace the happening, be compassionate and travel through the hours with acceptance. Because when you feed into yourself, you can feed into others. 

Bethany Wright, Empowerment Coach at Her Empowerment Room

Bethany is a Millennial Empowerment Coach who works with young women from all walks of life. She combines a mindset and performance coaching approach to help clients create their narrative by design, not default, and embody an empowered self that’s free of inner shame and guilt. 

Book your free discovery call via 

Find her on Instagram at @herempowermentroom

The M Word: Why Don’t Women Talk About Money

Words: Shahed Ezaydi

Money is such an integral part of all our lives and yet it seems as women we don’t actually discuss this with each other. We just don’t like talking about money, specifically our income and salaries, and as a consequence we become awkward and squeamish when even a hint of money is brought up in conversation. So, what’s really stopping us?

Women dislike talking about money so much that they would rather voice their sexual dissatisfaction with their partner than talk about money, according to a recent study carried out by Fidelity International. However, from my own research, conducted via Instagram poll, I came across some rather interesting opinions and thoughts – a snapshot if you will. 

I first asked my female Instagram followers two questions: 

  1. Do you talk about money with other women?
  2. Do any of these conversations stretch to salaries or long-term savings?

Interestingly, 73% of respondents said that they did talk to other women about money and with 

the second question, 76% of respondents said that these conversations did include talking about their income/salaries and savings. So, the majority of those I asked do talk and discuss money and finances, which is great. There are still a proportion of women who don’t discuss money though.

I then asked my male Instagram followers the same questions – 88% of men said they did talk to other men about money, and 73% said that these conversations stretched to talking about salaries and savings. So, more men talk about money with each other but around the same proportion of men talk specifically about salaries and savings as women. Another result I didn’t really expect.

I asked a few of the women who answered no to these questions about why they don’t talk about money:

Lizzie – “I don’t really know why – I guess money never really comes up in conversation.”

Lauren – “I just don’t talk to anyone about money other than my partner.”

Beth – “Money is not something that I talk about with the women in my life very much, and when it is, it tends to be quite shallow finance stuff. It’s just that it hardly ever comes up in conversation. I would love to be able to talk to other women about it because it’s not something that I or my friends have much knowledge about it’s hard to have conversations about it.”

So, it seems it isn’t a topic that women are actively avoiding but something that isn’t even coming up in conversations in the first place. This is something I personally agree with as I too don’t find money comes up in conversations with my female friends.

We are told that is not appropriate etiquette to talk about money – it’s simply not ladylike. But let’s unpack what this really means.  Putting aside the problematic phrase that is ‘ladylike’, why would talking about my salary to a friend or partner make me less so? The answer lies in the deep rooted stereotypical norms and values that surround women. These stereotypes include the fact we have typically not been that involved with money or employment until for the same amount of time as men. 

But this has trickled into life for us today and we’re still dealing with the consequences of it in how we view and approach money and our finances. From the women I spoke to, ‘it doesn’t come up in conversation’ cropped up a lot as a reason, and this might be due to the fact we’re just not used to talking about something that is stereotypically rooted in a man’s world.

However, our lack of discussion around money can actually serve as a detriment to us. Because we aren’t used to talking about it, we may then lack the confidence or skills to talk about it in a professional sense, i.e. when asking for a promotion or negotiating a salary. An aspect that most certainly has some impact on the gender pay gap. If women don’t feel able or comfortable asking for more money at work, where as men do, then we of course men will end up being paid more for the same job, because they asked. Forbes called this the ‘High Cost of Silence’. But, this could also be another tool used by the patriarchal structures in society to keep women in subordinate positions and dependant on men financially – structures that doesn’t allow us to progress and advance in jobs and career which can then afford us our independence.

Yet, even when women do demand what they rightly deserve, they are met with backlash and labelled ‘just another angry woman’. This is what happened with Carrie Gracie, China editor for BBC News, when she called out the BBC for pay discrimination on gender and resigned from her job over it. And more recently with Samira Ahmed, who has also filed a lawsuit against the BBC on pay discrimination, claiming she is only paid a sixth of what her male equivalent Jeremy Vine is paid. Suzanne Moore discusses this in her recent Guardian article and states that, “this casual indifference to financial equality is so deeply ingrained that in 2019, women demanding equal pay in very well-paid jobs are still seen as bolshy.”

The tide does seem to be changing for us though. The fact women are coming out publicly and demanding more for themselves is in itself a radical act. Yes, women like Carrie Gracie and Samira Ahmed are in positions of authority and to some extent greater privilege, but they are paving the way and starting up conversations for other women. There really is strength in numbers and so the more women who instigate  these discussions and talk about money, then the more likely we are to be able to achieve financial and gender equality in the long term. So, let’s talking. 

Instagram isn’t all that bad, is it?

Shahed Ezaydi discusses the good, the bad, and the ugly side of Instagram and how curating your own media streams could ensure that in the future we look to use social media platfroms as a tool for good.

Words: Shahed Ezaydi

It’s a funny old thing, Instagram. It is not honestly something I thought I would still be using in my mid-20s, or any form of social media for that matter. I first logged on to Instagram in 2013 and I genuinely thought it might just be another trend, like Bebo, that would be all the rage for a couple of years, and meet the same demise as its failed predecessors. But, here we are. We are approaching a brand-new decade and we are STILL obsessed with Instagram. I mean, I can count on one hand the people I know who are not on Instagram. They are a rarity and I wholeheartedly commend them for resisting the overwhelming tide of snaps and stories. 

Of course, Instagram (and social media in general) has garnered quite the bad reputation in recent years. And rightly so. We spend more and more of our time looking at screens and scrolling through various social media apps. We are being overloaded with content all the time, and this over-consumption has led to us as a society having to face some nasty truths. 

Instagram was highlighted a couple of years ago by the charity, Ditch the Label, as being the social media platform where cyber-bullying was most rife. As Instagram is an image-based platform, it makes sense that cyber-bullying and harassment would be more common on there – it has created a space where people can visually compare themselves with others. It could be centred in appearance or body image or maybe in showcasing the perfect social life.

By Make Room Zine

The endless scroll through Instagram feeds can also have a negative impact on our mental health. I know it certainly has for me in the past. I think we sometimes forget that Instagram is something a person carefully curates and only shows others what they choose for them to see. 

But, it’s not all bad. There are some positives to be gained from the world of Instagram. Although it has made me anxious and I do still sometimes find myself comparing my life to others, it has also had a positive impact on my state of mind. It has pushed me through some low points through just knowing that there are others who are feeling the same things that I’m feeling. The simple act of knowing that you are not alone is sometimes enough.

By Melody Hansen

The huge positive with Instagram is that it is such a necessary and needed tool for education and awareness. There are countless people, organisations, and platforms using Instagram for the good. To share knowledge and resources on topics and issues that I for one was never taught at school. From intersectionality, to the reality of fast fashion, to colonialism and our whitewashed history. Stories and narratives are shared and given a platform – one that the mainstream media might not have given them and consequently, I might not have heard or read these stories. It has educated me a great deal. I once read somewhere that our Instagram feed should be built up as though we are reading a magazine or a newspaper. So that when you are scrolling through, you pick up information about a wide range of topics and interests, and you gain something from your time on there. And this is definitely something I have tried to incorporate into my own digital feed.

They say with knowledge comes power. In this case it is not so much power, but I found that there was a need within myself to want to do something to help in some way. You learn about all the injustices and inequalities in the world, and for me, this education formed into a process of action. I have been able to use Instagram to talk and engage with different people and groups that I might not have had the chance to meet offline. For example, this is how I ended up joining SheFest – by coming across their Instagram account and seeing all the wonderful work they were doing locally in my own backyard.

By Rachel Cook

Like anything, Instagram comes packaged up with both good features and bad. Obviously, it shouldn’t be the one and only place we get our information and knowledge from. But it was such a useful entry point for me. You can uncover art and articles and organisations and campaigns, things you might not have seen or heard of otherwise, that can then lead you elsewhere (probably off Instagram) where you can learn more about the world. And really, isn’t that what all any of us want to do?

And so, here are some of my recommended Instagram accounts to follow that showcase perfectly how women in the North are taking action:

SheFest: A Sheffield based not-for-profit organisation that champions self-defining women’s rights and gender equality, through a whole host of inclusive events. They also run an annual fringe festival, in line with International Women’s Day, providing a female fronted addition to the North’s cultural calendar.

Aurelia Magazine: An online magazine based in Manchester/Liverpool that is dedicated to showcasing the personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of women and non-binary people. 

Salvaged Project: Lauren, based in Sheffield, has created a community that both promotes second hand fashion (sells some really cool clothes!) and raises vital funds for projects working with those affected by war. 

Every Month: A Manchester based charity that provides free menstrual products to those living in poverty. Their period packs contain tampons, pads and a chocolate bar. Plus, their Instagram provides really useful and educational content around periods and period poverty.

Girl Gang: Spanning across the North, – in Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds – Girl Gang has built up quite the community and hosts an array of events and workshops. They focus on inclusivity, creativity, and breaking down social barriers.

Love for the Streets: Based in Manchester and co-founded by Lily Fothergill, LFTS is a driving force for social change in young people. They aim “to empower 5.2 million young people to make an impact in their local community.” Their Instagram gives you a chance to see and learn from the work that they, and the young people they help, are doing.