There are few people in the design world more familiar with field research, and the extensive travel that goes with it, than Jan Chipchase. On May 6th, Jan launched what has turned out to be a very successful Kickstarter campaign to publish his most recent book, The Field Study Handbook. There's still time to pre-order a copy of what looks to be a fascinating read, even if field research in the Hindu Kush is not on your immediate list of things to do.
Jan is a researcher, writer and photographer whose work focuses on the intersection of design, tech, human behavior and culture. Over the years, he's led research teams investigating both mainstream and emerging markets for Nokia and frog design. In 2014, he founded Studio D, a research, design and innovation consultancy, and later used his extensive travel experiences to create an ultra-light luggage brand, SDR Traveller.
I had a chance to catch up with Jan to talk about the book launch and other recent adventures and activities, as well as ask for some travel advice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Core77: In addition to Studio D and SDR Traveller, I see also that you run as service called The Fixer List. What is that all about? It seems mysterious.
JC: Fixers are a staple of field research, at least with the way I run projects. Each project includes a local crew that is usually led by someone I call a "fixer". They come from very diverse backgrounds, often speak multiple languages, have a very good sense of their home locale and know how to hustle. Over the years, many of these connections have stayed in touch.
The Fixer List is the Studio D list of unusual talent that we can draw on to run projects around the world. We receive a lot of applicants.
You spend a large percentage of your time on the road, traveling extensively across the world. What are some notable recent field trips you've taken?
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JC: Saudi Arabia was interesting and challenging. We were there gathering insights to understand the value proposition of a new brand offering. The new service, Jawwy, went live last year. The team had to achieve a high level of understanding of the local culture and how it maps to a mobile service, in only a month. Many foreigners would struggle to achieve this level of understanding in a lifetime. All credit to our local team of ten people for getting us that far.
Last year I took a tough, 7,000km overland expedition through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan's GBAO region and China's western provinces. The trip was full of remote communities, dubious border crossings, permeable borders and lots of checkpoints. I learned a lot on that trip and wrote up my thoughts in a Medium post called 61 Glimpses of the Future.
Another interesting trip involved training a client's team on field research methods, including setting up a mountain retreat at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau to process the data. On every project we get to ask "Where is the best place to figure out x?" and "Where do we want to be today?"
In the Kickstarter video, you mention that the book is part of a mission to reframe the relationship between those that make things and those that consume them. Can you talk about this a bit?
JC: Increasingly, the impetus for creating new products will be based on the data analytics of mass consumption, feedback on marketing strategies, and optimized value engineering. The product creators are removed from their audience by several steps, and it is easy to lose touch with that actual audience. The ability to gather an over abundance of data only compounds the problem. As more data comes on stream, revealing what people are doing and how, there is a growing danger of people being treated as little more than lines in a database, stripped of personality and context, there solely to be mined and monetized.
Field research is defined by closeness and empathy. You get close to those you are studying, and in doing so, develop a deeper empathy for their lives and ways of living. You then take that empathy and—in the best cases—reflect it back on them through your work. In the right hands, it generates very rich, and very nuanced, data that is capable of answering why people do what they do. Understanding the motivations behind people's actions can lead to very different outcomes, if all you knew before was what people did and how.
I try (and usually fail) to not pack too much when I travel. As a seasoned traveller what are some of your suggestions and tips for packing?
JC: Everybody over packs. It's human nature! By packing less, you're actually more flexible and better able to alter your planned itinerary to react to interesting opportunities. My own preference is to use hand-held luggage (no wheels allowed!), make sure the bag can fit under an economy-class seat or a business class foot-well, and even with that small size, still leave room in your bag for things you might pick up along the way. I wrote about how the psychology of packing impacts the experience of the journey, and it still holds true.