How to Learn About Your User Needs

Laura Charria
5 min readJan 22, 2023


“Does anyone want to answer this question?” said Dr. Anh-Thu Ngo on a winter class at UC San Diego. Multiple hands excitedly went up and the discussion was finally getting started.

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After participating during ENG 100D: Sustainable Development Design’s weekly discussion, I was reminded of the essence of good communication. No right or wrong, but seeking to understand the other person’s needs. I feel thankful and lucky to have had the opportunity to listen to the user’s needs. While participating in the exercise, I realized how much I enjoyed asking questions and having multiple motivated, excited interviewees answering questions. Through user feedback, I was able to listen and understand the core needs of the community. One core value from IDEO’s HCI handbook was iterating and having creative confidence. I feel like both of these qualities were present during the interviews, and I found joy in how nice it was to meet someone new and see how everyone expresses differently, some more openly than others. On the other hand, I really enjoyed learning about three new tools to add to my design toolkit: ideation, inspiration, and implementation. I believe these three tools allowed me to arrive prepared for the interviews, as well as be able to improvise and be creative based on the user’s answers.

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Moving on, I am also thankful to have read an essay titled “Body Rituals Among the Nacirema”, written by Harold Miner. I loved reading about the Nacirema culture, and about the habits and rituals this civilization has adopted over the years. I really enjoyed giving my undivided attention to the way the community communicates, and how every member of the community plays an important role. I believe that after analyzing this reading, I am now more aware of the differences that are still alive around the world, and how sometimes someone else’s routine and way of living might seem so different from our own, that we tend to see that as unacceptable or different. Yet it is because of these differences that we can become more creative, thoughtful, and caring towards others and their experiences. What might seem different or unfamiliar is sometimes a good thing, because it allows us to appreciate our own roots while also holding space for others. There is no ‘normal’, because we are all unique and beautiful in our own ways, and I loved how the Nacirema reading allowed me to embrace a new culture I hadn’t read about before. Reading about the Nacirema community built a solid appreciation towards civilizations that have lived with different values, goals, and in a completely different environment. I find it fascinating how we can have different lives based on where you were born and where you grew up. This reading reminded me of the timeless dilemma about nurture vs nature, where success is debated to have come from either genetics and biology or from circumstances and the environment. The language used in the reading used both ‘exoticized’ and ‘anthropological’ language, and I think that’s beautiful. Approaching unfamiliar societies and communities with an explorer mindset has allowed me to understand that there are many stories that deserve to be heard and cared for with love. The reading allowed me to understand the role that empathy and active listening ties to different perspectives! When we approach and welcome someone else’s story from a place of love, we are able to learn more than we thought possible.

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On the other hand, Joann Halpern and Cornelia Walther’s reading titled “Design Thinking and the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Design Thinking and Youth Empowerment Case Study ForUsGirls (US) and Start-up Africa (Kenya)” empowered me to seek to understand the way in which the way we define key terms ultimately leads to change. I decided to focus on one specific word that stood out to me: participatory development. The definition of participatory development is empowering the individual to participate as a changemaker for others at the local and national level. A ‘people first’ approach There are4 key stages: research, design, implementation, and evaluation. Different from design thinking, there is no prototyping stage, but instead focuses on solutions. As mentioned in the reading, participatory development also understands the core principles of human existence: soul, heart, mind, and body, expressed as aspirations, emotions, thoughts and sensations, and acknowledges the decision making process as being driven from these principles.

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After realizing there is a gap between theory and practice, participatory development offers an opportunity to learn and grow while placing the individual at the core of success. Design thinking is aligned with participatory development, in that they both seek to understand the individual as key drivers for change. More than anything, both aim to have empathy at the heart of solutions. For example, in Kenya individuals are given the opportunity to become startup entrepreneurs and therefore gain new skills and knowledge necessary to drive change in their communities. By empathizing with each individual and listening to their unique experiences, participatory change and design thinking go hand in hand in that they want the individual to reach their full potential and impact those around them.

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