Twig+Fish : An Interview

Meena Kothandaraman is from Twig+Fish and she researches for a living in the design field. What might she do you may ask? Read below to find out more about how she makes business better! Her opening image on her website states "We empower people to practice empathy" which is much needed in this hyperconnected world. 

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO? 

 Meena Kothandaraman

Meena Kothandaraman

 My name is Meena Kothandaraman. I love to identify as a Canadian Bostonian, and am a qualitative researcher seeking to elevate empathic practices in organizations. As a founding member of twig+fish research practice in Boston, MA, I work with my colleague Zarla Ludin to design and execute credible research studies. Additionally, I share our research practices with organizations by way of curated workshops. I am also a Lecturer in Bentley University’s Graduate Human Factors and Information Design program and have delighted in teaching the capstone research course for many years. 

 WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO INTO INFORMATION DESIGN AND RESEARCH? 

 I’ve always been fascinated by people: their stories that then lead up to interactions with them. Research is my vehicle to learn about people, in a way that can be directly used to inspire the designs of meaningful products and services. I get to learn about different people in the world, as well as those who design for those people. It’s a win-win! It was either that or become a bartender. I would still get to learn about people, but I stuck with research! 

 

 WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO TEACH THE NEXT GENERATION OF RESEARCHERS? 

 I absolutely love teaching. The more I vocalize my thoughts, the clearer they become. I learn so much from the next generation of researchers. Though some of the questions they ask might be considered “basic”, I am challenged to revisit and reflect on my own thinking, as well as my approach to delivering what it is that I do. I consider it less teaching, and more sharing. 

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"I love a good conversation and am always inspired by the orthogonal thoughts that students bring to the classroom. I learn just as much from students and leave class energized to enjoy my work even more."

 WHY DO YOU THINK DESIGN IS SO IMPORTANT IN SOCIETY? 

 Design is a way of creating a connection between entities. Societies, comprised of humans, rely on and relish a sense of relationship. When design is approached meaningfully, it serves a capacity to enhance the human story, which at times can be complex and emotional. Design that strikes a positive chord has the power to uplift a society and strengthen ties. 

 WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROBLEMS YOU FACE IN YOUR FIELD? HOW DO YOU END UP SOLVING THE CHALLENGES? 

 Organizations are quick to omit qualitative research studies, due to common issues of time and budget constraints. Often, there is a lack of understanding in applying and connecting the abstract and ambiguous data to the product being created. Researchers themselves have added to these challenges over time by enabling bad practices (allowing organizations to lead with method, mismatch method with the intent of the question, and designing studies lacking in credibility because of constraint). 

 Photo by  Ravi Kumar  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ravi Kumar on Unsplash

The need for human data is evident (more so now, than ever), and not all human data can be obtained through quantitative studies. 

Researchers are now uniquely poised to elevate the value of the human story. twig+fish created the NCredible Framework to use as a visual aid to organize unknowns that provide input into research studies. Using this Framework, organizations can deconstruct the intent of their questions, and are privy to the approach that researchers use when deciding on questions to cluster together for a study. In bringing more transparency into this discussion, the ideal study can be presented, and then pared back if needed, by applying constraints. This way, organizations are fully aware of what output they will (and will not) receive from the study, and how to help support the research team in bringing meaningful data to share. 

 Photo by  Joshua Rodriguez  on  Unsplash

At twig+fish, once a study is identified, there is a credible five-phased approach to addressing the study design. Bringing structure to an otherwise random process helps organizations see the value in what qualitative research can share. Organization involvement throughout the study is imperative (the journey often yields more insights than the output). At twig+fish, I employ various methods that do not only focus on conversing with people to obtain their stories. By way of making the engagement fun and full of activity, participants are able to articulate their thoughts and freely share evidence about their realities. 

DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS ON WRITING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH PROPOSALS? OR ANY THINGS TO AVOID?

At twig+fish, I use the NCredible Framework to write qualitative research proposals. Given that questions have been deconstructed with their intent made clear, communication of the ideal vs. the actual study becomes much easier. Proposals are a result of a conversation that aligns the team on the unknowns and matches it to the available time and budget. 

When writing proposals, avoid: 

 responding the requests that lead with method (I need you to run a Focus Group with 8 people), 

 designing studies of convenience (Talk to a few people at the local Starbucks as to how they use our product), 

 mismatching method to question (Run a usability test to learn about human behavior) 

 Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

 

The list could continue and happens altogether too often in research studies, resulting in a mismatch of output to expectations from organizations. Be mindful that your qualitative research proposal needs to clearly start with the questions being asked, and then only proceed to how you plan on obtaining answers. Be very clear in what the organization is receiving, and what they lose when applying constraints. 

WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE CASE STUDY DESIGNS? 

A memorable case study was working with the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab (Housing iLab) at the City of Boston. They were tasked with creating meaningful and sustainable solutions to address an emerging problem in the city of Boston: a housing crisis for middle income residents. Beyond creating tactical solutions, the Housing iLab also aspired to create an open channel of communication with Boston residents. Most cities base so much of their information off of data, mostly quantitative and demographic-based. The Housing iLab recognized the importance of obtaining qualitative data to begin the conversation about lifestyles, and how a better understanding of the Boston lifestyle could impact housing options positively. 

 Photo by  Claude Hein  on  Unsplash

Photo by Claude Hein on Unsplash

Through a five-phased study using an ethnographic research approach (in-home interviews), twig+fish and the Housing iLab collaborated to learn about realities and aspirations of middle income residents. In doing so, this discussion revealed deeper connection points with this population that helped inform housing solutions. 

The study left a deeper mark: hearing the personal stories of city dwellers brought to light a more human focus on the emotions, attitudes and preferences that play into housing choices. The study was applauded as a step forward to focus more on the human aspect in research across other city challenges. 

The best part of this project was that the City was open to the concept of including qualitative research. The Housing iLab inspired many other cities to follow suit! 


FUN QUESTIONS 

IF YOU WERE STUCK ON AN ABANDONED ISLAND WHAT FIVE ITEMS WOULD YOU WANT WITH YOU? 

Since you specifically state “items” – I am assuming you don’t mean people! 

 My volleyball – to practice setting! 

 My favorite music, in any fashion, on any device. 

 A bottomless martini glass, that magically fills itself with my drink of choice. 

 Endless comic books like the Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix and Obelix, and

TinTin. What’s life without some laughter and a good read?! 

 My flying chicken, that I use when I am frustrated (and wow it makes a fantastic noise!). 

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE COMPOSER? 

This is NOT easy. 

John Lennon, for his brilliant and simple lyrics that always get us to reflect, and yet keep us mindful that there is always is the power of good and hope. 

IF YOU COULD TRAVEL IN TIME WHERE WOULD YOU GO? 

I would go back to the 1900s, to meet my grandfather who (I am told) was the best storyteller of all time. He was also a brilliant businessman and loved by everyone he met. I have heard stories about him since I was a child, and not a person I have met has ever said his name without shedding a tear, missing him dearly. I always wished that if I could travel to meet someone, it would be him. Given that my life is so much about storytelling, I would travel back to meet him and learn from him!