By: Anwuli Onkojo

Unexpectedly, the understanding phase of the design thinking process is my favourite. We began by putting together our stakeholders map.  By the time we were done it seemed like it would be impossible to connect with all the different actors, which left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, but still optimistic. I liked that. As a team we set manageable goals for ourselves; we agreed to try to interview at least two people from each stakeholder category.  

Interviewing people was by far the most fulfilling and enriching experience I’ve had in this program and, possibly this year. When I decided to apply to and attend Duke, it was based on an idea of what Duke was or would be that I had pieced together from websites, admissions officers, YouTube videos and any other source I could get my hands on. Once I arrived, the flurry of activities, the incessant waves of schoolwork, my introverted nature and the general vastness of the Duke population and campus made it difficult to get a true sense of what Duke was and who its people were beyond my very limited bubble. 

The interviewing process was unique because as I spoke to fellow students, faculty and staff, at times I saw myself in their stories and experiences. I found myself reflecting internally alongside my interviewees, while actively practicing de-centering myself so that their narratives would remain the priority. It was challenging but I dealt with it by giving myself time after particularly in-depth interviews to sit and think about my own responses. I especially enjoyed speaking to fellow rising seniors and recent graduates . It was extremely rewarding to hear their insightful, unique takes on their journeys through Duke. I enjoyed the thoughtful silences where participants would really think about the question, and the feedback they would give afterwards about how our interviews gave them the much needed space to think about the people they had become through their experiences. 

Hearing from faculty was like opening a window to a side of Duke that had always been shrouded in mystery. I was positively surprised by the candour and vulnerability of the professors that I spoke to. And was struck by the disconnect that faculty often have from students, despite our importance in each other’s lives. I also enjoyed hearing from staff, people who are essential to Duke, yet we very rarely hear from. Their perspectives offered something very valuable, but completely different from faculty and students. By the end of the understand phase, I felt I had a much better understanding of what Duke is, who its people are and what they want or need from their community. 

Overall, I learned that this kind of qualitative research- interviewing- is definitely something I want to do a lot more of in the future. Even if I am not speaking to people I have a direct relationship or shared experience with, the acts of crafting thoughtful questions, listening carefully, recognising the flow of the conversation, reassuring participants when they need it and finding the core insights from the conversation, is extremely fulfilling. I learned that I am good at asking critical and thoughtful questions, and working with participants to draw out  those key insights. The understand phase was a great way to apply many of the things I’d learned as an ICS student, in classes on ethnography and research seminars. As I prepare to conduct interviews for my thesis research, I now feel a lot more confident in my abilities.