The Spaces Between Things

When I was in elementary school, I learned about using negative space in my art work. The idea of focusing on the spaces between things, rather than focusing on the subject of the piece was completely novel to me, shifting my mindset of how art should be done. Rather than taking a piece of paper and turning it into a picture of the sun, I imagined the sun and made it fit into the piece of paper.

Today, we had a client in town for a dedicated period of time to develop an in-depth protocol – that was the subject of her visit. A multi-method ethnographic approach, we needed to wade through the complexities of social dynamics of the commercial environments of our potential study participants. We also needed to consider the almost endless possibilities of sample permutations. Rather than being able to select our participants, the “recruiting” approach centered on work sites, not necessarily individuals, adding a layer of challenge to identifying who we speak with.

Beyond the recruiting challenges, we had to design into our study other uncertainties. Not everyone would be able to devote the desired time frame to speak with us, for instance. After two days of brainstorming, distilling, and documenting the protocol, we all decided we needed to step away from the process and take a break.

We decided we needed to stop focusing so intently on the subject of her visit, and start to look at the space around the subject of her visit. We decided to shift our attention to mental replenishment, just for a moment, so that we can re-center on the topics at hand. So we had a brainstorm while we got pedicures.

Sitting in our chairs, we selected our massage settings, briefly discussed our color selections, and any odd reflections on our feet. Feet are funny, personal parts of our bodies! In our mini-break we also took the time to observe our research selves as we developed the protocol. We spent some time discussing the need to step back, take a moment, and examine the in-between spaces that appear between the doing of work. In it, we shared thoughts on what it means to be a studier of people, and how much mental energy it requires.

We reflected on a few areas that require looking at the in-between for others, so that they can understand the actual subject of the piece. They are:

1.     Describing how we will learn about people. To be good at your job, you need to care about what you do. To be the kind of person that cares about what you do requires quite a bit of mental and emotional energy. This energy, which I hope to talk about in another post, is channeled into helping others understand what needs to be incorporated into a study to gather necessary data points. Often times in research, we go through the motions of gathering data, but don’t spend nearly as much time as we should in helping the consumers of research understand its power and limitations.

2.     Taking time to observe people, generally. It’s a common “hobby” to people watch, especially if you find yourself sitting in a café alone with no laptop, but it’s our job to people watch. As we dried our nails, we suggested to our client that while she’s at the airport she take notes on the people she sees around her. As we discussed what she could do in taking notes we added “but it’s really hard to turn this people watching lens off.” Meaning, simply, that once you start to observe people with a purposeful eye, it’s more challenging not to. In reality, once you become an observer of people, you struggle not to be one.

3.     Being honest about not liking the same music. We heard a song by Grimes come on in our café, and while I quite enjoyed it, my two colleagues were annoyed. We spent some time talking about her music, and then just music in general in coffee shops (where we were). For some people it’s a distraction and for others it’s a way to get the mind working. We examined our own relationships with music in public places and how we manage it. At that point, one of us put on headphones to drown out the noise to work,  one of us turned on our own music, and the third simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

During this week of protocol development, we reflected on the spaces in between the work we were doing. This helped us establish confidence in our protocol and feel more deeply connected to the work we were doing. Rather than being laser focused on the task at hand, we looked at the in-between moments during our week as a point of inspiration to get our work done.