What can design researchers learn from confidence artists?
“In English, the word design is both a noun and a verb (which tells one a lot about the nature of the English language). As a noun, it means—among other things ‘intention,’ ‘plan,’ ‘intent,’ ‘aim,’ ‘scheme,’ ‘plot,’ ‘motif,’ ‘basic structure,’ all these (and other meanings) being connected with ‘cunning’ and ‘deception.’ As a verb (‘to design’), meanings include ‘to concoct something,’ ‘to simulate,’ ‘to draft,’ ‘to sketch, ‘to fashion,’ ‘to have designs on something.’”
– “About the Word Design” by Vilém Flusser
Let me begin this by stating that this is just a thought. I haven’t done any heavy digging or research. I am using this blog as a way to document my thoughts and ideas for thesis.
The confidence artist is usually thought of in a negative light. I’m proposing that instead of immediately dismissing the con artist, we, as design researchers, should learn from their actions and ways of thinking.
The confidence man is known for being untrustworthy, sly, and deceitful. But he is also known for being smart, systematic, and cunning. The confidence man demonstrates similar goals as the design researcher. Both must gain the trust of the people. Design researchers call these people, “stakeholders.” Con artists call these people, “marks.” While design researchers may take hours, days, or weeks to build relationships and formulate trust with their stakeholders, con artists have mastered this skill because their actions depend on gaining trust as quickly and easily as possible, taking them mere minutes to develop trust within their mark.
What is the purpose of gaining the trust of the people? For design researchers it is to gain participation in the design project. Including the stakeholders gives meaning to the design process and the solution. For a con artist, the purpose is also to gain participation in the con. Though the outcome for the con artist is often times vastly different, (and let’s hope it stays that way), from the outcome of the design process, the mode in the beginning of the process is often the same. They are both trying to gather information about the people and context.
So how can design researchers learn from the confidence artist?
We can start by looking at the con artist through a different lense. The lense of process. Let’s stop looking at the negative aspects of a “game” and start looking at the process that makes that game successful. How do con artists read people so easily? How do they know how to build trust with each individual mark as quickly and easily as possible? How to they build empathy with their mark? How do they extract valuable information from their mark? How are these skills useful to the design researcher?
There is one HUGE difference that I cannot ignore, (there are many other differences). While the con artist seeks to hide his true identity and process, design researchers put it all on the table for the stakeholders to see and understand. Is revealing the design process to the stakeholders too early affecting their desire to be involved? One reason many con artists succeed is because they appeal to their mark’s curiosity. Are design researchers taking the element curiosity out of the process by showing everything? Or, does showing the stakeholder everything actually increase the stakeholder’s curiosity in regard to the final outcome?
I’m not suggesting that we build relationships with our stakeholders through a web of deceit. I’m simply suggesting that we analyze the process of the the con artist in order to understand how the essence of those skills are transferable to the design researcher. By being able to connect with the stakeholders more efficiently, design researchers may gather more valuable information in less time. This may not only give more meaning to the outcome and process, but also may give the design researcher more information to work with and time to find patterns and key insights.