Researchers Reflect: The Impact of Small Interactions

This blog post is part of Researchers Reflect, a series where we embark on the journey of a design researcher at the Innovation Hub. Each post will spotlight a different design researcher’s experience, stories, and learning moments throughout the course of their research. 

Written by Sabrina Wu, Senior Research Assistant

In the past, I often associated research with substantial findings and grand theories. But the key to needs-finding and design thinking research can actually lie in what is ordinary and familiar – small daily interactions. My work at the Innovation Hub allowed me to closely experience and hear the impact small interactions have on students and researchers. 

Big Ideas in Small Interactions

Data analysis is a process of getting to big ideas, as researchers diverge and converge our information to find overarching patterns, themes, and needs. But at the heart of all these big ideas are stories – stories that can sometimes center around seemingly small interactions.  

A row of three profiles looking up at a lightbulb

I have read and conducted ethnographic research that follows participants’ observations where the researcher actively participates and experiences the research subject’s everyday experiences. While I was not expecting to experience that methodology in the same capacity at the Innovation Hub, I was surprised to hear participants in feedback sessions sharing many aspects of their everyday lives through these interactions.

In fact, I often find that the most interesting entry points into deeper insights are these small interactions. Throughout the various projects I’ve been a part of, participants often share memorable experiences. A few memorable stories that stood out to me were how language in emails can make students feel cared for by their professor or how a faculty member leaving their door open to their office can work to build trust with students.  

The prevalence of these stories led me to understand the importance of amplifying student voices about everyday experiences and interactions but also how crucial it is that the recommendations that come out of our findings work to impact them. 

The Effect of Empathy

An ear with a chat bubble on top

When I took on my role at the Innovation Hub, I set out a goal to work on team-building and supporting researchers, as I believe that empathy in empathy-based research starts within the research team. As a Senior Research Assistant, I have led different types of projects such as Classroom Accommodations & Accessibility Co-Design, Rotman Commerce, University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP), Trans and Nonbinary Student Experience, Campus Safety Services, and Faculty of Dentistry. What I have continuously been discovering in each project is that the centrality of small, daily interactions does not only apply to participants but researchers too.

Researchers have shared with me their shock in how sometimes something as seemingly ordinary as making small talk with participants or responding with empathy can help build rapport with participants and make them feel comfortable in sharing their stories. Further, I have seen the impact of small interactions amongst researchers themselves. I was surprised to see that researchers’ small, daily interactions with each other can contribute to them being able to collectively brainstorm more freely and become each other’s sounding board. I am grateful to be able to continue guiding researchers to find big ideas in small interactions.  

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