Originally published August 8, 2018
When I read about the island of Puerto Rico, a US Territory lost in 11 years of a recession, there is a plethora of data about corruption, poverty, lack of medical access, tremendous brain drain, and how tourism and tax shelters are the only things the island has left. But if you visit, and listen to the people you would hear a different story. One of passion, depth and wealth of culture, the desire to stay on their Isla – to rise up. Listen to the people who maintain their optimism under some of the direst of circumstances and continue to try and rebuild even in the consistent face of adversity, both manmade and natural.
The data would tell us many things that are grounded in truths – after Hurricane Maria the loss of the economic and technical infrastructure (dependent on a reliable electrical grid) has driven hundreds of thousands of people off of the island. However, if we listened we would hear about the committed; the accelerators trying to bring Puerto Ricans back to the island, the start-ups, the innovation around agritourism pivoting into a regrow mission, and people like the independent chef selling her annual coquito or pastelles to people in New York that is the prize of the holiday season.
So the question becomes, how do we really hear these stories, how do we take the data and dig deeper? How do we qualify the quantitative so we can better understand how rebuilding a community can be supported by access to online tools that can support them and their business so that even when an entire infrastructure gets knocked out, there is still global access to the goods and services of which these business owners livelihoods depend on. What is the responsibility on those of us with access to the infrastructure, and the means (if even modest) that we take for granted? If we are curious and listen to the stories we can start to solve for better design of our products so that they provide access to those not only on the other side of the digital divide but support them in times of crisis. Often times organizations question the validity of qualitative research, not enough numbers, too small of a segment splice, but what I have consistently discovered is that one of the most meaningful differences between quant and qual research at its core is the difference between what people say, and what people do. The ability of the qualitative approach to building up our own muscles around cognitive empathy so that we can better understand these customers underlying motivations and as an organization, design products that truly serve their needs. To be able to prove that need through our work in a way that is most impactful at the end of the day is what will resonate with the communities that will continue to be marginalized if those who have the ability to buoy them, instead allow them to be left behind.