One of our earliest interviews was with Rowan and Ronja. We met them in Adelaide’s Botanic Park for a chat on a Sunday afternoon. When we showed up they were sitting under a Morten Bay fig with a picnic blanket spread with cheese, knitting and embroidery.
The highlight of the conversation was Rowan and Ronja’s metaphor of friendship as a potted plant:
If a friendship is a plant that you nurture, then you water it through regular contact.
Just watering is not enough, though, because at some point it will reach the size of its pot and grow no longer, like work friends who you might see every day but grow no closer to. They stay small in their little pot.
For the friendship to grow, you need to move it to a bigger pot. This is like inviting those work friends into a new context, like out for drinks (slightly bigger pot), or over to your home for dinner (much bigger pot).
You can do more than just water, though. Some experiences are like super-fertilizer. We just went on a road trip with two new friends, and the two people I knew at the end of the trip were completely different from the ones I knew at the start.
In design research, it’s often helpful to focus on and build out metaphors like this plant one, even if they sound a bit silly at first. They’re an example of a mental model that can help us understand (and remember) how other people see the world.
They also help us see things we hadn’t thought of before and can become a shared language others can build on to talk about concepts that can be difficult to convey. In this one, Ronja was able to build on Rowan’s metaphor to explain her own recent experience on a road trip and add a new perspective about super-fertilizer.
Occasionally in design research we even make up metaphors as empty spaces for people to fill with their own meaning. During the design phase of Family by Family, for example, the team wanted to better understand different roles and relationships. So they asked people to pretend their family was a business and followed with questions like: Who would the CEO be? Who’s in charge of IT? What’s your motto? This isn’t dissimilar to those popular online quizes that ask questions like: “Which Harry Potter character are you?” It gives you a different perspective on yourself.
So what can we learn from RoWAN and RONJA’s metaphor?
- Most obviously, it almost certainly fits with our own experience that friendships grow with time (watering the plant), and it confirms research that says the same.
- More usefully, this metaphor helps us to think not only about solutions that enable people to spend more time with friends, but also how to help them move friends to new and more intimate contexts (bigger pots).
- Finally, we can think about designing intense kinds of experiences (like road trips) that are Ronja’s super-fertilizer. We’ve also heard that after some of these kinds of experiences, as Ronja said, your friends can seem like entirely different people.
Though they probably wouldn’t say they were doing this on purpose, a real-life company that would be a factory of friendship fertilizer is The Adventurists. They’re a UK-based company that organizes giant, somewhat absurd adventures like the Mongol Rally. It’s a several-month amateur race in tiny cars with no set course across a third of the globe from the UK to Mongolia. If you know anyone who’s done this, I’d love to interview them (drop us a line).
Want to contribute your own metaphor for friendship? Draw a picture (crap drawing encouraged), write a paragraph, and email it in to email@example.com.