Daria’s War Story: Human Thresholds
By Steve Portigal at 8:37 am, Monday January 07 2013
Part 40 of 69 in the series War Stories

Here’s a story about a very challenging participant, from Daria Loi who works as UX Innovation Manager at Intel.

About five years ago a colleague and I traveled to Sweden, Indonesia and PRC for a study of storage practices in homes. We were particularly interested in observing everyday activities related to the “stuff” one owns, like clustering, archiving, organizing, disposing, sharing, holding, recycling and so on. The goal was to gather useful insights from the analog world to better understand how people might deal with data in the digital one.

In each city we recruited a number of participants to be interviewed twice and to complete a cultural probe during the week between the interviews. The first interview (about 3 hours) started by focusing on baseline data for the first 60-90 minutes, and then shifted to a home tour in which we would go room by room, observing the environment and asking questions arising from what we noticed or from what the participant indicated during the baseline interview. During this part of the first interview we would often find ourselves opening drawers, cupboards, wardrobes and the like, with participants’ permission of course.

There is nothing more fascinating than seeing what people do with their stuff. To some extent you see yourself and your own behaviors in action, and in other cases you have to be prepared to find the most obscure things in those drawers – so obscure than even their owners are perplexed when they rediscover them!

I have fond memories of a young and bright Swedish woman laughing with puzzled surprise when she discovered the enormous amount of candles she managed to accumulate and that all those candles were in the same drawer as a flyswatter she did not recall owning. I still giggle when I think of a beautiful Indonesian family taking us in their storage room, to discover they had 6-7 identical broken appliances. I still remember the puzzlement of the husband, trying to work out how on earth that accumulation happened. And again, I always smile with affection and admiration when I think of a Chinese painter and his lovely wife showing us their feng-shui based order of things.

During this quite long study (a bit more than two weeks in the field for each country, long for corporate research) one of many adventures is about a Chengdu-based participant, who my anthropologist colleague has since always referred to as “the interviewee from hell.”

It all starts in the morning at 9 am; the first interview for that day. We ring the bell of an apartment, but no response. After a few minutes we try again, but still nothing. We start feeling edgy as we do not want to be culturally inappropriate or pushy. Yet suddenly the door opens to reveal a young pajama-covered woman with puffy eyes who is evidently just out of bed.

The young lady, which here will remain of course unnamed, looks at us evidently annoyed, flashing “how dare you to wake me up” eyes, and asks us what we want. The translator explains we are there for the interview and she tells us she’s pretty sure we are one day early.

My colleague and I begin thinking of ways to accommodate her interview another day but the participant let us in – even though we fear this is not the best premise for the best interview.

After the usual preambles and consent form sign-offs, we set up our video gear and proceed with the first part of the interview. I should have immediately realized something was off when I saw the participant clutching to her mobile phone with great intimacy – the glued-on-my-body type of intimacy. But no, her behavior did not immediately ring the “this is going to be a disaster” bell and I let my colleague start with the interview, while I start my picture/video taking activity.

There is something rather cool about framing another human being through a camera. You observe little details even more deeply. And now, all the little details immediately ring the infamous “this is going to be a disaster interview” bell. For the rest of the interview the following occurs over and over again:

  1. Colleague asks a question while participant checks her phone (text, emails, internet)
  2. Participant responds with “yes”, “no” and “hmm-I think so” type of answers
  3. Colleague’s face changes color into a subtle pink tending to a gentle red
  4. Participant continues checking her phone, rarely looking up or even acknowledging someone is asking her questions
  5. Another round of question and yes/no answers follows
  6. Colleague face increasingly changes shades till she looks like a pepper

This loop goes on and on as I take pictures of-er-participant checking her phone, while my colleague is about to expel her bile on the carpet in front of her. After a while we try to send a subliminal message by asking whether she would prefer to meet another time since she seems busy (read: distracted and totally unengaged). The young lady looks at us (finally!) and says “No, it’s fine. Let’s do it now” (read: this is tedious already, I am already upset you interrupted my beauty sleep, so let’s get over and done with it).

So…we go on. After a while as this situation continues I start having the giggles. I typically try to see the best in any situation so I find myself firstly intrigued by how limitless this somewhat dysfunctional situation is, then amazed by how upset my usually calm and controlled colleague can get. Eventually I was tempted to suggest we refocus the interview on her mobile phone usage, since that is evidently her passion.

My thinking was to make the best of the time, opportunistically refocus the interview to a totally different topic even if not helping our project. I wanted to use our time to learn something useful instead of pushing a cart into an evidently void-of-usefulness corner. Ultimately we’d have some use for data on mobile phone attraction, right?

Anyway, the rest of the interview continues on the same lines, with the exception of the home tour part, where my pictures are not of a user handling her phone while on a couch, but those of shoulders hunched on a phone. During the tour, the verbal part of the interview shifts from yes/no answers to a number of grunts and monosyllables. The red pepper is teary at this stage (or maybe it’s all that eye rolling that produces those tears?)

After three hours we finally leave. As the door closes I seriously think my colleague will either burst into tears, have a meltdown or light the apartment building on fire. She instead keeps her cool, aside from a few colorful words that I won’t put in writing.

But the fun part is not yet over, because of course after a week we have a second interview scheduled!

The second interview is definitely much more colorful: instead of taking pictures of a participant and her phone, I manage to take pictures of serious multitasking in action: send texts and check your social network on the phone with the left hand while checking the stock exchange on the laptop with the right hand. And do not forget the yes/no/grunt answers and minimal level of auditory attention paid to my frustrated colleague.

If now you were to ask me: what did you learn from this participant, Daria? I will tell you: lots.

Yet the real question is: did I learn anything useful for our project? Not a thing.

Regardless, she gave me a good story to share, I will never forget her and I seriously learned a great deal about human thresholds.

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