Wisdom from “The Americans”

On the season finale of The Americans, there’s a bit of a post-mortem (so to speak) on a mission, including this bit of dialog

The people back home who aren’t in the field, sometimes they get what we do and sometimes they don’t. But when you’re in the field you have to make split-second decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of thinking things through every time…it’s important to be honest about mistakes. But acknowledging them doesn’t always keep them from happening again.

Obviously they are referencing a different sort of fieldwork. But the lesson applies, nonetheless. For more on this theme, check out my new book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

Steve’s War Story: Details Disconnect

This story was originally published on behalf of The Field Study Handbook.

Last year I was working on a project for a financial technology client. Finding participants is often a challenge, but on this project, for small business owners, it was particularly difficult.

We had hoped to base this research on previous studies, but it proved difficult to glean details about how previous studies were done. There were rumors that another team, elsewhere in the country, had developed a segmentation algorithm, but voicemails and emails went unanswered. We heard about great participants from previous studies that we should revisit, but no one would get back to us. The schedule ticked by and the pressure mounted. In the end, we were left with no choice to work around these limitations. Finally, I began to approach recruiting agencies.

My go-to recruiting team refused to take the assignment on as they had, ironically, recruited for one of these previous studies and felt like they had tapped out the local market. Another company had gone out of business, and a third didn’t think they could accomplish the recruit.

I ended up with a recruiter I had never worked with. In the end, I think they did a good job, but a new relationship added stress to the increasingly complex recruiting process.

In our introductory call, one of our recruits expressed surprise and concern that there would two of us visiting his very small office. We eventually agreed that even though it might be cramped, it would be okay. The recruiting agency, when asked about this disconnect, reassured me that they made it clear, as per my instructions, that there would be two of us. I was confused, as the participant had insisted they had never told him anything about this.

Later that day I got an email from the participant, who sought reassurance about the purpose of the interview. He had clicked on my website (seen in my email signature) and was concerned that I was actually going to be pitching him my services. He had been involved in a focus group through this agency before, and presumed this would be something similar. I confirmed that this was not a sales pitch.

A few days later we met with him in his exceptionally cramped one-person workspace. As the interview unfolded, he abruptly stopped and directly, yet politely expressed confusion and discomfort about the interview itself. Why were we asking these questions? Who do we represent? How are we going to use this information?

It took a long, unhurried conversation about the process and our objectives to put him at ease. We resumed the interview and learned a great deal about his truly amazing businesses, past, present, and future.

I emphasize his politeness in stopping the interview, because now, when I go back to the transcript, that’s what I see. But at that time, sitting in that interview, it didn’t feel that way. It felt aggressive and angry and I spent the remainder of the interview feeling uncertain about our rapport. I overcompensated with excessive deference, people-pleasing, and probably flattery. That’s not a comfortable feeling and it’s not conducive to a good interview. I have empathy for someone feeling uncomfortable about something as odd as two strangers with a video camera coming into their office space to ask about their professional history. It’s easy to mischaracterize people that don’t “get it” as difficult. And I assume that I am pretty good at managing expectations at all the common points of failure in establishing rapport.

But boy it’d be nice if we had someone to blame. That guy was a jerkface! The recruiter didn’t do their job (and then lied and insisted they did!). Steve didn’t handle the first call or the interview kickoff properly! Yet it doesn’t seem like any of these are true.

While I felt sheepish at the end of the interview, I was surprised to get a LinkedIn request from the participant immediately afterwards. And, I guess, less surprised when I heard from him a few times weeks later about not receiving his incentive payment (This was one of the very few studies where I asked the agency to send checks after the interview was completed, rather than handing people the incentive directly myself. Mistake? I don’t know). When I followed up with the recruiter about the missing incentive, I heard in some detail how this participant had already called and yelled at the admin staff.

And so it goes.

Making an Impact with UX Research Insights

I wrote a short piece for UX Mastery about ensuring the results of user interviews have the most impact. I’ve included an excerpt below, but you should read the whole piece here.

In your analysis, how do you decide what’s important?

Take time at the beginning of the research to frame the problem. Where did this research initiate? What hypotheses – often implicit ones – do stakeholders have? What business decisions will be made as a result of this research?

What research reveals doesn’t always fit into the structure that is handed to you ahead of time, so knowing what those expectations are can help you with both analysis and communication. Some things are important to understand because they’re part of the brief. But other things are going to emerge as important because as you spend time with your conclusions you realise “Oh this is the thing!”

Why you should encourage bad ideas in your organization

In this article by Jon Strande, he riffs on my Power of Bad Ideas talk and then throws in a bunch of other frameworks and references around creativity and innovation. It’s a quick and inspiring read.

Why you should encourage bad ideas in your organization One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is idea generation, especially related to how large companies innovate. I bet more than half the articles I’ve saved in Pocket are in some way related to bringing great ideas to life in this world (the other half are about Ponies… just kidding… the other half are about really technical topics, I am still a geek at heart).

Museum of Failure

Opening next month in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Museum of Failure is a collection of interesting innovation failures. The majority of all innovation projects fail and the museum showcases these failures to provide visitors a fascinating learning experience.
The collection consists of over sixty failed products and services from around the world. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

Devika’s War Story: The Young Men Of Najafgarh

Devika Ganapathy is a design researcher and the founder of Anagram Research, a design research and usability consultancy located in Bangalore, India.

Last year, I was in Delhi doing fieldwork about a smartphone news app. The primary users for this study were male college students in their early 20s, who regularly read English news on their smartphones.

One of the participants scheduled for an interview lived in Najafgarh, a place I did not know much about. I checked on Google and what I found was not encouraging: it was more than an hour away from my hotel, near the Delhi-Haryana border (possibly even longer with traffic); It was also home to the Indian capital’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain!

Meanwhile, the clients who were to have accompanied me on the interview dropped out at the last minute. I was apprehensive about travelling to Najafgarh and conducting the interview on my own. The state of Haryana is notorious for being lawless and is known to be particularly unsafe for women. Men from Haryana are stereotyped as aggressive and misogynistic. I wasn’t sure if they would be comfortable being interviewed by a lone woman. Moreover, the village of Dichaon where my participant lived is infamous for its ongoing gang wars.

Despite these initial concerns, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Realistically, how unsafe could a pre-arranged hour-long meeting be? At the worst, I thought that it might be a challenging interview to conduct, but felt I would be able to manage.

Driving into Najafgarh, we passed a dead cow lying on some rubbish on the side of the road. The city looked markedly different from urban Delhi – all the women I saw on the road were traditionally dressed, scooters and public transport prevailed rather than cars, and all vehicles on the roads were driven by men.

It was difficult to find the participant’s home, though I was on the phone with him, getting directions. There were hardly any significant landmarks to guide us. Eventually, my participant asked me to park near a huge open sewage drain – He would come and find me.

My heart sank as a particularly scruffy looking young man approached the car. He confirmed that I was the person he was looking for, and got into the front seat to direct the driver to his home. We meandered our way through narrow roads and a crowded marketplace and eventually reached our destination.

His home was a multi-story building in the midst of commercial establishments; So narrow that there was only about 1 room on each floor. The steep staircase was cemented but not tiled, it didn’t have any railings.

As I followed him up to the third floor I wondered if I was being foolhardy going into his house alone. Perhaps I should have asked my driver to accompany me? And even worse, I was skeptical that this guy read English news on his smartphone!

We finally reached the top, and the room did nothing to reassure me. There were a number of rough wooden benches (typical to Indian government schools) placed in rows. Sitting there waiting for us was a very snazzy young man, with a prominent pompadour and reflective sun glasses! He greeted me with a cheery “Hi Ma’am!”

I had to now quickly decide who to interview. The first young man was the one we had originally screened and recruited. He did not seem promising: he was very quiet, his English was sketchy and I doubted that he read English news on the phone.

On the other hand, the snazzy young man spoke good English and possibly read English news. But I wasn’t certain he was a primary user or even genuinely interested in the topic since we hadn’t screened him.

It turned out that they were cousins. When the snazzy one heard about the interview, it seemed that he decided his cousin was not cool enough to be interviewed. He said to me incredulously “Why would anyone want to talk to him when they could talk to me instead?”

I decided to stick with the guy I had originally recruited, but told the snazzy cousin he could sit in and speak up if he had something interesting to add.

This interview led to some of the richest insights for this study – Such as the aspirational aspects of reading English news, where reading local language news is seen as infra dig and can invite ridicule.

The time I spent getting to know these young men also put all stereotypical thoughts I had about them to shame. I eventually learned that the room we were in was a classroom and that they worked with other young men to tutor school kids in their area. Throughout our interview, the guy I had recruited looked after his sister’s toddler son while she was busy with chores around the house. When I was done with the interview, they insisted on waiting with me on the road till my driver came to pick me up, pointing out that it was “not a good area” for women to stand on the road unaccompanied.

This experience strongly reinforced the guidelines I always need to remind myself about, even after years of being a researcher: Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never be dismissive or judgmental. Openness can lead to the best insights.

David’s War Story: The Well-lit Redhead

David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

Standing in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages, I started to become anxious. I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

“Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.

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