Elizabeth’s War Story: Ramping Up

Elizabeth Allen is a UX Researcher at Shopify, an ecommerce platform based in Canada. She told this story live at the Interaction 17 conference.

A few years ago, I was working at Centralis, a UX research and design consulting firm in the Chicago area. One of our clients was a public transportation agency, and our project involved testing the maps and signage within and between transit stations by accompanying participants as they completed realistic wayfinding scenarios to try to get from station to station and find their correct train or bus.

As part of this testing, my research partner Kathi Kaiser and I included individuals with motor and visual disabilities to make sure they were able to navigate just as well as those who didn’t have these challenges. One participant, Susan, was in a motorized wheelchair, and we began our session with a scenario that had us traveling to a station and accessing an elevated platform where she would wait for a train.

Chicago summers can be very hot and humid, and this was one of the hottest of the year. We were all sweating by the time we got to the station even though it was just a short walk from the coffee shop where we met to start the session. Now, this station had no elevator; instead, outside the station was a very long ramp to reach the platform. This was probably the longest ramp I’d ever seen at a transit station — it had two or three switchbacks just to reach the top!

We started up the ramp, and when we were about halfway up, Susan’s wheelchair started slowing down. “Uh oh”, she said. “I think my battery is about to die. I totally forgot to charge it before I went out, and steep ramps like this always make it run out faster.” Sure enough, a few seconds later, the wheelchair slowed to a halt, completely dead.

At this point, we had to make a decision based on what was best for Susan and for the research: do we end the session early, push Susan’s chair back to our starting point, and explain to our client that we would miss out on gathering valuable accessibility insights, or do we see if we can find a power source and salvage what we can of the session? We explained to Susan that we could either end the session or try to keep going, and luckily, she was still excited about the session and was game to push on — literally.

After wheezing our way up the rest of the ramp, dripping with sweat, we got to the platform and found no electrical outlets in sight. The ticket counter was also closed, but after a lot of roaming around we were able to find the lone janitor. We were very fortunate, because he was extremely kind, and offered to let us plug Susan’s chair into an outlet in one of the back rooms.

This story ends happily. After a half hour or so, Susan’s chair was charged up, and during that time we were able to improvise some interview questions and short scenarios we could talk through with her while we waited. It really helped that we were able to think on our feet and that we had a participant who had a positive attitude and was interested in the session. Overall, we were able to salvage a research session that was difficult to recruit for, and our client was really happy with what we learned.

Why Stories Matter (to the practice of user research)

This post by Sasha Dichter articulates so well what drove me to write Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries – why forwarding a culture of storytelling in user research is essentially to continuing to develop the field.

Storytelling, then, is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the listener to position herself in the story, see its relevance to her current situation, and then play forward a narrative about her role in the story of now.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

This is why it our job to find our own stories, to explore the values that move us to act, and to practice uttering words that help others see and feel what we see and feel. This is the work of finding the language to describe the choices we have made and are making in service of our work, so that others can feel the hope that we feel, and so that they can learn to use this hope to deal with their fears, including fear of acting on our behalf.

Five Questions with Steve Portigal

Here’s “Five Questions” with me about war stories, user research, and the O’Reilly Design Conference. Click for the whole thing; Below is a short excerpt.

Why is user research so hard to do well?

I talked about this a bit in Interviewing Users—that the assumption we can just use our social defaults because it’s just “talking to people” holds us back from being better at user research. We have to unlearn a lot of patterns (e.g., sharing about yourself) in order to get to a very different outcome (a good session versus a good hangout). In looking at war stories, I’m digging further into the challenges we face in doing research, and hopefully not stating the obvious but research with other people will have massive elements of unpredictability in it. That means we learn what we didn’t know we didn’t know (and would never otherwise have thought to ask about), but it also means that our attempts to plan and control the process are somewhat foolish (and yet, someone who does research without planning is obviously a fool). There’s an element here of temperament, or worldview, that isn’t so natural for everyone. In some of the stories I’ve gathered, people do everything right, and yet things still go wrong. That’s not a welcome truth.

My 2017 UX Research “tips”

The LA User Experience meetup group asked me for three tips (more like thoughts than tips, I think) for 2017. You can see all the collected tips here.

  1. Research is everywhere. I continue to marvel at the growth of research. Back in the day, people would write to ask me if they knew of any research openings; now they write to ask me if I know of anyone who they could hire for their research position. We shouldn’t get cocky, as demand for research can lead to commodification, degrading research to a tactical, evaluative tool rather than the strategic powerhouse it is.
  2. Research is necessary but not sufficient for innovation. It’s just one of many parts in making business decisions. Research identifies unmet needs but design, technology, service, etc. all figure out how to address those needs. Research assesses solutions but only in certain contexts. Some things can’t be fully evaluated until after they exist (consider the invention of the Post-It, for example). This is an innovation problem, not a research problem.
  3. Harness storytelling for teaching and learning. Stories take us through a process of an experience, from the beginning, to the middle, through to the end. Crucially for learners, they can highlight mistakes and failures as much as successes. And stories can tell it like it is, providing a level of authenticity that more traditionally presented instructional material can’t convey. And finally, we respond emotionally to stories: drama, suspense, pathos, humor all facilitate engagement and end up sticking around in our memory
  4. .

Learning from the comic, tragic & astonishing moments in user research (transcript)


Last week I did an online chat with UX Mastery about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. See one snippet below, but please check out the entire transcript here.

crystal: Do you think that approaching the interview with some small vulnerability of your own allows them to be more vulnerable as well and open up and give more insight? And have you found that added insight to often add value to the research?

steveportigal: our own vulnerability – that’s fascinating and I don’t have a clear take on that. I think a shallow reading says being vulnerable means sharing about ourselves and I am mostly against doing that most of the time for most researchers but it makes me ponder what’s a richer more nuanced sense of what our own vulnerability is, if by being still, present, focused, listening, and not needing to make it about us, we might convey some vulnerability. I think it’s meeting people where they are, accepting them where they are and not putting ourself into it. Which – to your point – feels DAMN risky to a lot of people. Set aside your agenda and listen but do so in a productive effective you’re-on-the-job way, so you are balancing different forces and risks.

I dunno, is that ‘vulnerable?’

Stories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal

Gerry Gaffney interviewed me about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries (which he contributed to) – and user research in general – for his User Experience podcast.

Check out the podcast on iTunes. Or listen via Gerry’s site (which also features a transcript). Or, listen below.

The idea that some of these ideas are metaphors for life I think is absolutely true and, again, I can sound kind of highfalutin and pretentious here but I think the thinking that I went through in this book is looking at… some of these external factors, right? You know, make sure your camera is ready and you don’t break the cable and you know the sort of “equipmenty” type things that we have to think about. But so many of these are about what do we do when the unexpected happens and acknowledge the unexpected is going to happen and that those are definitely life skills. And I think one of the takeaways that I come back to several times, and I just alluded to it a minute ago, which is know when to walk away. You know and so when you’re in a situation do you keep trying to turn that situation from a failure into a success or do you say “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” and you leave.

15 Questions with Steve Portigal

Today, as part of the Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries roll-out, Rosenfeld Media has 15 Questions with Steve Portigal. Check ’em all out!

6. What’s the story behind how you got into user research? I was working at a design agency that was tentatively experimenting with a new service offering—insights that were “left of the idea” (yes, that was actually how they tried to market generative research work). My putative boss literally stopped speaking to me, and wasn’t putting me on projects (the sort of thing that generally requires talking), so the team doing this research work took me in. In the beginning, they had me watch videos and make notes. Then they let me go into the field and hold the video camera. Eventually I got to ask one or two questions, and as time wore on, I began to lead interviews and then plan and manage research. During that time period Don Norman (or was it Don Knotts?) appeared before me in a dream, clad in diaphanous robes. He marked me with the Sigil of Lamneth and bid me sternly to pursue this holiest of professions. That sealed the deal for me.

What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

doorbells-danger-dead-batteries-cover
My new book comes out today and Lou Rosenfeld has an enthusiastic appreciation and a bit of the back story about the book’s journey.
Read it all here

I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Steve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people.

Series

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