Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas

Jennifer Pretti is the Manager of the User Experience Design Team at Christie Digital in Kitchener, Canada.

At Christie Digital, we have a very niche population of users. Opportunities to observe them using our projectors are highly coveted by my UX team. In February 2014, we were invited by a good customer of ours, Staging Techniques, to observe their setup for the keynote address at Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference. The event was taking place at the Venetian Hotel, in Las Vegas, and the keynote speaker was going to be Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton!

Three of us from Christie made the trip: me, Chris (my lead industrial designer), and a software developer, Eric. Although I had conducted many user sessions for Christie before, this was the first time I was going on site to observe a live event setup and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My biggest worry was that, even though we made it clear we were there just to observe, I would be asked to answer a technical question or troubleshoot some problem and not have a clue what to say or do.

Setup was to begin at midnight the day we arrived. Working night shifts is very common for projectionists since it’s the best time to see and calibrate the light as other setup crews are already done and out of the way. The thought of staying up for a night shift wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to, especially given jet lag was going to make it feel 3 hours later. But I hoped a mix of adrenaline and caffeine would do the trick.

After landing in Vegas, we headed down to the Expo Hall to get our bearings. The scale of everything in Vegas is massive and oversized, and the hall was no exception. It was a gigantic space – at least two football fields long and one football field wide – and it was completely empty and bare. Whatever vision the event planners had for the space seemed hopelessly unattainable in the 5 days left before the show.

When we arrived, big transport trucks were pulling into the hall to start unloading the many tons of equipment that would be needed to run the show. It was clear that they were behind schedule already. Trusses and scaffolding needed for rigging the projectors hadn’t yet been built, so we decided to split up, with Chris covering the first night shift, and Eric and I heading to bed to get some much needed sleep.

Eric and I returned to the site early the next morning to relieve Chris. The first few hours of our observation time were slow and uneventful due to continued delays with the truss work, but eventually things picked up, and soon projectors were being powered on and rigged into position. Excitement peaked when one of the projectors failed to power on. I stood poised to capture an epic story of problem solving and error recovery, but the crew just shrugged, taped an ‘X’ on the top of the projector, and replaced it with a spare one. Even after I got in touch with tech support to help explain the error code (highlighting quite clearly that our error messages need a lot of work), it didn’t change their approach. Time is money and using a functional projector was simply the most efficient option. Whatever the problem was, it could wait until they were back in the office to sort out.

It became clear by the end of the second night that the most interesting portions of the setup would be delayed past our planned departure date. The senior projectionist, Pete, pleaded for one of us to stay a bit longer. I think there was mix of professional pride in his insistence, but (happily for us) a realization of the mutual benefit of our presence, observing their workflows and listening to their wishlists. It was on account of his enthusiasm that I agreed to change my flight and stay an extra night. My fatigued body howled in despair. Another night shift? Are you crazy?!

There is no better place to change your sleeping patterns than Vegas. That city looks the same no matter what the hour: there are always people walking around, always a restaurant open, and enough indoor walkways that it could be any time of day. Hotel rooms come equipped with industrial-strength black-out curtains, whose existence I suddenly appreciated in a whole new light (pun intended), as I tried to convince my body that falling asleep at 10 AM was a totally legit plan.

The little sleep I got left me with major doubts that I could keep up a respectable and coherent state of mind for my last night. However, early into the shift, Pete insisted I help him colour match the displays. Colour matching 26 projectors is a very laborious activity that had us whizzing around on a golf cart, playing with light meters, and debating whether one projector was a fraction more magenta than the other. Shifting from observer to honorary crew member made the night fly by and gave me a more rich perspective of how our products are used.

I didn’t sleep until I was on the airplane later that afternoon. I welcomed the rest, but felt a pang of regret for not extending my trip long enough to see Bill Clinton speak. As social media began to light up with pictures of the event, I cheered for Staging Techniques and Christie for a job well done. And smiled knowing that Bill Clinton was walking on the same stage where I had been, just 24 hours ago.

Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe

Julia Thompson is a Design Research & Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, Canada.

It all started with a simple question from the dispatcher: “Do you want a call when your taxi arrives?” My nonchalant answer: “No thanks, I should be okay.” was the nail in my coffin. This was my first error in a series of cascading mistakes.

The next morning I was heading out-of-country for in-home interviews. That night, in an effort to be as prepared as possible, I called to arrange a taxi for an early morning pickup. I hung up the phone and proceeded to pack my bags. I considered carefully what to pack. I visualised my next few days: what would the weather be like? What would be my mode of transportation? What clothing would be appropriate for the work – casual enough to fit into a home environment and dressy enough to fit into an office environment? I was sure that I had considered all the details. Unfortunately, the most important detail, my alarm, was what I missed.

Satisfied with my preparation, I went to bed, and slept well. The next morning I awoke feeling refreshed. With birds chirping outside, sunlight filled the room. Yet something felt terribly wrong. What time was it? Why was it so light out? I picked up my phone, checked my alarm, and then checked the time. My stomach fell to the floor. My flight was leaving now. Sheer panic overtook me. I couldn’t think straight. I had never missed a flight before. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was paralyzed, I had no idea what to do. I grabbed my phone and called our corporate travel agent. It felt like hours as I waited on hold to ask my pressing questions: Could I still make my interview? When was the next flight? Could I fly out of a different airport instead? The sound of my heartbeat drowned out every noise as I sat there waiting, palms sweating, phone clutched. The agent came back on the line and said there was a flight leaving from another airport in 2 hours. Could I make it there in time? It’s almost rush hour. It’s an hour’s drive with no traffic. What about parking? Customs? Security? If I took the car, how would my husband get to work? On top of all that the agent still wasn’t sure whether there was room on the flight. We decided, together, that I should start driving and I should stay on the line while she called the airline to confirm availability. I jumped in the car, with my phone on the passenger seat and that awful music taunting me as I continued to wait, on hold. I got about 10 minutes down the road when the agent told me to pull over and go home. That flight wouldn’t be mine. I would settle for another flight, hours later, and hours after my scheduled interview.

Later that day, as my plane came in for its landing, I just felt low. I was tired from the emotional rollercoaster of missing my flight, I was anxious knowing I’d have to tell the people I was working with what had happened and I was sad that I had missed out on an interview and the opportunity to see, first-hand, into the life of one of our customers. The only thing saving me was the fact that I was the client and so, even though I missed the interview, it still went ahead as scheduled.

The following day I awoke, in the right place and at the right time, with a better perspective on life. Our local research partner was gracious enough to include me in an interview that day. I was thankful. I was relieved. But now, that meant there would be four of us attending this interview. Two consultants and two clients; two too many. The consultant had called ahead and confirmed with our interviewee that it would be okay if an additional person (me!) attended the interview. Our interviewee was very accommodating and agreed to have all four of us into her home. I was so preoccupied with resolving my own error that I didn’t consider, until later, how the dynamic of the interview would now be affected.

We all got to the interview, we all walked in, we all sat down in the chairs offered to us by our interviewee. As everyone was setting up I started to look around and take note of the environment. I noticed several pairs of shoes neatly arranged by the front door. I looked over at our host, I looked down: bare feet. My eyes darted around the room, I looked down at all our feet. All four of us had our shoes on, laces tied. Bah! We were the worst guests ever. Weren’t we all, as researchers, supposed to notice something so simple but so important?

I spent the next five minutes cursing myself, my missed flight, the totally wrong and overpowering dynamic of four researchers to one customer, and the miss on basic shoe etiquette. I had to shake it off – all the feelings of shame, all the feelings of doubt – and I had to focus. I had to be in the moment, I had to get the most I could out of the interview and I had to show the interviewee the respect she deserved.

It ended up being a great discussion. It was, by no means, a textbook in-context interview, but we had a nice dynamic emerge nonetheless. My story is not one of a single epic fail, but instead of a series of errors with a cascading effect. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” Here, we had not a want for a shoe, we had too many.

Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh

Susan Simon Daniels is a Senior Design Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, ON.

In September 2012, I was interviewing people who had recently purchased and set up a smartphone. During the interview, I asked the participants to unbox and set up another, new smartphone to see if any usability problems emerged.

One of the interviews was with a male in his late 40s who worked as a translator for people whose first language was not English (I’ll call him “Rick.”) As he unpacked the box that contained the new smartphone, Rick frowned and sighed. I watched silently and noted that a few moments later Rick sighed again.

At this point, the researcher inside my brain was shouting, “Red alert! There’s a problem! There’s a problem!” After a few more moments, I turned to him and said, “Rick, I noticed you’re frowning a bit and you’ve sighed a couple of times. Can you tell me why?”

I waited, fingers poised to capture the fatal flaw that the participant had discovered in the product set up – something so egregious that it evoked a heavy sigh!

Rick turned to me and instead shared a personal story. Both he and his spouse had recently lost their parents. These major life events, complicated by delays in traveling to another continent for funerals and family arrangements, left a lingering sadness that crept up on Rick during quiet moments.

His sigh was just a sigh – not a signal of a defect or usability issue to solve, but a personal moment I happened to witness. We talked for a few minutes about his loss and how he was feeling and then Rick returned to the task at hand and continued to unbox and set up the phone.

We had passed through an awkward moment. I felt I had rudely probed into an open wound. But I had to ask the question. I couldn’t assume the frown and sighs were caused by the product or process. My job was to get to the why. At the same time, by taking a few minutes to let the person share how he was feeling, I was able to give Rick the time he needed to gather himself together and continue with the task at hand.

In the end, Rick contributed by uncovering a couple of areas of improvement for the product. And I found that taking a moment to pause, to just be human beings who shared a bit of sympathy, allowed us to resume the interview with dignity and purpose.

I’m reminded of a verse from the song “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) from the classic war-romance movie Casablanca.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And the fundamental things do apply: never assume and always ask “why?”

Steve’s War Story: Giggling and Grunting

I originally posted this in 2006, and revised it slightly for Interviewing Users. I thought it was time to add it to the War Stories archive and so here’s the original version.

As we rang the doorbell, my colleague and I unconsciously straightened, preparing ourselves for that all-important first impression, that moment when our research participant would come to the door and size us up. We waited for a moment, looking at each other as we heard footsteps, mustering a smile as the inside door opened.
“Hello,” I offered, “Are you Brian?”

As I began to state the obvious, that we were here for the interview, he grunted, opened the screen door, and as we took hold, he turned around and walked back into the house. We glanced at each other, and stepped into the foyer. What did we know about Brian? Our recruiting screener told us he was 22, lived with his parents, and his brother, and was employed part-time. The rest would be up to us to discover.

It was 7:30 in the morning and we were taking our shoes off in a strange house. Eventually someone beckoned from the kitchen, and we came in. But already we were out of sync. The kitchen was small, with an L-shaped counter, and a small table for dining. The mother was at the end of the L, working with bowls and dishes and burners on the stove. The father was perched against the counter, while Brian, and his younger brother sat at the table. The father was a small man, while the other three were quite large. The room wasn’t intended for the six of us, so we managed to set ourselves up for our interview in the only place we could; at the far end of the counter, at the far end of the table. We wedged ourselves (one behind the other) on small chairs, pulling our knees in, our paraphernalia of notepads, documents, video cameras, tapes, batteries etc. clutched in close. It wasn’t ideal, but we hoped we could make it work.

But then the real challenge became clear – although Brian had agreed for us to meet and do this interview, he was actively disinterested. We were positioned 45 degrees behind him, in his blind spot. With his physical bulk, he managed to loom over his food in a way that eliminated even any peripheral eye contact; somehow this was something a smaller person couldn’t have done. His brother sat across from him, echoing his posture.

We had recruited Brian specifically, but of course, here we were with the entire family. We pressed ahead, explaining our study, and starting in with our planned questions. Since Brian was the person with whom we had the arrangement, we focused our attention on him. He would not respond, beyond one word answers (which sounded more like grunts), and the occasional glance up to his brother, causing them both to giggle.

My colleague and I avoided looking at each other (it may have not been physically possible, given the tight quarters) for fear of displaying our despair at the situation. Sure, we had arranged this interview, but the cues we were receiving were making it clear the arrangement wasn’t worth much. At this point, we had already woke up quite early to do this interview, so there was no point in giving up. If they changed their mind explicitly, they’d let us know, and we’d leave. Meanwhile, what else was there to do but press on? I asked questions, with very little response. I tried the brother, at which point Brian bolted out of the room for a few minutes, without a word. The brother was only slightly more amenable than Brian, mostly interested in making critical comments about his parents (to Brian’s great grunting enjoyment) as much as provide any actual information.

Indeed, the mother and father seemed not to have been warned that we would be coming; although I directed some of the questioning towards the mom, she reacted with pretty serious hostility, informing us (in the context of an answer to a question) that they did not welcome strangers into their house, and (while she was preparing food) highlighted the intimate nature of food preparation as a symbol, and that was even less open to strangers. The message was very clear.

But again, what could we do? Pressing on, until asked to leave, under the explicit agreement we had made, seemed the best approach. We asked our questions, following up on the information they had shared, listening closely, looking for clarification, offering up as much space as we could for them to talk, all in trying to build some flow and dialog. Even though the message was negative, at least the parents were willing to talk to us. And so, the young men faded out of the conversation, and the interview eventually switched over to the parents. Two hours later it turned out that we had completed an excellent interview with them; they each had great stories about our topic area, and revealed a lot of background about their family, about growing up, about their activities, and even their perspectives on what made the United States the country it had become.

Before we left the house, the mother insisted on cooking up some fried bread fresh and hot for us; admonishing us that “no one comes here and doesn’t get food” – reiterating the intimate nature of food she had mentioned at the beginning, but this time as a compliment rather than a shield.

As soon as we left the house, my colleague turned to me and said “I don’t know how you pulled that off; I thought we were done for and would have to leave.” I was very pleased with how the interview turned out, especially because it began at such a low point, but there was little magic to it. I didn’t try to solve the big problem of the complex dynamic we had walked into; I focused (especially at first) on just the next problem; the immediate challenge of what to say next. I was certainly keeping the larger goals in mind of how to cover all the areas we were interested in, but I was focusing my energy as an interviewer on the next thing. And by working at it in small pieces, bit by bit, the dynamic shifted. As interviewers, we had to compartmentalize the social experience of the event – the extreme discomfort and awkwardness of the early part of the interview, and just stick to our jobs. We didn’t handle the situation that differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up (and showing that we were listening by the way we followed up), building rapport and trust, bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information.

Years later, it’s obvious that there are better ways to communicate with the participants ahead of time to screen out unwilling participants. For example, the person who is going to be in the field should always speak live to the person they will be visiting before they day of the interview just to get that person-to-person communication started early, so both parties can get a sense of each other and start to feel comfortable (or agree that it’s not a good fit and move on to someone else). But, given the diversity of people, we will always end up interviewing people who are more or less comfortable with the process, and it’s our job to make them comfortable in order to get the information we are interested in. Doing so may make us uncomfortable ourselves, but with practice we must learn to set aside the social dynamics and focus on the question asking and listening that will make the interview a success.

Jenn’s War Story: Burns, Bandages, and BBQ

Jenn Downs is a UX Designer at ShootProof in Atlanta, GA.

I was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit. While getting ready for the day I burned my thumb pretty badly on my hair straightening iron. It was the kind of burn you can soothe for about two seconds before it makes you roll your eyes back and cry out in pain. We’d planned ahead and given ourselves plenty of time that morning, so we had a few minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the hotel front desk to see if they had a first aid kit, but they did not. One of the staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, perhaps some kind of southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I let the front desk guy apply the mustard to my thumb.

Two seconds later I was again whimpering in pain, so I just filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. We sped out to a drugstore. We were staying on the outskirts of a college town and there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did finally find the one grocery store that was open before 8 am. I bought everything: burn cream, aloe, bandages, you name it. But nothing worked. Nothing but the cup of ice water could stop me from visibly wincing. We were running out of time and had to head to our meeting, hoping for some kind of miracle.

We found our way to our customers’ office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately the front desk person was keenly observant and before I could even say anything she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time for the interview. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in the cup of water. We worked for a really creative and weird company and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional southern company, so we were feeling a little out of our element; I thought for a moment that my thumb-on-ice was going to be a disaster, but it was actually a nice ice-breaker (pun not intended).

Then I spilled the cup of ice water all over their conference room table.

In that moment all I could do was laugh at myself and let everyone laugh with me and just continue the conversation as I was cleaning up the mess, calmly and confidently.

It turned out to be a great interview and gave our customers something to joke about with us as we shared a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped up in gauze and burn cream! My confidence through the awkwardness ended up helping them feel comfortable with having strangers in their office all day and we got great information we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

Jen’s War Story: Bad news turns to couples therapy


Jen Ignacz is the UX Research Lead at TOPP, a design consultancy focused on helping clients shape future products and services.

I was conducting in-home contextual interviews about home safety and security behaviours. In the recruitment screener, I had found out that a particular participant had experienced a break-in to her home about a year earlier.

When I arrived at her home for the interview, her fiancé was also there and ended up participating extensively in the conversation.

My research partner and I had been with the couple for about 90 minutes and they were obviously feeling quite comfortable; they offered up lots of intimate details about their routines and behaviours and were willing to show us everything and anything. I was pleased that they felt so comfortable with sharing (the woman more than the man).

Part of my protocol was to understand what happened when people find out about bad news about their home, like a fire alarm going off, a break-in, a water leak, etc. So, after 90 minutes of talking about home safety and security routines, I posed the question: “Now I want to talk about what you do when you get bad news. You mentioned that you had a break-in last year. Can you tell me about what happened?”

As I was asking, the couple looked at each other and an awkward silence fell over the room as I finished the question. They held each other’s gaze for longer than was comfortable (for us). Their sudden change in behaviour told me I had hit on a sore spot.

The woman broke the silence, still holding her partner’s gaze, saying “That’s not what I consider bad news. Your child dying is bad news.” Then a whispered “Do you not want to talk about this?” to her fiancé.

My research partner and I froze as if hoping that by not moving, time could stand still for us while they dealt with this incredibly intense personal moment.

The couple started to talk about the experience of losing a pregnancy in the second trimester about a year earlier. (I made the realisation when reviewing the recordings that the break-in happened around the same time as the miscarriage, so asking the question the way I did allowed for a connection between events I could not have anticipated). They spoke quietly and mostly to each other, but engaged me more and more in their conversation as they went along.

As a researcher, this felt way off-topic and I was trying to think of ways to get the interview back on track. But as a human being, I felt the need to let them deal with this issue that seemed difficult for them to talk about. From their conversation, it was quite clear they each were still working through their emotions and likely didn’t speak about it to each other often enough. I wasn’t going to shut down an opportunity for them to make emotional progress just because it didn’t fit anywhere close to my research goals.

So, I let them talk. And I even guided them to share some feelings with each other. I took on a counseling role; a total deviation from the research plan.

After about ten minutes, they turned to me and said “That’s probably not what you meant.”

I was honest with them. I told them it wasn’t the type of bad news event I was thinking about, but the conversation helped me learn more about who they are; their values, morals, and perspectives on life. Getting a better sense of who they are ultimately helps me understand their motives for their behaviours better.

My response allowed us to carefully ramp back up to the interview protocol. I was very cautious with that transition. I had to ensure that the trust and openness we had established in the first 90 minutes wasn’t harmed by the unexpectedly exposed vulnerability. It didn’t seem to be. I was able to complete the remaining hour of the visit with just as much openness (and gaining just as much insight) as we had before.

Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader

Patricia Colley is an experience designer and the Principal of Creative Catalysts in Portland, OR.

In 1984, I was 23, and working for a market & social research firm in San Antonio, Texas. They sent me down to McAllen to collect voter opinions on the upcoming national elections. McAllen is a sleepy little town near the bottom tip of the state, just a few miles from the Mexican border, mainly populated with low-to-moderate income Hispanic families.

I was on my second day of door-to-door polling, asking voters their opinions on policy matters, and their thoughts on the state and presidential candidates. The work was progressing well. As usual, I was getting a high rate of interview completions, with lots of useful data. After four years of working in market and social research, I was quite confident in my neutral, non-threatening “aw shucks, I’m just one of you” act, and its ability to deliver great results.

But my confidence was shaken when I met Maria, a shy housewife in her early 30’s.

It was about 4 pm on a warm, dry Thursday afternoon when I knocked on the door of a modest, well-kept ranch house in a suburban section of McAllen. Maria opened the door part way. She was half-hiding behind it, sizing me up like a rabbit peering through tall grass at a coyote in the distance…curious, but poised to flee.

Me: “Hello, my name is Patricia, and I’ve been sent here by (XYZ Research) to gather public opinions on the upcoming elections.”
Maria: “Oh, hi.”
Me (turning on the charm): “May I ask you some questions? Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything!”
Maria: “Uhh, sure, I guess?”&
Me: “Great, thanks! This won’t take long.”

Wide-eyed, Maria flashes a shy smile before her jaw slacks again. This one’s cagey, I thought to myself, but I’ll get her talking.

Me: “Now, thinking about (Candidate X), what comes to mind?”
Maria: “Uhh, I don’t know? Is he a good guy?”
Me (shrinking): “Well, I really don’t have any thoughts on (Candidate X). Besides, my bosses didn’t send me all this way to talk about my opinions. He wants to know your opinion.”
Maria: “I don’t know. He seems okay?”

Now, I don’t think Mary is incapable of forming opinions. I suspect she’s simply never been asked to share her thoughts about such important things, so far from home. And she may never be asked again. But on this day, I was determined to make her opinion count.

Me: “Well, you’ve heard of him, maybe seen him on TV?”
Maria: “Yes.”
Me: “So, what did you think of him? Is he someone you would vote for?”
Maria: “Um…(pause)”

Her eyes darted across my face, scanning every crease and twitch, searching for clues. Those big rabbit eyes begged mutely for help. I stared back, apologetically. I took a few slow breaths, trying to ground us both, so she might relax into talking more naturally. Each time she hesitates, I carefully repeat the question, altering the wording and inflection to make them sound as simple and benign as possible.

Me: “Really, we’re just interested in what you think. Whatever you think is fine. Do you think you’ll vote for him, or not?”
Maria: “Uh…yes?” (seeing no reaction from me) “No?”
Me: “Okay, that’s fine. Alright. Now, thinking about (Issue A), is that important to you? Do you think it’s good or bad?”
Maria: “Uhh…I think it’s good?”

The back and forth went on for several minutes. I’m trying to go completely neutral and void of any emotional expression, but my contortions only intensified the awkwardness. The interview was in free-fall. I was failing miserably to collect any genuine responses from Maria. A hot wave of panic washed over me. How can I get this back on track?

In that moment, I just had to let go.

I quit fighting it, and fell back on connecting with Maria as a person. As Maria answered my questions, I began riffing on her responses, affirming and adding detail to them. While trying not to reveal my personal opinions, I offered supportive words and gestures to elevate everything she said, so that she might open up and elaborate. Eventually, she did relax, and her answers flowed a bit more freely.

Me: “So, what about the presidential candidates?”
Maria: “I guess I’ll vote for (presidential candidate B).”
Me: “Great! Is it because he is for (issue B)?”
Maria: “Oh, that’s good. Yeah, (B) is good for us.”

Although Maria was warming up to me, I felt I was way off book. It seemed impossible not to sway her answers. Whatever I wrote down, I feared it might be swept away by the slightest shift in body position, or an eyebrow lift. Well – at least she was talking, I told myself.

Finally, we got to the end. Walking back to my car, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The hardest interview I’d ever done was over. I went out for a well-earned drink and a tragicomic debrief with my co-workers.

Sometimes you just get a dud subject, and it is what it is. But something about that 15-minute exchange with Maria struck a deeper chord in me. As I drove out of town, troubling questions lingered. What is the value of a skewed interview? Was this the only time I’d failed to be impartial? Or, had this been happening all along, in more subtle ways? How can I ever know that the data I’m collecting is pure?

Maria taught me two important things that day.

1. People make stuff up as they go along. And, we can’t always see the flaws in self-reporting.
2. The observer effect is unavoidable. Interviewers shade their work in unpredictable ways.

I’m as diligent as ever about delivering valuable insights through my research. But ever since that incident in McAllen, I draw my conclusions with a fuzzy border, in humble deference to flawed inputs and shadow projections, on both sides of the clipboard.

David’s War Story: Let it Bleed

David Hoard is an interaction designer and here he shares his second story.

Years ago we were re-designing a device to cool a patient’s blood during open heart surgery. This protects the body during the procedure. The client arranged for us to witness a heart operation, and we were pretty excited about that. My only concern was that I would faint from seeing blood.

Research day came and we headed to a nearby hospital, prepared to be serious, professional researchers. A nurse helped us gown up and get ready. I was expecting the operating room to be a sober technical environment, and I saw that was true. The equipment was stainless steel; the walls and floor were blue-green tile. I anticipated that this would be an orderly collection of findings.

But as soon as the surgery team started to come in, the vibe changed. The nurses chatted. The anesthesiologist joked. The patient, a man in his late fifties, was casually whisked in on a gurney.

The nurses chatted with the patient as they put on the anesthesia mask and he drifted off to sleep. They slathered him with a brown antiseptic wash. It made his skin look like a basted turkey, and I thought “He’s just another piece of meat to them.”

Then things really got started. The surgeon came in and straight away had the nurse hit the music. The sound of the Rolling Stones filled the O.R. The jokes and banter increased. The technician operating the blood cooling machines set to work and we tried to stay focused on that. But it was futile.

When the patient was sufficiently chilled, they set to work with a powered saw and cut open his sternum. They were ripping a person’s body open, and they did it while talking about sport scores.

They pried the chest cavity open and prepared for a bypass procedure. They took a vein from the man’s leg that would be used as a new artery for the heart. “How you doing back there?” came the question from the surgeon. “Good!” we replied, and I realized I wasn’t woozy at all. It was all too fascinating.

It was at that moment that the most surprising thing happened. The surgeon said “How do you like this?” as he put his hand down in the chest and lifted the beating heart up and out. The music thumped, the heart pumped and the surgeon gave us a wicked grin. He knew full well he was holding the patient’s life in his hands. But at the same time, it was all in a days work for him. No big deal.

After completing the bypass, they finished their work and stapled the man up. The surgeon cleaned up and zoomed off to something else important. Before we knew it our research session was over.

As for our actual goal of observing blood-cooling machine, we did gather information about that, but the bigger lesson was in understanding the true nature of our users. We expected one-dimensional experts and we saw three-dimensional humans.

My work on projects like this has taught me that experts are simply regular humans with a specialized job to do. Help them be smarter, help them be more successful. But don’t forget the human underneath that needs ease of learning, ease of use and help preventing errors. Humans don’t want to devote 100% of their brainpower to your product. They need to reserve some for cracking jokes and singing with the music.

When your research goes in an unexpected direction, go with the flow and let the Stones play. You might learn something more meaningful than your original plan.

Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run

Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).

The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.

I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu or gari. For one thing, it was spicy as hell…so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.

I had spotted guinea fowl wondering around the village. I asked my host family about it and they just laughed and said they are wild animals.

So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.

The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slip knot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.

The string was about 50 feet long and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.

The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.

As dusk fell the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings and I reeled in the string, and soon had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.

I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep him secure. It was too late to cook them so I ate my mind-alteringly hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.

I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.

That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.

The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.

We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”

So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused as he had earlier told me they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor and my daughter will cook it for you.”

So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with him. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.

I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side-effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.

Note: A similar recipe is here.

Carol’s War Story: Driving Force

Carol Rossi is the senior director of user experience research at edmunds.com.

Since Edmunds.com is an auto website we spend a lot of time hearing about how people shop for cars. A couple of years ago we ran a shop-along study where we conducted in-home interviews to both understand car shopping behavior and simultaneously screen people we may want to go with on test drives to dealerships. I always take someone else with me when running interviews – a designer, product manager, exec, etc. – so they get first-hand exposure to real car shoppers.

This time I had the head of editorial with me. The Edmunds editorial team has a long-term fleet of cars so they can write about car ownership. My colleague tells me that he’ll drive and we’ll take one of the fleet cars. We meet in the lobby and he walks us over to a $100,000 red BMW. Not what I typically show up in to interview somebody who is probably shopping for a Honda.

The interview is in Hollywood and although it’s only 10 miles from our office this is LA so we drive up Santa Monica Blvd for like an hour. We find the address and it’s not in the best part of Hollywood. There we are with this six-figure car. Eventually we find a parking spot that looks relatively safe and walk to the building.

We use the callbox and are buzzed into the building. We look for the apartment and realize it’s in the basement. We’re greeted by our interviewee, a middle-aged guy who’s described on the screener as a self-employed writer (like much of the population of Hollywood). The apartment is the tiniest living space. It really looked more like a one-car garage. The air was stuffy, there was a unique odor that was somewhere between musty and dusty, there were no windows open and no A/C, with carpet that had maybe never been cleaned. I started to hope the allergy attack I was sure was coming happened after we were finished. The apartment was overstuffed with piles of papers (screenplays?), VHS tapes, and posters of independent movies (including one with a woman in bondage gear who we later discover is his wife). Although we’d normally want to capture anything descriptive of the scene, to avoid distracting the product team who would watch the video later we had to position the camera to keep the poster out of the shot.

We’re chatting and after a few minutes our interviewee’s 35-year old wife comes out with a baby. The wife is some kind of Hungarian model (think of a European version of Gisele Bündchen). The guy turned out to be really nice, educated and articulate, but also clearly not at all someone likely to test drive a car at a dealership. Basically he hates cars, rides his bike everywhere, is trying to get off the grid but needs a car now that there’s a baby, and says he’ll buy some used car that’s parked on the street with a sign in the window.

Was this interview all for naught? From the first moment through the end I wasn’t sure. You always learn something new, so even though this guy did not meet our criteria for people likely to buy a car at a dealership we certainly got exposure to a type of shopper we knew theoretically existed but hadn’t yet encountered (“the eccentric car hater”).

I’ve seen homes like this (and worse) but after the interview we walked outside and my colleague couldn’t unload fast enough. He’d never seen a living situation like that. In rapid succession he declared (out of concern for our safety) “When we first walked in I thought it was a trap – I was looking for a way out” but then (out of concern for the child’s health) repeated several times “They have a baby in there!!” And then he began to express his concern for my safety “Do you go on these interviews alone?…You take a guy with you, right?”

After this emotional decompression, we jumped back into the ostentatious Beemer and drove down Santa Monica Blvd., away from the unknown of the ethnographer’s life to the predictable comfort of our office…until the next interview.

Rachel’s War Story: Research, in Sickness and in Health

Rachel Shadoan is co-founder of Akashic Labs, a research consultancy that leverages hybrid methodologies to create rich and accurate portraits of users.

It was my first field assignment out of school. Okay, technically it wasn’t my assignment–a contractor would be conducting the interviews, and I would be along to observe and record. But I’d spent the previous two years and six months in a lab writing code, so I would take what I could get. To say that I was excited would be an understatement. I was stoked.

Plus, I’d get to fly to California! I’d be on an honest-to-goodness business trip! It was going to be great.

It certainly started out great. In the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I counted citrus trees. Citrus trees! Growing in the ground! In people’s yards! And no one seemed shocked by this! Of course, I had plenty of time to count those trees, as we crawled through traffic for hours. But the weather was glorious and I, like it, was ebullient.

Things began to look dicey, however, when I met the researcher I would be working with. She was a smart, gregarious woman, who also happened to be sick. Very sick. Down-a-bottle-of-Nyquil-and-sleep-it-off-for-a-week sick.

Rest and recuperation, unfortunately, were luxuries we could not afford. The project was on a tight timeline and already behind. At least one of the interviews we had planned had been rescheduled once. Stakeholders across three organizations were chomping at the bit. It was, in the melodramatic way of business schedules, do or die.

And so we did. We pre-gamed with Thai food, guzzling tom yum soup for its sinus-clearing properties before returning to the hotel for an early-to-bed. The following morning we set off, my compatriot fueled by a powerful cocktail of cold medicine and espresso, myself running mostly on nerves and the delicious feeling of being free of my cubicle confines.

Still, we felt uncomfortable bringing sickness into the homes of our participants. “Give us your insight, and we’ll give you the plague!” is not the most enticing slogan a researcher could come up with. We tried to minimize risks. I shook hands with the participants; she abstained. She positioned herself as far away from them as their living rooms and rapport-building would allow, with me, a human note-taking buffer, in between. We strove not to be vectors of disease.

Given the circumstances, the first two interviews went well. But after hours of driving hither and yon across the north Bay Area, in traffic that I would have avoided navigating even with a clear head, my partner’s energy was flagging and the cold medicine wearing off. She tossed back an emergency booster of DayQuil in a Starbucks parking lot and we steeled ourselves for the final interview. It was perhaps more disorganized than the first two interviews, but we muddled through together.

And then, as the sun sank below the side of the endless freeway, it was over and we were once again untroubled by the inflexibility of a corporate system that put us in the ethical quandary of whether to conduct field work–or work at all–while ill. We parted ways at a BART station. She headed home to collapse into a restorative, cold-medicine induced coma; I went in to the city to spend a few days basking in the glow of more-or-less-successful fieldwork.

My basking didn’t last long, of course. In no time at all, I had a cold.

Jon’s War Story: Of Speed and Strip Clubs

Jon McNeill is the Principal of Hunter.

Relatively early in my career, as I began stepping out and leading studies on my own, I was in Miami Beach doing ethnographic interviews with participatory “drive-alongs” for a luxury car brand. It was the last day in town, and I, with client in tow, had three 3-hour interviews scheduled that had to get done before we could fly out in the morning, the last one being scheduled for 9pm. This last interview was with Kenny, a guy who was actually supposed to be interviewed earlier in the week, but had to cancel because his yacht broke down and he was stranded for the day on a small island off the coast. We hear a lot of different excuses for non-participation, but that was a new one.

My client and I get through our first two interviews that day at around 8, hop back in the rental car, and start the trip to interview 3, feeling hungry and tired, having missed dinner. I called Kenny to confirm that we were coming, in case he was on another island. He answered in an energetic but distracted tone: “Yeah, laying out the drinks right now. We’ll get in the car, go get some speed, and come back and I’ll give you whatever you need.” Click.

“Speed? Oh no. Who is this guy? He must mean going fast, in his car,” I thought to myself.

I warned my client that we might have a live wire on our hands, but that we’d just go get the interview that we needed and then grab a bite.

We arrive to the address to see Kenny out front, waiting for us. “My wife is putting the kids to bed right now,” he told us, “so I’d rather not go in just yet and disturb them. Why don’t we get in my car, do the drive, go get a beer, and then come back and do the interview thing?”

We usually did the drive-along as the last part of the interview, but as intrepid researchers, going with the flow is what we do best! Plus, at this point in the day, a drink sounded pretty good. My client and I nodded our agreement and squeezed into Kenny’s convertible: me riding shotgun, and my client folded into the tiny backseat area, holding the camcorder.

As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, Kenny hit the gas and I saw the speedometer jump up to 110 mph. I looked back at my client, white knuckled and – like a champ – rolling video on the whole thing.

We rocketed through a number of dark, mostly empty Miami streets. I was disoriented but loving the way the car gripped the pavement as we took turns in high gear. Just as I was wondering why he was choosing to take us to a bar that was so far from his home, I noticed a police cruiser waiting at a stop light ahead of us. Either Kenny didn’t notice, or he wasn’t worried; we flew through the intersection, still doing over 100.

I flashed on how the rest of the evening might unfold: sirens, mug shots, bailing my informant out of jail… but the cruiser didn’t even give chase. I think the officer knew he wouldn’t catch us.

Finally we pulled into a large parking lot, full of expensive cars, in front of a small oblong building. Two huge bouncers stood out front.

Kenny turned to us and said, “Welcome to the best all-black strip club in Miami Beach!” and headed for the entrance before I could fully process what that meant. My client’s mouth was agape.

Neither my client nor I are what you might call “strip club people”. He had been telling me about how he and his partner were remodeling their house into a real mid-century modern masterpiece. As I looked down at myself, I saw with dismay that the polo shirt I was wearing kind of made me look like the guy on Blue’s Clues.

Since this experience, I’ve heard stories of researchers obliging their clients by taking them to strip clubs, all in the name of client services. And Miami’s relationship to strip clubs did seem to be more casual than other parts of the country, because a few of our other participants had mentioned in passing eating lunch or getting a drink at a strip club. But I was mortified – this was not something I was anticipating. Yet at the same time, I felt cuffed: I knew we had to get this interview checked off, and I didn’t feel like I could demand that we return to his home without ruining our chances at building strong rapport.

I turned to my client and said, “I am so sorry. If I had any idea that he was taking us here, I wouldn’t have agreed. But at this point, I’m worried about insulting him; so let’s just go in, have a quick drink, and head out.”

My client, a saint, shrugged and said, “This is just what happens when you do ethnography, right?” Right.

The bouncers patted us down and we walked inside. Not having a depth of experience in this area, I had to take Kenny’s word for it being the best of its kind in Miami. Kenny was already at the bar, waiting with our drinks.

“So, what do you want to know?” he asked me, as he handed me a beer.

I struggled to remember my protocol questions, and we talked for about five minutes before Kenny excused himself to go to the bathroom. I looked over at my client and we both made a silent acknowledgement that we were done with our beers and ready to go.

Just then, Kenny came back with a stripper on his arm. He turned to my client: “Hey, I bought you a lap dance.”

My client’s face went white. The room began to spin. My client tried to politely decline.

Kenny, confused, said, “No, she’s great, I’ve had her before!”

My client politely declined again, and suggested Kenny go for it.

Kenny asked him, “What is it? Are you married?”

“No.”

“You have a girlfriend that would disapprove?”

“No.”

“Well, then, what is it?”

My client started stumbling over his words, trying to come up with a firmer excuse. Then Kenny laid down his trump card.

“Look, man, I’m doing this because everyone thinks you’re cops. You’re white, clearly not having a good time, and if you don’t do this, they’re probably going to take us outside and beat us up.” He waited for my client to answer.

My client looked at me the way survivors of a shipwreck must look at the person holding a life preserver. To my shame, I looked away.

My client, resigned, was led back to a private room. I turned back around in my seat and started processing all that had happened: my conversations with my client, some of the things he said that I hadn’t caught at the time, his answers to Kenny just then… and it all suddenly clicked for me, with a sickening certainty.

Kenny handed me another beer and said, “You know, I think your colleague might be gay.”

“Yeah,” I told him, “I just figured that out myself. But what you don’t know is he’s actually not my colleague, he’s actually my client. You just gave a private lap dance to my gay client.”

I felt ill. Kenny started laughing.

“That’s really funny, man. That’s really funny.”

I think Kenny really felt badly about the whole thing. After my client returned, we left and Kenny took us out to dinner at a kitschy piano bar owned by an old gay friend of his. We all laughed and told stories about crazy things that had happened to us in our lives, and at the end, without us knowing, Kenny paid for everything.

The night ended back at Kenny’s house, in front of a literal parking lot full of his Audis, Porsches, and huge SUVs. He was a fantastic informant, and helped me craft the recommendations for the brand based on his interview.

The car ride back to the hotel was pretty quiet. “Strange night, huh.” I said. My client nodded his head.

We shook hands at the hotel elevator and said goodnight. That was the last time I saw him – he wasn’t at the final presentation, and I heard that he had left the company not too long afterward.

At the end of the study, we sent him a client satisfaction survey, which was standard practice for us at that time. To my shock, it came back straight 10s. My client was a saint.

Unlike many of the other War Stories, this doesn’t paint me in the best light – mistakes were made, character flaws became apparent. But in some ways, the ability to realize that you’ve made mistakes and are flawed is one of the things I treasure most about anthropology — ever since my Intro to Anthro college courses where I began to learn about the long, illustrious line of mistaken and flawed anthropologists who came before me. In fact, often those mistakes and faux pas were the keys to unlocking some heretofore hidden cultural truths. And I think that night was no different, although I don’t think the cultural truths that were unlocked for me were necessarily about luxury automobiles.

I can’t see myself getting into the same situation now – there were at least two inflection points that night where today I would have directed things differently – but it could be that going through that experience together, the three of us, led to a deeper connection and (eventually) a successful interview. It certainly led to a War Story.

Doug’s War Story: Knock-knock! Who’s there?

Doug Cooke is founder of Tinder, a research consultancy focused on people-centered innovation.

In a recent research and strategy project focused on defining a new global platform for a medical device, our research plan required us to shadow clinicians and others as they used existing devices in the “context of care.” With minor issues like HIPAA protecting patient privacy and other security issues at big urban hospitals in the US, our team decided that conducting research in Europe provided a better opportunity to understand these devices and their users.

Planning started with all the usual steps: multi-day client sessions to assess the domain, issues and problems; auditing reams of client data and documents; becoming familiar with competitive products, etc. We developed a research protocol that went through many rounds of revision with a large, multi-location client team, arriving at a clear understanding of relevant and important user issues. We developed screening criteria for participating medial institutions. Pilot studies were run at US hospitals. Months of preparation were spent in making sure our research team was fully prepared to bring back insights and perspectives that would help define the next generation global respirator platform. Ready, set, on to Europe!

Our first stop was a hospital in Wales. They had lined up the appropriate people for us to shadow and interview, including department heads, physicians, and medical techs. We spent two days shadowing, probing and gathering, and everything worked according to plan. Wahoo!

At our second stop in London (hauling two large model cases that would not fit into London’s very spacious cabs), we arrived at the check-in desk and ask to see Dr. Smith (or so we’ll call him). Upon arrival at his department wing, we learned that Dr. Smith was not in. Even more concerning was that Dr. Smith was out of the country at a conference and had not let anyone else know we were coming. After speaking with a few more people, the answer was “Please come back at another time when the doctor is in.” Ouch! In spite of all the planning, effort, and resources to get here, a few uncooperative people were about to jeopardize our research program.

How could this happen? Well, I ignored one of my primary rules: never let the client take on a critical path item that could endanger the project’s success and my firm’s reputation. Specifically, because of the difficulty of gaining access to the right people and institutions, and extremely high cost if we were to use a traditional recruiting process, our client took on the responsibility for arranging our visits to hospitals through Europe. Few clients understand the level of effort needed to screen, schedule and triple-confirm each participant. When the “research gig” is complex and requires the participation of a number of people carefully choreographed in a short time, it is essential to have a dedicated, experienced resource to make that happen.

We made it all work in the end. With no Dr. Smith and an apparent dead end, we literally started on-the-spot networking, walking up and introducing ourselves to doctor after doctor until we had made some friends that would grant us two days of access in the ICU and ER. It worked out in the end, but presented unforeseen delays and stress to an already pressure-filled project. Painful but constructive outcomes, nonetheless.

The rest of the trip in Germany and Italy presented various levels of preparedness on the part of hospitals we visited. Some hospitals were planning on hosting us for our full two day itinerary and some were expecting only a few hours meeting (which we were able to extend by turning on our best charm).

I have always been a very careful planner and can fastidiously orchestrate research logistics. I know what it takes to gather user insights. But the lessons learned from this European research foray is a clear reminders that whenever I can, I must control the recruiting and scheduling process. I hope to never again knock on any unsuspecting doors.

Chauncey’s War Story: Secrets, Security and Contextual Inquiry

UX architect Chauncey Wilson shares a rather scary story about permissions gone missing.

In the 1980s, I worked for about 7 years at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as a usability engineer. My group was led by John Whiteside, who pushed to make usability a serious discipline informed by metrics, fieldwork, and lab studies. The method of contextual inquiry was developed in our group by John, Karen Holtzblatt, Sandy Jones and Dennis Wixon. We did a lot of fieldwork to refine our methods and inform product teams about how to improve their products.

During my tenure at DEC, I set up a set of interviews with a major client who must still go unnamed. The client did military research and used some of our products. I got clearance to interview people at the site with the caveat that all videos, tapes, and notes would be surrendered when I left. I would analyze the data at their site and do a presentation about my findings, leave all data, and not discuss any details of my interviews. I got to the site early in the morning and signed in at the front desk. In those days, we had 8mm video cameras as our primary tool for field interviews. I had permission from the senior security chief to videotape the screens and record sound for 5 different users of our DEC products. I started setting up my equipment for the first interview and about the time I got to mounting the video camera on a tripod, three really large security guards with weapons blocked the exit to the office and asked me what I was doing (“I’m here doing some research for DEC”), then they grabbed my equipment and took me to a holding area and proceeded to interrogate me. I said that I had sought permission and had an agreement with the chief security officer – but that agreement was not to be found.

My name had been on the visitor list and the people I was interviewing vouched that I had set things up with them, but there was no clear approval for videotaping. I asked if they could contact their security chief, but he was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands. While they called and left messages for him, I spent a few hours in the holding area (you might call it a “cell”) concerned that I might go to prison. Though it took a while, they did catch up with the security chief and took me back to the cube where I had started my set-up and let me continue.

I spent a week at this site and noticed that the guards walked by and checked in on me a lot. Every night when I left during the week, they had me empty my pockets and remove every item from my briefcase. On Friday, I put together a report and presented to an audience of very serious people who asked no questions. I left all the data, submitted to my final contraband search and left the most bizarre field visit of my entire career.

Gerry’s War Story: Right to be Wrong

Gerry Gaffney runs the UX consultancy Information & Design in Melbourne. He publishes the User Experience podcast and is current director of publications at UXPA.

I was researching, with my colleague Patrizia Bordignon, how people thought about and dealt with home renovations.

One of the methods was a diary study (“cultural probe”), and we had carefully recruited – or so we believed – a small set of participants with whom we would work for several weeks.

Warning bells sounded fairly early with one of the participants, who showed up very late for the initial briefing. These things can happen, so we ran a separate briefing session for him, gave him his kit of reporting materials (camera, diary and so on) and sent him on his way. Let’s call him Mr. W.

Three days after the briefing we telephoned each of the participants. It’s a good idea to do this to remind people about their commitment, to redirect as necessary, and to address any issues that arise. All our participants were on-track, with the notable exception of Mr. W, who seemed somewhat evasive in his answers.

At the end of the first week, we visited the participants. Again, this is good practice; it’s an opportunity to see how the data is being gathered, and what changes might be needed to the process. We also use that opportunity to make a part-payment to the participants, which can serve as a nice motivation.

We were delighted with what we saw. Participants had kept bills and receipts, photographs and magazine clippings, they showed us their renovations or their plans, and we were confident that we were getting plenty of highly relevant data.

When we visited Mr. W’s house, however, it was evident from the first moment that his home was different. The front gate didn’t work properly and the hinges squeaked, the garden was unkempt and the house gave an overall sense of dilapidation. Inside it was a similar story. Every room was in dire need of immediate restorative work, but none was evident. I felt a tad depressed as we drank tea from cracked mugs and listened to Mr. W list the things that needed to be fixed.

Mr. W was not an enthusiastic renovator. His house represented a series of urgent and necessary tasks, none of which had been tackled.

It looked like we would collect no useful data from Mr. W, and as we traveled back to the office we talked about our disappointment and reexamined our recruiting strategy.

However, as we moved into data analysis, we found ourselves referring quite often to Mr. W, and gradually came to realize (no doubt this should have been obvious earlier) that Mr. W’s world was in fact directly relevant to our project. While the enthusiastic renovator was undoubtedly a key consideration, the unenthused or reluctant could also present great opportunities. Their needs and goals were different, their attitudes were different, and the way that we would design for those characteristics was different.

In many ways, in fact, Mr. W was an ideal participant specifically because he didn’t fit our expectations. He challenged the underpinnings of the project, and made us examine our design decisions in a much more rigorous fashion.

I often reflect back on this experience when I’m doing user research, and I specifically watch out for negative reactions and experiences, because they can often teach us things that we might not otherwise learn.

I still believe it’s important to recruit carefully, but perhaps we should be more open to the idea that the “wrong” participant is sometimes precisely the right one.

Steve’s War Story: Finding Mojo “In the Moment”

Steve Sato is the Principal at Sato+Partners, a customer-centered strategy and stakeholder-centered organization design consultancy.

We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

Erik’s War Story: (Don’t) Go Toward The Light

Erik Moses is the Director of Research and Insights at Product Development Technologies in Lake Zurich, IL.

Not long ago I was on a project where we were tasked with understanding current practices in BioPharma labs. Overall the program was a huge success and we uncovered critical new insights for our client, which is always rewarding. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about my iPad.

As a researcher, I admit to having a bad memory. I am a dedicated note taker. I love my notes and can’t do much without them. A few months before this, I had begun using the iPad as my main tool for data capture in the field, moving on from my old friend the pen and paper.

For one of our site visits we were in the Midwest at a notable university lab. We were there for the day, courtesy of our client’s long-standing relationship with this lab. That is to say, we were welcome guests. Part of the process we were observing involved a lab technician processing images in a darkroom. At one point during our visit, the PI (Principal Investigator), who was our client’s main point of contact and with whom they had the relationship, invited our group into the darkroom to understand how the process continued in this environment. Of course, I brought my iPad.

Our group piled into a cramped university darkroom to find not only the PI, but also a few other technicians from the lab processing portions of their project. It was dark in the darkroom, so the only thing I could see was the soft red glow of dark room-specific lights.

The PI began the demonstration, while we tried not to impede the movements of everyone else in the darkroom. At some point, our participant said something very interesting that caught my attention. I thought “Hey, this is a must-have insight I need to remember!” and so I opened the cover of my iPad.

Immediately, I hear a technician behind me exclaim “Wha-what? Oh, great!” While I now recall hearing this comment just like it was yesterday, at the time I was so focused on capturing this important piece of information, I did not put it together that the technician was referring to the blunder I had just made.

After noticing a tremendously bright light in this room of black, only then did my mind stitch together the visual information of the bright light with the auditory cue of the mumbled comment. In a matter of seconds I realized what I had done.

While afterwards the PI ignored the incident and the session continued for the rest of the day without another incident, I felt horrible and was flustered for some time. Reflecting on it today, I still feel flustered. I like to imagine that I didn’t mess up that technician’s experiment that much, perhaps only by hours but given what I know about that group and the process, in my heart I know I ruined at least two days’ worth of hard, time- and event-specific work.

Because of this incident I am now very careful in the field, perhaps to the point of being overcautious, often times wrapping my arms around my iPad to physically tell myself to be mindful of my actions. Learn from my experience: remember, don’t (immediately) go toward the light!

War Story: Seeing Ourselves As Others May See Us

Here we break with tradition and present a story anonymously, to mitigate against mortification of those involved.

Twenty something and fresh out of my MA program I obtained a little consulting job which I completed from afar. The company mailed me a video camera and interview guide and sent me out to discover what people think of dinner food. I was to recruit people who would participate in a video recorded dinner we share and an after-dinner interview. I was instructed to send footage back to the company with the camera along with notes and analysis.

My first interview was with a man about my age who ate convenience foods. He was shy and awkward with me as I was with him. When I got there I set up the tripod and attempted to build rapport beyond our obvious discomfort. In an effort to focus only on him as he opened a can of soup and poured it into a casserole dish I spent very little time adjusting the equipment. He prepared soup-in-a-dish dinner and we ate together and then I went through what was left of the interview content. Perfect recruit for “convenience food eater,” and I was off.

Later at home I looked back at the video to make sure my notes are correct and to complete a partial transcript. To my surprise and immense embarrassment I realized that I set the camera up so that the composition includes only one thing in the foreground completely obscuring the participant’s head. It was a close-up view of my right breast – interrupted only occasionally by my arm each time I raised the fork. The entire dinner and interview video contained nothing more than this view. I had never met the employer or the team in person but I reluctantly packaged up the camera and my notes and sent them away without a word. Later they mention that their view of this video inspired quite a few laughs around the office. Oops.

Lindsay’s War Story: Sexism in the City

Lindsay Moore is an independent design research and strategy consultant from Colorado.

We were in New York City, on day four of a three-week fieldwork trip. We had had some bumpy interviews the first few days, including a participant who clammed up because her husband was in the room, another who wasn’t comfortable showing us any of the software processes she had been recruited to show us, and a third with whom the conversation was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with us hanging on for dear life. But I was finally starting to settle in to the interview guide and was feeling positive about what we were learning. Plus we were getting a great apartment tour of Manhattan!

We were accompanied on each interview by a rotating member of the client team so that they could all experience the research firsthand, and this day was our first with a particular team member. Our morning interview had gone fairly well, but I could tell our client partner was having some trouble staying in the background, as she was used to more actively managing her interactions with customers.

We walked in the door for our afternoon interview, and I made some small talk, saying something like “How is your day going so far?” to our participant, who was an older gentleman. He answered that it was going much better now that we three pretty girls were there, but that it would be even better if we didn’t have clothes on. I experienced a shocked moment of “Did he really just said that???” and took a sidelong glance at my client to see her reaction. She had one of those impenetrable customer service masks of politeness on her face. I tried to shake off the comment and proceeded into the interview.

For the first 30 minutes, I found myself utterly unable to manage the flow with the participant, who would physically turn towards the client to answer my questions, and then turn back to me and say “You understand?” The interviews were about financial behavior, and he made it very clear that he thought I wouldn’t be able to follow what he was saying. Meanwhile, in an effort to be polite, engaged and responsive with her customer, my client was unintentionally making it worse. I realized I needed to gain some kind of credibility and after the umpteenth “I don’t know if you would understand” I told him that I do have some financial background and that I was following just fine. After that I was much better able to lead the interview and he engaged directly with me. Still, for another hour and a half he continued to condescend and make inappropriate/sexist comments (The number of times he suggested we “girls” go shopping at Bloomingdales after the interview? Five. What he wanted us to buy? Blouses.)

After leaving the interview I was hopping mad and said to my client and my colleague that I couldn’t believe what we had just experienced. They agreed but felt like we had still been able to uncover great information in the interview. They also thought that sometimes older men are just “like that” and that I shouldn’t let it get to me. I was bothered but decided to let it go. The interview had been uncomfortable but not unsafe, and the client was pleased with what we had learned. As an interviewer, wasn’t I supposed to be able to set my own emotions aside?

When revisiting the transcripts and coding the interview data, it really became clear to me that I was not overreacting to what we experienced. It was blatantly bad. Still, what should we have done? When I’ve related the story to other friends and colleagues, they’ve said that we should have left the home after the initial no-clothes comment. I want to agree on principle, but I also know that if I never allow myself to experience something uncomfortable, I’ll miss out on the richness and depth that is a part of this kind of work. What I do know is that it’s okay to share and talk about our own emotional responses to difficult research situations and that doing so is an important part of self-care for researchers. In the future, I will also make sure to have a plan in place with my fieldwork partners for when — and how — to end an interview, so that it’s not a process we need to invent in the moment.

John’s War Story: An Ethnographic Encounter with Occupy Wall Street

This story (told live at our New York book launch party) comes from John Payne of Moment Design.

“Mic Check, Mic Check!” he said with some authority as he jumped up on the planter. “Mic Check, Mic Check!” The crowd quickly repeated. “Security team needed near the information tent,” he continued. The crowd again repeated. “This is an emergency!” he added a bit more emphatically. This time when the crowd repeated they paid a bit more attention to the words they were saying. At that moment, I realized that I had just brought 25 people to one of the unstable locations in Manhattan, and none of them had signed a waiver.

In the fall of 2011, I was asked by the IxDA to give a series of workshops on ethnography and its relationship to design. By the time we had settled on an agenda and a date, the Occupy Wall Street movement had emerged, and their occupation of Zucotti Park was in full swing. It was a risky choice of research site, but what’s an ethnographer to do? We were off to Zucotti Park, or as the occupiers had renamed it, Liberty Square

Prior to our arrival in the park that morning, I had led the group through some background-key principles for participant observation, selected methods we were to try out together-and divided them into small working groups. It had been a quick preparation, but I was certain once we arrived, we’d have a once-in-a-lifetime observational experience. What I hadn’t fully considered was the possibility of imminent danger. We had just split up into teams… and that’s when the Mic Check happened.

The incident that spawned the call for security was an altercation in front of a brightly decorated tent on the north side of the park. The teepee-like structure was wrapped in a blue tarp with panels of silver heat reflective material. It was one of the more flamboyantly decorated tents, flying several flags and calling lots of attention from passersby.The occupant, an older man, had recently moved his tent partially into in a flowerbed because of the overcrowding and lack of space. As one of the few remaining open patches of ground, flowerbeds had been off limits until now.

Another man, from the south side of the park, was violently removing the teepee from the flowerbed when security arrived. Luckily, the quick intervention of the volunteer security force cooled the situation down. The incident ended shortly after it had begun with no injuries to anyone, my students included. Once I had checked that everyone was safe, my ethnographer’s instincts overcame my fear and I approached the teepee’s occupant. His name was David. He had been in the park since September 17th, day one of the occupation. I had found my respondent. He was visibly shaken, but as we spoke he let me in on a perspective that most non-occupiers would never be exposed to.

What this experience taught me is twofold: 1) Anticipate the unexpected: We weren’t sure what we would find in Zucotti Park that day, but being open to the moment gave us a glimpse of something rare-a very human perspective that stood in contrast to the stereotype that OWS had become in the media. And 2) Take advantage of your opportunities: In our case it was the last such opportunity we would get. Our visit took place on November 12th. The occupiers were evicted two days later.

For more of what John learned from his visit, check out his blog post about their time with OWS.

Raffaella’s War Story: A hot day in a bank

Raffaella Roviglioni is a UX designer at usertest/lab. In this story she experiences, like the title says, a hot day in a bank!

I like planning for fieldwork as much as carrying out those plans. But if there’s one lesson I learned from my experience it’s that no matter how well you think about any detail in advance, there’s always room for problems.

During a current project with a nationwide bank the client agreed to conduct a round of interviews with employees from four different offices located between Rome and Milan.

The day of the interviews in Milan I got an early train. I was aware of the long day in front of me: four interviews in two different offices with the lunch break to be spent moving from one office to the other.

I was fully equipped with laptop, backup recording device, spare batteries, charging chords, pens, paper, water and even some food for an emergency. I thought I covered every possible glitch or obstacle given the context. After all, I was going to a bank: can you think of a more predictable, comfortable and reliable location? I couldn’t.

It was an unusually warm day of June. The temperature was above 38°C (100°F) and after the first two interviews my coworkers and I were heading to the second location, on the look-out for a quick lunch on the go. We walked from the underground to the bank for a few blocks and when we arrived everyone was pretty flushed. All I could think about was the relief of a air-conditioned office where I could start breathing again and conduct the last two interviews.

The came the surprise of the day: the air conditioning was out of order! Meanwhile, the two employees were waiting to be interviewed so we simply sat down and started with the first one.

I had memorized the guide in order to concentrate better on the interviewee without having to look at it, but during the first fifteen minutes I had serious problems concentrating. The heat was unbearable, humidity was close to 90% and my coworkers were panting all the time. I had to exercise some yoga breathing to calm down and try to detach myself from the uncomfortable situation and be able to focus on my task. I managed to get through the interview pretty well, then we moved to the second employee’s office.

He started telling us a lot of interesting information that didn’t come out in the previous interviews but at that point we were completely burnt out. It was really hard to follow up with him. Every question that came out of my mouth seemed nothing like clever to me. Luckily for us, the employee was pretty enthusiastic about the topic and basically conducted the conversation himself, giving us a number of significant insights despite our minimal interaction.

Usually the toughest field work has to do with reluctant participants or with poor planning. In this case, it was certainly not so, but still it was very hard for me to get to the end of the day. I guess those last insights were literally hard-earned!

Michael’s War Story: All About Face (Sichuan Adventures)

Michael. B Griffiths is the Director of Ethnography for Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China.

I’m in Sichuan province, at a small town called Anxian. I’m with a US film producer and a Chinese research assistant. We are documenting lower-tier city lifestyles in terms of the human condition as well as how people consume. We’ve just finished up our morning session with a man who shared emotional stories about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

We were operating in two groups, doing home visits at different sites. It was time to pick up the other team from the town center and head off to Mianyang, our next destination.

But the other team called in late. There was a problem. The primary informant’s mother had returned home and reacted badly to their presence. While we didn’t have the details at this point, it seemed that the team could not easily leave the field site. On the phone, I could hear an intense argument in the background.

I had the driver park up around the corner from the site. The junior member of the team came round to meet us, shaking her head and heaving with frustration. Apparently the situation in the home had turned nasty and the senior member was trying to deal with it.

The primary informant, aged nineteen, had not told her mother about our research, although she had given us her formal consent. And now her mother was furious with her daughter for not seeking permission, and worse, she suspected us of being cheats or swindlers. We later learned she had been the victim of an identity-theft crime in similar circumstances.

An hour and more passed without a resolution. It seemed ridiculous that we were wasting so much time on this. Could we not just explain the situation, apologize for the inconvenience, and leave? I was inclined to intervene in person but various team members advised that a foreigner’s presence might exacerbate an already inflammatory situation.

Another phone call came through-

The argument was by now on the street outside the home. The mother was ferociously lashing out and forcibly preventing the senior team member from leaving. Concerned for her safety, I advised that she run around the corner and come over to the car – the site was only 30 meters away.

Once in the car, I proposed that we just leave. We had done nothing wrong, and were increasingly sure this fractious episode was symptomatic of a pre-existing tension between the mother and daughter. Right?

Right! So, let’s hit it, driver!

We sped off in the direction of the Mianyang highway.

As we cut through the breeze with the sun in our faces, the team members answered rapid-fire questions and shared their perspectives as they eased themselves out of the tension. We thought we were home free.

Not by a long shot.

Not long had passed before our phones started to ring. Representatives of the local recruitment agency with which we had partnered were with the enraged mother and phoning to ascertain our whereabouts. This was the agency who had recruited the daughter for our research and I wondered why it seemed beyond their capacity to handle the communication deficit.

We agreed that our overall objectives demanded that we press on with our schedule. Too much time had been wasted and we were quite clear were we stood in terms of our legal agreement with the informants; the local recruitment agency were better placed and, as we saw it, obligated to resolve any misunderstanding about our identity and purposes.

As solution, we agreed that the rest of the team would switch off their phones while I would use my phone to call the recruitment agency bosses we dealt with back in Shanghai headquarters. Better to have just one channel of communication open rather than several at the same time.

This we did, but before any intervention could be launched our driver started to get the same calls from the local recruitment agency. One of our team took the call on the driver’s phone and tried to explain our position on the situation and that we just wanted to continue with our schedule. The agency had also helped us plan for further research in Mianyang and Chengdu, so they were well aware of our tight schedule.

If only the situation could have been so simple! Our driver insisted on keeping his phone switched on since this made him available should his employer need to call. Presumably alerted by the local agency representatives, the driver’s employer did call and insisted he return to Anxian at once. We were unwilling to return with him since we were sure that the two hour return journey would be followed by further time wasted on senseless arguing. Could the situation not be resolved via the proper channels?

Unfortunately, the driver’s open line of communication meant that he could be contacted by people other than his boss. He began to get calls from an unfamiliar number over and over again.

Perhaps the driver should switch his phone off too!?

Then the real shock came.

What? The Public Security Bureau was on the phone? The mother had called the police before we had left. We had left the mother baying for our blood in the street and now the police had arrived to find us gone!

Things went rapidly downhill from here, as arguments erupted about what to do next. Returning to the site would not be an option, the local staff felt, since we would get in trouble for leaving the scene. My explaining things to the local police would not help either, they felt, since the police would not “take my side” because I was a foreigner. Any interaction with the police was bound to be long and protracted anyway, and there was also some notion about market researchers needing to obtain local police permission in advance, which the local recruitment agency had neglected to mention!

Tempers flared and leadership was called for. But leadership on this project was the same woman who got into the argument with the mother in the first place. She now called her father in a panic!

The idea that the police were actually pursuing us over this seemed ridiculous but it was very real. We were still driving up the highway away from Anxian, and with visions of flashing blue lights at every intersection it felt like we were on the run from the law.

It was decision time: the driver had to return to Anxian and could not avoid answering his phone when the police called. We asked him to pull in at a remote roadside restaurant and unload our bags. He would remain with us to get some lunch; it was late afternoon already. Then he would return to Anxian and his boss would send an alternative driver to take us onto Mianyang.

We ate a meal and for a while believed the heat in the situation had burned itself out. I called in to update our superiors. Apparently, the bosses at the recruitment agency were starting to get a handle on it. There was still disagreement about our next move, but at least the police were not calling us every few minutes. They were probably having lunch too.

With our phones all back on and the driver gone, the police began calling us directly. Several hours had passed since the original incident and the mother’s demands had become more specific: she wanted the tapes we had recorded in her home. This presented a problem for our research and our film producer was particularly against this: his movie would be incomplete without these tapes. Moreover, even if we returned the tapes to the mother, she the professional format meant she wouldn’t be able to play them.

Our conversations thus became more practical and technical as the police sought to broker a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. An agreement was struck whereby the majority of the team would proceed to Mianyang while two personnel would return to Anxian with the tapes and play these for the mother at the local police station.

It was well into the evening when we arrived in Mianyang, about the same time as our team representatives arrived back in Anxian. After a torrid day, they had to sit and play through the entire 4 hours of footage for the purposes of the mother’s verification. With the police there with her, she gradually adjusted herself to the idea we were not crooks or foreign spies and found a way to climb down from her rage whilst saving face.

Exhausted, we spared a thought for the daughter who was probably going to get the raw end of whatever remaining anger could not now be justifiably directed anywhere else. Our analysis of the film footage revealed a wealth of insights into a specific tension between the daughter’s almost angelic nature and her mother’s oppressive, almost ogre-ish nature. It appeared our fieldwork had exposed an underlying tension after all.

Lena’s War Story: The Researcher and the Banana Thief

Lena Blackstock (@lenacorinna) recently graduated with a Master’s in Design Ethnography from the University of Dundee, Scotland. She is currently a Creative Contextualiser at Point-Blank International in Berlin.

While getting my Master of Design Ethnography at the University of Dundee I was able to dive head first into full-on ethnographic research projects with actual clients. We were asked to do research on self-service usage in Scotland. After the first few interviews and shop-alongs I met one of my last participants in a nearby coffee shop. Initially she was only going to do an interview but then agreed to also do a shop-along the next day. She offered to invite her roommate along, which was especially interesting as I was trying to understand more about how groups use self-service technology. I jumped at this opportunity.

I met the participant and her roommate in front of a large grocery store in town and we moved through the aisle as they stocked up on groceries for the week. They were sharing a cart throughout the shopping trip but when we came up to the self-service checkout area, they each took out their groceries and separated them on the checkout counter. They each managed to navigate through the self-service process without any major glitches (aside from the occasional “unexpected item in bagging area”), even with the loose fruits and vegetables they had to weigh and scan.

After the shopping trip we went back to their home and I wrapped up with a few informal questions to get feedback on their experience during this shopping trip. As I was finishing my last questions my participant’s roommate said something that caught me by surprise. I asked them about any issues they may have encountered during scanning or weighing items at the checkout, and almost as an afterthought, she mentions: “Well no, not really-but you can trick those machines when you weigh stuff, you know? For example, when I buy bananas, like today, I hold them up a bit when I weigh them so that the machine only charges for a smaller amount than it really is.”

Yikes! Had I just gotten myself into one of those ethical dilemmas that we had talked about in Uni? I had unintentionally captured a self-service banana thief. In one of our previous modules, we had conversations about dealing with these dilemmas, but those were theories. I was now in the real position of having to make a choice as a researcher. Should I stay true to the data and include the information in the final report for the client, even if I didn’t directly observe it or ask for it? And what about the fact that the banana thief wasn’t even the actual participant whom I had recruited, but her roommate? Does that make a difference? On the off chance that the client wants more details on this fact, how will I handle this? Surely I have to hold true to the confidentiality agreement with the participants, right? Or should I just leave that one tiny bit of information out of the report? Is it really that important to the report if I wasn’t asking for it? But what if this piece of information, which got me into this conundrum in the first place, is actually pertinent to the research project and addresses some of the client’s challenges and pain-points?

In addition to these concerns, I also had to work within the University Ethical Guidelines. And as an ethnographer-in-training, I had to make a decision on how to handle this information. Not only this once, but from this point forward if I was going to go out into the world and work as a researcher. I realized this was as good a time as any to ask myself: What kind of values am I going to live by as a researcher?

In this case, I chose to include the findings in my report and stay true to what I observed. I made a very conscious decision that no matter what, I would not share the confidential information of my participant. In the end the client was happy to hear the ‘real story,’ as it confirmed some of the security issues of this technology that they were suspecting. Now, would I make this same decision the exact same way in a project today? I can’t say. Many factors play into the decisions we make as researchers and often, we have to rely on some sort of gut feeling. But encountering this situation at the beginning of my ‘life as an ethno’, forced me to internalize the challenges and to make a choice.

Most research projects have their own version of a ‘banana thief’, an unexpected observation or something overheard, something that challenges our approach, our assumptions and our moral code for conducting research.

In the end, my chance encounter with the self-service banana thief didn’t provide me with answers for future encounters, but presented a first instance to ask myself questions and to begin shaping my personal approach to research. And that is a good start.

Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler

Alicia Dornadic is a design researcher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Going to someone’s home for the first time to interview them, especially in an unfamiliar culture and language, can be awkward. Showing up with two researchers, a cameraman and a couple clients in tow – all of whom are over-caffeinated and in need of a bathroom break – can make for a circus act. These were three-hour long interviews, too. So, despite our best efforts to arrange feeding and peeing times before getting to the person’s home, we usually all had to pee at some point during the interview. But our translator was the absolute queen of tinkling. The first day I was understanding. “Maybe she’s sick or nervous,” I thought. She would take two to four breaks during each interview, which left the rest of us smiling and pointing at things dumbly, trying to make conversation in her absence. By the end of the week, my patience was shot. I was ready to strap some adult diapers on her. I would glower at her every time she asked for water, tea, or a soda. “Really?” I thought, my eyes on fire, “Should you really be having that?” I’m not proud of this. But I couldn’t help being annoyed.

Finally, karma came to bite me on the ass. It was at the end of a long interview at the end of a long day, and I broke down and asked if I could use the restroom. Our host pointed to it, and I stumbled inside, missing the 2-inch step down into it. There wasn’t a lot of light in the bathroom, and it was cluttered. I couldn’t find a switch. But no matter. I go. I reach for the toilet paper, and BOOM! CRASH! I take down the entire metal toilet paper rack off the wall, and it crashes onto the tiled floor. It was too dark to see how to fix it, so I had to come out and explain what I had done and apologize. Not only that, but my explanation and apology had to be translated! Translated and explained to two researchers, a cameraman, a couple of clients and our participant. It ended up not being a big deal, but I was embarrassed. And I felt guilty for all my negative thoughts towards our translator. As much as I was annoyed at our tinkler friend, at least she didn’t break anything.

Tom’s War Story: House Rules

Tom Wood is one of the partners at Foolproof, an experience design firm based in the UK.

About 10 years ago I was trying to understand online poker playing behaviours on behalf of a gaming company. We’d recruited for a study across their various target segments, but the hardest to find were the high-value, semi-professional players. They prized their anonymity and guarded their playing secrets.

One of the respondents I did find was a part-time property developer, part-time drummer, but his passion was poker. He was close with players from the city’s professional soccer team who were happy to lose large amounts of money in order to pick up skills in poker: an important accomplishment for the professional sportsman in the UK.

The interview did not go well at first. The respondent was a regular online player but his behaviour when using the subject site was stilted and he seemed so disengaged that I began to worry that he was out of his depth online. Eventually I decided to reframe and go back the beginning of the discussion, where we had talked about his usage habits on his regular site. This time, because he was getting more relaxed in my company, I suggested doing this by watching him play. The key behaviour this revealed was how he found a table he wanted to join. This involved simultaneously watching a large number of games in progress – an almost incredible skill. What he was studying was the weaknesses of the players at the various tables: their inexperience, bravado, impatience, petulance. His whole demeanour changed, and I had a feeling like being a naturalist watching a lion selecting the impala that it is going to turn into lunch. Compelling but horrifying at the same time. It was clear that the subject site I’d asked him to use had poor affordance for this important process, but because it was a basically unchivalrous activity he had been guarded about discussing it.

This change in tack got me this and other insights which informed our design advice. And resolved me never to take up poker.

Most experience design folk enter the field because they understand that they themselves don’t have all the answers. I’m fond of this story because it was when I properly realised that I didn’t even have all the questions. I suspect that this job made me a better researcher, and certainly made me approach certain types of work in a completely different way. At Foolproof we always preface our discussion guides with words to the effect that the discussion guide is just that, a guide – and that we reserve the right to take any approach we need to in order to meet the research objectives.

Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister

Elaine Fukuda (@elaine_fukuda) is a design research consultant from California.

I admit I don’t have a lot of experience with children but the opportunity to shadow a patient through an entire day’s hospital visit was one to not pass up. The patient being 13 years old added another layer of consent and assent, a mythical ethnographic research unicorn of sorts.

The goal of shadowing was to understand the experience of the entire visit from start to finish, through multiple provider visits, labs, tests, and the waiting times in between. I met the patient and her mother as they were pulling into the parking garage and started the day with a scan. During the next two hours she patiently laid in a claustrophobic tunnel, and did everything as asked, from changing positions ever so slightly, holding her breath for 30 seconds at a time, and breathing at a specific pace.

Having fasted since the previous evening, she was ready for lunch but wanting to get everything done before their provider visit, she and her mom decided to get a blood test done before lunch.

We arrived in the pediatrics department and her mother stood in line to check in while I joined the patient in the waiting area. After a few minutes, a volunteer came over for what I felt was a break in our somewhat awkward small talk.

The volunteer was a kind elderly man with a book cart offering free books for patients to take home. The patient, tired from the scan and possibly feeling out of place in the bright and cheerful pediatrics environment shrugged and said there wasn’t anything she liked. Determined, the volunteer took out a “magical coloring book” which colored itself with a flip of a page. She was still not impressed.

Then came the pièce de résistance. From the cart the volunteer pulled out a heavy woven rope and introduced the patient to his friend, Mr. Stick. Mr. Stick had a magic ability you see, with a grand gesture he could become taut. In order to turn back into a rope, the patient was instructed to ask, “Mr. Stick, will you go down?”

The shade of red across the teen’s face had long passed lobster and she and I stared at each other in disbelief. Her mother was still in line across the way, and as the adult I felt responsible but conflicted on what to do. Surely the man had no idea what he was implying? Being a very good sport, she complied and sure enough Mr. Stick fell limp.

But the volunteer didn’t stop there. He turned to me, holding the middle of Mr. Stick, now back in its rigid state. He asked me to tell Mr. Stick to go down, which I did. Nothing happened. The volunteer said I must say “please”, which I did. And again nothing happened. He then said, “I guess Mr. Stick doesn’t go down if you’re not a child.”

“Hey, I think they’re calling your name,” I quickly said to the patient. And with that we escaped the somewhat creepy, but good intentioned volunteer.

“That was awkward,” she said.

It wasn’t until after the blood test and during lunch that we were able to debrief and talk about the encounter with the volunteer. I was afraid the mother would be upset that I hadn’t intervened sooner. She was shocked but laughed, wondering if someone could really be that clueless. As I started to explain what had happened, the patient (who been sitting right next to the volunteer) intervened:

“No, its name was Mr. Stiff, not Stick.”

Me: “Oooh, that’s even weirder.”

Mother: “I’m really curious how you’re going to write this up.”

Ilona’s War Story: First Stop the Bleeding!

Ilona Posner is a User Experience and Usability consultant with more than 25 years of experience. In this story, she is challenged in different ways to leave her participants in relatively good shape.

Around the year 2000, homes with internet service were rare. AOL was plastering the planet with CDs that promised free internet. Modems were uncommon and expensive. Online access usually required a modem card installed inside a computer case by a service technician, at a significant cost. My client, the largest Internet Service Provider in Canada, was redesigning their Self-Installation Package for its DSL service; today this would be called a DIY kit.

The goal of our research project was to evaluate the customer experience. It entailed contacting customers who had just ordered the package, interviewing them about their order experience, and asking to visit their homes to observe the installation of the hardware and setting up the service. We visited many homes and observed people with diverse technical experience trying to install this package. The success rate of the customers completing this self-installation within our allotted 2 hours was very low. We had to suffer silently watching their ordeals: searching among numerous papers and user manuals that accompanied the package for the correct documents and locating the required identification codes; mixing up phone and internet cables; moving their furniture so that the provided cables would reach their destinations; and trying to explain their problems in repeated phone calls with technical support. In some cases, after observing them struggle for 2 hours and realizing they were incapable of completing this task unaided, we felt so sorry for them that before departing we completed the installation process on their behalf. We felt bad that they would have to spend additional days waiting, making additional phone calls to arrange for a technician’s visit, and dealing with the additional costs of assisted installation. That way, we also were able to witness their excitement and gratification of getting online; for some it was their first time.

I clearly remember one participant who actually was able to successfully complete the installation, and it “only” took him 1.5 hours to do it. He was a male in his early 30s, technical writer by profession. His PC had 32 MB of RAM, and was running Windows 95. He already had a modem but was switching to this new High Speed Service. He had to remove the internal ISA modem card from his PC tower in order to install the provided Ethernet card. He was more confident and comfortable at this task than most of our other participants. While our camera rolled, he confidently skimmed documents and manuals, even when they were different manuals from the devices he was dealing with at the time. He opened his PC without difficulty. He proceeded to remove the internal modem card from deep inside his PC case. In the process, he cut his hand on one of the sharp internal edges of the metal case. His hand started to bleed! Blood got on his hardware. We had to interrupt our observations to assist him in stopping the bleeding.

After completing our research, we redesigned the package. We reduced the number of documents and numbered each one for easy reference (unfortunately, this simple and usable solution only lasted until the next rebranding exercise conducted by the marketing department, who did not inherit our design rationale). We rewrote the instructions, using beautiful visuals. We also included a special highlighted warning, “Please be careful when opening your computer case, there are many sharp edges inside.”

I wonder if anyone ever noticed that warning message.

Kavita’s War Story: Managing money, oh joy!

Kavita Appachu shares her story about uncovering emotion where she hadn’t expected to find it.

Finance has never been my thing, and where possible I leave the chore of managing my finances to others. That changed somewhat a few years back when I started working for a company that makes financial software, specifically tax software. This threw me right in the middle of people’s financial lives.

What I had not realized was that while the task of managing finances may be very functional, everything else related to money and taxes is at its core very emotional. I have lost track of the innumerable times participants have poured their hearts out as they describe how they manage their finances, from the twenty-something who referred to her mom as ghetto, or the hulk of a guy who rattled off the choicest of expletives for his ex-wife. The one story that has stood out in all this is about a mom, wife and editor in Seattle.

On a rare sunny day, we pulled up to a community of condos with well-manicured yards. We rang the doorbell and my fellow researcher and I were greeted by our participant, who welcomed us into her very tastefully done home. There were pictures of the kids, family vacations, sporting events. It seemed like a happy home. The kids were at school and our participant had the morning off so she had decided to catch up on her finances, specifically her investments. We talked about the members of her household, her husband’s job, her job and their approach to financial planning. She was concerned their savings were not going to be enough for retirement and the kids’ education.

She had all her papers spread out on the dining table beside her laptop. We observed her going through the process of logging into both her and her husband’s 401(k) accounts, monitor her mutual funds and stocks and even place a sell order. Nothing out of the ordinary…and then she broke down in tears.

We were a little taken aback. She had a helpless look on her face and kept sobbing and muttering that woman, that woman. We calmed her down and then asked her if she wanted to share what was bothering her. She told us that as part of her husband’s divorce settlement from his earlier marriage he was required to pay for her stepchildren’s college. That was making a deep hole in their pockets and she was unable to save for her own children’s college education, take vacations or save for retirement. She hated the ex-wife and held her husband somewhat responsible for giving in to the ex-wife’s demands. She avoided tracking finances if she could because it was a painful reminder of her dire situation.

That was my aha moment. I had known all along that personal finances are very closely entwined to one’s life, but this really brought it home: personal finances are a mirror of your inner joys, sorrows and insecurities.

Whitney’s War Story: Stories of War

Whitney Hess is the author of Pleasure & Pain, and the founder and principal of Vicarious Partners, an independent consultancy specializing in strategic user experience. She believes empathy builds empires.

I interviewed Holocaust survivors. Four words that still send shivers down my spine. Their stories were meant to shape my research; they ended up shaping me.

It was the project of a lifetime. I was asked to conduct user research for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with web design agency Happy Cog. Together we identified several constituents of the Museum to explore: visitors, students, teachers, scholars, activists, volunteers, donors…and survivors. Survivors of the Holocaust. I would be performing the interviews, crafting personas, and reporting on findings to the Museum’s executive board.

As a rule, when I engage with a research participant, I, Whitney Hess, cease to exist. It is a skill I have honed over many years of conducting research. I don’t get hungry, I don’t get tired, I don’t have to pee. I shed my beliefs and my assumptions and my identity. My only need is to listen. My only purpose is to absorb – with total objectivity.

Would it be possible then for me to objectively study Holocaust survivors? I am a Jew.

At first I told myself that being Jewish somehow qualified me to understand their stories and empathize with their pain. Then I feared that I would get so emotional that I wouldn’t be able to make it through an interview.

I was wrong on both counts.

I had the honor and the privilege of interviewing seven survivors – from Germany, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Great Britain – all volunteers at the Holocaust Museum in varying capacities. Some interviews were in person at the Museum, others were over the phone. They shared their stories of survival, and they shared their feedback on the website. Both extremes were just as relevant. I listened with reverence and I asked probing questions. I was so busy taking it all in, I didn’t have time to feel anything about it. I was working.

When it came to crafting personas, I started with the teachers and students, moved on to activists and scholars, and eventually I could postpone it no longer – it was time to review my findings from the survivors.

Reading back through my notes and the interview transcripts, I maintained my composure. I kept reminding myself, You have work to do. But in a moment of weakness, I allowed myself to listen to a recording. And then another. Day became night and I was still listening. They recounted the abuse they’d endured, the brutality they’d witnessed, the family they’d lost…it was so raw, so real. I let myself go. I cried, bawled. For what they had overcome, for themselves, for their families, and for me.

In the end, I decided not to create a persona of a survivor, and my teammates and clients understood my reasoning. Their stories were unique; they could not be merged.

Instead I gleaned a few key quotes, to convey the essence of the individuals. What they had to say changed my whole perspective on what we were doing and why we were doing it. Their message had to be heard. I had to share it. I got to share it.

And it changed everything.

Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgment

Marta Spurgeon plays the roles of design researcher, innovation capabilities consultant, and sometime photographer at Doblin in Chicago.

I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. Somehow, through an educational background in photography and videography and a unique set of personal contacts, I landed myself in a contracting gig at a design strategy firm. It turns out this was the perfect place for me. It makes sense that all roads led here, though I wouldn’t have been able to characterize it at the time. My experiences on that first project would solidify both my approach to ethnographic-style research and my interest in innovation in the business sector. The techniques and tasks associated with international development share some remarkable similarities with those we utilize in business innovation and design strategy.

In our Peace Corps training, we were encouraged to “do nothing” for the first 6 months of our service, to just sit with the host-country nationals in their day-to-day activities, observe, ask questions. And indeed, most of my Peace Corps experience was composed of these moments of quiet observation, learning about a culture so foreign to me as to ultimately challenge my beliefs about my own. Many of us are familiar with this participant-observer stance as one of the foundations of ethnographic study. It requires us to put aside pre-conceptions and biases, to embrace the other as a credible expert despite the legions of difference between us. In both international development occupations as well as strategic design efforts, this anthropological approach to learning about the people we’re designing for is the foundation of an often ambiguous process to create and launch new concepts that will be adopted by those-or people like those-whom we’ve studied, and ideally help them improve their lives.

Though I certainly had more casual experience doing this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was on my first professional foray into ethnographic-style user research. Our team was learning about people’s experiences using medical devices in the home. At this point, we had spoken with a couple dozen medical practitioners in their professional settings and patients in their homes. We were on our final interview of the study. My role had been to photograph and video the interviews, take notes, and generally to follow the lead of my teammates who were directing the session. But for this final interview, my colleagues asked if I’d like to conduct the conversation, and I took them up on the opportunity to lead my first formal in-context interview.

We drove to a relatively remote location in Connecticut to see a middle class family of two parents and three boys. Two of the boys had an immune condition that required them to pump medication for one to two hours every two weeks. The parents had decided that rather than stigmatize or de-vitalize the process of the boys’ drug infusion, they would celebrate it by joining together as a family for a pizza party and movies on Friday night. This celebration was in full-swing as we entered their home.

It was a lively atmosphere. It turned out this wasn’t just a family of five; they lived with a menagerie of animals in their small home-cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, reptiles, and guinea pigs, bringing their total number to between 20 and 30 inhabitants. We were introduced to the guinea pigs and shown the rabbits. Everyone was supremely generous and inviting. They gave us a little tour, encouraged us to get comfortable offering us food and drink several times. Cats snuggled up beside us, intermittently disrupting our video equipment or the conversation, while birds squawked in the background. Comfortable and confident amongst one another, this family moved freely and raucously around me and my two colleagues, us all a bit squished onto too few pieces of furniture for all eight of us humans.

The parents graciously answered our questions about their children’s health and their medical needs, as the boys played video games and watched cartoons energetically, occasionally peppering the conversation with commentary or a boisterous request for attention-“Watch this! Watch!” They showed us how they hooked up the medication pumps, from prepping their sons’ skin to inserting the needles, demonstrating how it all worked. Father proudly brought out two large toolboxes full of medical supplies that they took along whenever they got in the car. He had come up with the idea of creating toolkits for the supplies they needed to be mobile. The interview continued successfully, if a bit disordered, given all the different activities happening. Not at any moment were they embarrassed or ashamed of the boys’ condition or the things they had to do to treat it. To them, this was just their life.

And when we finally all said goodbye, and the door shut behind us, I think all three of us researchers breathed a small sigh of relief. Truthfully, it had all been quite chaotic, though we had done our best to take it in stride. But our last interview was complete, and we got into the car, heading toward New York to fly home the next day.

Driving along, one of my teammates offhandedly said, “Well, I don’t think we learned anything useful from that. That scene was a complete mess! What a waste of time.” This somehow infuriated me. Sure it was intense, chaotic, indeed a less tidy environment than might be desired. They had more animal friends than a small farmer might. The lifestyle this family lived was obviously busy and disorganized. Certainly they had some health problems, probably some difficulty making ends meet, and a shortage of square footage for all of the living things in their home. But they also clearly loved one another and were just doing the best they could to live full, healthy, enjoyable lives. I may have been totally green and unfamiliar with utilizing this research practice for new business innovation, but I knew it wasn’t our place to judge, whether we approved of their lifestyle or not.

I was so angry. Never one to hold back, I told this teammate exactly what I thought. That these people had generously and openly invited us into their home so that we might learn about how they live, how they experience their medical conditions, how they interact with these essential medical devices. Whether we found their lifestyle appealing or disgusting, it was valid. Their experiences were real, and we were there to learn about them. It was unfair and totally inappropriate to judge them, and it missed the entire point of what we were there to do. I said all this, I’m sure, not nearly as eloquently as I say it now, and likely with less respect than my colleague deserved as he had more experience and knowledge on the subject than I did. He actually took it relatively well all things considered, and we remain friends today despite the words exchanged on that trip.

But I’ve found this to be one of the formative moments of my career-a moment when I expressed with passion and understanding just exactly what our purpose was there. And I’ve found similar sentiments coming to my lips again and again (with increasing grace and respect, of course), as I’ve had to remind most often clients but sometimes colleagues why we do this work. For an hour or two, we go into the home of a stranger, with a respect and appreciation for the validity of each individual’s experience. We must practice empathy, reserving judgment, allowing ourselves to stand in the other’s shoes, understand how he lives, why she does what she does, what they want to achieve, what makes that hard for them. So that in the end we might create better solutions that help them do it and make theirs and other people’s lives better and healthier. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves.

Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility

Cordy Swope (Twitter) describes himself as either a Design Researcher with Grey Hair or a design researcher with grey hair.

IDEO. NYC. Early 2010.

I had been summoned from Europe to lead a project about the future of education in the US. At IDEO, there is a well-established a code of ethics for site visits. This code takes extra measures to protect the privacy of informants – especially their identities and contact data. IDEO also has sensible, street-smart guidelines for fieldwork in sketchy environments. In previous jobs, I had seen a situation in which two of my female design researchers had to go to remote, sparsely populated parts of the Midwest and visit big, burly, smiling men who stored every conceivable power tool in their dungeon-like tornado cellars.

There is never a shortage of people in NYC though, and recruiting there offers many delights. For instance, NYC is one of only several places where it is possible to recruit for impossibly specific profiles like: “Seeking 3 single dads who have volunteered with their children at a local charity organization within the past 2 weeks, and who also must struggle with their own gender identity and make at least $150K/year.” In the Tristate, if you are one in a million, by definition there are at least 22 of you.

Our recruiter used Craigslist for most projects and straightaway found us one of our targets: a working mother who had successfully completed a BA online while still raising a family. I had a new team and my associate design researcher was an eager, empathic and articulate ethnographer doing her first project at IDEO. We headed out to Inwood in Brooklyn for our first site visit, hoping to get insights from this working, baccalaureate mom.

During the ride, I played the senior mentor guy, offering advice about doing ethnography “in a design context.” We arrived at the address in Inwood, an obscure part of Brooklyn that looks like a sad, dilapidated part of Queens that in turn, tries to look like a nondescript suburb in Long Island. We were buzzed into the building, walked up to a door and were greeted by a large woman with a curly red mane of hair. Her name was “Roberta-but-call-me-Bert.”

She let us in. The apartment was dim. It smelled of litter box mixed with burnt Dinty Moore beef stew that Ramon, Roberta-call-me-Bert’s husband had overheated on the stove. The dingy plaster walls were covered in old shopping lists, written in a mangled scrawl that suggested vaguely menacing pathologies and personality disorders suffered by their author.

The sofa we sat on smelled of cat piss, and the living room offered up no pretense of ever having been cleaned. We sat up straight, made eye contact in that standard, pious, non-judgmental manner that earnest ethnographers often adopt. We began the paperwork. We were offered water and politely declined.

I asked her about work, family, free time; all of the perfunctory questions before we got into her BA experience. Since I was the seasoned professional, I led the discussion, “Tell me a story about your favorite class…”, “Did you make friends with your classmates?”, “Do you still keep in touch?” Since my associate was taking notes, I focused on keeping the discussion moving and letting Roberta-call-me-Bert lead us to all sorts of exciting insights.

The trouble was, she didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t remember much about that class,” she said about her favorite statistics course she took just before graduating 18 months ago. “Yeah, I pretty much kept to myself, because I had to work and raise a family, you know?” I nodded my head earnestly.

I began asking her questions about change: “Do you view your daughter’s education differently now since you got the degree?” “Not really,” she said, as her daughter ate ice cream from a container while watching a YouTube video about dog fighting.

We eventually went on our way. Once out the door, I was about to launch into the debrief. Since I was the experienced one, I was going to teach my associate a simple, time-honored 20 minute structure I often use for debriefs: Interesting Behaviors/Motivations and Drivers/Problems and Frustrations/Opportunities.

I noticed that she was grimacing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“That was a waste.” she replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She lied, she never went to college.”

I was gobsmacked.

And she was absolutely right.

There were no interesting behaviors. There were no drivers or motivations. There were no problems or frustrations. There were no opportunities.

There was no diploma. It was “packed away somewhere.”

We returned to the office. Another colleague was leading a project in men’s fashion and desperately trying to recruit shop-along dyads of couples in their 40’s and 50’s where wives selected the husband’s clothes. She said they had already recruited one couple on Craigslist and that her name was Roberta from Inwood, Brooklyn.

Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate

Rachel Wong, an independent design researcher and strategist, recalls a particularly revealing study participant.

I was working at a design firm, doing a quick photo diary study. The user segment we were studying were young X-Games-types, e.g., risk-takers and thrill-seekers. We were trying to get inspired by their mindset and approach to life. This was back in the days when Polaroids were commonly used in fieldwork studies for people to document aspects of their lives in context. We gave each participant a photo diary kit, which included a Polaroid camera, film, and prompts on sticker labels. They were asked to use the prompts to inspire their picture taking, and then to affix the corresponding prompts to each photo. The prompts for this study were open-to-interpretation statements like: “This gets me excited” or “This is a relief.”

One of the guys I’d recruited for the study was an acquaintance whom I’ll call Bobby – a shy, sweet, young guy big into skating. I was so happy he agreed to participate. A week later I dropped by his house to pick up his completed kit. “Thanks, it was fun,” he said earnestly, and I gave him his incentive and thanked him.

As soon as I was home I reviewed Bobby’s photo diary and did a double take when I saw that for one of the photos Bobby had documented himself in the act of sex with an anonymous partner, associated with the prompt: “This feels good.” For a Polaroid, the photo had an impressive amount of detail, in close-up no less.

Suffice to say, this was much different than the average photo diary entry and shocked and entertained my project team the whole next morning. As I posted all the photo diary responses in a large grid on foamcore, I struggled with whether to include the illicit photo in my display. We ended up turning it around, and then hiding it away when the client came for a meeting.

But when I think about it now, I realize Bobby was communicating something about his life approach that was powerful and honest. It makes me wonder how much we edit our study participants’ responses in light of work appropriateness, and even how many of our study participants edit their own responses, shielding their most real opinions in exchange for what they think we want to hear.

So, thank you Bobby for giving me an ounce of your truth, though I wasn’t really equipped to handle it. And I’m glad it was fun.

Valerie’s War Story: Rank order

This story comes to us courtesy of Valerie Green, Research & Strategy Manager at Teague.

I was recently working on an air freshener project. It’s important to note at the onset that I live in Seattle, enjoy fresh air most of the year, and don’t favor perfumes or fragrances in my home. So it was already a bit of torture to go into three homes a day over the course of a week and smell all these strong, artificial fragrances. Most participants used multiple air fresheners in the home, and they would spray the air fresheners multiple times during the interviews. As the lead interviewer I would of course participate, sniffing the air appreciatively when they exclaimed how much they loved the scents.

The types of people who use air fresheners in their home like to create welcoming home environments, so most of the homes we visited were nicely kept up and relatively organized. Nancy’s (not her real name) home was a different story. We walked into a wall of stink. At first I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but shortly after the interview started Nancy told me her three small dogs were indoor dogs (as if there is such a thing). In this case, it meant that they peed and pooped indoors. That’s when I noticed a pee pad in a corner, while other people on the interview noticed some poop indoors. I figured this would be a short interview.

The saddest thing is that Nancy, like the other participants, talked about wanting her home to smell good for herself and guests, and how much she loves air fresheners! It would have been incredibly awkward and inappropriate to say anything, so I kept my mouth shut and just nodded in affirmation…

Ryan’s War Story: Enthusiasticus Interruptus

UX Reseacher Ryan DeGorter relates a familiar uncomfortable scenario, finding himself in the field with a colleague who isn’t quite on board with the whole listening thing.

Our UX Research team created a program called “Coffee with Customers” where we conducted interview sessions with our customers over a hot brew. It not only allowed us to take a step back from the daily grind, but gave the chance for others in the organization to be involved in the process. With this particular coffee and research session, I took along a product manager “Bob”.

Prior to the coffee session, I walked Bob through the interview style, and provided him a rough sketch of how the interview would flow. Bob was particularly interested in gaining insight on how people use social applications, so I worked those into the discussion guide. The research session started at 10am, so I picked Bob up at 9am to give ample time for one last review with Bob. I explained that I would like to be the one to lead the interview in order to maintain flow of the discussion. However, if he had a question to ask, he should try to remember to start the question with Who, What, Why, How or When.

It was a wintery day and Bob and I arrived at the coffee shop shortly before 10am. It was quite crowded as we did an initial scan for the participant “Kevin”. A few minutes later Kevin arrived. During introductions it was clear Kevin was a bit tentative about the session. When we were ordering coffee and muffins, it was difficult to start a conversation with him. Nevertheless, we found a table where we could sip our coffee and chat. Since Kevin was clearly nervous, I spent a little longer making small talk in hopes of trying to remove the awkwardness. We chatted about the weather, and how Waterloo [Ontario] never seems to get a proper winter anymore. Before long, we had a stronger rapport with Kevin, so we dove right into the interview.

I started with questions like “Where did you buy your smart phone?” and “What was your thought process for choosing that one?” Kevin continued to open up and was providing us good detailed information. He gave us very clear stories about why he chose this particular phone, what he enjoys about it as well as points of frustrations. All this time my partner Bob was sipping on his slightly cooler coffee and taking it all in without writing any notes. It was as if this was his normal daily routine and this interview was like every other research session he has done before.

As we delved deeper into Kevin’s usage patterns, we moved on to the topic of social applications. I asked Kevin to walk us through why he uses Facebook and Twitter and asked him to show us how he did this on his smart phone. Bob shuffled his chair closer to Kevin so he too could observe Kevin’s actions. Kevin confidently swiped through the Twitter application, explaining his rationale for following certain friends. At this point there was a sudden interruption which caught both Kevin and me by surprise. Bob leaned in even closer to the device and pointed to the screen as if it was his own phone. “Do you do it like this?” Bob asked “Um…I don’t think so.” Kevin replied hesitantly. Bob then suddenly grabs his pen, hunches over the table, and with both arms on the desk, furiously writes on a piece of paper, acting as if he needed to catch every word that was coming from Kevin’s lips. I felt like everything started going to go in hyper speed as I was no longer the pilot of this interview. I could not make out what Bob was actually writing, but he obviously had some specific answers that needed to write down personally. I tried to ease the tension Bob’s action had created, saying “That’s great that you use the application that way, what else do you do on this phone?” I tried to convey to Kevin that he was not being tested and that we instead were just seeking inspiration and understanding. Although I tried to move on, Bob interrupted again and asked Kevin to navigate to another area of the application, asking “Do you do this?” type of questions while he clearly had specific answers he was looking for. This went on for another few minutes, despite my efforts to regain control of the interview by trying to rephrase Bob’s questions in a more open manner. My efforts were in vain and I could see Kevin was shutting down and resorting to Yes and No answers. I needed to act and act quickly. “It looks like we need some refills. Why don’t we take a short break?” I said in a desperate hope to try and free Kevin from Bob’s interrogation. I was lucky that Kevin needed to use the washroom, so I took the opportunity to speak to Bob in the coffee line. I reminded him that we had an audio device so we did not have to write down any notes. I also addressed his interview style. I politely stated that I will be asking the questions during the remainder of the session while making sure to address those items that he provided me with in the discussion guide. Bob took my concerns to heart and allowed me to complete the interview without interrupting. We never fully gained the openness back from Kevin, but overall, it was an inspiring session for Bob and me. As we shook Kevin’s hand goodbye, I made a mental note thinking “This is why those UX books encourage you to ask questions instead of your stakeholders.”

In the field you always have to be on your feet. A single participant can be tricky as you try and figure out their personality and what will help them feel comfortable enough to openly talk to you. Additionally, your colleague may also become too eager and sidetrack the session in order to get their questions answered, despite being told how they should approach the participant. When things go awry, you need to be able to stay calm and get the interview back on track. It was great that Bob realized his mistake during the break and I will not let this experience prevent future colleagues to accompany me during a session. However, I will definitely spend more time explaining to my colleague the importance of rapport and emphasizing the proper technique on how to ask participants questions so as not to overwhelm them.

Jen’s War Story: Trust your gut, it can save your life!

Jen Iudice is a Senior Design Researcher with Teague. Here is her story about the road not taken.

Having done ethnographic research for nearly 20 years, I’ve definitely seen it all in the field. Fortunately, that includes coming across some very interesting and enthusiastic participants. On occasion however, there are times when the recruiter misses the boat, things slip through the cracks, and wham bam, you are in a painfully uncomfortable (or in rare cases) a dangerous situation. Hence the challenge of screening: striking a balance between actually screening participants while trying not to lead them. As researchers we are aware of the occasional duds who sneak their way into a study in order to make a buck! This is one of those stories.

Recently, I was charged to do some field research for a client about how people use their personal data; a topic that covered a massive amount of sub topics, and could apply to almost anyone. The screener was carefully developed with the client’s input, and the recruit was filled with a great spectrum of participants. Good so far.

The client was very motivated to participate in the research, which is almost always a positive. However, on this particular occasion my colleague and I were ultimately relieved that he could not make it to this interview!

When we arrived at the location, we noticed an old, run down high-rise building with a bail bondsman conveniently located on the bottom floor. There were several “tenants” taking leisurely “naps” in front of the doorway to greet us. At that moment I felt a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. My colleague half joking/half seriously said, “I don’t want to go in there Jen…I don’t care if he uses Mint.com!”

As we drove around the building several times I contemplated: Am I being too judgmental? Could this really be a well-qualified participant that I am simply not willing to accept because of the sketchy appearance of his place of residence? Can we risk entering this building with all of our expensive electronic/video equipment?

My colleague and I decided not to risk ignoring the feeling in our guts, and phoned to cancel the interview.

When the participant answered the phone he sounded very strange and out of sorts. I let him know that we would still pay him for his time, but we could not make it to the interview (translation: we are afraid to come into your building!). He then explained that he had just been robbed at gunpoint in his apartment, and that it was a good thing we did not come over! This became even more concerning when we realized that you could not enter this building without going through a security check-in at the front desk (this was another tip-off that we should not go in!). This event would mean either the security precautions were a joke, or that someone that lives in the building had robbed him! Needless to say, I did not ask any details, and he continued to talk to me about how distraught he was. I did my best to try and console the man and wished him luck with his situation. AWKWARD!

It boggles my mind to think about what could have happened if we had followed through with this interview! As one could imagine, I “verbalized my concerns” to the recruiter (i.e., I gave them an earful!), but moving forward, I will always map out my in-home interviews and will always make sure I have a colleague with me on every interview…just to be safe!

Be careful out there, everyone. Always be aware of your surroundings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!

Prasad’s War Story: Skin in the game

Prasad Kantamneni is a Silicon Valley transplant in rural Andhra Pradesh. He lives at the intersection of politics, design, social work, and entrepreneurship.

I was visiting an informant’s home with a couple of colleagues to observe her trying to find information on the Internet.

Things were great – until she opened the door. The first thing we noticed was that the carpet had a lot of pink confetti on it. The confetti seemed to be everywhere. Then things turned scary when we realized that the confetti was skin — lots of it! The informant had shed most of her outer layer of skin.

At this point, all of us were worried that we would catch something. I knew my colleagues did not want to continue with the visit, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful by cancelling the visit without a valid reason. So I made the call to continue.

To give my colleagues an out, I asked them to record the interview — which gave them an excuse to keep standing. I then proceeded to ask her about the kinds of information she looked for on-line. She mentioned that, among other things, she sometimes researched her medical condition. At which point I asked her to do what she would normally do when researching the condition. As she searched for the information, all of us were equally involved, trying to read if the disease was communicable!

Once we realized that the disease was not communicable, we were able to get past our mental block and proceed with the interview.

This is one visit none of us were likely to forget any time soon.

Daria’s War Story: Human Thresholds

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.

David’s War Story: Suit yourselves

David Serrault is an Information Architect and Experience Designer for SNCF, in France.

It took a long time and several discussions with the stakeholders from SNCF (the French railways operator) to receive authorisation for a field investigation using old-age simulation suits. We were to focus on Gare Du Nord, the largest railway station in Europe. The station hosts more than 190 million passengers a year, including commuters, long distance travelers from all across Europe, businessmen and tourists from anywhere in the world. Gare Du Nord is filled with people in movement, following their daily routine or finding their way in this complex ecosystem of platforms, corridors and stairs, all managed by several operators.

I have always been fascinated by railway stations. Even more than the airport, I think that they are like temples of modernity, ruled by time and noisy, heavy, industrial technology.

The goal of this onsite experiment was to evaluate the gaps in the information provided to travelers, especially older ones. The old-age simulation suit makes the user feel the constraints of an elderly person. The suit, made in Japan, looks like a kind of kimono such as one might wear for practicing judo. But this one is green and red, covered with belts and weights in order to simulate the physical constraints of an old person. Also, you have to wear glasses to restrict your visual field and reduce your ability to perceive contrasts as well as ear plugs to reduce your hearing.

We were four: my friend and colleague Christophe Tallec (a French service designer) and two students. We set out in the morning for our day of experimentation. Indeed we were a bit worried by working in such a crowded public space. Even with an official authorisation from the station officer it was difficult to imagine what the reaction of the police authority and the users of the station would be. The place had been a scene of a spontaneous riot a few months before, when a young boy from a low wage suburb commonly called “Banlieusard” had been arrested and assaulted by the police.

The main difficulty we faced was more a logistical one. Each of us was to attempt a pre-defined journey through the railway station but we had to find a place to put on the suit. Eventually we did this behind some ticket vending machines that were close to the bus station. Not a very intimate place, but good enough!

Surprisingly the police simply came to ask us what we where doing and then let us do our job. We didn’t encounter special reactions from the passengers who seemed to deliberately ignore us.

This experiment was a revelation, especially for the youngest members of the team. We realised how many constraints someone with physical limitations can face during journey through a public space like this one. These spaces are dedicated to people flow, but disabled or challenged individuals are like aliens. There are many initiatives to make these areas accessible and readable but how can this be a priority for an organisation that has to manage daily security and transit efficiency for millions of people. It is a huge challenge for the designers and the architects who work for these places.

Eventually we realised that indeed a few passengers were staring at us, especially ones who were dressed as Sailor Moon, Naruto or other manga and video game heroes. The day of our research was also one of the largest conventions for Japanese culture aficionados in Paris. Japan Expo is known for its concentration of “cosplay” practitioners; many these young adults were simply in their costume to the event by public transit.

From their side, I suppose they were wondering what kind of manga persona we were playing. From my side, I felt like I was at the meeting point between modern and post-modern times.

David’s War Story: Footloose

Interaction designer David Hoard shares a story where even his best intentions are not sufficient to prevent a perplexing gaffe.

Researcher Chinami Inaishi and I were on a 10-day trip to Tokyo to interview kids and young adults about their video game use. It was 1995 and the console wars were in full effect. Chinami is Japanese, but had lived in the US for many years. So she was the perfect local guide to help me understand the cultural nuances we were witnessing. She also helped us navigate the nearly impossible house numbering system in Tokyo, where house 31 was next to number 6, which was next to 109. This echoed one theme of the trip: squeeze things in wherever you can find space for them. Every square inch will be utilized.

The visits were fascinating and enriching at each stop. We saw small beautiful homes with Western-style furniture next to Japanese Tatami rooms. We interviewed a young man with the smallest apartment ever, a tiny 8′ x 8′ space packed to the gills with Western-oriented magazines, blue jeans, skateboards, and a (unused) full-size surfboard. The kids were impressive, with their beautiful calligraphy work and exacting toy collections. In all cases, no square inch of space was unused, and that made me rethink the design we were considering. A low, wide game console was perhaps out, replaced by a slim vertical unit that could fit in one of their densely packed bookcases.

Before the trip, I had done my best to read up on Japanese culture and manners. There’s no way to learn a culture from a book or two – my goal was simply to avoid making a big mistake. I practiced and practiced the few phrases I would need (Chinami was doing simultaneous translation for 98% of it). I knew my two-handed business card presentation technique, and I nearly understood the rules for bowing.

We’d been through most of the visits, and so far so good. All of the sessions had gone fairly well, and we were learning a lot. But then I did something bad. Something wrong.

We had been visiting a house near the end of a train line, slightly out of the city-center. The session was over; it was time to pack up the camera and notes and head out. We were doing our now-normal goodbye ritual, trying to check off the right etiquette boxes. And then it happened: I misstepped. Near the front door, I stepped my sock foot just off the wood floor and onto the carpet. With one shoe on already. Unknown to me, I just violated an important manner about where you must be (and must not be) when putting your shoes back on when you leave.

Instantly the whole family erupted in hysterical laughter, with everyone pointing at me. Suddenly I was in a mayday situation, with my manners in a dangerous nosedive. Confused, I did my best to get my shoes on as Chinami pulled me out the door and onto the street. She was like a commando extricating someone from an international hotspot.

“What was that??” I asked, once we were out on the street.

Chinami informed me that laughter (apparently hysterical laughter) was how the Japanese cope with a faux-pas or embarrassing situation. Embarrassment was indeed what I created, and I felt it too. Intense embarrassment comes with a whole set of physical sensations. You’re flushed, addled, and dazed. You’ve got great regret, but it’s too late to fix it.

When we go out to do field research, we often feel we are going out to observe a strange species in its native habitat. We are the scientists, they are the creatures to be documented. We go to great lengths to help them feel comfortable with our scientist-like presence. We feel like we are the smart ones.

But guess what? The research participants are in their native habitat, and are experts on their own lives. We the researchers are the weird aliens. We’re the ones not getting their nuance. We’re the ones who are sometimes worthy of mockery.

But it’s all in a days work when you’re out doing research; you’ve got to be light on your feet. Every research session I’ve ever been on has been a dance to cover the material and sniff out insights right below the surface. All while you try to make everyone comfortable and keep the conversation flowing. It’s that dance that makes it exciting; just try to keep your toes in the right place.

Sharon’s War Story: Broken Windows Theory

Sharon Cartwright, a consultant with Optimal Experience, shares her story about uncovering context.

We were surprised that Anna wasn’t at home when we arrived at her house. We could see through the lounge windows that the house was empty of furniture and personal belongings, adding further to the intrigue. We had followed our usual protocol of sending an email confirmation clearly stating the time of the research session and Anna had been called the day before to confirm.

We decided to try calling Anna. She picked up our call as she was coming up her driveway. She was running late and seemed a bit agitated, telling us that she had locked herself out an hour earlier. She was just moving into this house and didn’t have a spare key yet. She’d decided, in the interest of proceeding, that she was going to smash a window to get in and had just called around to her brother’s house to pick up the appropriate tools.

Anna seemed like a practical woman, and smashing her front door window didn’t seem to daunt her. I indicated that there was no need to take such drastic action for our sakes. But she was adamant and was soon taking a hammer to the glass panel in the kitchen door.

Once inside, Anna, myself and the client (who’d come along for the ride) began the clean-up. I manned the vacuum cleaner and mused over the start to the session. There is something bonding about a shared clean-up!

We were there to observe Anna set up wireless broadband. On a good day the process wasn’t straightforward; we had already seen several participants struggle through it. Over the next two hours we observed Anna encountering several technical issues with hardware and software. She managed to resolve some issues on her own. Many times she resorted to calling the contact centre, although their advice was mixed – sometimes helping Anna, sometimes complicating matters.

We had scheduled the session for 1.5 hours expecting this to be sufficient, but many sessions – including Anna’s – extended over this. After two hours Anna had not succeeded in setting up her wireless broadband connection. Unable to stay any longer, we were disappointed to leave without seeing Anna ultimately succeed. We wished her luck, as she was clearly going to need it.

During the two hours Anna revealed a few things to us. Her long-term relationship had recently ended, explaining her move to Auckland. She was also looking for work. Her ex-partner’s teenage son had generally taken the lead on the technology front in their home, and it was dawning on her that this was now her role.

With the significant life stresses she was facing it was hard to watch her struggle through a technology set-up that should have been easier, dare I say simple. While we learned that setting up wireless internet often happens during a time of stress, as it’s one task of many when you move house, I felt for Anna and the difficult time she was going through.

Elysa’s War Story: Keep The Swiffer On Your Right

Senior strategist Elysa Soffer heads into the field where an adventure in building rapport awaits.

She’s Caucasian, 75 years old, retired, married with 2 grown kids, lives in Berkeley, and cleans her floors 2 – 4 times a week. This woman fits our qualifications as a participant for our research study. But you never know who you might be talking to and how best to get them to open up to you-a stranger entering their home.

Two of us spent a few hours interviewing this woman in her home for a floor cleaning study. We asked warm-up questions about her and her household. She mentioned that she was a writer and lived there with her husband. She showed us around her house, and pointed out the rooms where she spends the most time cleaning floors.

During the next part of the interview, she demonstrated her cleaning process and we asked her to test a few prototypes we brought along. She showed us everything from how she stores her tools, cleans, and puts everything away. It was as simple as that.

This was one of the last in-home interviews out of about a dozen conducted for this project. It went just as smoothly as the previous ones. We felt like we gathered insights. So, we asked our wrap-up questions and packed up. Once the video camera and recorder were off, we made small talk while heading to the door.

My research partner stopped next to the door to look at a handmade shrine-like structure sitting on a tchotchke shelf. It was made out of bones! Not fake Halloween-decoration bones, but real human-looking bones. We couldn’t resist, we had to ask.

The woman’s face lit up, and she was excited to tell us the story about her adventures visiting a tribe of cannibals in Africa. She explained that she published articles about this tribe and took many trips over the years to study their culture. She also pointed out how the shrine was made of animal, not human bones. To top it all off, she confessed that she “may” have been fed human during some of her expeditions there. Whoa!

We asked a few more questions about her adventures, but unfortunately we had to go. The vibe in the room had completely changed. She was enthusiastic and seemed more comfortable than she did for the previous few hours. Had we noticed the statue on the way in, would the interview had been different? If the camera was still on would she have reacted the same way?

Back in the car, I looked at the recruiter’s sheet again. Cannibal wasn’t listed anywhere. I wondered what secrets the previous floor cleaning participants hadn’t shared.

Jaimes and Aico’s War Story: Sumimasen!

Jaimes Nel of Connected Futures collaborated with Aico Shimuzu to tell this story about their rapid research in post-quake Japan.

Research often feels like a process of managing confusion and uncertainty until we find conceptual tools to understand a situation. Failure (and subsequent redemption) are, after all, a well-worn trope in ethnography. The journey from outsider to insider is an effective literary technique that boosts the credibility of the storyteller.

My experience is an ordinary day’s work on a more asymmetric battlefield than a typical client project. On the 11th of March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, causing a tidal wave that devastated towns up and down the coast of Tohoku province. Travelling to Japan later that year, I was interested in how the earthquake had affected people around the country. They had been experiencing rolling power blackouts for several months in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear emergency and I wanted to get a sense of whether this might prompt change in a country that has experienced sluggish growth for nearly two decades. I was only in Tokyo for a week, with other commitments, but managed to set aside a day for some research time with Aico Shimuzu, a friend who works as a design researcher and innovation consultant in Tokyo.

Our very straightforward approach was to meet at a busy train station, a little way away from the usual Tokyo hotspots of Shibuya or Shinjuku, and simply approach people in the street, asking for a few moments of their time. We spent around 3 to 4 hours wandering through the streets around the station, striking up conversations when we could. As you might expect, more people said no to us than yes. It was probably quite helpful that we were a man and a woman, and Japanese and a foreigner. In a culture that can be very reserved, it was much easier for me to approach strangers than it was for Aico. This small cultural sin was more easily forgiven of a foreigner. My faltering Japanese also made for a great opening line, as Aico would have to step in and rescue our victims! In all we managed to have brief conversations with 7 people (some in pairs and some on their own). They kindly agreed to let us photograph them and told us about their experiences since the earthquake and what they thought had changed in Japan.

Their stories were moving, and worrying. They all agreed that things had to change, but the events of 11th March had shaken their confidence in the authorities. Some emphasised the need to appreciate daily life, as the things that are ordinarily taken for granted had become impossible for people in Tohoku. One woman felt Japan had become selfish, and needed to re-emphasise connections between people, telling us “In the end, we can never live alone. We have to help each other.”

Aico and I were struck by the earnestness with which the people we spoke to desired change. This was truly an event that made people notice that the infrastructure around them could not always be relied on. In a way, an event such as this is like a giant “breach” experiment, in which the unspoken assumptions we rely on to get along with each other have broken down. As we walked, Aico and I talked about all of these issues and the people who took the time to chat with us helped us learn a little bit more about our own perspectives and gave us fuel to think about things. In many ways, this type of guerrilla work is as much a tool for your thinking as it is a way to understand a topic. This is what I mean when I say it’s almost inevitably a failure. I don’t mean that it’s not successful, but rather that it can never hope to represent a coherent view. It’s simply too random. The people we spoke to had little connecting them, apart from the fact they were all going through the same experience in some fashion Doing this work outside Tohoku, we were a little distant from the events there and so were our participants. We also noticed that many of those who were willing to break stride and talk to us were from outside Tokyo, which says a little about both big cities and our process!

Our guerrilla tactics may limit the claims we can confidently make from this data, but we can still explore them as individual cases, and use them to frame our own thought processes. Eventually, our day of guerrilla research left us with more questions than ever, just like our participants, but often that’s entirely the right place to be in a situation which is fluid and unresolved. Discussing this piece now, a year and a half later, Aico makes the point that repeating the exercise would help understand whether the social ripples from the quake were still being felt, or if people were forgetting and moving on. At the time, Japan was still working on making sense of what happened to it all those months ago and this day helped sensitise us to that atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.

See Aico’s pictures from Tokyo just after the quake and from Tohoku a month later.

Apala’s War Story: Whose side is the researcher on?

Apala Lahiri Chavan, Chief Oracle and Innovator at HFI relates a tale about her own distress when faced with a difficult household situation.

In one of the very early research projects I worked on in India, we learned many best practices that became part of our research guidelines. However, there were parts of the experience that I have not quite gotten over even, after 12 years.

We were researching in-home media usage in India for a multinational tech company from the USA. The research targeted lower middle class households from across the country, both urban and rural. My colleague Amita and I were covering the northern Indian state of Punjab. This particular evening we were visiting a semi-urban household near the city of Chandigarh.

It was 6pm when we reached the location. We had to leave the car behind and walk the last few yards since the lane was too narrow. As we entered the gate of the house, a group of ladies came out of the house and welcomed us. They had marigold garlands for us to wear and a lit earthen lamp with which evil spirits were warded off.

We were welcomed inside the house and ushered into a tiny but neat living room. One elderly lady who had garlanded us was the mother-in-law. She invited us to sit on a rug on the floor. She sat down too and so did a number of other people – the entire neighbourhood was there.

The mother-in-law and some of the other elderly women from the neighbourhood did their own in-depth interview where we the participants! We were asked about our age, income, husbands, caste, education, number of children, size of house, TV serials we watched, and so on. On hearing that neither of us had children though we were married, a hush descended upon the group. After a few tense moments, the mother-in-law told us to have faith in God and not give up hope. We looked down into our plates, wondering what would happen if we told them we did not have children out of choice!

Some young girls had also joined the gathering inside the living room (which had spilled out to the gate and into the kitchen). One girl rushed home to get us some dessert that she had made that day!

By the time the gup-shup (friendly chatter) was over it was 7:30pm. Even though we were used to the fact that time stretched quite a bit in India and hence a session slated for an hour could stretch to an hour and a half (after all, the concept of time in India was circular unlike the linear concept of time in the West) this was beyond what either of us had experienced. But there was no possibility of hurrying anybody. How could we tell a group of extremely hospitable and warm people that our time was more important than their company?

At last, we started the session with the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. As we realized that the neighbours were not about to leave, Amita and I looked at each other and decided that it was fine to have the neighbours since they were clearly like a large, extended family.

As the father-in-law, two sons and the other daughter-in-law were not back from work yet, this was women’s time. However, it became clear within the first ten minutes that this daughter-in-law was not going to speak her mind in front of her mother-in-law and the other neighbourhood matrons. We did some quick improvisation: I asked the daughter-in-law to show me the house (they knew this would be part of the interview) while my colleague continued to speak with the mother-in-law. This worked very well and while she showed me the house I got to hear the daughter-in-law’s story (e.g., how she never got to watch any television she wanted or listen to any music she chose, and so on).

It was 8:30pm or so when the men of the house returned from work. Instantly, the atmosphere changed. Until then the mother-in-law and the other matrons had been the ‘bosses’ of the session but now everything changed. The father-in-law and the two sons were clearly in control. Mother-in-law now scurried about between kitchen and living room and many of the neighbourhood matrons and girls left. This was a very high power distance culture after all!

We were fortunate that we had the time to speak with the ladies while the men were not around. Had they been around from the beginning, we would have not heard any of the ladies speak. Even as we carried on the conversation with the men, we suddenly noticed that there was a young lady standing at the living room door. There was a hint of aggression in her posture that made it difficult to ignore her. However, everyone else in the room seemed to not even see her.

Then as the elder son was telling us about his media usage preferences, a most unexpected thing happened. The young lady at the door suddenly stormed into the room and started addressing us.

She screamed and howled about the physical abuse and dowry harassment she was being subjected to by her husband (the son who was speaking) and the mother-in-law. She shouted “He made my poor parents buy him that expensive TV that he has been talking about. Now he wants them to buy him a VCR. Where are they going to get the money for that?”

We were absolutely stunned and just as we began to get our wits together, her husband got up, caught her by the hair and gave her two resounding slaps across the face. He told her – in the most abusive language – to go up to her room.

Enough was enough. Both of us sprang up to our feet and stood between the man and his wife. He was unperturbed and tried to pick up the thread of the conversation with us, as if nothing had happened. His parents said “This daughter-in-law is a bad woman and needs to be kept in control since she shames us.”

We were still standing in front of the daughter-in-law who was now alternating between weeping bitterly and screaming in rage. We had to make a critical decision. What should we do? What was our role in this situation? We were researchers who were supposed to maintain our neutrality and objectivity but was that the right thing to do? Should we not call the police’s Crimes Against Women section and complain about the husband and his parents? Should we not protect this woman who was being abused?

But before we could do anything, the daughter-in-law ran out of the house screaming and made a dash for the main gate. Not one of her family responded and told to ignore the nautanki (drama) and continue the conversation.

We said to the family that we would not be able to continue, given what had happened. We handed over the cash incentive and walked out of the house. We looked up and down the lane but we could not see the daughter-in-law anywhere. It was little after 10pm when we got into our car and drove off.

I have not been able to come to terms with that one incident even today. I felt that in order to be a “good” researcher I had betrayed that girl who was being abused and a much larger cause. Should one not be an activist ethnographer, when the situation demands?

Carla’s War Story: A dirty diaper sitting in the mud

Consumer insights professional Carla Borsoi encounters the outlier that illustrates a greater truth.

There is nothing like home research to challenge your notions of whether or not everyone lives like you. Earlier this year, we were doing research on how people use multiple devices (phones, tablets ad computers) – what they are doing with each, what they feel about each device and how these are shared (or not). We were particularly focused on three audiences: Moms, Entertainment Junkies, and Earlier Adopters. Yes, in my world, we use Title Case to label our different audiences. At any rate, we picked three areas with high density for devices and plenty of each of these audiences in spades: NY, Seattle and Austin.

I headed to Seattle in late March to meet with people and to talk to them about what they do. The first interviews went swimmingly: one Dad told us how he used his tablet to collect coupons, his computer to develop his Saturday shopping plan with coupons, and his phone to go through with his plan. He also told us about watching movies during lunch at work on his tablet. An Earlier Adopter told us how he obsessively followed tech news as he rode the bus. Good, I thought, these interviews are going really well. The Seattle weather was appropriately grey and rainy, but these folks lived in warm and welcoming homes. Normal, to me, at least, with the typical toys in the home with kids, the nice entertainment system, clean kitchens, and so on.

It was our last day of interviewing. The rain had been pouring down the night before and I hoped it would hold off until I got to the airport at the end of the day. We were interviewing a young Mom who lived past Sea-Tac. I drove down pseudo-country roads and pulled up to the property for the interview. The driveway was full of mud. Thankfully, I was wearing wet weather boots. As I walked up with my colleagues to the front door I passed a dirty diaper sitting in the mud. Huh, I thought. Their garbage probably got torn apart in the storm last night. The house was old, but that’s how these things go. We were greeted by the young Mom and entered the house. Immediately the stale smell of cigarettes and mildew hit my nose.

Uh-oh.

The mom proved to be a bright young woman, who tended bar a couple nights a week, while going to school and parenting the rest of the time. I looked down at the dirty table in front of me while we continued talking. She had some great insights about how she used her tablet (often on loan to her parents who would watch the kids), how critical her phone was to keeping in touch, and how her computer was there as she worked on projects for school. However, the smell assaulted my senses. I could feel my two colleagues shifting in their seats, covering coughs. Our interview was scheduled for two and half to three hours, but after about 45 minutes, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it much longer. Someone asked if anyone had more questions. I quickly spoke up “Nope, think we’re good.” No one disagreed.

We walked out the door and I noticed more garbage outside – but breathed in the sweet clean air. I realized that as researchers we occupy a place of privilege. People allow us into their homes, without embarrassment or shame. This is their life. They allow us to see a window into it. People often participate in research for the chance to earn a little cash. This woman had spoken of how much they had saved to be able to rent this small, mildewed space. It reminded me that I have a lot of advantages that other people don’t. It’s a reminder that when we’re creating products, we’re doing it not just for some sexy early adopter, but real for people who are just trying to make ends meet and get started with their life. It also reminded me to go home and wash down the walls of our stairwell, covered in grime.

Debbie’s War Story: Sometimes Ignorance is Bliss

Retired from HP, Debbie Mrazek shares her story about not knowing she she was getting a little too much attention in the field.

Many years ago, when international “day in the life” visits were not common in my company, I led a study to better understand technology usage in typical homes.

As a US-based team, when we spent time with a European family, we typically included a translator and local researcher in the team. Each visit started with getting to know the family over a meal that we brought with us. We then toured the home and divided into smaller groups in order to spend focused time with each family member.

During a visit with an upscale German family, I was interviewing the very friendly and excited older teenage son. He very enthusiastically showed me every gadget, software program and PC trick he knew. He was constantly trying to impress me with his technical skills and knowledge, speaking in a mixture of German and English. The interpreter did her best to help me understand the boy’s key points, but I continued to notice that both she and the local researcher were exchanging knowing smiles. Eventually, the mother joined us and graciously suggested that the son had “bothered the poor girl” (me) enough, and we should join the rest of the family for coffee.

During our post-visit debrief, it was revealed that the interpreter was strategically not translating some of the boy’s most blatantly flirtatious comments, leaving me unaware that this was even happening. While typically I think the translation should be unbiased and accurate, in this case her careful filtering was a good thing. It allowed me to focus on watching how he used the technology…but it did make for plenty of teasing from my colleagues during the rest of the trip!

Dennis’s War Story: Negotiating between sympathy and empathy

Design researcher Dennis Nordstrom tells a story about his team’s own emotional journey as they find themselves face-to-face with someone else’s distress.

Whenever we conduct design research our aim is to gain empathy for our target audience. Through empathy we enable ourselves to bring together our imagination and creativity as a way to develop a better tomorrow.

This was exactly our goal when our team was designing for people who were chronically ill. We were conducting research in major US cities and we were about to finish up our interviews in Philadelphia. We were preparing ourselves for the next participant and knew from our recruiter that she was a woman in her early sixties living on her own. Everything else about her was for us to find out.

As we walked up to her door we were talking amongst ourselves about how inspiring it had been to actually meet all these participants, and to hear about how they had overcome the major life changes that came with being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions, or even chronic liver diseases.

We knocked on her door, and heard a voice behind the door invite us in. We walked inside and the first thing we noticed was the smell. It was extremely pungent, to say the least. It was the smell of old urine and vomit mixed with rotten wood and mildew. I saw a figure slowly emerging from the hall. Her arthritis was so awful that she could barely walk. Her dog was walking right next to her cane. It was an older dog, blind in one eye and with several teeth missing. It tried to bark at us, but the poor thing could barely make a sound. Besides the dog, our participant had about nine cats living in her house.

She came over and greeted us, and we introduced ourselves and thanked her for her hospitality. She offered us something to drink, but her condition was so bad that she needed help with getting the drinks out of her refrigerator and onto the table.

From the moment we sat down we had cats crawling all over us. They were extremely curious and wanted lots of attention. One cat even laid down flat on my notebook, so that I would pay attention to it. It became clear to us that all manual note taking was out of the question. None of us were able to write anything down.

We all sat there mesmerized as she told us her story. She was currently working as a part-time school teacher. She needed the health insurance and not working was unfortunately not an option for her. Over the last few years she had been diagnosed with arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Her arthritis had gotten quite severe, and she was often unable to do much around the house.

As we sat there listening to her I noticed a dry raspy sound. I looked to my side and saw that her dog was vomiting on the rug. Our participant paused and looked at her dog. She told us that as he has gotten older he had become incontinent and would often get sick as well. As soon as she said this, the smell made perfect sense. Due to her illness she was unable to clean up after her dog and cats, and over time it had all just been sitting there causing her rug and walls to slowly deteriorate.

I looked at my teammates and sympathy was written all over their faces. They felt for our participant. A few minutes later sympathy turned into empathy as she showed us some pictures hanging on her walls. One of the pictures showed her with some very official-looking people, in a very official-looking place. We were quite surprised when she told us that she used to be involved in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine during the seventies. With this realization of how this woman had not always been in pain and been unable to even get drinks out of her fridge came overwhelming feelings of empathy. She used to be a strong and assertive woman, who had had the misfortune of getting seriously ill.

At that moment it became perfectly clear: this was something that could happen to any one of us.

Our newly gained empathy became a powerful catalyst for design ideas, and for the rest of the project no team discussion happened without at least one mention of this woman.

Elaine’s War Story: I thought my client was going to die

Elaine Ann, the CEO of Kaizor Innovation in Hong Kong tells a story about consciousness – both cultural and physical.

One of my most memorable research experiences was ten years ago in China. My Western client fainted in broad daylight in the middle of our Beijing field trip. We had completed field research work and were touring an exhibition. She just plopped on the floor without any previous sign that she had any health problems.

We called the ambulance and a white van came along. There was nothing on it – no ambulance emergency lights, no oxygen equipment, no CPR equipment, only a stretcher. Not knowing what was wrong with my client’s health, we (me, my colleagues and her co-workers) decided to take her to the hospital anyway.

Upon arriving at the hospital, we had to first pay for the ambulance fees in cash (this is China). Then the client was carried onto a hospital bed. I was caught in between cultures at that point as my client’s Western co-workers were dubious about the medical standards in Chinese hospitals and refused an injection from the doctor; while the Chinese doctor was quite annoyed by the Westerners’ attitude (reading their horrific facial expressions) and challenged them whether or not they really want to be helped after coming to the hospital. Meanwhile, I was trying to translate everything in both English and Mandarin, amidst all the chaos, trying to not offend either party (who couldn’t communicate directly with each other).

Finally, the client’s co-worker decided to take a risk with her boss’s health rather than risk it with the Chinese hospital, so we had to shuttle the client back to the hotel instead. (We then discovered that five-star hotels usually have English speaking travel doctors for emergencies – a handy tip for researchers doing field trips in China). In the hotel elevator, my client fainted a second time and we had to drag her off the elevator, along the corridors and into her room like a dead fish.

My client finally became conscious again and luckily we found out this was caused by a low blood sugar syndrome and happened all the time. All she needed was a candy. We had to decline her request to visit the Great Wall the next day. I really wouldn’t know how to carry her down from the Great Wall if she fainted on top of that, as it’s a defense wall designed to make it difficult for invaders to climb even in ancient times!

Seriously, I would have made the national news if my client died on our China research trip! Phew!

Greg’s War Story: Culture shock

Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In his third story here, he encounters a challenge to his own moral standards.

One of the first places I visited in Afghanistan was a security checkpoint along a major route in northern Kandahar. The security was contracted to a private group of Afghans, mainly from the south and east, to provide route security and protect military and civilian supply routes. Their job was to protect the route against insurgents who wanted to disrupt the convoy and see oil tankers burn.

A few days before insurgents did exactly this. They stopped a convoy carrying military supplied with an improvised explosive device, hitting the first truck and killing the driver. Then they attacked the last truck and shot a rocket-propelled grenade which effectively exploded and hit the side of a fuel truck. Civilians fled, the insurgents attacked the checkpoint, and it was utter chaos. These security guards returned fire and called the local police for reinforcements. All that was left at the end were a few burned trucks, dead bodies, and some burned firearms.

Upon arrival, I could see where these men were being shot at, how they fought back, and where they stored their weapons. They worked on this mountain and lived here too. There were approximately 15 to 20 men living in this bunker. All they carried were machine guns, assault rifles, ammunition, and blankets. Of course, they also had food, chai, cooking supplies and utensils. As I inspected their site and positions, they told me about the event and shared their war trophies, burned AK-47s captured from insurgents. It was unusual to observe so many men living in such a tight area together, away from their village and home. This was security, Afghan style, and it felt like a group of armed nomads living under the radar. They were living and working together in a confined space in the middle of what felt like nowhere in particular. I would later find out that these men often worked for 2-3 months at a time before going home for a short period.

When we all sat down for chai, I noticed some of the people who were working at this checkpoint did not look old enough to be here. I thought to myself “Shouldn’t these kids be riding their bikes or playing in the village?” The individual serving chai and placing candies out for our consumption did not have facial hair and had henna painted finger and toe nails. I looked over at my interpreter and asked him on the side what these kids were doing here hanging out with security guards. My interpreter, looking down, smiled, and turned to me saying, “They have fun with them at night.”

The sergeant who I worked with was sitting across from me. When he heard this, his face turned blank. I could tell this made him uneasy. I always wondered what the expression on my face looked like. As the young boy finished serving everyone chai, he moved near an older male who was resting comfortably on a pillow on his side. That’s weird I thought to myself. I had just arrived in country, at this field site, surrounded by strange men who do strange things. I grabbed my cup of chai and drank it down.

Despite the weirdness of the situation, I carried on. I asked lots of questions, took lots of notes, and attempted to be as respectful of their culture as possible even though it bothered me and made me uncomfortable. Who was I to judge? I wondered to myself, what business did we as a nation have in this country? How can its people allow human exploitation to exist like this? I learned later on that Kandahar was a different place than most of Afghanistan. It retained practices unlike the rest of the country. Although this specific instance of culture shock made me uneasy to say the least, I learned to see past it. This was an unconventional war in a strange, neglected land and I was not there to change their culture, only study it.

Raffaella’s War Story: Learning to deal with expectations

Raffaella Roviglioni reflects on an earlier part of her career where she learned new interview skills by adapting to a situation on the fly.

I’m currently a freelance UX designer based in Rome, Italy but I used to be an agronomist. I like to see my professional shift not as a mutation but rather as an evolution: I understood that my passion was working with people, and now user research and UX work is fulfilling that need. Despite the different context and purpose that drove me as an agronomist, I had to interview people quite often and I didn’t have any formal training on it. I guess I was attracted to this kind of activity because I’m an outgoing person and consider myself a good listener.

Back in the days when I was a research fellow at the University of Viterbo I was involved in a pretty interesting project: investigating the old fruit tree varieties in my region. Part of the job (for me the most exciting part!) was interviewing old farmers who were between 80 and 90 years old; they were both the guardians of those old plants and the living repository of the related knowledge.

The job required me to travel to their houses and farms to perform the interviews. Given the distance and the remote location of the rural areas the best way of getting there was by car. As a research fellow, though, I wasn’t allowed to drive the department car, since I wasn’t considered to be an actual employee, according to Italian law.

A lab assistant (also a good friend of mine) agreed to come with me with on the field trips. He was basically acting as my driver, but helped out with taking pictures and collecting plant samples in the field.

It was during a first visit to one farmer’s house that the unexpected happened.

We arrived, got out of the car and went over to the farmer who was waiting for us at the front door. He greeted my assistant first, and then looked at me and said to him: “So this must be your wife!” Even after an embarrassed explanation from our side he clearly could not believe I was the one in charge of the research (with a college degree!) whereas my friend was “only” my assistant.

I have to confess that at first I had to rationalize a bit not to feel offended by his reaction. But after all, I told myself, he was over 80 years old and even my grandfather would have had the same reaction in a similar situation. But the awkwardness continued because, given the context, this famrer wouldn’t expect me to conduct the interview either!

So what I did instead was direct us all (the farmer, his wife, my assistant, and me) to have coffee together, inside the house. We started chatting while drinking our coffee, as any pair of couples would do. Slowly I moved the conversation to the questions on the plants we were interested in. This allowed us to establish a more acceptable situation where the farmer felt comfortable enough to start sharing that information.

What I learned from this experience is that in order to ensure my interview is successful I needed to be able to deal with the expectations of others, embracing them and trying to let go of my emotions (as in this instance, avoiding feeling offended). I also realized that as interviewer I needed to adapt to the interviewee’s setup (in this case, transforming what I view as an interview to a visit to the house) and act accordingly.

It wasn’t my first interview nor the last, but taught me a lot!

Michael’s War Story: The glass is more than half full

This story comes from Michael Powell, Cultural Anthropologist at Shook Kelley. He blogs occasionally here and tweets unoccasionally here.

I was on the job at Shook Kelley (a Los Angeles strategy and design firm with roots in architecture) for about one and a half weeks when I was asked to travel to a small town in central California for a brand strategy project. The research goals were ambiguous; essentially, learn as much as we can about this place and what makes it tick, looking to discover unique or meaningful veins for the design team to consider in reshaping or reinvigorating the town’s brand. I was the only anthropologist on staff and expectations were large for what I might dig up.

This was 2006, before the recession hit rural central California. But things were already tough. Like so many other small towns in out-of-the way areas, this one suffered from a degree of “brain drain.” Young people didn’t want to stay, they wanted to leave for the city or head to college somewhere. The economy wasn’t growing. Maybe tourism, some on the Chamber of Commerce thought, could help stimulate the local economy. This had precedence, but it also seemed far-fetched. What was the appeal of this small town over any others? Was there a history here? Even located in the most productive agricultural area in the country (if not the world) would anyone be willing to drive a few hours to “eat local” and learn about the land, when farmer’s markets easily accessible much closer to California’s major metro areas? The local farms here were mostly industrial size, and seemed less appealing to the locavore.

I drove to the town in a separate car from another small team, led by a brand strategist who wanted to make a documentary-style film about the town. He was accompanied by a filmmaker. These two already knew exactly what they wanted to create – a kind of Ken Burns-style reflective piece about what makes small towns great. I was new to the firm, so I figured I would tag along and find out how things worked. After a handful of “man on the street” interviews with unsuspecting locals, with me standing behind the cameraman, I realized this was a two-person operation: the first person stops pedestrians and asks them what’s meaningful about living here, the other records. Not much need for a third wheel ethnographer in that operation. I decided to head my own way and see what I could find. It was just a two-day trip, so I thought I should make myself a little useful. “Good luck,” the guys told me, and we agreed to meet up later for dinner.

I walked to the coffee shop on Main Street, grabbing the local newspaper on the way. I sat down and started searching the back of the paper for classifieds, calendars and events. I found a lead: The Optimists Club was having a meeting that afternoon, in just an hour. I got on the phone and gave them a call. I explained who I was, the firm I worked for and the project we were doing with the Chamber of Commerce. “Sure, come on down and you can sit in on the meeting,” they told me. At this point, I had no clue what the Optimists Club is, but I understand that it’s some kind of local community group focused on creating positive change for the town. This sounded like my goal, too. [NB: Optimist Club]

The Club meeting was at a local community hall, like a VFW-style hall with plain lobby and a set of meeting rooms. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early and introduced myself to the people who looked like the Optimists organizers. The person I spoke with on the phone greeted me cordially, and invited me to have a cup of coffee. The room was set up in a square formation, with three sides of tables and some space in the middle for a presenter or speaker. Unfortunately for the ethnographer, there’s no chair in the back to hide away and watch the proceedings. My style of research is to begin in the background, staying away from any kind of intervention in order to get the beat or rhythm of what’s happening around me before I jump in with a lot of questions. It didn’t look like that would happen today. Still, I positioned myself in the corner. A couple pf dozen people eventually filed in, one or two noticing the strange face among them.

At five or ten minutes after the hour, everyone was still chatting and catching up. I was taking note of the pace of things. It’s a small town, I figured, what’s the rush? Of course, this was a lot different than the small towns I knew well, growing up in the Midwest, where punctuality is priority.

Then, the leader of the Optimists Club approaches me, sits down and curiously asks “Do you do much public speaking in your line of work?” On occasion, yes, I tell him. “Okay, well, our speaker couldn’t make it today. Could you talk to the group?”

What the hell, why not? After all, it’s the Optimists Club, not the Washington Press Corps.

As I listened to myself suddenly introduced to the Club members a moment later, I remembered that I knew barely anything about my own firm, much less the specifics of this project, which, truth be told, was not crafted with ethnographic research in mind. I stood up, and I just start talking.

After rambling on for probably 10 minutes, I realized two important things. One, I had run out of things to talk about concerning the firm and the project. And two, if I don’t think of something else to talk about quickly, the Optimists were going to turn negative on me.

And then I remembered why I came to the Optimists Club in the first place.

“So, tell me about your town,” I asked.

The next two hours gave me a wealth of information. This was not a focus group, but rather a much more ideal situation for an ethnographic group encounter. It was their turf, not mine. It was their club, not mine. They felt comfortable talking as a group of friends who worked together to make the community better, and I was a welcomed outsider who was curious about them and genuinely interested. By the end of the meeting, I felt like I had read the book about the town and understood its cultural, social, political and economic dynamics. Afterwards, I stopped by a couple places the Optimists had mentioned and talked with more locals, now asking more pointed questions.

At the end of the afternoon, I met up with my new colleagues at the bar on Main Street. “So…how did it go?” I asked them. “This place is boring!” they told me. They had made progress, but were not getting good insights. Fortunately, our subsequent discussion about what I had learned that afternoon helped in guiding their film.

In any case, it was a lesson learned in the field: Stay optimistic.

Greg’s War Story: Biting off more than I can chew

Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In his second story here, he gets more than he expected out of meal with a local respondent.

In Afghanistan, hosts treat their guests as a gift from God. One of the principles of Pashtunwali – the way of the Pashtun – is hospitality, and a host must protect and treat his guests with the highest form of respect in order to preserve his cultural identity. An interview in Afghanistan is not a one-hour/gift-card-honorarium/thank-you-for-playing experience. Rather, it is a large chunk of your day, 4-5 cups of chai and maybe a meal if you are welcomed kind of interview. This was apparent from my first interview in Afghanistan.

After my interview with the local police chief in northern Kandahar, I was treated to a cultural meal with my interviewee and another soldier. The soldier worked closely as an advisor and assisted me with the introduction to the interview. The police chief was a proud host and he asked his men to prepare a special meal for us. As our interview came to a close, the men began rolling out mats, bringing in dishes, and placing large pieces of flat bread on the floor for us to consume. Typically, in this rural area, meals were eaten by hand from shared plates while sitting on the floor.

A typical meal consisted of rice, animal fat and a vegetable. Meat was consumed on occasion, usually to impress a powerful individual. This meal consisted of okra cooked in animal fat with rice and naan (or flat bread). “A nice treat,” I thought to myself, and a great opportunity to understand the cadences of daily life over a cultural meal.

The solider who was working with me raved about the okra, telling me how good it was and that the local police grew it in the back of the building in a small garden. Sweet!

Ready to dig in, I grabbed a piece of naan and ripped it into a smaller, user-friendly piece. I took one bite and immediately noticed a strange and somewhat hairy texture. Attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible, I moved my head to the side and pushed it out with my tongue. I examined it and noticed what appeared to be a lock of animal hair, dark brown and grey, either from a rodent or canine. In Afghan culture, dogs are considered unclean and are not welcomed inside the home. Although, part of me wished it was from a dog and not a rat. I pushed forward and avoided embarrassing my host. I moved on to the rice. The okra did not look very appetizing, so I tried to avoid eating it. However, my host asked why I was only eating rice, and the soldier next to me said I had to try it because it was so tasty. Oh alright! I dove in. I ate until I was full, and concurred that the okra tasted great in the goat fat.

Making small talk, I thanked the police chief and his men for the food and chai. We talked about security challenges for the district and government, and some next steps in increasing the security bubble through checkpoints and army forces. This was good information that I could use for my analysis. As we said our goodbyes and thanked our guest for his warm hospitality, I walked outside of his compound and the soldier pointed at the garden where the okra was being grown.

The small plot looked somewhat haphazard, not incredibly well maintained. I thought nothing of it until the soldier walked away and I saw a young man walk toward the okra, squat, and urinate on the small plot of okra. Great, he was urinating on the okra they were using for human consumption!

Perhaps, the most valuable lesson I learned was to stick to the rice. In this context, I was able to share firsthand the lived experience of Afghan policemen, and how they generated hospitality with whatever they have despite it forcing me to sacrifice my bowel system and notions of cleanliness in my home country. If I had raised the issue or appeared disgusted, I would have risked losing the relationship and opportunities for future interviews while offending my host in the process. I wonder at what point do researchers draw the line when cultural experiences make us too uncomfortable or even sick? How do researchers cope with experiences that test the limits of cultural sensitivity?

Brandon’s War Story – CATastrophe

Brandon Satanek (Twitter, blog) is a User Experience Designer who lives in Michigan, trying to make everyday products better. He tells a story about a multi-sensory fieldwork experience.

I’ll never forget the sight of that poor kitten munching on a cockroach. Our mission was relatively simple. Being employed by a large computer peripheral maker, we were to interview small businesses to see how they were using our products. The visit that brisk winter morning was to a costume rental shop that also did some tailoring. Upon entering the store, we were greeted with a smell, which if called pungent, would be a kind and generous description. The owners, well, they must have had very large hearts.

I am actually a cat person (maybe it’s their independence I admire). So, the presence of a gaggle of feline friends could have been a welcome site. But unfortunately, I don’t think the owners were up to the task of caring for that many cats. In 2012 terminology, they would now be referred to as “hoarders.” This was not a well-heeled, venture capital-rich setting; the building had a raw plywood floor and the employees were doing the best they could to make a go of it. However, that flooring clearly did not help the smell-retention factor for animals that have periodic bladder control issues.

In many ways, the visit was worthwhile. As might be predicted, their computer system was not the latest, and it was good to see the struggles they had installing our software because of it. But, once that installation was underway, we experienced perhaps the slowest moving progress bar known in existence. Or maybe it just felt that way. Minutes drifted by before another column of pixels filled. It could have been the fumes playing tricks on my eyes, but I swear I saw that progress bar move backwards on occasion.

My teammate and I began to develop various coping mechanisms. At first, we would periodically take breaths using the tops of our shirts as a crude filtering system. We were able to pull this off because we had positioned ourselves outside of the main office area, and outside of view. Later, we began to make excuses for trips out to the car for supplies (aka fresh air). How were they to know we really weren’t low on batteries or videotape? Unfortunately, the moderator was not so lucky and remained stuck with the participant. Yes, I do feel guilty about that.

Our minds drifted and I began to wonder why anyone would actually leave clothes for mending there; perhaps their skills or prices were amazing. It was around this time when another creature joined the party. A cockroach skittered across the floor. A kitten gave chase. It did not end well for either, in my opinion. My teammate made that face which looked like she was gagging at the sight. Maybe this was just for effect…but maybe not.

The visit ended uneventfully once the product was finally functional. In reality, I escaped with an interesting story and some clothes that needed freshening by the cold breeze entering my car during the drive home. I’m not so certain if those cats had a similarly good fate.

Francoise’s War Story: Black glances cast our way

Anthropologist Francoise Brun-Cottan, an ethnographer on the WorkPlace Project team, recounts a story about embedding deeply in an active work environment in comparatively primitive time, both in terms of the recording equipment and the field’s sophistication in describing to participants what was happening and why.

It was the winter of 1989. Members of Lucy Suchman’s group at PARC embarked on a multi-year joint Steelcase/Xerox project to look at ground control operations of two airlines at San Jose airport. Airport management and each of the airlines’ managements were “on board.” The project would study ground control operations of each airline in the existing airport facilities and then follow them over to newly built facilities in a new structure.

We were going to look at the interplay of paper (manuals, computer printouts), voice (over the air, walkie-talkies, radio, and telephone), chalkboard and whiteboards, and direct visual observation (versus camera/video feeds) of planes pulling into and out of the gates and being cleaned, fueled, and having baggage loaded and unloaded.

The plan was to use basic ethnographic methods and techniques: interviewing, shadowing (inside and on the tarmac), audio and video taping, still photography, and transcribing recordings to-we weren’t quite sure exactly what we’d come up with. But we wanted to find out what could be extracted using these methods in such a tech-heavy environment. We were betting it would be informative, insightful, and valuable to everyone concerned. We hoped.

In 1989, technology had come a long way from the cameras and recorders that had to be moved about on dollies and trailers but, as portable as they were, the wonderful Panasonic video cameras were heavy, and so were the VHS tapes and batteries. The little Sony audio tape recorders (about a the thickness of a stack of 10 iPhones) were great for interviews but micing a control room took hours. Synching the mikes with the video was a cabalistic art colorfully augmented by below-the-breath expletives.

The members of the airline ground crews had basically been informed by management that they were going to cooperate. In reality that mean they were going to “tolerate”: non-lingo literate researchers climbing over their equipment whenever they weren’t actually underfoot, being recorded for hours at a time (rather gleefully when crises were underway) and being followed around and asked question after question (further confirming the depth of the researchers’ lack of common sense and basic knowledge) whenever there was a moment of down time.

We did try and tell crew what we thought we were doing. But saying that we wanted to understand their work practices, how they would change in new environments using new technologies and how they made sense of their work and communications was not exactly revelatory. As a field, we’re much better at doing that now, partly because we’ve also got lots more examples we can show to prospective participants about results of our work.

Viewing the videos made clear what some of the crew members stated directly, which is that they were deeply suspicious of what we would report about their actions to management. Anytime they deviated from protocol, or made mistakes, or seemed to be resting rather doing some piece of work might be opportunities for management reprisals of one sort or another. Some people were openly, if politely, hostile. No one welcomed us. It was tough on participants and researchers alike. They always cooperated at some level; there was no point in antagonizing us (though some were pretty gruff).

It is known that after a time people seem to forget that cameras are rolling, even if those cameras are right in front of them and so are the researchers. Viewing the weeks of tapes gave us plenty of opportunities to see them cast black glances our way, or whisper something together and laugh at us. In their banter we also learned about their home lives and romances and trials and aspirations. Sometimes that could let us congratulate them, sometimes our knowing was resented.

I don’t remember exactly when it became clear to our team – maybe somewhere toward the end of our fieldwork – that the final report would be a 2-hour video tape, which came to be known as The Workplace Project. We said our good-byes and appreciations on the last days of fieldwork. “Thanks,” they said and (figuratively) “good riddance.”

We made sure that copies of the tapes were made available to the crews at both airlines. We learned that the report was being used by the crews to convey to mid -management complexities about the work that the crew members had not been able to convey. They repeatedly mentioned the benefit of demonstrating how manuals misrepresented events and complicated the work rather than facilitating it. Although previously unacknowledged in the organization, our work highlighted their level of expertise in differentiating personal task-relevant details from the sonic soup of incoming streams of information.

Sometimes you just have to stick with it, whatever “it” will turn out to be. And then, sometimes, you get to get thanked for revealing aspects of the work that the workers can’t make visible. A few years ago I was told that Steelcase still showed the video to visitors to their user centered division. So, that’s not too bad!

Sean’s War Story: Pockets full of cash

Sean Ryan, a corporate ethnographer, reflects on a fieldwork experience where he learned first-hand some crucial lessons when going into another country: pre-recruit participants, and do some basic homework about where you are going.

It was back in my early days as an ethnographer. I was still a young pup in the field, doing consulting projects. I was teamed up with an Elder Anthropologist – a Puerto Rican woman who lived in Guadalajara, named Luz. We were doing a project for a major pharma company who had just had great success with a new oral care product, so they thought they would try an ethnographic exploration to uncover any other unmet needs. I think their aspirations at the time were something like “We want the next $500 million consumer product!” Luz and I were to visit two field sites in Mexico: Guadalajara and Tijuana. Living in Los Angeles, I was relatively close to the border and it wasn’t yet seen as that dangerous to go to Tijuana (i.e., no Mexican mafia drug lord street battles…at least you didn’t read about them in the papers everyday). But I still had my reservations, not possessing any potent Spanish language skills (outside of the slang I had picked up from bartending in a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach).

Having only been to Tijuana once to explore the finer points of Avenida Revolución (read: drinking tequila shots with college kids and having my head shaken back and forth by a woman with a whistle), I had no real frame of reference for doing fieldwork in TJ. As I quickly learned, neither did my counterpart Luz. She had some relatives in TJ, but had never done fieldwork there. And so we made what we later realized was a critical error in not pre-recruiting participants before we went into the field. Upon arriving in Tijuana we quickly found ourselves literally approaching people in the streets, in shops, etc. to ask about their oral care routines (a strange encounter for the locals I’m sure). While this has all the hallmarks of classic guerrilla recruiting it’s never a comfortable situation to be in, especially in a foreign country. Luz was doing her best to recruit people while I stood by idly awaiting our field day fate.

Eventually we started to have some success…or so we thought. One woman who worked in a nice department store in downtown TJ offered to let us come to her home after work. We got her contact info and told her we would see her that evening. We were offering $150 in US cash (this was more than 10 years ago) to interview the participant and observe their oral care routines. This, no doubt, was more than substantial for an incentive. So we were quite confident that we would have no problems grabbing participants on the fly. That evening, we made our way to this woman’s house via an old Crown Victoria station wagon taxi (with the suicide seats facing out in the back). Once we got to her town we approached the participant’s door and gave it a confident knock…but nobody answered. We waited a few minutes longer and knocked again…still no answer. This was before mobile phones, so we couldn’t exactly call this woman on her cell. We sat and waited for 15 minutes, but then realized that our day was quickly wasted on a participant who, for whatever reason, decided she did not want to do the study (Perhaps she thought the $150 was too good to be true?). In a moment of desperation, Luz decided to frantically go door-to-door in this small community, hoping for a shot at someone’s teeth and mouth. But to no avail.

This disastrous field trip continued. The next day we tempted fate again by preying on another unsuspecting citizen of Ciudad Tijuana. Once again, we arranged to go visit a shopkeeper’s home later in the evening. Once again, we had no idea where exactly our little field visit would take us. And once again we crammed ourselves into an old Crown Victoria station wagon. This time we were left off at what appeared to be a small village of Gypsies. It was, in fact, just a typical working class abode on the outskirts of the city. I brazenly brought out my Sony DV camera with the Carl Zeiss lens and began filming the local scene as we walked through the streets to find the right home. We were very excited to actually find the participant’s home and then to actually find her in her home!

It was a very interesting interview: the participant was a mother of two, a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. We observed their oral care routines, which consisted of going out to the backyard to gather water from a large plastic drum (as there was no running water), after which the children vigorously brushed their teeth with your standard run-of-the-mill Colgate toothpaste and toothbrush. When we paid the mother $150 (US) cash at the end of this encounter, her eyes lit up. I realized at that moment that this was probably more money than they made in a month. And so we broke another field rule: understand your surroundings and pay participants appropriately based on the context. But there was bit of a feel-good moment here too; the client could clearly afford the incentive money, so it was no skin off of their backs.

After this first round of field visits in Tijuana we came back about a month later for a second round, with different participants. We interviewed a relative of Luz’s who lived in a canyon high above where we had visited last time. He laughed out loud when we told him that we had been down in that village only a month ago. He said with all seriousness “Don’t you know that is the most dangerous area in all of Tijuana?!” Of course we had not known this. I thought back to the $800 Sony camera that I slung around in the streets of that village. And then I thought of my pockets full of cold, hard US dollars. I laughed to myself, but thought “I need to be a little more careful in the future if I’m going to make a career of this ethnography business!”

Lisa’s War Story: When Rapport Goes Too Far

Lisa Aronson Fitch, a qualitative customer researcher who works in product development, struggles with balancing her personal boundaries with the need to connect with her participant.

While working at a product development consultancy several years ago, I went to Southern California to conduct a series of in-home interviews for a consumer product client. As we all know, it is essential for researchers to develop a rapport with the participants immediately so they feel comfortable having you in their home and opening up about their lives, behaviors, and interests. In one particular interview, a degree of rapport, however questionable, developed quickly.

As soon as the door opened, a five-year-old boy appeared in blue footsie pajamas, asking if he can give me and my colleague kisses. My colleague and I exchanged a quick glance because in the car not minutes before, he mentioned that he isn’t very fond of kids (if I recall, he didn’t say it that nicely). What should we have done? This little boy was waiting with puckered lips. If we said no or that we were uncomfortable letting him kiss us, we risked alienating the mother who was standing there with a smile; if we said yes, we would feel uncomfortable knowing this kid is about to do the exact opposite of what a child should do when meeting a stranger. (Didn’t this parent ever hear of “stranger danger?”) We hadn’t even put our bags down yet and introduced ourselves! To make matters worse, as I started to slowly (very slowly) bend down towards the little boy, his mother says “Remember son, not on the lips!” Needless to say, I was completely confused and disturbed as to why this was all happening. After I received my kiss on the cheek, it was my colleague’s turn. The little footsies-clad kid was then sent to bed and we began the interview with his parents.

While our conversation focused on kitchen routines, my colleague and I struggled with the idea that these parents encouraged their son to kiss strangers. We began to even feel violated as the little boy came running out of his bed six more times through the two-hour interview to give us more kisses. Didn’t he care to ask if I was seeing someone at the time? Following the ordeal, I mean interview, my colleague and I discussed the idea of “when rapport goes too far.” What should a researcher do in this situation? Should we accept kisses from a strange child in the name of developing rapport for a research interview? Should we have suggested to the parents that they teach their child a much different lesson about strangers? Having grown up around New York City, I’ve become properly paranoid about dealing with strangers so the idea of teaching my child it is alright to kiss strangers made me twitch.

George’s War Story: Skyfall (or A View to A Kill)

Design researcher George Ressler navigates gravity and the TSA in order to collect user data in an innovative way.

Recently I was on a project that focused on observing customer’s shopping behaviors at a retail space in Philadelphia. This was not the typical shop along project because I was asked to observe customers without altering or impacting their shopping behavior. I believe that if the customer is aware of our presence as researchers, it alters their shopping behavior, creating noise in the data. For this project the research team really needed to become an invisible fly on the wall. To do this we built a rig that consisted of several cameras that pushed a video feed to our research station in the back of the store. At our research station we tracked the customers’ path and tagged shopping events as they happened. In simple terms, we created a high-tech mobile solution for capturing a customer’s journey that resembled something you might see James Bond using.

When the time came for the first of many fielding trips we packed all the technology into three custom black hard shell cases that collectively weighed 228 pounds. We arrived at the Columbus airport extra early because we anticipated a lot of hassle from TSA for trying to fly with such “unique” equipment. While at the ticket desk our luggage was immediately flagged and a TSA agent asked me to follow him into a backroom to hand-inspect every item in the cases. As I watched from behind a yellow line of the floor, the agent tore apart my neatly packed electronics, swabbing everything for traces of explosives. All the while he asked detailed questions about everything; “What is this? What does it do? Why do you have this?” After at least thirty minutes of explaining everything to this agent he said that it all checked out and I could re-pack the cases and head to the departure gate.

When we arrived that afternoon in Philly we were relieved to see our three cases thump down the baggage carousel. From the airport we headed directly to the store to begin our set up process. Upon arriving at the store we encountered our first real problem. Each store was supposed to have a 24-foot ladder, which would allow us to reach the ceiling to install our cameras, however this store only had an 18-foot ladder. Being the most agile of the research team I volunteered to climb on shelves, support beams, anything to get me up into the ceiling to install our cameras. At one point, I climbed a store shelf, holding on for dear life while clutching a 25-pound camera unit, thinking to myself that I would be so mad at myself if I died by falling off the shelf.

Once all the cameras were installed throughout the store I began to set up the network that would pull all the video to our research station in the back room. Then problem number two arose: everything was set up perfectly but I could not connect to the cameras from our research station. After an hour of troubleshooting, I finally realized that because our research station was behind a cement wall the wireless signal was not reaching the cameras out in the store. In all my preparations for this trip I never thought to account for being behind a cement wall! The only solution was to move our router onto the store floor in front of the wall and then run an Ethernet cable to our back room research station. This meant I again climbed up to the ceiling and suspended the cable from the middle of the store to the back room. After almost an hour of monkey-climbing around the store we had our cameras connected to the network and were ready to start collecting data.

The following two days were packed full of documenting customer’s journeys. It was fascinating to observe customers’ shopping while slowly seeing patterns in behavior emerge. After our time in the store collecting data was over I repeated my climb up the shelves to the ceiling to retrieve our cameras and packed up our three black cases.

We made it through TSA at the Philly airport smoother than in Columbus and got to the gate early, leaving ample time to relax. After landing in Columbus we waited at baggage claim for our cases and in no time the first case clunked down the carousel. However the other two cases never appeared. We checked their status at the baggage claim office where they informed us that our other two cases were held back for further screening because they contained “suspicious materials.” We assumed they would eventually clear and indeed they arrived in Columbus on the next flight from Philly.

Before this all gets blamed on the TSA, those two cases did look very suspicious. I was amazed that we got them to Philly with such little problems. Each one of those cases contained a couple of huge batteries, lots of wires, and electrical boxes. Without a close inspection the cases did look like very large, heavy bombs. So as much as I was upset at TSA for holding our cases back, I was relieved to know that they are actually catching bomb-like packages at airports and taking the time to inspect them properly.

Whenever I tell this story I will always remember the problems we overcame with transporting and installing the technology. I can still picture myself jumping from store shelf to store shelf trying to reach the ceiling to install the cameras. But above all I vividly remember how much I felt like James Bond when we arrived at the store with three heavy cases full of complex “spy” technology. Next time we do this kind of project I will be bringing my tuxedo, so I could really bring the Bond persona to life.

Jon’s War Story: Beware of Trap Doors

Jon Innes, founder of UX Innovation has a story about getting – and maintaining – access to a secure location. Very secure.

Early in my career I helped a number of companies outside of the consumer space adopt methods from consumer design research for devevloping products sold to businesses. This is always a challenge because you have to explain to various people at the companies you visit what you want to do and they typically think you are crazy.

In this case, my project involved trekking to companies around the US to talk to telecom and networking geeks. My assignment was to study adoption barriers to Cisco’s Voice Over IP products, which meant physical phones, special servers to make them work like old fashioned phones, and some software to set them up to do stuff like retrieving voice-mail, and dialing extensions or outside lines.

On this particular day, I was onsite at an Ivy League university. I had just spent several hours talking to telecom guys who clearly didn’t like the idea of having to use some fancy networking gear or for that matter anything that was designed after Jim Morrison had died. I had just parked my stuff in the corner of a network operations center (NOC) that resembled NASA’s Mission Control Center in preparation for a series of interviews with the staff there. Getting in the NOC was a major coup. Most organizations do not like outsiders in the NOC, especially outsiders with cameras taking notes.

About 5 minutes before my first interview with a NOC employee, I decided to make a run for the restroom. My time-zone-adjusting caffeine intake was taking its toll, and the person I was supposed to speak to had yet to arrive. I asked someone in the NOC for directions to the nearest restroom and walked down the hall, not thinking about much but the call of nature. I passed through several doors and got flashbacks of an old TV show called “Get Smart” I watched in reruns as a kid.

I located my destination, but as I attempted to return to the NOC, I quickly realized I had a problem. In my haste, I’ve left the secured zone of the NOC. The doors I passed through require a special badge to get back through. Worse yet, I’ve left my bag with my ID and my notes of who I’m supposed to visit, and I can’t remember the name of who I’m supposed to be meeting with next.

While most companies make you sign in, I had not needed to that day. I had an escort from the IT group show me around, leaving me at each place for the time we agreed so I could do the interviews. So I’m now in an unknown part of the building, with no idea how to get back to where I was, or even how to get out of the building I’m in. I don’t have my cell phone with me, and there’s no one in the hallway to ask for help. Even if I do find someone, like a security guard or an employee, I realize it’s going to be really hard to explain this. After what seemed like an eternity, I talk a passerby into helping me contact my escort from IT, who kindly helps me return to the NOC. I manage to gather some good insights there during the time I have left.

To this day every time I’m doing a study in a corporate setting, I always hear the theme from Get Smart playing in my head as I walk down those hallways-and my trusty laptop case is always on my shoulder.

Greg’s War Story: Taking notes, getting detained (sort of)

Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In this story, his best practices bring some unwanted attention.

In the summer of 2010, when I first arrived to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, I was unsure about how I would fit into a military culture. Just being from California created a cognitive barrier for most my military colleagues. Simply put, there were a lot of “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes.

In any case, the first couple of weeks involved me playing catch up and learning everything I could about the assigned area and region. I took copious notes all the time to help jog my memory and capture information that would come in handy later on. My hope was to refer back to these notes and re-create the picture people were creating themselves based on scanty information.

In a war environment, you hear stories all the time and you never know what is real or not. The jargon further complicates the situation and makes it difficult for one to navigate people, places, and things, all of which tend to be obscured in military code.

One evening, I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with my liaison, Mike. He was facilitating an introduction to a detachment commander who I would work for over the next 12 months. Depending on how the meeting went, the commander would decide to bring me on board as a social scientist to work with him and his unit. I had tried to meet the commander earlier, but it was unclear where he was. His men told me he was busy in the port-a-john, but I think those guys were testing my wits. Long story short (and bathroom humor aside), we coordinated a meeting that night.

While I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with the commander, I noticed a large gathering of soldiers and civilians in an open area. In my curiosity, I wondered if there was something I needed to be in the know about. There was approximately 50 or so people gathering around a projector to watch a PowerPoint presentation projected on the side of a wall. I assumed the crowd was too large to accommodate on this small base where work areas were tight. Doing this outside made no sense because fighter jets flew and were so loud it could cause permanent hearing damage. I thought to myself, “Well, since they are doing this presentation out in the open, the information can’t be that sensitive. Surely taking a few notes or jottings couldn’t hurt?”

This presentation took place right before I would be heading out into the field. As it started and I began writing things down, I started to feel more than a bit uneasy about what I was hearing. The gentleman started off by explaining this fighting season was the bloodiest since 2007 A chart detailed the number of significant events (SIGACTS) and quantitative information about those killed in action, enemies killed in action, those wounded in action, improvised explosive devices found, indirect fire attacks, etcetera. Cough, ahem. I stopped myself at this point for a couple reasons:

First, I did not want to walk around with this in my notebook in case I lost it and the enemy had eyes on this information. Second, I was sure this could come back a bite me somehow. I immediately became nervous because of what I already had written down. I started thinking to myself as well: I don’t really need to be here.

As I started moving back, my actions caught the attention of a very attentive Sergeant Major. Sergeant Majors feed off opportunities to explode and make examples of others to reinforce the nature of their authority and rank. A strange civilian was the perfect feeding opportunity. Indeed, when I caught a glance at others in this crowd, no one else was taking notes or writing down information. “I’m dead,” I thought to myself.

Before I knew it, this dude’s eyes were piercing through me and he pointed at me to stop moving as he came over to me. He yanked me out of the crowd, and starting barking questions at me, hands on his hips and head leaning forward: “What are you doing?! What were you writing?! Who do you work for?!” Frozen, I muttered something to the effect of “Uh, I, I’m just an analyst.”

He took away my notebook and identification card and told me to follow him. The fact I did not have a security badge did not help my case and only contributed to the uneasy feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach.

He sat me down in the operations center near the legal officer. He pointed at me and explained to others that he had caught me taking notes. He assigned a soldier to guard me while he figured out how to handle the situation. As I sat on the couch with another soldier staring coldly at me, I gazed around the operations center. There was a white board with a funny quote about strippers, an empty office with a blow-up doll in it (oddly enough!), and some metallic signs on the walls demonstrating football fan territory.

These guys were pretty laid back, but I had broken the social contract and had no idea what the repercussions would be. At this point, I wished I had just stayed in my sleeping quarters. A phone call to my liaison Mike was my get-out-of-jail-free card. The Sergeant Major explained the situation to him and the JAG (legal) officer.

The JAG officer called me into his office and explained to me the nature of note-taking in a sensitive environment. Even though the presentation was out in the open, my act of taking notes classified my entire notebook. He handed the notebook back to me and I was on my way. I never saw the guy who detained me again. I wanted to simply get out, lick my wounds, and meet the commander who was waiting for me. The commander, who was not terribly impressed with my antics, laughed about my story. He decided to bring me on board on the spot despite my initial casting as a troublemaker. I like to think this gave me an edge or maybe he saw value in having me around to take notes (ironically) and provide insight into the strange cultural environment he was about to encounter.

I shook off the embarrassment, but it was a story that got a few laughs in my organization: “Human terrain guy detained for taking notes.” For me, it set the tone for the abrasiveness of military culture and reinforced my status as an outsider. I learned to be cautious about what I would capture in field notes and the sensitivity of collecting information in a war environment.

Fumiko’s War Story: Goodbye cruel world

Design researcher Fumiko Ichikawa offers this devastating tale about losing face.

In May 2008, I coordinated what I call an inspiration study concerning healthy eating. What do Japanese people eat and drink? Why? Is there a particular tradition or habit that people have developed around eating? How are the perceptions of eating and health related in Japanese culture? My mission was to make sure that my client’s researchers had all the exposure they could imagine around how Japanese people buy, cook, and eat, through interviews, observations, and own experiences.

One day, our interview took place in the residential area of East Kanagawa, an hour-and-a-half from Tokyo. Our informant was a housewife in her late 40s. She expressed a clear preference about her choice of vegetables, for the sake of the wellbeing of her husband and two children. She offered us pickled vegetables and soft bamboo shoots, all homemade and requiring time and dedication to prepare. She also allowed us to see what is inside her refrigerator, which some would consider a brave act, as many housewives whom I met considered this far more private than their bedroom or toilet!

The interview went fairly well. She was very relaxed and open, and I felt that we got more than what we came for. But there was one minor glitch: the interpreter we hired was not quite the person we hoped her to be.

The interpreter came from an agency, arranged by my fellow researcher. An hour before the interview she appeared at the meeting point and we had a chat. She was a lady in her late 30s with a soft, elegant smile. Dressed in a white jacket with a stitched Camellia flower, she appeared to me to be very sophisticated. The way she spoke to us prior to the interview was soft but confident, and until the actual interview started, I had no doubts.

As the interview progressed, I noticed that my clients appeared confused. The interpretation concentrated on facts and did not convey the emotion and the passion that we were clearly seeing from the housewife, with her big smiles and gestures. Thirty minutes passed by and after some struggle, my client asked in a very polite way that the interpreter stop. From that point on, the client asked the questions, and I became the interpreter. This change of setup was done quite discreetly, and I do not think that the housewife noticed much.

Dismissing someone on the spot is not an easy thing. It is awkward and challenging. But I felt my client addressed the matter in a very professional way. After we left the informant’s home, I saw that my client stepped away from the rest of the group and approached the interpreter, to talk with her about why she had done that. From a distance, the interpreter appeared calm. I assumed that despite the situation, she took things well.

Soon after this interview the study was complete and my clients went back to the States. But four days later, in the middle of the night, I received an international call: it was my client. I called her back. She told me that she received an email from that interpreter and I should read this as soon as possible. In the email, the interpreter has written eloquently about how humiliated she was on that day. This email was in fact a suicide note, telling us “I have no choice but to kill myself.”

I felt like someone had hit my head real hard. There was a tremendous rush of anxiety, anger, and confusion. How could this happen? What did we do wrong? Why is she reacting this way? Despite of the odd hours, we frantically called her and her agency. After three or four hours we confirmed there was nothing wrong with her. We learned it was simply her way of expressing her anger and making sure we felt sorry for her.

“Lip! Lip my stockings!” a Japanese call girl shouts in the film Lost in Translation, as she forces the American celebrity actor played by Bill Murray to ‘rip’ her stockings in his hotel room. The combination of an exposure to foreign culture and the wrong interpretation can generate confusion, frustration, and often times, laughter. But on that day, it was mostly confusion that the experience brought me. Sometimes we experience foreignness in our own culture.

Dan’s War Story: Shanghai Surprise

Dan Szuc (writing on behalf of the whole Apogee team, including Jo and Hok) relates a familiar experience about equipment failure, highlighting the importance of improvisational problem solving and supportive team dynamics.

We were on on the train in Shanghai on our way to visit a person in their home as part of a research project. Doing random checks of all equipment becomes second nature, ensuring that you have backups of backups, cables work correctly, sound is being recorded correctly and video is working well.

We all have specific roles on home visits where. Hok and I capture both the interview and surrounds on film using Flip cameras, Jo is responsible for speaking with the person we are visiting to ensure that they are comfortable and Hok also is our guy for ensuring all the equipment is technically working well (and if something is not working well he usually knows how to fix it).

So back to the train ride in Shanghai…the three of us were together, testing the recorder, cable and microphone. We realized on conducting a few test recordings that there were clear breaks in the recording when playing it back. We realized this was caused during the previous interview as we needed to go through a security scanner at a train station with the participant (as part of the journey we were filming). The cable connecting the recorder and the bag were stretched going through security unnecessarily, possibly causing damage to the wires.

We tested various places where we thought the sound might be breaking up – the connectors, the microphone and the cable itself. We wanted to get this right because the microphone clips onto the person we are interviewing and ensures that we have clear audio (in addition to the audio that’s captured on the video using the Flip cameras). We did not have time to go to an electronics store to get new equipment and were relieved that the audio recorder itself was working well and could serve as a (non-ideal) backup microphone.

Together, we needed to come up with a plan to ensure that we could capture the same level and quality of audio as in the other people’s stories captured to date in Shanghai. Consistent film quality is an important part of the storytelling. We tried a few configurations using the cables, rubber bands and microphone. We eventually worked out a way to place the microphone close enough to the participants chin so that the audio would come through clearly, and discarded what we had determined was the faulty cable.

On reflection, it taught us all the importance of team work, thinking quickly about solutions, not blaming when things sometimes go wrong, trying out various configurations whilst on the move and planning ahead to have some other cables/equipment available if there are failures. Not everything goes according to plan in field research, but having a calm head and a team who works together makes for a nicer working environment and a huge difference in the overall results. Happy researchers equals happy participants equals nice stories equals lots to learn from.

Gavin’s War Story: It’s 4:00 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Ethnographer Is?

Gavin Johnston, Principal at People Path, LLC has a epic fieldwork adventure that evokes a darker version of those 80s flicks that might have starred one or both of the Coreys.

The nature of what you’re studying and the importance of context is something one should never forget. This is particularly true when the product you’re focusing on is a fusion of caffeine-infused malt liquor, Red Bull and Tang and is primarily consumed by hipster 20-somethings as they “pre-funk” on a Friday night. On the surface it sounds like the kind of thing one hears or reads about and says “Oh, poor you” with more than a touch of sarcasm. And to be fair, I’ll be the first to admit that doing ethnographic research on a topic like this is decidedly more enjoyable than studying, say, online tax preparation. Or at least it is until it’s 4:00 a.m. in the Bronx, the subway has stopped running for night and your shoulder is coated in a quickly freezing film of someone else’s vomit. This is when knowing your limits and having a back-up plan for getting back to the hotel (or out of jail) becomes as important as the camera, the training or your research experience.

The fieldwork began with a party being hosted by two young women so obsessed with the drink that they had actually dressed as cans of the product for Halloween. They were experts at finding an amazing number of uses for it, from turning empty cans into art to cooking with the neon liquid. Imagine a float made with a mix of the god-awful stuff and strawberry ice cream. As the party heated up and the list of participants grew, simply keeping up was difficult. Notepads were quickly filling up and batteries drained.

Normally, the idea is that you drink one of these concoctions to kick off the evening and one late in the evening, say midnight, to keep the party going. But that wasn’t the case with these folks. No, rather than being used to supplement the other drinks throughout the evening, the stuff was consumed exclusively, leading to what they hoped would be “mad adventures” and general mayhem. Being long past my partying days, I took it in stride, assuming it was just bravado. Fieldwork demands vigilance, so if capturing the full context of use meant losing a little sleep and stinking of cigarettes, so be it. But it turned out that much more was required.

At about 1:00, as one of the roommates found a corner in which to sleep away the night. The other grabbed two more cans of the stuff, three of her friends and me, then headed for the door, intent on getting to an obscure club in the Bronx. After a walk through a foot or so of snow, we hopped on the subway and headed out of Brooklyn. As it turned out, the obscure club was a warehouse in a deserted neighborhood. At this point my camera battery had run dry, my notebook was full from cover to cover and I was running out of steam. As I contemplated calling a cab, I realized that I was too far away, had limited cash and was in a neighborhood that no cab driver would have driven to in the first place. So I decided to continue on with my participants. In for a penny, as they say.

Not long after, around 3:00, my key informant and one of her friends tracked me down (I had lost them half an hour earlier in the crowd) and asked if I was ready to go because one of their cohort had consumed “a little too much” booze. We headed for the door. Unfortunately, making it to the subway for the last late-night train was unlikely. Instead, half an hour later I found myself, my host and her friends sitting in a subway station that was in disrepair. Thirty minutes after that, sitting on a bench in the frigid subway station, waiting for the 5:00 a.m. train, the friend that had downed a bit too much decided it was a good time to paint my shoulder with the Day-Glo contents of her stomach.

The decision to stick with it ultimately resulted in some breakthrough insights and a very happy client, so I can’t complain. But all things being equal, I would do things differently today. The experience helped remind me that it’s important to know when to bow out and how you’re going to do it. It reminded me that it’s important to set limits on what you’re willing to do in the name of research, rather than pushing yourself to the breaking point, putting yourself in harm’s way or being party to what may be questionably legal behavior. Of course, six months later I was sitting in a 130 degree attic with HVAC guys for 10 hours at a time. Sometimes it takes years for these lessons to take hold.

Susan’s War Story: The trust dance

Ethnographer Susan Wilhite has a jangly impressionistic story about committing, body and soul, to her participant’s world.

Fieldwork in New York City, this time shadowing a Dominican guy in Queens. Tech-edgy and as proud of his gamer laptop as greasy dudes are about their hotrods. It was early July and I was there to get his story: the what, how, where, when and why – especially the why. The hacked, the black-marketed, the legacy and the shiny new, and all the numerous income streams. In New York, like everywhere, everyday life is all the drama you need.

First off, he had advised me to not stay in a crummy cockroach-infested hotel close to his place. No, I should stay in Manhattan and he would come get me, each and every day. And so he did. 9am, he is at my hotel lobby on the upper West Side to escort me on three subway lines and a bus. His place is his aunt’s and cousin’s house on a street Archie Bunker might have lived on. At 21 he is el hombre de la casa.

I see the situation right away – I need his cooperation if only to get back and forth every day and I can’t tell how long his reliability will last. He has not a clue what ethnography is. So I say to him: for the next three days you’re working for me. We’re pretending we’re making a documentary about you and your devices. We’ll talk and you show me stuff to illustrate your points. He buys it. We’re in business.

He makes a lanyard to wear my digital recorder around his neck, to better capture his comments over the loud air conditioner while he runs Lara Croft through a troublesome Tomb Raider level. We sit at the white wrought-iron patio table out back and discuss his take on every wireless access point in the neighborhood. He demonstrates how he invents ringtones in the front room to sell at one joint or another. He’s a boxer on the side – he knows people.

One morning he packs his virus-infested hotrod laptop and we head to Brooklyn. He’s talked his techie friend into occasionally wiping his hard drive. “Good as new”, he says. By this time I’m spending 7-something hours a day with him, and not every moment pertains to the research. In fact, it’s exhausting for us both to keep running in this acting out-demo mode. So it’s a relief to watch other parts of his life, which sometimes expose incidental intersections into the topic at hand. But on the way to Brooklyn he drops hints about how to walk and look at people to avoid unwanted attention.

His techie friend, it turns out, is less than thrilled about the risks of wiping a friend’s laptop hard drive. Maybe there’s even some unspoken debts and favors between them – I don’t know. I play along. The afternoon is getting long and the air is heavy – this is his mother’s house and the grand furniture and stuffed curio cabinet suggests it’s been in the family for a few generations.

Apparently the subject of our being there must be carefully broached. Veering into distracting topics gives the two parties a chance to modulate the tension. So they ask about me. They’re also looking for reasons to impart respect upon me and maybe be okay with my being female and older than them. I say more than is strictly professional but that was the point – they want to know I’m okay, I’m human, I’m not taking advantage of them. I can be trusted. A few revelations about my video game background convey cred that seems to lubricate the moment; I’m one of them, at least for now. Shortly thereafter it comes to light that while I am in no danger there’s something illegal about the hard drive wiping thing.

The trust dance subsides and now we huddle in a back room. A fluorescent bulb lights the scene and the New York Transit Authority roars outside the barred window now and again. What I witness is ripe stuff but being there, in that room, with these people, in that moment, is mildly warped. But this is the real deal, the reason we research. I avoid shooting the illegal parts even as I avoid endorsing their actions. I’m all objectivity on the inside and going partly native on the outside. Mission accomplished, the ‘high five’ is caught on camera, and my guy and I are outta there.

There are ethical lines in what ethnographers do. To be really committed it’s tough, though, to pull back, to play it safe. To be willing to seek humanity is to push boundaries.

I had meant to bring his gratuity with me on the last day and I just plain forgot. So his girlfriend comes along back to my hotel. As we ride I sense no distrust in my intentions but they are a little anxious. They watch as I sign the traveler’s checks at a grand old table off the lobby, and then they turn out toward a hot night in the vicinity of 89th and Amsterdam. Upstairs, after downloading the media, recharging batteries, and writing fieldnotes, it’s 10pm – time for dinner and a drink. It’s my birthday.

Kelly’s War Story: Pictures are language independent

Here’s Kelly Braun, Senior Director, User Insights and Analytics at Walmart.com with a story about shooting fieldwork video and inadvertently getting the money shot.

At eBay we did a lot of field visits. We were always over-prepared with checklists, allergy meds, extra batteries, and everything else we could think of for the unexpected.

For this particular study we were interviewing people who had bought large equipment on eBay. This visit was to a store that had purchased a giant Xerox machine that had been used by big corporations. This video store specialized in Chinese language videos.

I perused the movies as we got set up. Some were American movies that I recognized by the pictures even though the titles were in Chinese. Others were films made specifically for the Chinese-speaking audience.

We interviewed the owner and he told us about the amazing deal he got on the machine and when we asked if we could see it he said “Sure, it’s in the back.” No problem, we had extension cords for the video camera.

I took the camera off the tripod and followed the store owner and my co-researcher into the tiny back office. I couldn’t really get a good shot of the Xerox machine from the door so I went inside and around the machine to get a better angle. At this point the owner says “Oh, I forgot. This is where the porn videos are…but don’t worry – they are all in Chinese”.

I look up and the side of the room I was now facing with my video camera rolling was filled with porn – all with Chinese titles, but let’s just say it really didn’t matter that the titles were in Chinese because…well, a picture is worth a thousand words regardless of the language!

My co-researcher just soldiered on asking questions and all I could think of was “Wow am I supposed to film this guy with all the frolicking nakedness on the video covers behind him?”

Lesson learned: Make sure you know how to override the auto-focus on your camera!

Diane’s War Story: Interrupted Interview

Diane Loviglio, User Experience Researcher at Mozilla, has a story that reminds us our participants are part of larger systems that we don’t have insight into when we’re recruiting them.

We walk down a nondescript hallway, me and my team’s designer and engineer. It’s the first time the three of us have been in the field together. I’m confident and excited, but also a little nervous that our engineer will start asking off-topic questions like “How many lines of code did that take?” during the interview. We find the door of the gaming studio and we walk inside – straight into the kitchen. The walls are brightly painted, the plan is open, the kitchen is right in front of us, but there’s no reception area in sight. So now the three of us are just standing in the hustle and bustle of the studio and aren’t sure where to go next. We felt a little awkward. Eventually, I started to text our host, but she appeared before I finished typing the message.

Melissa (that’s what I’ll call her) warmly greets us. She had high energy, but you could also tell things were a little chaotic that day. She walks us 500 feet to one of their two conference rooms and then she goes to get her engineering counterpart, who we would also be talking to for the next 90 minutes.

We set up the Flip video camera and unpacked our notebooks and paper and markers for the drawing exercise at the end. Mike (that’s what I’ll call him) comes in with Melissa. He’s much more reserved than she is, which was expected, but we get started and things are going great. They are playing off each other well – they both had different perspectives on the subject we were studying and that was coming out very well in the interview.

55 minutes into the session, we are completely interrupted by an angry guy slamming the door open and barging into our conference room. He knew we were doing a private interview in there, because the walls were glass, but he barged in just the same. He starts yelling at Melissa and Mike – as if we wouldn’t pay attention unless he used his outdoor voice – “we’re meeting with [important company name] next door – let’s go!” Who the hell was this guy? And how obnoxious for him to walk in on our meeting without knocking or excusing himself. He didn’t even make eye contact with us.

Melissa was taken aback. This other meeting wasn’t even on her schedule, so she was a little confused, but she tried to handle it and excused herself to go talk to this lunatic. I stopped the Flip, and without prying into the details, tried to get a read on how important this meeting was and if we should start packing up to go. Mike just sat there silently, as if this behavior was completely normal and things would pass over soon. He didn’t have any kind of reaction to the incident at all. We told him we could finish this at another time if Melissa wasn’t free – maybe over the phone or email. He just shrugged. Melissa walked back into our formerly private room, was very apologetic and said that we could continue, but she was obviously distracted. She was under the impression that we would just be another 5 minutes and I told her that this was actually a 90 minute interview so we still had 30 minutes to go, but we could hurry and wrap it up in 15. She paused for a moment, and we thought “Okay, that’s our cue. We’ll leave and let you be.” But, Melissa said that Mike wasn’t needed in the meeting after all, and he offered to stay and talk with us. So we plopped back down and said, “Oh. That would be great.” Melissa apologized again for not realizing how long our meeting was supposed to be and promised to reply to questions over email instead. I gave her a hug as she left the room. She looked like she needed one. And, I gave her that sincere “Gosh, I hope you don’t get fired today” thank you. She left and went into the conference room adjacent to us and we heard the call begin, because the walls didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling.

With Melissa gone, we asked Mike the next question and realized we’d be spending probably no more than 10 more minutes with him. Not more than 1 minute later, as soon as we started to get comfortable again, the crazy guy comes back in and starts yelling at Mike! “We rescheduled this for you – we need you on this call. Now. If you don’t come, we can’t close this deal.” Okay, now we realized this was a bad situation. Mike casually said, “OK”, got up to leave, and asked us to email him the questions.

They just left us in the conference room, all alone. We packed up our stuff and awkwardly made our way to the front door, none of us saying a word. We walked down the nondescript hallways in silence, making faces at each other to share our mutual feeling of “what the hell was that?” but we kept our cool and made it out of the building. On the way back to the car, the only thing I could do was apologize profusely to my designer and engineer. “I’m so sorry guys, that has never happened to me before. I feel so icky. Oof, so sorry guys. Usually, my interviews are a lot more professional than that and people don’t come in yelling at the people you are interviewing.”

So, we spent the car ride back pretending to barge into each others’ interviews, laughing it off and trying to re-group for the rest of the day.

Nicolas’ War Story: Do you want me to act?

Nicolas Nova, consultant and researcher at Near Future Laboratory encounters an unusual individual, entirely unrelated to his study.

I remember a study I’ve conducted last year that was set in a big shopping mall in France. We were there interviewing users of smartphones for an R&D project. The place was pretty standard and we decided to sit in a fast food joint called “Quick”, at the entrance of the mall (which means a lot of people were passing by). Given the focus of the project, we had to videotape the interviews and take pictures of the posture of the user. This means that the presence of cameras was hard to hide and that passers-by couldn’t avoid noticing them.

After four interviews, we started the fifth one, kind of tired after hours of discussions with informants. Right in the middle of this interview, my colleague and I saw a tall guy moving to us with urgent haste, putting his two hands on the table, and screaming the following line: “I’ve just been released from prison and I’m hungry! What are you guys up to? Are you in the video business? Do you want me to act? Or what?”

The size of the guy, his level of excitement, the face of our informant and the people around us made the event very odd as it stopped everything for a second or two. It’s this sort of situation in which you have to behave yourself and avoid pissing off the nervous intruder, take care of the informant naively stopped in her description and an audience frowning at us. He seemed so energetic, perhaps by his re-entering of public society, that he looked at the same time excited about a new opportunity AND being a thug about to rob us from our devices. The “or what?” was said with so much hatred in his voice that were a bit nervous ourselves.

We explained to the guy that we were interviewing someone, asking her about her perspective for a research project and that he could be a participant later on. We were of course hoping it would be the end of it, a sort of way to make him understand that this is not the moment to chat with us.

Of course, he didn’t seem convinced, or he simply didn’t get it because he told us: “Oh yes I’ve a friend in Marseille in the video industry, I know your stuff!” To which he added: “But why do you have so many telephones?” My colleague explained the project and that was the end of it. “Arf, I don’t get it, I don’t care, plus I’m hungry”… and he left as fast he arrived few minutes ago.

Nothing really bad here but it was just awkward for us, a sort of break into our interview day…which actually readjusted our energy because we then completed three more afterwards!

Leo’s War Story: No, We Really Meant the User

Product Design Manager Leo Frishberg underscores the effort required to ensure you’re seeing the right user in the right context.

Our team was embarking on an ambitious, multi-country Contextual Inquiry effort. We had created our sample cells, identified the right industries, established a great relationship with our sales team and done All The Right Things Up Front to make the effort a success.

Working from Oregon with prospective participants in Bangalore is never an easy prospect; introducing a new research technique at the same time raised the stakes.

Several weeks in advance of the interviews we had contacted our sales team in-country explaining the process: we needed individuals who were currently working with our equipment and willing let us observe them working in their labs, in situ.

Everyone claimed to understand. We arrived in-country and I confirmed the arrangements, on the telephone, with the sales team. “Yes,” they confirmed, “we’ve found exactly who you are looking for…”

We arrived at our first interview in a gorgeous sparkling new office building and were led to an upstairs glass-enclosed conference room. Presently, a manager-type entered, clearly expecting to hold court with us.

I began the discussion with a recap of our expectations and a quick sanity check with the individual.

“So,” I began, “we are looking forward to working with an actual user in the lab. Are you going to work with us today?”

“No,” he said, dismissively. “I’m the team manager. I can tell you everything that’s wrong with your equipment. I’ve polled the team and have collected answers from all of them.”

It’s at times like this, having flown 10,000 miles, having spent as much time as I had setting things up, that I lose a part of my conscious brain. I could feel the anger rising, but I knew that couldn’t help improve the situation.

Instead, I signaled to the sales guy sitting next to me that as far as I was concerned, the interview was over and we could pack up to go to our next meeting. Here’s where the details get sketchy, but I know he said something, in English, to the manager, and whatever magic words he uttered, the manager smiled and nodded, suggesting he could definitely get the lead engineer to help us. He left to find the guy.

A few minutes later, the engineer entered the room, curious as to what the group was doing there. We began the front part of the interview, and it was clear he was the right guy. After explaining what we were planning to do, we asked if he had any questions or needed any further explanation.

‘No,” he said, “you want to see me work with the equipment. I don’t have anything to do today, but I could show you what I was doing last week.”

That was fine, we agreed.

“Okay. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll bring you back…”

Imagining what he might be doing in those few minutes I stopped him. “Uhhh, what would you be doing between now and then?”

“Oh,” he assured us, “I’m just going to get the equipment all set up.”

“Great!” We practically shouted. “That would be great! We’d be happy to watch you do that!”

He smiled as if hoping we had taken our medication and led us to his lab. “I’m not sure what you’ll find so interesting about my pulling the machines off the shelf, but come on along…”

The take-aways remain the same:

  • Persistence and staying on track no matter what the situation throws you
  • No matter how much you prepare, nothing will go as planned

Mary Ann’s War Story: Be Prepared

Ethnographer Mary Ann Sprague is forced to improvise when one slip changes her plan.

I have always taken great care and a certain amount of pride in always being on time and prepared for field sites and interviews. I thank my mentors for instilling this in me early on. I always made sure I had charged video and audio equipment, discussion guides, contact information, notebooks, extra writing implements, and power cords to carry on despite any possible problems. There have been the occasional failed battery, but I always had a spare, or my coworker had one. It’s never been a serious setback until this spring.

I was meeting my coworker at an elementary school for a teacher interview. Teacher free time is at a premium so I made a point of being on time and prepared to maximize the time we have together. On this occasion I arrived at the school parking lot a few minutes early, so I turned off my car and pulled out my iPhone to check messages. I did a mental check that I had everything in my backpack in the passenger seat. Everything was in order, so I relaxed for a couple minutes.

Just before the meeting time, I put my phone in my pocket, got out of the car, and hit the door lock. I walked around to grab my backpack and the door was locked. No problem I thought, I’ll go back to the driver’s side and unlock it. The driver’s door was locked, and the keys were still in the ignition with my equipment, questions and paper still locked in the car!

I called my husband and he agreed to drive home (luckily it wasn’t too far) to get my spare keys and deliver them (but still a good 40 minute wait). I went into the school to meet my coworker. She had relied on my previous level of preparation and had a notebook, but without the questions or any recording equipment.

Not wanting to reschedule, we met with the teacher. Luckily, the teacher had printed the list of questions I had emailed. I was frustrated because I didn’t want to miss any part of this conversation. The teacher was a wealth of information, but the information came out at warp speed and I worried about being able to keep up.

Thinking about what I had with me, I realized I had my iPhone, so I recorded the entire conversation using the voice messages app and took several pictures, as did my coworker, using our phones. I wrote my notes on the back of the question sheet from the teacher and we had a very interesting discussion. My husband met us in the parking lot just as we left our interview. Later, I was able to retrieve the audio through iTunes and convert it to listen on my PC.

Everything worked out in the end, but it was a shock to my confidence. I have since begun looking at other apps to capture audio on my iPhone so I have a better backup plan for the future, and my coworker now carries audio equipment at least so we are always prepared.

Tom’s War Story: Go with the flow

Tom Williams, Principal of Point Forward is confronted with his own health concerns, and with some unexpected practices for managing bureaucracy.

Our ethnography research team visited a small neighborhood health clinic in Beijing to study its workflow. It was 2009 and concern over H1N1 swine flu was at its peak. There was a special flu screening at the airport and yet the folks at the clinic seemed concerned that we, as Americans, might be seen as potential carriers of the virus that was causing near-panic at the time. To make matters worse, I had awoken that morning with a scratchy throat. It was just a reaction to the hazy air quality in Beijing but still, it would be very bad to be coughing in this situation so in the taxi on the way to the clinic I stuffed multiple cough drops into my mouth.



The Health Services clinic in Beijing where ethnographic research was conducted. Inside, a dispenser for free contraceptives.

Doing field research in China is always a little bit surreal for me, an American. The cultural differences are pretty subtle on paper but can be stark in person. They reveal themselves in that weird way that cultural differences do; unexpected little variations in design, procedures, or personal manners. In this setting in particular, lots of little things stood out when first walking into the clinic: the scale to weigh patients was in the waiting area, not near the exam rooms. Next to the scale was somebody’s bicycle and a broom was propped in the corner. The waiting room chairs were plastic, not upholstered and there was a vending machine offering free contraception. There were brochures but no magazines.



The clinic’s waiting area.

“How long have you been here in China?” the nurse manager asked us through an interpreter. “Three days,” I replied, willing myself not to cough. “Well, we occasionally get unannounced spot-checks by government health officials and, because of the swine flu, if they show up while you’re here doing research we’ll need you to say you arrived in China two weeks ago, not three days ago.” Huh? Wha? Lie to Chinese government officials? Is that in my job description? I’ve seen way too many prison movies to be comfortable with this. Plus, isn’t my time in the country a pretty easy thing to check on by just – oh, I don’t know – looking at the stamp in my passport? And the request was made in such a matter-of-fact, this-is-no-big-deal way that we weren’t exactly given a chance to voice our concerns; it was simply on a list of mundane procedures for the day: “the bathrooms are down the hall, you’re scheduled to interview two nurses, then two doctors, then you’ll do an hour of straight observation, then we’re gonna have you lie to government officials, and by then it’ll be time for lunch.” Ugh! Fidgeting nervously, and imagining what would happen if this were a movie, I glanced around to see if there was a back door for a hasty exit (of course – fleeing from government officials is surely better than lying to them!).

We were taken to a room for our first interview and the oddness continued: we sat in reclining chairs normally used by dialysis patients. They graciously served us tea and watermelon but then placed bucket in the middle of the floor for seeds and rinds. I was wondering what the bucket was normally used for but decided not to ask. We interviewed a very kind and helpful nurse but she kept a surgical mask on her face the whole time.



My colleague Priya mans the video camera near the tea and watermelon while the rest of the team discards seeds and rinds into a bucket.

But then something happened: it was the simple magic of focusing on what I was there to do: field research. I got absorbed in hearing people tell their stories, obsessing about getting good video and good still photos, asking good questions, and listening closely. I enjoyed the watermelon and stopped worrying about how weird it felt to be spitting watermelon seeds into a bucket during an interview. By letting myself go with the flow, I actually forgot about my scratchy throat and even forgot about the possibility of being confronted about the date I arrived in China.

The interviews and observations went very well and for all my initial impressions of differences, we noticed many similar workflow patterns to clinics we had studied in the U.S. and Europe. In the end, there was no surprise visit by health inspectors. After feeling uncomfortable as an outsider at the beginning, by simply sticking to the process and not pushing against prevailing cultural norms, I now felt at ease. We truly bonded with the clinic staff and developed a very solid understanding of their process. We said our goodbyes, left the clinic, and walked to a nearby Buddhist vegetarian place for lunch. When we stepped into the crowded restaurant, all the customers turned in unison to look at the foreigners. I reached in my pocket for a cough drop and the process started all over again.

Priya’s War Story: Taking empathy to a whole new level

Design Researcher Priya Sohoni has a very personal experience in the field and reflects on the challenge in order to find deeper insight about her users.

I’ve never been too comfortable with hospital environments–the smells, sounds, sense of urgency–it makes me nervous. Yet, as an ethnographer should, I’ve attempted to conquer my queasiness and conduct research in medical facilities several times.

In October 2010, I was conducting research in a hospital in the SF Bay Area. I was almost 8 months pregnant with my first child. I was given a choice between spending a day in the ICU, emergency, or the maternity department. I picked maternity – I was excited to be among so many about-to-pop mothers and so many who had just delivered. I thought to myself that for the first time I wasn’t feeling so queasy, I could hear babies in nurseries, we shadowed some nurses as they took the babies for their first immunizations, observed visitors greeting happy families with flowers, balloons, gifts…it seemed so odd that this was a part of a “hospital” environment.

On one of the shadowing sessions, I sat in on a nurse shift change. The nurses went around the table sharing information about the newborns and their mothers and taking careful notes of the patients’ needs and requests. On one of the nurse’s share-outs, she turned to the nursing manager and said: “Baby girl in room 203, born vaginally at 8:02am, had trouble breathing, survived for 53 seconds and then died. Should I register her as a live birth or a still birth?” I felt as if someone had stabbed me in my stomach. So much pain that I clenched my tummy, sat down on the floor and broke into tears. I was expecting a baby girl too, in just over a month. Why was the nurse so unemotional around a baby’s death? The nursing manager noticed me sitting in the corner, brought me a glass of water and apologized that I had to sit through that. She suggested I take some rest in the nurses’ break room. But I wiped my tears away and stuck around.

In a few more minutes, the shift change was over and the nurses dispersed. The nurse from 203 then walked over to another room to check in on another Mother and her baby. I continued shadowing her. She entered the room with a big smile on her face, congratulated the parents and commented on what a beautiful baby they had. She changed the baby, swaddled her, gave the mom her meds and assured her that she could call for help whenever she felt like it. It then struck me that the nurse was concerned about her patients. Deeply concerned. She too had felt the pain that the family in room 203 had gone through. But she had made a commitment to hundreds of other patients, a commitment to take care of them and make them feel better. She could not have done that if she had carried the sorrow with her, out of room 203.

As ethnographers, we get trained to empathize with our respondents. To speak their language, to make them comfortable, to be one of them. I had just witnessed a remarkable new level of empathy that the nurse had. Where I had failed, she carried out each one of her roles with respect and propriety.

I went home that day with a new appreciation for the nursing profession.

Dan’s War Story: Focus, no matter what!

Design researcher Dan Soltzberg has a brave and touching story about the best of intentions – and their consequences.

I was doing fieldwork for a project on at-home computer use, and a client and I were at “Richie’s” house–a double-wide in a Mid-Peninsula mobile home park. Richie’s small-to-begin-with mobile home was filled with heavy wooden furniture, boxes of paperwork, and old pieces of technology, making it feel even smaller. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and Richie was saying that he liked to lie on the couch and work on his laptop, so I asked him if we could go into the living room so he could show us.

We re-situated in the living room, and when Richie started opening up emotionally about how meaningful his work was to him, I got down on one knee next to the couch so that I would be on eye level with him, rather than standing over him. As Richie was talking I was totally focused on listening to him and guiding the conversation forward, but in the back of my mind – somewhere really far in the background – I was aware of a strange cold feeling in my leg.

In addition to leading the interview, I was also manning the video camera and shooting stills, so I wasn’t able to give this strange feeling much bandwidth. When we finished our conversation and I stood up, I saw that there was a wet spot on my khaki pants. A wet spot that covered the area from the middle of my shin to above my knee. A massive wet spot.

I hadn’t figured out yet what it was, but I knew I’d kneeled in something liquid that was lurking in Richie’s carpet. One of the cardinal rules is, I don’t make research participants feel bad, and I figured if Richie saw that this had happened, he could only feel bad. So I followed him back into the kitchen, conducted the rest of the interview, paid and thanked him, and left, all the while keeping my wet-spotted leg as much out of Richie’s sight line as possible. As far as I know, he had no idea I’d been befouled.

The day’s next interview was scheduled tightly, and there was little time to take stock of things. I thought about doing a quick pant leg wash in a gas station bathroom, but made a judgement call that showing up at the second interview with a soaking wet pant leg would be worse than whatever was already starting to dry, so I decided to let it be. As I drove, my leg continued to dry, and it became apparent from the emerging smell that the mystery liquid was cat pee.

The 10-inch wet spot dried to a hard, shiny, stinky consistency as I pulled up to our next interview. The woman we were interviewing had a house that was neat as a pin, and let’s say she was not the an easygoing type of person. I sat as far across the living room as I could, but I could only imagine during the whole interview that she could smell my ripening leg. Let’s hope not. Nothing to do but keep calm, and carry on.

Vanessa’s War Story: DDoSed in Vegas

UX Researcher Vanessa Pfafflin shares this great story, where she finds success in failure.

My colleague and I were visiting Las Vegas for a trade show and decided to tack on some field visits at a couple of our Vegas clients’ businesses. We planned to help out at the trade show booth for two days and then do one day’s worth of observational research before catching our flight back home. The first night we were in Vegas, we were notified that our company was experiencing a DDoS attack and our software was completely down for all 17k clients. (To give a little background, my company provides health and wellness based businesses with business management software centered around scheduling and POS). Our sales people were panicky. The show was 5 days long and we knew that it would be a really terrible week if they were unable to access the sales demos for the show if the server remained down.

Unfortunately, the attacks continued for 2 days before we were able to install a new firewall and switch to a different data mitigator. We humbly kept our booth up sans demos. By this time our war-torn trade show team had improvised with screenshots of the product. Some of our clients showed up at the booth – many offering re-assuring words, while some met us with anger.

At the end of the second day, connections were restored. I contacted the two clients we planned on visiting the following day, asking if their sites were up and working properly. Both clients assured me that their systems were back up and running just fine, and that they were anticipating our visits tomorrow.

The next morning, we visited our first client, a massage therapy business, and were greeted warmly. We spent three hours onsite (mainly troubleshooting) and they thanked us with complimentary 60 minute massages! After two days on the DDoS battlefield, it was the best gift a girl could ask for.

Our next client was a thirty minute cab ride away. By this time in the day, the temperature was in the 100s and we pushed through the wall of heat up the steps and into the lobby of the second business, a yoga studio. When we walked in, the girl at the front desk studied our business name embroidered on our shirts and said “Oh you guys, you’re on our sh*t list right now”. We apologized on behalf of our company and offered to help in any way we could. The girl did not want to have anything to do with us. Our software outage had made the last two days at work so difficult for her that all she wanted to do was scream. I asked to speak with the manager, with whom I had been working to schedule the visit. After 30 incredibly uncomfortable minutes waiting for him in the lobby, we made the decision to leave.

The reactions of our two clients were so dramatically different that my colleague and I were left feeling quite bewildered as we waited for our flight back home. In retrospect, I’m glad we decided to go forward with the visits. Although the visits turned into more PR than observational research, we felt good about showing up and offering our support. In this situation, external factors put a damper on our research and put us in some pretty uncomfortable situations. In one of the situations, we were presented with an opportunity to help, and in the other, we learned when it is best to just stop and walk away.

Tamara’s War Story: What the Hell? Don’t you knock?

My first trip to New Jersey for fieldwork involved two memorable events: a blizzard and a bathroom blitz.

Two days before we departed for New Jersey I received an email request from my client to rent the biggest SUV available. A huge snowstorm was pounding the Northeast and he wanted to feel safe as we ventured into the streets and highways of various townships for a week of in-home interviews. I obliged and was glad I did. The evening we arrived we found the streets covered with snow and the plows were evidently having trouble keeping up.

I kept getting rescheduling calls from the recruiter. Participants were cancelling because of the weather. This seemed strange given the fact that WE were the ones travelling to their homes and they didn’t have to go anywhere! It felt like a game of musical chairs as we continually shifted and rescheduled. It was impossible to predict if we would be able to complete the targeted number of interviews during our weeklong visit. In fact, it was even difficult to predict if we would be able to leave town at the end of the week because the airport was cancelling flights every day.

There were three of us in the field: myself, a videographer, and the client. We all met for breakfast the first morning while the car warmed up. It took 30 minutes to melt the layers of ice that had accumulated overnight on the windshield. Fortunately the heater had kicked in by the time we all piled into the SUV and headed out for our first interview of the week, giving ourselves ample time to arrive at our destination.

Instead of the 30 minutes suggested by Google Maps, we arrived an hour later at our destination, a narrow residential street of two-story beige brick duplexes still decorated for the Christmas holiday. Plows had left six foot tall snowbanks on either side of the street and cars were parked in tight spaces carved out by the residents. Sadly it appeared that most of those residents didn’t have an SUV as big as our rental. We circled the area for fifteen minutes before we found a gap large enough to park in.

We were there to interview a young woman in her 20s, a nurse. She welcomed us into the living room where we set up our cameras and found places to sit among the teddy bear collection and floor-to-ceiling cabinet containing an homage to Michael Jackson. Her mother appeared in a short fuzzy black robe. “I’ve been doing focus groups for years. No one ever asked to come to this house before. Why do you want to go to people’s houses?” We explained the nature of our visit and commenced with the interview.

For the first half hour of the interview the mother came in and out of the room, answering and asking questions and reiterating her concerns about our presence and intentions. Each time, the daughter would suspend her responses to address the interruption, urging her mother out of the room. “We always meet at Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s the place to go…MA! They’re here to talk to me. Let me do this!”, “I always stop on my way to work to pick up an iced tea…MA! Go get dressed already!”, “I love those little facts on the lid. They are so cute…MA! Enough! Quit interrupting us!” No matter what the daughter said, the mother would return every few minutes to listen and contribute.

I realized shortly into the interview that, in our flurry of inclement travel, I had neglected to honor one of the cardinal rules of interviewing: “Go before you arrive.” I ignored my biological needs as long as I could but the morning’s coffee didn’t help. I finally had to excuse myself for a restroom break.

“It’s just there in the hall, on the right” said the nurse, pointing down the mirrored hallway.

I excused myself and walked up to bathroom door. It was open a few inches so I pushed it. There in the bright pink and black tiled bathroom stood the mother, facing the toilet with her little black robe hiked up above the waist, her backside completely exposed. She turned before I could retreat. “What the Hell? Don’t you knock?” I felt blood rush warmly to my face.

“I’m so sorry” I said, backing out and closing the door behind (or rather, in front of) me. “I’m so sorry” I continued, “the door was open. I didn’t realize anyone was in there. I’m so sorry.”

I swiftly returned to the living room.

“I’m so sorry,” I told the nurse. “The door was open a crack so I just went in and I walked in on your mother. I am sure I’ve upset her.”

“Ha! Don’t worry. She’ll be fine” she consoled me. “Maybe she’ll leave us alone now.”

I wasn’t sure I would be fine. I tried to concentrate on the interview, the purpose of our visit, the friendly nurse who gave us a detailed tour of the kitchen drawers. But images of her mother’s bare behind kept flashing in my mind. She was right, sort of, about her mother leaving us alone. For the remaining hour we didn’t hear a word from the woman, though she kept appearing (now fully clothed) wherever we were. She said nothing. She just looked at me with a glare that felt as icy as the windshield that awaited us outside.

Our first stop was a Dunkin’ Donuts where I was finally able to relieve myself.

Steve’s War Story: It’s All Going To Burn

My colleague and I showed up to learn about our research participant’s smart house. In the initial part of the interview, just trying to learn a bit about the family before we learned about the house, the participant (I’ll call him Jon) told me they home-schooled their kids. I was young and naive enough that I didn’t have a clue what other factors that typically signifies. When I asked about why they made that decision, Jon really snarled at me, I think because he was far more interested in showing me his gear than talking about his family, but I just explained that we wanted to learn about him as well. He told me that they didn’t support the school system and their attitude towards alternative lifestyles. That’s when I realized I was in an environment where the values were just really different than my own. Okay, no problem, that’s par for the course for the job. We spent a good long time after that checking out the details of a really incredible smart home system that he had built, cobbled, and coded together. Really incredible. Yet there was a constant theme of monitoring and control, of using the technology to check up on the kids from other rooms. Still, all good information. As we were getting to the reflective part of the interview, wrapping up or nearly so, Jon abruptly changed gears mid-explanation.

Jon: “Of course, none of this really matters because it’s all going to burn.”

Me + Colleague: [Puzzled silence]

Jon: “And now I have a question for you fellas: Have you accepted Christ as your savior?”

In my life in general, this is the sort of question I’m utterly unprepared for. In this interview, I knew it was coming, some part of my body was tense from the discussion of the rationale for home schooling, knowing that I was in a slightly vulnerable situation that was going to emerge at some point. So while I was dreading it all along, perhaps it came as some kind of relief. Watching the video later, I saw the most deadpan version of myself I’d ever seen: “…………Well…..perhaps that’s a question for another time.”

I was stuck, I couldn’t dishonor all the rapport-building and honest curiosity I’d been exhibiting for the past two hours, but now we were trapped. My colleague spluttered helplessly in an endless loop of reflecting back what Jon had said previously (“So…..it sounds like you’re saying…”). I kept waiting for my opening for the “Well, time to go!” but Jon really wanted to talk to us about what we should be doing and thinking, with respect to Christ. It seems this went on for a very long time, but we finally made it to the doorway. Jon asked us to wait, and went off to get something. We should have made a break for it, but we were ensnared by the requirements of politeness in our researcher role. He returned with some bible-related literature and exhorted us – in terms that would make the Glengarry Glen Ross salesmen proud – to follow up. Another eternity (if you will) and we were finally able to step away.

We made it to the car, drove a block and erupted in hysterical, gasping laughter. It was the laughter of relief, the kind of manic giggling you’d get from 10-year-olds who just got away from the angry shopkeeper. We had some choice words about Jon, once we were safe.

The experience was terribly uncomfortable; I could not find a way to follow my own values as a researcher and still protect myself from a conversation that was personally risky (as a Jew, I’ve had my share of proselytizing/Hell/Christ “discussions” and really don’t ever want to have one again). As a researcher, I am interested in and have respect for Jon’s views on his family, his home, education, and the afterlife. But as a person, I just don’t want to have to reveal my own beliefs or defend them, especially in this sort of setting.

This was more than 10 years ago, I wonder how I would handle it now.

Announcing: War Stories

We love stories, and in our work as ethnographers, we love war stories about fieldwork. These experiences – the crazy household, the dog that does his business on your shoes, the GPS failure – are inevitable and are often (at least in hindsight) hilarious. Exchanging these stories is a way of socializing our technique and creating learning opportunities for both tellers and listeners. A culture of exchange – wherever we can find it – is going to help us grow our own skills.

Through this series, we’ll be sharing our own war stories and those of other researchers. Watch this space for the first few war stories, and some info about how you can get your own fieldwork war story published here.

Series

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