War Story: Seeing Ourselves As Others May See Us
By Steve Portigal at 8:39 am, Friday April 18 2014
Part 58 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Lindsay’s War Story: Sexism in the City
By Steve Portigal at 8:11 am, Friday April 11 2014
Part 57 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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John’s War Story: An Ethnographic Encounter with Occupy Wall Street
By Steve Portigal at 9:00 am, Thursday August 08 2013
Part 56 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.





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Raffaella’s War Story: A hot day in a bank
By Steve Portigal at 8:40 am, Wednesday June 26 2013
Part 55 of 58 in the series War Stories

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!



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Michael’s War Story: All About Face (Sichuan Adventures)
By Steve Portigal at 1:19 pm, Wednesday June 05 2013
Part 54 of 58 in the series War Stories

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 had been passed to the woman who got into the argument with the mother in the first place and 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.



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Lena’s War Story: The Researcher and the Banana Thief
By Steve Portigal at 12:18 pm, Friday May 31 2013
Part 53 of 58 in the series War Stories

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 of 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 conducing 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-



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Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler
By Steve Portigal at 10:12 am, Tuesday May 14 2013
Part 52 of 58 in the series War Stories

Alicia Dornadic (@adorndesign) 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.



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Tom’s War Story: House Rules
By Steve Portigal at 8:20 am, Thursday April 18 2013
Part 51 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister
By Steve Portigal at 6:35 am, Wednesday April 17 2013
Part 50 of 58 in the series War Stories

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 pi?®ce 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.”



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Ilona’s War Story: First Stop the Bleeding!
By Steve Portigal at 1:59 pm, Monday April 15 2013
Part 49 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Kavita’s War Story: Managing money, oh joy!
By Steve Portigal at 9:54 am, Wednesday March 27 2013
Part 48 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Whitney’s War Story: Stories of War
By Steve Portigal at 7:46 am, Tuesday March 19 2013
Part 47 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgement
By Steve Portigal at 10:43 am, Friday January 18 2013
Part 46 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility
By Steve Portigal at 8:37 am, Tuesday January 15 2013
Part 45 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate
By Steve Portigal at 8:01 am, Monday January 14 2013
Part 44 of 58 in the series War Stories

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.



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