Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler
By Steve Portigal at 10:12 am, Tuesday May 14 2013
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.
Tags: Alicia Dornadic, bathroom, fieldwork, language, mishap, toilet, translation, war stories
Tom’s War Story: House Rules
By Steve Portigal at 8:20 am, Thursday April 18 2013
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.
Tags: foolproof, observation, online, poker, predator, tom wood, war stories
Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister
By Steve Portigal at 6:35 am, Wednesday April 17 2013
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.”
Tags: double entendre, elaine fukuda, hospital, inappropriate, patient, war stories
Ilona’s War Story: First Stop the Bleeding!
By Steve Portigal at 1:59 pm, Monday April 15 2013
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.
Tags: blood, dsl, ilona posner, installation, observation, war stories
Kavita’s War Story: Managing money, oh joy!
By Steve Portigal at 9:54 am, Wednesday March 27 2013
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.
Tags: education, emotion, finance, kavita appachu, money, planning
Whitney’s War Story: Stories of War
By Steve Portigal at 7:46 am, Tuesday March 19 2013
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.
Tags: emotion, Holocaust, survivor, war stories, whitney hess
Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgement
By Steve Portigal at 10:43 am, Friday January 18 2013
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.
Tags: chaos, empathy, judgement, Marta Spurgeon, menagerie, reality, war stories
Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility
By Steve Portigal at 8:37 am, Tuesday January 15 2013
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.
Tags: cordy swope, ethnography, fake, fieldwork, frequent flyer, liar, participants, recruiting, war stories
Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate
By Steve Portigal at 8:01 am, Monday January 14 2013
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.
Tags: discomfort, documentation, fieldwork, photo diary, polaroid, rachel wong, truth, war story
Valerie’s War Story: Rank order
By Steve Portigal at 8:00 am, Friday January 11 2013
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…
Tags: air fresher, animal, dog, excreta, odor, pee, pet, poop, valerie green, war story
Ryan’s War Story: Enthusiasticus Interruptus
By Steve Portigal at 8:26 am, Thursday January 10 2013
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 I 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.
Tags: coaching, coffee, fieldwork, Ryan DeGorter, stakeholder, tension, war stories
Jen’s War Story: Trust your gut, it can save your life!
By Steve Portigal at 8:30 am, Wednesday January 09 2013
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 clients 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 a shabby, 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!
Tags: danger, fieldwork, gut, Jen Iudice, precaution, prevention, risk, war stories
Daria’s War Story: Human Thresholds
By Steve Portigal at 8:37 am, Monday January 07 2013
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:
- Colleague asks a question while participant checks her phone (text, emails, internet)
- Participant responds with “yes”, “no” and “hmm…I think so” type of answers
- Colleague’s face changes color into a subtle pink tending to a gentle red
- Participant continues checking her phone, rarely looking up or even acknowledging someone is asking her questions
- Another round of question and yes/no answers follows
- 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.
Tags: aggravation, chengdu, Daria Loi, disengaged, fieldwork, participation, threshold, war stories
Prasad’s War Story: Skin in the game
By Steve Portigal at 8:05 am, Tuesday January 08 2013
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.
Tags: disease, fieldwork, Prasad Kantamneni, skin, war stories
David’s War Story: Suit yourselves
By Steve Portigal at 12:00 pm, Monday December 17 2012
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.
Tags: Christophe Talle, cosplay, David Serrault, elderly, gare du nord, paris, post modern, public transit, simulation suit, sncf, train, train station, war stories