Posts tagged “fieldwork”

Noël’s War Story: Truck Stop

Noël Bankston is a UX Research Lead and Human Factors Engineer at Zebra Technologies, currently living in Queens, NY. She told this story live at the Interaction 17 conference.

“So Jim, what would you like to do for lunch? “My treat!” It was the moment I had been dreading all day, ironic since I am a lover of food. I was trying to sound chipper but I was worn through.

It was 2 pm and I was starving. I was sitting in the cab of a 48’ tractor trailer in Lowell, Arkansas. This was my first “ride along” research trip and I had not come prepared with snacks. I was doing in-depth generative research of the pick-up and delivery process for a freight company and hadn’t known that we don’t have lunch until all the deliveries were completed.

I was also not prepared for the weather as I am from up north and I thought the South would be hot in late May. It wasn’t – it was a constant drizzle and cold. So I was sitting in the cab feeling small and tired in the oversized loaner jacket that the dispatcher had given me. We had been on the road since 8:45 am but I had arrived at the trailer dispatch site even earlier to observe the set-up process. And that should have been fine, because on a normal day, Jim finishes around noon. But today we saw all the exceptions – an unprepared customer, incorrect paperwork, an obstructed delivery dock, and poor routing. As a researcher, it was a gold-mine as I observed where problems occurred and how Jim handled them. But as someone who is mildly hypoglycemic, it meant I was getting hangry. It had been a long morning of climbing into and out of that cab, learning which hand to place where to get the right leverage to pull yourself up as you step onto the step that is only wide enough for half your foot. And I don’t know how many of you have ridden inside of a tractor trailer but it is loud and you feel every bump.

In that moment as I asked about lunch, damp, tired, and hungry, I thought back on the the anxiety I had felt earlier in the day about lunch. A co-worker told me that on his previous ride-along they had eaten a burger from a gas station mini-mart. Even on a normal day that would make me uneasy, as gas stations aren’t known for freshness and hygiene. I knew that this type of research means being available for wherever the subject takes you, but I was really hoping that didn’t include food poisoning.

But at this point, 8 hours from my previous meal and having no idea what part of town we were in, who was I to be picky?

“So Jim, what would you like to do for lunch?”

“I just want a salad. I try to eat healthy.” I gave a huge sigh of relief, accompanied by a rumble of rejoicing from my stomach. It seemed that between the two of us, I would be eating the bigger meal. I found a nearby Mexican restaurant on Yelp. While enjoying the flavor combination of fresh cilantro and lime with nary a fryolator in sight, I realized how I had been making assumptions about “truckers” based on stereotypes rather than letting the research reveal the truth. And those assumptions were also judgments about health and lifestyle. Jim was aware of the health effects of his job and wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to have a healthful meal, especially when a researcher was paying! One of the reasons truckers eat unhealthy food is both cost and convenience. Truck stops get food fast and are less expensive. Unfortunately, our food system is set up in a way that fresh, whole food costs much more than highly processed, industrially produced food.

I won’t be able to eliminate all my biases or preconceived notions but I can grow in my awareness of them. I have been on many more ride-alongs and other types of research trips since then. You better believe I always have a granola bar with me.

Elizabeth’s War Story: Ramping Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When your participant repels and scares you

Embedded above is a fantastic and disturbing episode of Love + Radio. Nick van der Kolk and Noah Morrison visit Jay Thunderbolt, who upon beginning the interview, aggressively reiterates his demand for payment (not possible for public radio, which Jay knew). Noah ends up going on a liquor run instead, as Jay offers him a pistol or Kevlar vest. Jay never stops insulting the interviewers, and stories of violence abound; indeed at one point he points a gun at Nick’s head. Meanwhile, they are interviewing Jay about the strip club he runs out of his house.

Yikes. This sounds like some of the War Stories, doesn’t it?

I don’t know what is going through Nick’s head as he’s doing this interview, but as I listen I find myself strongly repelled by Jay. And while the interview here is edited, so we don’t know all that happened, but Nick never reveals discomfort or lets Jay’s obvious provocations get to him. His patience and tolerance create room for Jay’s story to come out, and while Jay is not an appealing individual, you begin to understand and accept him as he is. Well, I did. Your experience may vary.

Nick finally responds to Jay’s taunting at the end, when he asks Jay “Do you think you understand the way I feel about you?” and Jay admits that he doesn’t. It’s a powerful moment in an intense interview.

Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that moment, I just had to let go.

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

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

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

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

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

Maria taught me two important things that day.

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

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

David’s War Story: Let it Bleed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run

Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: A similar recipe is here.

Carol’s War Story: Driving Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young students do “fieldwork” to learn about others

In For Lessons About Class, a Field Trip Takes Students Home very young children are exposed to the homes and possessions of others. The thrust seems to be about class, but to me it seems like establishing an early model for empathy as well. The notion that other people are different from you seems foundational and it’s exciting to see this being addressed experientially. Check out the slideshow for the worksheets and debrief sessions!

Some of us have more toys and bigger homes than others. We all have a lot in common, but there are certain things that make us unique, too. Let’s talk about those things and celebrate them, even. This is not standard prekindergarten curricular fare, but it’s part of what the 4- and 5-year-olds at the Manhattan Country School learn by visiting one another’s homes during the school day. These are no mere play dates though; it’s more like Ethnography 101. Do classmates take the bus to school or walk? What neighborhood do they live in? What do they have in their homes? Over the last several weeks, I tagged along to find out. The progressive private school considers the visits to be one of the most radical things it does. “We knew we needed to talk about social class,” said Lois Gelernt, the teacher who came up with the idea. “It was opening up a can of worms, but if we were never going to talk about who we are and where we come from, the sense of community wasn’t going to be there.”

Jon’s War Story: Of Speed and Strip Clubs

Jon McNeill is the Principal of Hunter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“You have a girlfriend that would disapprove?”

“No.”

“Well, then, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt ill. Kenny started laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerry’s War Story: Right to be Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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