Posts tagged “observation”

Joe’s War Story: Clean Break

Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!

Kristina’s War Story: Trampoline Spies

Kristina Lustig is a researcher at Stack Overflow, and is currently based in London. She told this story live at User Research London.

Last year, I was in Bangkok with eight members of my product team. For our research, we planned to speak with people who we saw taking videos with their smart phones. We split into a few groups, each with their own interpreters. My group tried – and failed – to find people at an open-air market or around a couple of malls before we got the idea to look for parents taking videos of their children. Our interpreter, Kay, in a flash of genius, suggested that we’d probably see a lot of this behavior at a trampoline park, so off we went.

After riding several long thin escalators far into the interior of an extremely large mall, we arrived at the trampoline park and bought our tickets. Before we went in, we put on the mandatory lime green sticky socks and neon pink wristbands.

Now, I’ve done a good bit of international research in questionable situations, but at this point, this was the strangest research situation I’d been in. Let me paint the picture for you: two white people in business casual with neon pink wristbands and lime green sticky socks, holding notebooks, accompanied by our Thai interpreter, all wandering through a trampoline park full of Thai parents and children. On the 700th floor of an upscale mall on a Wednesday morning.

But really, it was also a research goldmine! We found many mothers with their smart phones out, filming their children. We spent about 30 minutes chatting as casually as possible with a few different women. We learned a lot about how they shared videos on social media. Then we were approached by a trampoline park employee. She began speaking with Kay, and although we couldn’t understand a word, we watched as Kay moved from confident to concerned and finally to incredulous.

As Kay translated for us, the employee was concerned that we could be spies from a rival trampoline park, or that we were we attempting to sell these women passes to a rival trampoline park!

Kay explained to the trampoline park employee that we were from a big company in the US and that we weren’t selling anything, but she didn’t believe us. We gave her our business cards (with potentially impressive or reassuring titles like “UX Researcher” and “Product Designer”) but no dice. She started to kick us out of the trampoline park, but in a last ditch effort, we asked “Well, can we just… stay and jump?”

So, we didn’t get to do too much research, but we did spend a lot of time bouncing around under that employee’s watchful anti-research eye. We observed as much as we could, while bouncing. In retrospect, we probably should have cleared our research with the trampoline park beforehand…but any research endeavor that starts with intercepts and ends with extreme trampolining is a win in my book.

David’s War Story: The Well-lit Redhead

David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

Standing in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages, I started to become anxious. I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

“Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.

Contextual research from a bygone era

While listening to This American Life I learned about Roger Barker, a psych professor who turned the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa into a laboratory in the late 1940s.

Barker was one of the most extraordinary — and least known — figures in the history of psychology. Shortly after he became chair of the KU psychology department in the late 1940s, he relocated his family to Oskaloosa to observe and gather data about the residents who lived in the town, population 725.

At that time, psychological research was primarily done in laboratories. “It was the era of running rats through mazes to understand human behavior,” he said. “Barker said you won’t learn about any real human behavior in a laboratory. If psychologists want to understand human behavior in the real world, they must enter the real world.”

More from this article

Among Barker’s more unusual efforts was a 1951 paper he co-wrote under the title “One Boy’s Day.”

It chronicled 14 hours in the life of a local boy with the pseudonym Raymond Birch . He was 7 when Raymond’s parents allowed the Midwest Psychological Field Station to record his every movement, according to Sabar’s book:

7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, ‘Raymond, wake up. …’
7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tugging and pulling it on his left foot. …
7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg for his dog.

The notations, archived at KU, track Raymond on his walk to school. He finds a baseball bat in the grass and swings it, accidentally striking a flagpole.

“This made a wonderful, hollow noise,” researchers wrote, “so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.”

Barker eschewed academic prose and wanted his charges to record any telling, prosaic detail.

Through the 1950s, Oskaloosans grew accustomed to the sight of a child being shadowed by a note-scribbling adult. In published papers, this was the town of “Midwest,” in keeping with the scientific practice of shielding the identity of the subjects being examined.

Barker’s work differed from other scholarly studies of places such as Muncie, Ind., (Middletown) and Candor, N.Y., (Springdale) in at least two ways.

First, it focused less on class and politics and more on the relationships that made kids feel comfortable.

Second, Barker’s family settled into Oskaloosa as a permanent home. Roger and Louise continued to live there until their deaths, Roger’s in 1990 at age 87 and Louise’s in 2009 at 102.

While Barker used many methods, the part that struck me was his belief that simply documenting in exhaustive detail the ordinary activities throughout the day would somehow provide some additional insight. What would Barker have made of today’s era of personal analytics, data smog, quantified self and beyond?

Portigal year in review, 2013

It’s time to sum up some of the noteworthy writings/happenings of the year. Let’s get to it!

All those years ago: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.

Out and About: Steve in New York

Last week I was in New York to speak with two groups at SVA and at IxDA (also to see the city, eat desserts and hang with friends). Here’s some of the pictures I took during my trip.

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“I Know A Guy, Inc.”

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The New Colossus by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, public art at Lever House that references the ubiquitous labor action inflatable rats.

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Blue by Anish Kapoor at MOMA, chock full of subtlety.

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DO NOT WALK THRU ELEVATOR.

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The Strand Book Store unloading some similar titles about the women behind the men of the sea.

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Hyperlocal.

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Papa Moozi

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A mini-Jurassic Park seen as street art around sidewalk greenspace.

New York previously: Summer 2013, 2011

Out and About: Steve in Kitchener-Waterloo

I was recently in Kitchener-Waterloo (for the first time in over 20 years) to speak at the marvelous Fluxible conference. I had a little bit of time to walk around and take some pictures. Here are my favorites.

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Lots and lots of tea

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Oh noooooooo!

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Downtown beautification.

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Bathroom paper towel dispenser no longer has rubbish below, instead has a badly worn note pointing you to the new solution.

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Someone in this area is scent-sitive.

Out and About: Steve in Tampa

Two weeks ago I was in Tampa to lead a workshop for a client. I had a bit of time to explore the area – here are some of my photos.

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The ritzier area of St. Petersburg, with huge houses and huge trees.

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Salt-and-pepper tofu at the Yummy House China Bistro. This place was good and rivaled Chinese food I’ve had in San Francisco.

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Shampoo Me.

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Houston donut fave, thanks to an airport layover.

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Not sure I’m as excited about the elevator upgrade as the hotel wants me to be.

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God hates swag.

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Parking at the Dali museum.

Out and About: Steve in Minneapolis

I was in Minneapolis earlier this week to speak at the MIMA Summit. I hadn’t been in Minneapolis since 1999, so I took a little bit of time to explore – here’s some of my photographs.

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City icons: Charles Schultz hails from Minneapolis, as did Mary Richards.

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Who needs the Kuik-E-Mark?

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Create your Turkey Masterpiece! Who could resist, when inspired by those nothing-short-of-masterful pieces?

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Inspiring earnest words populate a downtown garden space.

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No smoking or dipping. No, that’s not an ashtray, it’s a tin of tobacco. You can tell because it’s got the word “tobacco” written on it, pretty much the mark of failure in icon design.

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ATMS are increasing featuring mirrors as safety devices, letting you see whose coming up behind you. This takes it one step further, with a video monitor performing the same function. Is that creeping-featurism?

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Marquette Plaza, constructed somewhat like a suspension bridge.

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Not related at all to Chevron. Really?

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Sawing you in half daily. At Sever’s. Really?

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Mill City Museum

Out and About: Steve in Portland/San Diego/Denver

Last week I hit three cities, doing workshops and fieldwork; in hotel rooms, airports, homes, restaurants and the like. Here are some of my photos from a very busy trip.

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Hotel restaurant point-of-sale user interface. So many amazingly awful things here. The help button is labeled “HELP!!!!!”; Cobb Salad (I’m sorry, Fiesta Cobb) is $12.00?

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Without raisins? Now with extra raisins!

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There used to be a baggage kiosk. Now there’s just a sign.

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I found Jonathan Borofsky’s “The Dancers” in downtown Denver to be vaguely unsettling.

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Controls removed for your convenience.

Out and About: Steve in New York

I spent a few days in New York last week for the book launch event, also just taking some time to explore, walk around the streets, take pictures, meet with folks, eat interesting food, go to the museum, and so on. Here’s some of my observations from the trip.

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I posted about this hippo truck one of the last times I was in New York. I thought it was a tremendous coincidence or just that way that noticing something helps you notice it again (and taking a picture helps you notice it again even more); indeed I saw the same truck in the background of an indie film I watched right after I got back. Well, I’m told by my New Yorker friends that this company’s trucks are extremely common.

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Party supply trucks, hippo or clown, are common in Manhattan.

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Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny’s The Honeycomb Vase “Made by Bees” – what he calls “slow manufacturing”, he built a scaffolding in the shape of the base and then had the bees build, over the course of a week, the vase, finally removing the frame and leaving behind a vase, made by bees.

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The typographical conventions brands have to deal with when associating their own brand with those of social networks. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful here to have the Gothic-style typefaces with the contemporary supporting brands of Facebook and Twitter.

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I like the very clear description of the equipment requirements, except for the strange use of the acronym “PPE” (I’m assuming personal protection equipment). I guess all industries are subject to their insider shorthands.

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A scene from the future?

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A really awful piece of “public art” juxtaposed with the much more appealing and authentic graffiti, seemingly an inspiration for the forms used by the “art.”

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Rethinking Everything About What You Do For Customers

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Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker feature The Sense of an Ending describes some really dramatic (and successful) reframes in care for dementia patients. There’s a number of profound shifts in how the caregivers describe their role and in the kind of experience they seek to deliver for the patient (and their family). The whole article (linked above, but subscribers only) describes those shifts and the cultural and organizational efforts to get there. I’ve included just a portion here

One of the first things Alonzo did, in 1998, was to ask an aide who was born in Vietnam to talk to staff members in her native tongue. “It was the only language I could find that nobody else could speak,” Alonzo recalled. “So we had her tell us very sweetly, in Vietnamese, what she wanted us to do, and we couldn’t understand her.” The staff had to become attuned to the woman’s nonverbal cues.

On another occasion, Alzono underwent a public bed bath, in front of the entire staff, of twenty-seven. She didn’t allow herself to move her limbs, and behaved as if confused. Afterward, she was able to describe the nature of her discomfort, and staff members analyzed their own activity in light of it. “Let me tell you, it sucked – it was incredibly uncomfortable,” she told me. Staff members then spooned food into one another’s mouths and brushed one another’s teeth, in order to be on the receiving end of activities that they performed for their charges every day. “You can find how threatening it is to have something touch your mouth when you have not brought it to your own lips,” she said.

In the most radical experiment, the staff wore adult diapers. “That was kind of life-changing for everybody involved,” Alonzo told me. “We all recognized just how uncomfortable it was to sit in a wet brief. Some of our front-line staff, who really wanted to know how bad that felt, did not change them for a couple of hours.” Previous may residents had been dressed in diapers, as they tend to be in a majority of nursing homes. Not long afterward, aides decided to stop the practice with most residents, instead taking them to the bathroom fifteen or twenty minutes after mealtimes. This made residents happier while making the staff’s jobs easier, because they no longer had to change people who were agitated.

There’s a rich tradition of participating in the experience our customers are having (see this great war story about an adventure in an “old age simulation suit”) and what feels like an increasing mention of empathy. I really like how this story highlights not so much the ergonomic or functional task aspects that are revealed but how this drives to revisiting the fundamental ideas of how the institution conceives of the patient experience it provides. I also like the full-on simplicity of the approach, the people who do this stuff to others now try it themselves and talk about it.

See also Richard Anderson’s blog post from this week about reframes in general and in healthcare specifically.

Pattern-recognition is crucial for sense-making

interviewing-users

Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!




theartofscientificinvestigation


Excerpting from a great post…The Art of Observation and How to Master the Crucial Difference Between Observation and Intuition [Brain Pickings] – Highlights from a 1957 book by Cambridge University professor W. I. B. Beveridge come from the era of the scientific method but are broadly applicable to creative, innovative, design-thinking approaches to problem solving.

Ultimately, Beveridge argues that the art of observation depends on developing the capacity for pattern-recognition, which in turn relies on a broad pool of networked knowledge that allows you to spot the piece that doesn’t fit: “In carrying out any observation you look deliberately for each characteristic you know may be there, for any unusual feature, and especially for any suggestive associations or relationships among the things you see, or between them and what you know. – Most of the relationships observed are due to chance and have no significance, but occasionally one will lead to a fruitful idea.”

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