Posts tagged “user research”

What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

My new book comes out today and Lou Rosenfeld has an enthusiastic appreciation and a bit of the back story about the book’s journey.
Read it all here

I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Steve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people.

A User Research FAQ

In Patterns in design research, Nick Bowmast looks at one of my recent talks and realizes that the Q&A discussion deals with many of the standard questions he often faces. He wrote up a tersely-worded FAQ based on the discussion. Thanks, Nick!

Q: One on one’s or Groups? A = One on ones. (Don’t say the other F word).
Q: How do you know when you’ve done enough interviews? A = Depends, but 30 is a big number.
Q: How do you avoid bias from the client or in the sample? A = Accept and work with it.
Q: When should we do it ourselves vs have other people’s go out and do the interviews for us? A = Depends, and collaboration can work in many ways. [Also see this – SP]
Q: How do you prioritize all the questions to be able to answer all of them right? A = Work with the client to nail it down.
Q: What would be the right team size in the field? A = Two
Q: Can you use something like Skype or Google Hangouts to interview them? A = Yes, but there are significant tradeoffs.
Q: How to deal with users who just keep on talking in an interview? A = Be polite but firm. Cut your losses if necessary.
Q: How do you go about recruiting people / how do you convince strangers to do interviews? A = Use a recruiter. Respect and honour people’s time.

It’s a wrap for Dollars to Donuts, Season 2

I just wrapped up the second season of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I speak with people who lead user research. Check out all the great interviews this season. Links include transcripts and links for each episode.

An interview about The State of UX Research

I was interviewed by Jen Ignacz of Topp. We spoke about the history of user research (at least how I experienced) and some of my thoughts about the present – and future. Check out the audio and/or read the transcript here.

I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we’ve seen that we’ve done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn’t look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought “this is a real thing” – you know, companies – business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. Fortune, BusinessWeek and other magazines were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

The Insight at Scale track from Enterprise UX

A couple of months ago I moderated the “Insight at Scale” track at the Enterprise UX conference, which featured three presentations and discussion. The videos for each presentation (and our discussion) are below as well as links to the slide decks. There’s also sketch notes for the whole session.

Insight Types That Influence Enterprise Decision Makers – Christian Rohrer, Vice President and Chief Design Officer, Intel Security (slides)

Data Science and Design: A Tale of Two Tribes – Chris Chapo, Operations at ENJOY (slides)

Emotion Economy: Ethnography as Corporate Strategy – Kelly Goto, author of Web Redesign 2.0 (slides)


An inflection point for user research: scandal

A user researcher is front and center in a Silicon Valley competitor-workers legal snarl.

One now-former employee, Ana Rosario, was hired by Fitbit as a user experience researcher around April 16 but did not disclose that she planned to leave Jawbone until April 22, the complaint said. On April 20, according to the complaint, Ms. Rosario held a meeting with Jawbone’s senior director of product management to discuss the company’s future plans and then downloaded what the company said was a “playbook” outlining its future products.During her exit interviews, Ms. Rosario initially denied taking confidential information, but she later acknowledged downloading its “Market Trends & Opportunities” presentation, the complaint said.

I don’t know Ana (although LinkedIn shows me I know many people who do know her); I do know people at Jawbone (and probably people at Fitbit). I’m not sharing this to comment on any of the players or the details of the situation itself, but to note at a meta-level that in the trajectory of user research as a business function, it’s grown in prominence to the point where you can pick up the New York Times one morning and see a story like this.

Steve’s War Story: Giggling and Grunting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14 (now with video)

I gave a (remote) presentation, Designing the Problem, at Interaction South America a few weeks ago.

Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

We’ve got video, slides, audio and sketch-notes. Enjoy!

The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)


Sketchnote by Thiago Esser (click for full size)

Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14

Although we couldn’t make it down to Buenos Aires for Interaction South America, thanks to the magic of Skype I was able to present Designing the Problem at over the weekend.

Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

Below you’ll find slides, audio and sketchnotes. I’ll repost when the video go up. Update: it’s here.

The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Here is my huge head during the Q&A segment (image via Juan Marcos Ortiz)

juan marcos ortiz B3EU_zyIYAAXKue_425

Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)


Sketchnote by Thiago Esser (click for full size)

Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

It’s been seven months Interviewing Users came out! Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this regularly with accumulated updates.

The Book





Video from UX Lisbon: Discover and act on insights about people

The lovely folks at UXLx have just posted the video from my talk earlier this year, Discover and act on insights about people.

Some of the most effective ways of understanding what customers want or need – going out and talking to them – are surprisingly indirect. Insights produced by these methods impact two facets of innovation: first as information that informs the development of new products and services, and second as catalysts for internal change. Steve discusses methods for exploring both solutions and needs and explores how an understanding of culture (yours and your customers) can drive design and innovation.

If you don’t see the video embedded above, you can view it here

David’s War Story: Footloose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About Steve