Alexandra’s War Story: When One Door Closes

Alexandra Wills is an ethnographer working at Fuse by Cardinal Health, an innovation center in Columbus, Ohio. She told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

I’ll never forget when I did ethnographic research for a project aimed at helping a car manufacturer learn what Millennials with small children really needed.

The project was hard. Taking on a project at the height of the Great Recession meant navigating a radical change in client engagement from what I had experienced since starting the work two years prior. “It’s Friday at 5 p.m. in Ohio and you want me in Los Angeles on Monday?” Okay. “We’re doing video diaries and in-home interviews and a post-interview ideation session with participants in two cities, all in two months?” Okay.

Added to all that, I had a nine-month-old and simply didn’t want to leave her for days at a time. Over the past few months of work, I had already breast pumped on an airplane and in dirty airport bathrooms. I had already begged flight attendants and fast food workers for ice to put in the cooler carrying pouches of my “liquid gold.” Did I mention it was my birthday?

At one point in the project, I was hanging out with a family in Austin who had a toddler. I knew nothing about toddlers. After all, I had a nine-month-old. Did I mention I am not a ‘kid person’?

We had just returned from running errands in their car. As we got out of the car, they were showing me some specific details about the vehicle. They had a Honda Element – the car with the interesting doors that open and close like a book. I was paying close, close attention to the parents and I had no idea that the little kid was right near me. So I closed the door. Suddenly, we all heard the kid screaming! His parents rushed to his side and looked him over, examining his hands. All I could do was yell impulsively, “I didn’t do it!” I was horrified. I thought, “I hurt a child! This child! A participant’s child! Oh noooooo this is bad. How am I going to fix this? What am I going to tell Melinda (my boss)?” To this day I don’t know if his finger got caught in the door, or if me closing the door just scared him.

There was no blood, no broken fingers. But inside, I wanted to die. I already felt plagued by my own mommy guilt and that feeling spread throughout my body like lava. So, not only did I feel like a horrible mom for leaving my kid, but here I was in Austin, making someone else’s kid cry. What a moment. Needless to say, any rapport I had developed in my time with the family evaporated in that instant.

I stopped recording, stepped back, apologized to the mom and waited for the parents to finish calming down their kid. I waited for them to say, “This is over.” They didn’t. Miraculously, they continued the interview, even if I could feel all their judgment the entire time as we wrapped things up. “Maybe I didn’t traumatize this family,” I thought insecurely.

The icing on the cake was that we used video to capture all our data, so not only did this happen, but my boss got to see the whole thing when she reviewed the video. Later in the project I mentioned the incident and she said, “Yeah I saw that.”

Joel’s War Story: From Moscow with Love

Joel Kashuba has practiced design for nearly two decades, with a career spanning the practices of architecture, industrial design, branding, UX, and innovation consulting. He currently leads the Innovation & Design functions for Fifth Third Bank located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

While working for a major CPG company I was placed with a cross-functional innovation team assigned to write and vet concepts that would take a well-known women’s shaving brand into several other personal care categories. The focus was on serving the needs of young women in several BRIC countries. The theme we had been asked to unlock was “A Day at the Spa” – a theme the company had uncovered in earlier research within the United States and projected as a fruitful area to mine for opportunities and frame our expansion.

Before going out into the field – specifically, to Moscow – the project team undertook countless hours of concept writing sessions, often with heavily resourced vendor partners. We created roughly 25 concepts, each taking unique inspiration from the theme “A Day at the Spa”. Armed with our concepts we set off to Russia and began collaborating with consumers in the field to vet each concept.

By the noon on the first day, none of our concepts were resonating and we recognized our first challenge. The translator we had been assigned by a local agency was an older Russian gentleman who sounded much like a James Bond villain. As he readied each of our painstakingly word-smithed concepts, they each ended up sounding like the dastardly ideas of a dour old man who may like to cross-dress. To fix this, we recruited a spritely young woman who worked as an assistant concierge at our hotel to read the concepts. She was great! Several of our consumers even mentioned that she had the perfect voice for commercials in this category.

Despite this change, our concepts still weren’t hitting the mark we were aiming for and we couldn’t figure out why. These concepts had been exceptionally well received in our early test back in the States – what was going on here in Moscow that made them such tankers?

Finally, near the morning of day three, one of our consumers asked us plainly, “Why are you trying to make me feel old?”

“Old?” we asked her with sincere confusion, “Can you say more? Is there something in the concepts that makes you feel old?”

“Yes,” she quickly retorted, “you keep talking to me about spending a day at the spa.”

“And what does that mean to you?” we had our translator ask her.

She looked surprised and a little pissed off. She explained, “It means the place we send our grandmothers when they are too old to take care of in their homes. It’s the place people go before they die.”

It hit us like a ton of bricks. In Russian culture, a “spa” is what we’d call a retirement home. As we had been pulling out concept after concept trying to get these young women to fall in love with our theme, all they saw was of tone-deaf Americans shoving the idea of products for a retirement home down their throats.

We were horrified. We called off the rest of the day’s consumers and stayed up all night re-writing the concepts. The young concierge we had hired to translate became an adjunct team member. Constrained by time, we changed our strategy and turned consumer research into consumer co-creation. We had consumers work in teams to read and re-write the concepts, which were passed along to other teams of consumers to be refined. By the time we finished we had three great concepts that all resonated well.

Coming back to our home base, we reflected on the experience as a team. What we had set out to do was valid, but how we remained nimble in the field is what made the clear difference in how we would found success.

Nadav’s War Story: Baptism by Tears

Nadav Zohar is a UX researcher at AEP in Columbus, OH.

My first ever user research project was for a healthcare app. Our users were nurses who work with poor and high-risk patients, often called “the under-served.” My supervisor and I had a reserved conference room at the client’s site, and our pre-scheduled users rotated in about one per hour. It was a grueling two days of nonstop interviews. For the first day I took notes while my supervisor moderated.

On the second day, after he moderated the first couple of interviews, my supervisor turned to me and asked if I thought I was ready to take the lead on the next one. I said “Sure” so he handed me the discussion guide. In came our next user, a middle-aged nurse who was very sweet and eager to help us in any way she could. This was my very first user interview and I was ready for a clean, uneventful affair.

As the questions on my discussion guide turned to the technological hurdles she encounters when helping her patients, her frustration mounted. At one point, while discussing how her technology failed to help her manage the stress of the enormous workload placed on her and her colleagues, she mentioned having lost a patient. I watched her relive that pain – she broke down and started sobbing. None of the other users we’d talked to had even come close to that kind of emotional response, even though some of them had lost patients too.

Right then and there I learned there’s an awkward balance between not wanting to seem clinical and cold at that crucial moment, but still wanting to preserve an interviewee’s dignity: I figured weeping in front of strangers at work must be somewhat embarrassing. So I bowed my head and looked down at my notes, or my lap, or at nothing in particular, to give the crying nurse a bit of privacy. I waited a few sobs so it didn’t seem like I was trying to shut her up, and then I warmly and gracefully offered her a box of tissues. I let her know I empathized with her pain (although looking back on it I don’t see how I really could have…but my empathy felt genuine anyway) and she eventually calmed down and we finished out the interview. After that, back at the office I was jokingly known as the guy to call in to make people cry.

I think I deal fairly well with very emotional user research situations and over my career I’ve learned they are not uncommon, but it was interesting to have one right off the bat.

Emily’s War Story: Getting To The Point

Emily Mayfield (Twitter, LinkedIn) is a User Experience Researcher at The Kroger Co. in Cincinnati, OH.

Before my current job, I spent six months in Bangalore, India, doing research for a lab that was part of a design school in the northern part of the city. I did not drive while I was in India – I took public transportation and little “autos,” which resemble a golf cart in terms of size and a lawnmower in terms of sound. At that time Uber was barred from India. The driving style in Bangalore struck me as very different from the States: sometimes the traffic lights/stop signs are ignored, sometimes drivers go well beyond oncoming traffic lanes, sometimes when a freeway exit is missed drivers throw their cars into reverse on the freeway. I saw enough daily to get my heart pumping.

I was doing research to understand what the notion of “smart city” might mean in India? As part of the research, I made cold calls to different innovation centers and companies, setting up expert interviews that would inform the research. I learned a lot about how companies had explored the concept of “smartness” in cities. In retrospect, the interview part was easy. Finding the location of the interviews was the challenge.

I had a smart phone. I had a camera. I took photos of the locations on Google maps on my computer or on my phone in case the connection on my phone was lost or hiccuping. One time, I got on the bus headed south and rode it two hours deep into the city to a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with. I hopped off when it seemed like I was close to where I needed to be. There was a queue of auto drivers at the bus stop. I showed my phone and camera screens, with their neat pin-point of my destination on the digital map, to the first driver in the queue. I showed him the address: a building number and street name. The driver waved me in. “No problem!” I thought to myself. I smiled and held on tight to my bag and the rail of the auto. We were off! Turning and bending through little streets and big ones, weaving in between cars and buses. We flew past people crossing the street, animals doing the same, and carts selling food and tea. We drove and drove and drove some more. Minutes led to double-digits. The driver was flying…in what felt like circles. Checking the time, I thought “Oh boy…”

Eventually the driver pulled over to ask other auto drivers for help finding the location. Local folks came to help. A cop or some kind of military person joined in the effort. The mass of people tried to help, pointing around like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz guessing all directions to try next. They discussed, pointed, checked and double-checked the address and the maps. At last I got a solid idea: I called my interviewee and he chatted with the driver. We met in a place that the driver could find and then I walked with the interviewee to the building together.

Afterwards, a colleague let me know that the European conventions of maps as we know them don’t make sense to some people in India who have never seen a map in that form. Also, Bangalore is constantly changing, adding streets and changing names of streets. Later on I learned that landmarks are the way to go, as well as calling people sooner rather than later. Still, the worst case scenario was handing my phone to friendly-looking strangers to communicate with a driver when I’m really lost and it worked. A quick shout out to the kind and patient people of Bangalore: Thank you for your constant help getting me to and fro!

Side note: It’s possible my geographical difficulty is just a me thing. More than once I’ve gone to conduct research at the wrong Kroger store on the same street here in Cincinnati!

Krispian’s War Story: If Texas and England Had a Baby

Krispian Emert has over 12 years experience working in UX. She has worked all over the world: for startups, agencies, and companies like Microsoft, The NFL, Thompson Reuters, ING, etc. Currently, she is lead UX Researcher at TELUS digital. She told this story live at Radical Research Summit.

It was my first field study at my new job in Sydney, Australia. I had just uprooted my family and flown to the other side of the world to work for Australia’s largest user experience consultancy. Did I want to do a good job? You bet. Was I nervous? Hell, yes!

I had had a couple of weeks to settle in and explore the city, and to get to know my colleagues. My impression of Australian culture was that it was surprisingly similar to Canadian culture: We both have the Queen on our money, we both drink copious amounts of beer, and we both say “no worries” a lot. The only glaring difference I was able discern up to that point was that for a casual greeting Canadians asked “How’s it going?” and Australians asked, “How’re you going?” So I had experienced little culture shock thus far.

The assignment was for one of the big banks. We were to conduct contextual field studies in the moment while people used the bank’s ATMs. The only problem was that due to privacy constraints we had to recruit people just as they were about to use the ATM. This was made more challenging because the bank gave us very little in the way of official ID.

This meant that I, an extra polite Canadian, was nervously approaching busy Australians and anxiously stammering the first few sentences of my recruitment spiel. To say that I got turned down by my prospective interviewees is an understatement. The fact that I didn’t look “official” or in any way affiliated with the bank made me seem suspect at best, and criminal at worst. ATM users glared at me as though I were panhandling, and time after time, I was told to “Fuck off!”. I was worried that I wouldn’t complete the assignment. I needed 10 participants and after two hours I had exactly none.

As I stood in the street in Sydney, miles from home, failing to secure participants and on the receiving end of some choice language, I had a “Dorothy moment.” I was not in Canada anymore. Despite my initial impression that our countries were similar, I was in whole new culture – one where people were not afraid to say the F-word to a complete stranger. I realized I had to stop assuming people would stop and politely listen to my lengthy recruitment pitch, and that I had to just accept Australians for what they were – blunt and direct. I changed my approach, and went up to prospective participants boldly, waving my gift cards at them. I shortened my pitch to state only the benefits of participating in the research. This produced much better results.

They say that if Texas and England had a baby, it would be Australia. After this experience, I grew to appreciate the unique Australian culture of “wild west gunslinger meets cricket games and meat pies.”

And despite our differences, I guess we’re pretty similar after all.

Billy Eichner on Interviewing

In this interview with Billy Eichner he articulates a beautiful principle of successful interviewing (even though his show features “interviews” that are over-the-top aggro street-intercepts)

Q: What makes a good interview for you?
A: I might have jokes in my head, but the best interactions come when I listen to the person’s response. I let go of whatever my plan might have been, and I meet this person where they are, and I let them lead me wherever they want to go, to a certain extent. It always bothers me when I watch interviews — even serious ones on a news program — and there are no follow-up questions, and the journalist sticks to their plan, and they don’t let the conversation guide them.

Steve in conversation with What Users Do

What Users Do has published our conversation about user research and war stories. Below is a tiny excerpt but please read the whole thing here.

Your book ‘Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries’ is a collection of war stories from the world of user research, collected from real life researchers. Are there common themes between the stories?

That’s how the book is structured, actually. Each of the 11 chapters considers a particular theme, something that is of particular challenge to researchers. Some of these are obvious (such as participants we have problems with, or the potential to end up in a dangerous situation) and some are less obvious (encountering not-safe-for-work content in the field, or dealing with our own emotions as well as those of our participants). The chapters begin with an essay by me, include a handful of different stories about the theme, and then wrap up with takeaways that researchers can use to develop their own practice.

You say that improving research skills is about coming to grips with our own ‘flawed humanity’ – how so?

Pulling off a research program is an enormous logistics exercise. Coordinating materials, participants, times, locations, stakeholders, incentives, recording equipment, and on and on. When you work inside a commercial enterprise, there’s a desire to optimize processes, create spreadsheets, build checklists, summarize objectives, deliver key takeaways, etc. But the truth we may forget is that research is an activity that researchers perform with participants. People who make mistakes, people who come to the session with something else going on in their lives, people who have emotions, people who have different verbal abilities, people who have different expectations of the session, and on and on it goes.

While the optimizing efforts are important, these will always be person-to-person interactions. You can fight that and always be frustrated or stressed or disappointed, or you can embrace that as part of the joy of doing research and a source for richer learning. Learning to overcome the pull of frustration and to find a way to actually embrace it is where we can personally grow in our practices.

A user research reading (listening/watching) list

I’m in Chattanooga today, teaching the students at Center Centre today (and tomorrow) about ethnographic research.

In preparation for the class, they asked me to put together a list of readings, so I pulled together a bunch of links that I’d posted in the last few months, some of them on this blog but mostly on the Portigal LinkedIn page. I’m sharing the list below.

Series

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