Listen to Steve on the Design Your Thinking podcast

I had a fantastic conversation with Karthik of the Design Your Thinking podcast, posted in two separate episodes.

The first episode is Problem Space vs. Solution Space

Listen at that link, or here, or embedded below

The second episode is Master The Art Of Listening

Listen at that link, or here, or embedded below

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!

Have A Nice Day

I’ve just published Have A Nice Day as part of The Human In The Machine, a series about productivity. Excerpted below, but check out the whole piece here.

I interviewed a young couple who were both working in corporate sales (for different companies) out of their shared home office. The goal of this research project was to understand how people worked, outside of traditional offices. I had my own assumptions about what we’d learn, expecting stories about people folding laundry while they were on the call with a colleague (In fact, we met one woman who described being on a web-based teleconference from her laptop while she drove her child to after-school activities). But this couple had a particular approach: they went into the home office at 9 am and focused only on their work, until 5 pm (with a break for lunch). They deliberately maintained a firewall between their work environment (and the associated tasks) and the rest of their lives. This took intentionality and focus.

In this interview, the husband explained to us that he begins every day by making a list of what he wants to accomplish. Beyond managing his productivity, having this list meant he could tell if he had a good day!

The Turnaround is a great new podcast that interviews interviewers

The Turnaround is a new podcast where interviewers are interviewed about interviewing. The episode with Audie Cornish is just fantastic. Anyone who is thinking about the interview (the mechanics, the preparation, the rapport, the search for the story, working against constraints) should listen at least to the first 50 minutes or so. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the series (but I’m also afraid that it can’t possibly live up to how great this interview is!).

A partial transcript – just the highlights – is here

Because I know the conversation will be edited down, I don’t necessarily have the luxury to go on a fishing expedition. So I often write my questions in advance wherever possible. I rewrite and noodle around with the language even though I know for fact I won’t necessarily read it word for word. And I always have more questions than I need. In fact my poor producers and editors always see me coming in with like a long script, and then I’ll say, “Let’s put a star next to the things that actually matter.” Like, even though I have 15 questions. Because I want to make sure I at least get the things we absolutely know we want to ask, even if they don’t yield great answers. It’s not that I run out of things to ask, you know what I mean? It’s more that I have occasionally, where you just like flip over the paper, and you’re just having a good conversation, and one thing leads to another and things can go very easily. When in doubt, I often say something, like, very straightforward, and this is directly from the Sound Reporting handbook. You know… “What haven’t I asked that I should have? What’s something you wish people would ask you that they never do?” Like, people oftentimes have an answer for that.

Elizabeth’s War Story: Nail Polish for Insights

Elizabeth Chesters is a UX consultant based in London, who volunteers for organizations like EmpowerHack and CodeFirst:Girls. She told this story live at User Research London.

I volunteer for EmpowerHack, an organisation dedicated to building technical solutions for refugees. When I joined in 2016, I was working on a project called HaBaby; a mobile app that stores medical records of pregnant refugees and offers symptom cards to help them communicate with doctors. Throughout my time volunteering, I noticed a lot of barriers. One of the biggest was that a lot of people in the organisation did not understand refugees! Many had never spoken to an actual refugee, which led to some wild assumptions (such as how some women had got pregnant or the age they would typically marry).

In April 2016 my team member and I planned a trip to the refugee camps in France. We did not feel comfortable turning up as researchers, as our digital skills didn’t directly help refugees or fit the environment. They needed houses, not interviews. Our plan was to spend as much time as possible observing, in order to better understand issues refugees faced. Our research would then be reported back to the organisation, validating our ideas about what it means to be a refugee and our technical solutions.

The first visit where we were able to talk with refugees was at the Dunkirk camp. Dunkirk was a much cleaner camp than one of the other camps we had been to, The Jungle in Calais. My team member and I met with a volunteer and a group of refugees who were working on an open-source map project. After introductions, we quickly gained the trust of a refugee, who I’ll call “Zach”. We went to his cabin, met the temporary family he had made in the camp and mentioned that we were in the camps to do research.

We walked around the camp, and came across a group of three mothers who were sitting outside with their babies. By the time we communicated to Zach what we were trying to do, so that he could translate for mothers, it was raining. The women looked at us and stood up, gripping their children. Zach explained that the women would not talk to us without trading for makeup. We were testing an app, so we had nothing physical to give them. In the end they went inside to get out of the rain, and we had to walk away… though not without a few marriage proposals from passing men.

On our last day volunteering we were invited to help at a spa day for female refugees in The Jungle. Here we could get close to the women and ask questions in their safe space. This time we also brought makeup to exchange! We turned the top of a donated double-decker bus (with no seats) into a beauty room. Everyone relaxed, leaving their shoes downstairs. We laid out carpet, lined the windows with bunting, and scattered cushions around the room. My friend and I set up our nail polishing stations and settled in for a long day of painting nails.

Throughout the day we were able to meet refugees and ask questions. The women were from all around the world, with the majority from Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Sadly conversations did not flow as well as expected, partly due to my inability to paint nails. Most seemed unamused at my efforts. So, I spent most of my time redoing the same nails and ensuring we still had enough polish for women who would come later.

Halfway through the day journalists from Grazia, a fashion magazine turned up to interview volunteers and refugees about the spa day. They made no effort to ask for help to translate questions. The more questions the journalists asked, the more you could see the women retreat into themselves.

By the end of the day we had no makeup left. I had a makeover done by a little girl and looked like I had two black eyes. My friend also had a bright red face, due to being sat on and having her eyebrows threaded by an Iranian beautician. I walked down to the bottom deck of the bus, to an empty box of shoes. After scanning the whole bottom deck, it became apparent that I no longer had shoes. The other volunteers helped me find something I could wear temporarily. We found a pair of silver slip-on shoes. They were slightly too small, so I had to stand on the back on them. Someone reassured me that I could go to the warehouse to pick a donated pair that fit me. But when I walked outside, the woman we had arrived with (and her car) were gone, our passports along with her. We were now stranded in The Jungle, late in the day, with the warehouse an hour’s walk away. All I could do was pace up and down, frantically phoning volunteers who I knew were at the warehouse. I prayed the woman got my message to stay at the warehouse after dropping off other volunteers, so we could retrieve our passports.

In the end we were rescued by a volunteer called “Superman John”. He drove us back to the warehouse which housed the donations, so we could get our passports back and I could pick out some shoes that fit. I have never been so happy to see that little red book!

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.

Wisdom from “The Americans”

On the season finale of The Americans, there’s a bit of a post-mortem (so to speak) on a mission, including this bit of dialog

The people back home who aren’t in the field, sometimes they get what we do and sometimes they don’t. But when you’re in the field you have to make split-second decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of thinking things through every time…it’s important to be honest about mistakes. But acknowledging them doesn’t always keep them from happening again.

Obviously they are referencing a different sort of fieldwork. But the lesson applies, nonetheless. For more on this theme, check out my new book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

Steve’s War Story: Details Disconnect

This story was originally published on behalf of The Field Study Handbook.

Last year I was working on a project for a financial technology client. Finding participants is often a challenge, but on this project, for small business owners, it was particularly difficult.

We had hoped to base this research on previous studies, but it proved difficult to glean details about how previous studies were done. There were rumors that another team, elsewhere in the country, had developed a segmentation algorithm, but voicemails and emails went unanswered. We heard about great participants from previous studies that we should revisit, but no one would get back to us. The schedule ticked by and the pressure mounted. In the end, we were left with no choice to work around these limitations. Finally, I began to approach recruiting agencies.

My go-to recruiting team refused to take the assignment on as they had, ironically, recruited for one of these previous studies and felt like they had tapped out the local market. Another company had gone out of business, and a third didn’t think they could accomplish the recruit.

I ended up with a recruiter I had never worked with. In the end, I think they did a good job, but a new relationship added stress to the increasingly complex recruiting process.

In our introductory call, one of our recruits expressed surprise and concern that there would two of us visiting his very small office. We eventually agreed that even though it might be cramped, it would be okay. The recruiting agency, when asked about this disconnect, reassured me that they made it clear, as per my instructions, that there would be two of us. I was confused, as the participant had insisted they had never told him anything about this.

Later that day I got an email from the participant, who sought reassurance about the purpose of the interview. He had clicked on my website (seen in my email signature) and was concerned that I was actually going to be pitching him my services. He had been involved in a focus group through this agency before, and presumed this would be something similar. I confirmed that this was not a sales pitch.

A few days later we met with him in his exceptionally cramped one-person workspace. As the interview unfolded, he abruptly stopped and directly, yet politely expressed confusion and discomfort about the interview itself. Why were we asking these questions? Who do we represent? How are we going to use this information?

It took a long, unhurried conversation about the process and our objectives to put him at ease. We resumed the interview and learned a great deal about his truly amazing businesses, past, present, and future.

I emphasize his politeness in stopping the interview, because now, when I go back to the transcript, that’s what I see. But at that time, sitting in that interview, it didn’t feel that way. It felt aggressive and angry and I spent the remainder of the interview feeling uncertain about our rapport. I overcompensated with excessive deference, people-pleasing, and probably flattery. That’s not a comfortable feeling and it’s not conducive to a good interview. I have empathy for someone feeling uncomfortable about something as odd as two strangers with a video camera coming into their office space to ask about their professional history. It’s easy to mischaracterize people that don’t “get it” as difficult. And I assume that I am pretty good at managing expectations at all the common points of failure in establishing rapport.

But boy it’d be nice if we had someone to blame. That guy was a jerkface! The recruiter didn’t do their job (and then lied and insisted they did!). Steve didn’t handle the first call or the interview kickoff properly! Yet it doesn’t seem like any of these are true.

While I felt sheepish at the end of the interview, I was surprised to get a LinkedIn request from the participant immediately afterwards. And, I guess, less surprised when I heard from him a few times weeks later about not receiving his incentive payment (This was one of the very few studies where I asked the agency to send checks after the interview was completed, rather than handing people the incentive directly myself. Mistake? I don’t know). When I followed up with the recruiter about the missing incentive, I heard in some detail how this participant had already called and yelled at the admin staff.

And so it goes.

Making an Impact with UX Research Insights

I wrote a short piece for UX Mastery about ensuring the results of user interviews have the most impact. I’ve included an excerpt below, but you should read the whole piece here.

In your analysis, how do you decide what’s important?

Take time at the beginning of the research to frame the problem. Where did this research initiate? What hypotheses – often implicit ones – do stakeholders have? What business decisions will be made as a result of this research?

What research reveals doesn’t always fit into the structure that is handed to you ahead of time, so knowing what those expectations are can help you with both analysis and communication. Some things are important to understand because they’re part of the brief. But other things are going to emerge as important because as you spend time with your conclusions you realise “Oh this is the thing!”

Series

About Steve