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.

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.

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