Posts tagged “fieldwork”

John’s War Story: An Ethnographic Encounter with Occupy Wall Street

This story (told live at our New York book launch party) comes from John Payne of Moment Design.

“Mic Check, Mic Check!” he said with some authority as he jumped up on the planter. “Mic Check, Mic Check!” The crowd quickly repeated. “Security team needed near the information tent,” he continued. The crowd again repeated. “This is an emergency!” he added a bit more emphatically. This time when the crowd repeated they paid a bit more attention to the words they were saying. At that moment, I realized that I had just brought 25 people to one of the unstable locations in Manhattan, and none of them had signed a waiver.

In the fall of 2011, I was asked by the IxDA to give a series of workshops on ethnography and its relationship to design. By the time we had settled on an agenda and a date, the Occupy Wall Street movement had emerged, and their occupation of Zucotti Park was in full swing. It was a risky choice of research site, but what’s an ethnographer to do? We were off to Zucotti Park, or as the occupiers had renamed it, Liberty Square

Prior to our arrival in the park that morning, I had led the group through some background-key principles for participant observation, selected methods we were to try out together-and divided them into small working groups. It had been a quick preparation, but I was certain once we arrived, we’d have a once-in-a-lifetime observational experience. What I hadn’t fully considered was the possibility of imminent danger. We had just split up into teams… and that’s when the Mic Check happened.

The incident that spawned the call for security was an altercation in front of a brightly decorated tent on the north side of the park. The teepee-like structure was wrapped in a blue tarp with panels of silver heat reflective material. It was one of the more flamboyantly decorated tents, flying several flags and calling lots of attention from passersby.The occupant, an older man, had recently moved his tent partially into in a flowerbed because of the overcrowding and lack of space. As one of the few remaining open patches of ground, flowerbeds had been off limits until now.

Another man, from the south side of the park, was violently removing the teepee from the flowerbed when security arrived. Luckily, the quick intervention of the volunteer security force cooled the situation down. The incident ended shortly after it had begun with no injuries to anyone, my students included. Once I had checked that everyone was safe, my ethnographer’s instincts overcame my fear and I approached the teepee’s occupant. His name was David. He had been in the park since September 17th, day one of the occupation. I had found my respondent. He was visibly shaken, but as we spoke he let me in on a perspective that most non-occupiers would never be exposed to.

What this experience taught me is twofold: 1) Anticipate the unexpected: We weren’t sure what we would find in Zucotti Park that day, but being open to the moment gave us a glimpse of something rare-a very human perspective that stood in contrast to the stereotype that OWS had become in the media. And 2) Take advantage of your opportunities: In our case it was the last such opportunity we would get. Our visit took place on November 12th. The occupiers were evicted two days later.

For more of what John learned from his visit, check out his blog post about their time with OWS.

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.

help
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?

raisins
Without raisins? Now with extra raisins!

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

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

wall
Controls removed for your convenience.

Michael’s War Story: All About Face (Sichuan Adventures)

Michael. B Griffiths is the Director of Ethnography for Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China.

I’m in Sichuan province, at a small town called Anxian. I’m with a US film producer and a Chinese research assistant. We are documenting lower-tier city lifestyles in terms of the human condition as well as how people consume. We’ve just finished up our morning session with a man who shared emotional stories about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

We were operating in two groups, doing home visits at different sites. It was time to pick up the other team from the town center and head off to Mianyang, our next destination.

But the other team called in late. There was a problem. The primary informant’s mother had returned home and reacted badly to their presence. While we didn’t have the details at this point, it seemed that the team could not easily leave the field site. On the phone, I could hear an intense argument in the background.

I had the driver park up around the corner from the site. The junior member of the team came round to meet us, shaking her head and heaving with frustration. Apparently the situation in the home had turned nasty and the senior member was trying to deal with it.

The primary informant, aged nineteen, had not told her mother about our research, although she had given us her formal consent. And now her mother was furious with her daughter for not seeking permission, and worse, she suspected us of being cheats or swindlers. We later learned she had been the victim of an identity-theft crime in similar circumstances.

An hour and more passed without a resolution. It seemed ridiculous that we were wasting so much time on this. Could we not just explain the situation, apologize for the inconvenience, and leave? I was inclined to intervene in person but various team members advised that a foreigner’s presence might exacerbate an already inflammatory situation.

Another phone call came through-

The argument was by now on the street outside the home. The mother was ferociously lashing out and forcibly preventing the senior team member from leaving. Concerned for her safety, I advised that she run around the corner and come over to the car – the site was only 30 meters away.

Once in the car, I proposed that we just leave. We had done nothing wrong, and were increasingly sure this fractious episode was symptomatic of a pre-existing tension between the mother and daughter. Right?

Right! So, let’s hit it, driver!

We sped off in the direction of the Mianyang highway.

As we cut through the breeze with the sun in our faces, the team members answered rapid-fire questions and shared their perspectives as they eased themselves out of the tension. We thought we were home free.

Not by a long shot.

Not long had passed before our phones started to ring. Representatives of the local recruitment agency with which we had partnered were with the enraged mother and phoning to ascertain our whereabouts. This was the agency who had recruited the daughter for our research and I wondered why it seemed beyond their capacity to handle the communication deficit.

We agreed that our overall objectives demanded that we press on with our schedule. Too much time had been wasted and we were quite clear were we stood in terms of our legal agreement with the informants; the local recruitment agency were better placed and, as we saw it, obligated to resolve any misunderstanding about our identity and purposes.

As solution, we agreed that the rest of the team would switch off their phones while I would use my phone to call the recruitment agency bosses we dealt with back in Shanghai headquarters. Better to have just one channel of communication open rather than several at the same time.

This we did, but before any intervention could be launched our driver started to get the same calls from the local recruitment agency. One of our team took the call on the driver’s phone and tried to explain our position on the situation and that we just wanted to continue with our schedule. The agency had also helped us plan for further research in Mianyang and Chengdu, so they were well aware of our tight schedule.

If only the situation could have been so simple! Our driver insisted on keeping his phone switched on since this made him available should his employer need to call. Presumably alerted by the local agency representatives, the driver’s employer did call and insisted he return to Anxian at once. We were unwilling to return with him since we were sure that the two hour return journey would be followed by further time wasted on senseless arguing. Could the situation not be resolved via the proper channels?

Unfortunately, the driver’s open line of communication meant that he could be contacted by people other than his boss. He began to get calls from an unfamiliar number over and over again.

Perhaps the driver should switch his phone off too!?

Then the real shock came.

What? The Public Security Bureau was on the phone? The mother had called the police before we had left. We had left the mother baying for our blood in the street and now the police had arrived to find us gone!

Things went rapidly downhill from here, as arguments erupted about what to do next. Returning to the site would not be an option, the local staff felt, since we would get in trouble for leaving the scene. My explaining things to the local police would not help either, they felt, since the police would not “take my side” because I was a foreigner. Any interaction with the police was bound to be long and protracted anyway, and there was also some notion about market researchers needing to obtain local police permission in advance, which the local recruitment agency had neglected to mention!

Tempers flared and leadership was called for. But leadership on this project was the same woman who got into the argument with the mother in the first place. She now called her father in a panic!

The idea that the police were actually pursuing us over this seemed ridiculous but it was very real. We were still driving up the highway away from Anxian, and with visions of flashing blue lights at every intersection it felt like we were on the run from the law.

It was decision time: the driver had to return to Anxian and could not avoid answering his phone when the police called. We asked him to pull in at a remote roadside restaurant and unload our bags. He would remain with us to get some lunch; it was late afternoon already. Then he would return to Anxian and his boss would send an alternative driver to take us onto Mianyang.

We ate a meal and for a while believed the heat in the situation had burned itself out. I called in to update our superiors. Apparently, the bosses at the recruitment agency were starting to get a handle on it. There was still disagreement about our next move, but at least the police were not calling us every few minutes. They were probably having lunch too.

With our phones all back on and the driver gone, the police began calling us directly. Several hours had passed since the original incident and the mother’s demands had become more specific: she wanted the tapes we had recorded in her home. This presented a problem for our research and our film producer was particularly against this: his movie would be incomplete without these tapes. Moreover, even if we returned the tapes to the mother, she the professional format meant she wouldn’t be able to play them.

Our conversations thus became more practical and technical as the police sought to broker a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. An agreement was struck whereby the majority of the team would proceed to Mianyang while two personnel would return to Anxian with the tapes and play these for the mother at the local police station.

It was well into the evening when we arrived in Mianyang, about the same time as our team representatives arrived back in Anxian. After a torrid day, they had to sit and play through the entire 4 hours of footage for the purposes of the mother’s verification. With the police there with her, she gradually adjusted herself to the idea we were not crooks or foreign spies and found a way to climb down from her rage whilst saving face.

Exhausted, we spared a thought for the daughter who was probably going to get the raw end of whatever remaining anger could not now be justifiably directed anywhere else. Our analysis of the film footage revealed a wealth of insights into a specific tension between the daughter’s almost angelic nature and her mother’s oppressive, almost ogre-ish nature. It appeared our fieldwork had exposed an underlying tension after all.

Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler

Alicia Dornadic is a design researcher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Going to someone’s home for the first time to interview them, especially in an unfamiliar culture and language, can be awkward. Showing up with two researchers, a cameraman and a couple clients in tow – all of whom are over-caffeinated and in need of a bathroom break – can make for a circus act. These were three-hour long interviews, too. So, despite our best efforts to arrange feeding and peeing times before getting to the person’s home, we usually all had to pee at some point during the interview. But our translator was the absolute queen of tinkling. The first day I was understanding. “Maybe she’s sick or nervous,” I thought. She would take two to four breaks during each interview, which left the rest of us smiling and pointing at things dumbly, trying to make conversation in her absence. By the end of the week, my patience was shot. I was ready to strap some adult diapers on her. I would glower at her every time she asked for water, tea, or a soda. “Really?” I thought, my eyes on fire, “Should you really be having that?” I’m not proud of this. But I couldn’t help being annoyed.

Finally, karma came to bite me on the ass. It was at the end of a long interview at the end of a long day, and I broke down and asked if I could use the restroom. Our host pointed to it, and I stumbled inside, missing the 2-inch step down into it. There wasn’t a lot of light in the bathroom, and it was cluttered. I couldn’t find a switch. But no matter. I go. I reach for the toilet paper, and BOOM! CRASH! I take down the entire metal toilet paper rack off the wall, and it crashes onto the tiled floor. It was too dark to see how to fix it, so I had to come out and explain what I had done and apologize. Not only that, but my explanation and apology had to be translated! Translated and explained to two researchers, a cameraman, a couple of clients and our participant. It ended up not being a big deal, but I was embarrassed. And I felt guilty for all my negative thoughts towards our translator. As much as I was annoyed at our tinkler friend, at least she didn’t break anything.

Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility

Cordy Swope (Twitter) describes himself as either a Design Researcher with Grey Hair or a design researcher with grey hair.

IDEO. NYC. Early 2010.

I had been summoned from Europe to lead a project about the future of education in the US. At IDEO, there is a well-established a code of ethics for site visits. This code takes extra measures to protect the privacy of informants – especially their identities and contact data. IDEO also has sensible, street-smart guidelines for fieldwork in sketchy environments. In previous jobs, I had seen a situation in which two of my female design researchers had to go to remote, sparsely populated parts of the Midwest and visit big, burly, smiling men who stored every conceivable power tool in their dungeon-like tornado cellars.

There is never a shortage of people in NYC though, and recruiting there offers many delights. For instance, NYC is one of only several places where it is possible to recruit for impossibly specific profiles like: “Seeking 3 single dads who have volunteered with their children at a local charity organization within the past 2 weeks, and who also must struggle with their own gender identity and make at least $150K/year.” In the Tristate, if you are one in a million, by definition there are at least 22 of you.

Our recruiter used Craigslist for most projects and straightaway found us one of our targets: a working mother who had successfully completed a BA online while still raising a family. I had a new team and my associate design researcher was an eager, empathic and articulate ethnographer doing her first project at IDEO. We headed out to Inwood in Brooklyn for our first site visit, hoping to get insights from this working, baccalaureate mom.

During the ride, I played the senior mentor guy, offering advice about doing ethnography “in a design context.” We arrived at the address in Inwood, an obscure part of Brooklyn that looks like a sad, dilapidated part of Queens that in turn, tries to look like a nondescript suburb in Long Island. We were buzzed into the building, walked up to a door and were greeted by a large woman with a curly red mane of hair. Her name was “Roberta-but-call-me-Bert.”

She let us in. The apartment was dim. It smelled of litter box mixed with burnt Dinty Moore beef stew that Ramon, Roberta-call-me-Bert’s husband had overheated on the stove. The dingy plaster walls were covered in old shopping lists, written in a mangled scrawl that suggested vaguely menacing pathologies and personality disorders suffered by their author.

The sofa we sat on smelled of cat piss, and the living room offered up no pretense of ever having been cleaned. We sat up straight, made eye contact in that standard, pious, non-judgmental manner that earnest ethnographers often adopt. We began the paperwork. We were offered water and politely declined.

I asked her about work, family, free time; all of the perfunctory questions before we got into her BA experience. Since I was the seasoned professional, I led the discussion, “Tell me a story about your favorite class…”, “Did you make friends with your classmates?”, “Do you still keep in touch?” Since my associate was taking notes, I focused on keeping the discussion moving and letting Roberta-call-me-Bert lead us to all sorts of exciting insights.

The trouble was, she didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t remember much about that class,” she said about her favorite statistics course she took just before graduating 18 months ago. “Yeah, I pretty much kept to myself, because I had to work and raise a family, you know?” I nodded my head earnestly.

I began asking her questions about change: “Do you view your daughter’s education differently now since you got the degree?” “Not really,” she said, as her daughter ate ice cream from a container while watching a YouTube video about dog fighting.

We eventually went on our way. Once out the door, I was about to launch into the debrief. Since I was the experienced one, I was going to teach my associate a simple, time-honored 20 minute structure I often use for debriefs: Interesting Behaviors/Motivations and Drivers/Problems and Frustrations/Opportunities.

I noticed that she was grimacing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“That was a waste.” she replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She lied, she never went to college.”

I was gobsmacked.

And she was absolutely right.

There were no interesting behaviors. There were no drivers or motivations. There were no problems or frustrations. There were no opportunities.

There was no diploma. It was “packed away somewhere.”

We returned to the office. Another colleague was leading a project in men’s fashion and desperately trying to recruit shop-along dyads of couples in their 40’s and 50’s where wives selected the husband’s clothes. She said they had already recruited one couple on Craigslist and that her name was Roberta from Inwood, Brooklyn.

Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate

Rachel Wong, an independent design researcher and strategist, recalls a particularly revealing study participant.

I was working at a design firm, doing a quick photo diary study. The user segment we were studying were young X-Games-types, e.g., risk-takers and thrill-seekers. We were trying to get inspired by their mindset and approach to life. This was back in the days when Polaroids were commonly used in fieldwork studies for people to document aspects of their lives in context. We gave each participant a photo diary kit, which included a Polaroid camera, film, and prompts on sticker labels. They were asked to use the prompts to inspire their picture taking, and then to affix the corresponding prompts to each photo. The prompts for this study were open-to-interpretation statements like: “This gets me excited” or “This is a relief.”

One of the guys I’d recruited for the study was an acquaintance whom I’ll call Bobby – a shy, sweet, young guy big into skating. I was so happy he agreed to participate. A week later I dropped by his house to pick up his completed kit. “Thanks, it was fun,” he said earnestly, and I gave him his incentive and thanked him.

As soon as I was home I reviewed Bobby’s photo diary and did a double take when I saw that for one of the photos Bobby had documented himself in the act of sex with an anonymous partner, associated with the prompt: “This feels good.” For a Polaroid, the photo had an impressive amount of detail, in close-up no less.

Suffice to say, this was much different than the average photo diary entry and shocked and entertained my project team the whole next morning. As I posted all the photo diary responses in a large grid on foamcore, I struggled with whether to include the illicit photo in my display. We ended up turning it around, and then hiding it away when the client came for a meeting.

But when I think about it now, I realize Bobby was communicating something about his life approach that was powerful and honest. It makes me wonder how much we edit our study participants’ responses in light of work appropriateness, and even how many of our study participants edit their own responses, shielding their most real opinions in exchange for what they think we want to hear.

So, thank you Bobby for giving me an ounce of your truth, though I wasn’t really equipped to handle it. And I’m glad it was fun.

Ryan’s War Story: Enthusiasticus Interruptus

UX Reseacher Ryan DeGorter relates a familiar uncomfortable scenario, finding himself in the field with a colleague who isn’t quite on board with the whole listening thing.

Our UX Research team created a program called “Coffee with Customers” where we conducted interview sessions with our customers over a hot brew. It not only allowed us to take a step back from the daily grind, but gave the chance for others in the organization to be involved in the process. With this particular coffee and research session, I took along a product manager “Bob”.

Prior to the coffee session, I walked Bob through the interview style, and provided him a rough sketch of how the interview would flow. Bob was particularly interested in gaining insight on how people use social applications, so I worked those into the discussion guide. The research session started at 10am, so I picked Bob up at 9am to give ample time for one last review with Bob. I explained that I would like to be the one to lead the interview in order to maintain flow of the discussion. However, if he had a question to ask, he should try to remember to start the question with Who, What, Why, How or When.

It was a wintery day and Bob and I arrived at the coffee shop shortly before 10am. It was quite crowded as we did an initial scan for the participant “Kevin”. A few minutes later Kevin arrived. During introductions it was clear Kevin was a bit tentative about the session. When we were ordering coffee and muffins, it was difficult to start a conversation with him. Nevertheless, we found a table where we could sip our coffee and chat. Since Kevin was clearly nervous, I spent a little longer making small talk in hopes of trying to remove the awkwardness. We chatted about the weather, and how Waterloo [Ontario] never seems to get a proper winter anymore. Before long, we had a stronger rapport with Kevin, so we dove right into the interview.

I started with questions like “Where did you buy your smart phone?” and “What was your thought process for choosing that one?” Kevin continued to open up and was providing us good detailed information. He gave us very clear stories about why he chose this particular phone, what he enjoys about it as well as points of frustrations. All this time my partner Bob was sipping on his slightly cooler coffee and taking it all in without writing any notes. It was as if this was his normal daily routine and this interview was like every other research session he has done before.

As we delved deeper into Kevin’s usage patterns, we moved on to the topic of social applications. I asked Kevin to walk us through why he uses Facebook and Twitter and asked him to show us how he did this on his smart phone. Bob shuffled his chair closer to Kevin so he too could observe Kevin’s actions. Kevin confidently swiped through the Twitter application, explaining his rationale for following certain friends. At this point there was a sudden interruption which caught both Kevin and me by surprise. Bob leaned in even closer to the device and pointed to the screen as if it was his own phone. “Do you do it like this?” Bob asked “Um…I don’t think so.” Kevin replied hesitantly. Bob then suddenly grabs his pen, hunches over the table, and with both arms on the desk, furiously writes on a piece of paper, acting as if he needed to catch every word that was coming from Kevin’s lips. I felt like everything started going to go in hyper speed as I was no longer the pilot of this interview. I could not make out what Bob was actually writing, but he obviously had some specific answers that needed to write down personally. I tried to ease the tension Bob’s action had created, saying “That’s great that you use the application that way, what else do you do on this phone?” I tried to convey to Kevin that he was not being tested and that we instead were just seeking inspiration and understanding. Although I tried to move on, Bob interrupted again and asked Kevin to navigate to another area of the application, asking “Do you do this?” type of questions while he clearly had specific answers he was looking for. This went on for another few minutes, despite my efforts to regain control of the interview by trying to rephrase Bob’s questions in a more open manner. My efforts were in vain and I could see Kevin was shutting down and resorting to Yes and No answers. I needed to act and act quickly. “It looks like we need some refills. Why don’t we take a short break?” I said in a desperate hope to try and free Kevin from Bob’s interrogation. I was lucky that Kevin needed to use the washroom, so I took the opportunity to speak to Bob in the coffee line. I reminded him that we had an audio device so we did not have to write down any notes. I also addressed his interview style. I politely stated that I will be asking the questions during the remainder of the session while making sure to address those items that he provided me with in the discussion guide. Bob took my concerns to heart and allowed me to complete the interview without interrupting. We never fully gained the openness back from Kevin, but overall, it was an inspiring session for Bob and me. As we shook Kevin’s hand goodbye, I made a mental note thinking “This is why those UX books encourage you to ask questions instead of your stakeholders.”

In the field you always have to be on your feet. A single participant can be tricky as you try and figure out their personality and what will help them feel comfortable enough to openly talk to you. Additionally, your colleague may also become too eager and sidetrack the session in order to get their questions answered, despite being told how they should approach the participant. When things go awry, you need to be able to stay calm and get the interview back on track. It was great that Bob realized his mistake during the break and I will not let this experience prevent future colleagues to accompany me during a session. However, I will definitely spend more time explaining to my colleague the importance of rapport and emphasizing the proper technique on how to ask participants questions so as not to overwhelm them.

Jen’s War Story: Trust your gut, it can save your life!

Jen Iudice is a Senior Design Researcher with Teague. Here is her story about the road not taken.

Having done ethnographic research for nearly 20 years, I’ve definitely seen it all in the field. Fortunately, that includes coming across some very interesting and enthusiastic participants. On occasion however, there are times when the recruiter misses the boat, things slip through the cracks, and wham bam, you are in a painfully uncomfortable (or in rare cases) a dangerous situation. Hence the challenge of screening: striking a balance between actually screening participants while trying not to lead them. As researchers we are aware of the occasional duds who sneak their way into a study in order to make a buck! This is one of those stories.

Recently, I was charged to do some field research for a client about how people use their personal data; a topic that covered a massive amount of sub topics, and could apply to almost anyone. The screener was carefully developed with the client’s input, and the recruit was filled with a great spectrum of participants. Good so far.

The client was very motivated to participate in the research, which is almost always a positive. However, on this particular occasion my colleague and I were ultimately relieved that he could not make it to this interview!

When we arrived at the location, we noticed an old, run down high-rise building with a bail bondsman conveniently located on the bottom floor. There were several “tenants” taking leisurely “naps” in front of the doorway to greet us. At that moment I felt a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. My colleague half joking/half seriously said, “I don’t want to go in there Jen…I don’t care if he uses Mint.com!”

As we drove around the building several times I contemplated: Am I being too judgmental? Could this really be a well-qualified participant that I am simply not willing to accept because of the sketchy appearance of his place of residence? Can we risk entering this building with all of our expensive electronic/video equipment?

My colleague and I decided not to risk ignoring the feeling in our guts, and phoned to cancel the interview.

When the participant answered the phone he sounded very strange and out of sorts. I let him know that we would still pay him for his time, but we could not make it to the interview (translation: we are afraid to come into your building!). He then explained that he had just been robbed at gunpoint in his apartment, and that it was a good thing we did not come over! This became even more concerning when we realized that you could not enter this building without going through a security check-in at the front desk (this was another tip-off that we should not go in!). This event would mean either the security precautions were a joke, or that someone that lives in the building had robbed him! Needless to say, I did not ask any details, and he continued to talk to me about how distraught he was. I did my best to try and console the man and wished him luck with his situation. AWKWARD!

It boggles my mind to think about what could have happened if we had followed through with this interview! As one could imagine, I “verbalized my concerns” to the recruiter (i.e., I gave them an earful!), but moving forward, I will always map out my in-home interviews and will always make sure I have a colleague with me on every interview…just to be safe!

Be careful out there, everyone. Always be aware of your surroundings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!

Prasad’s War Story: Skin in the game

Prasad Kantamneni is a Silicon Valley transplant in rural Andhra Pradesh. He lives at the intersection of politics, design, social work, and entrepreneurship.

I was visiting an informant’s home with a couple of colleagues to observe her trying to find information on the Internet.

Things were great – until she opened the door. The first thing we noticed was that the carpet had a lot of pink confetti on it. The confetti seemed to be everywhere. Then things turned scary when we realized that the confetti was skin — lots of it! The informant had shed most of her outer layer of skin.

At this point, all of us were worried that we would catch something. I knew my colleagues did not want to continue with the visit, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful by cancelling the visit without a valid reason. So I made the call to continue.

To give my colleagues an out, I asked them to record the interview — which gave them an excuse to keep standing. I then proceeded to ask her about the kinds of information she looked for on-line. She mentioned that, among other things, she sometimes researched her medical condition. At which point I asked her to do what she would normally do when researching the condition. As she searched for the information, all of us were equally involved, trying to read if the disease was communicable!

Once we realized that the disease was not communicable, we were able to get past our mental block and proceed with the interview.

This is one visit none of us were likely to forget any time soon.

Daria’s War Story: Human Thresholds

Here’s a story about a very challenging participant, from Daria Loi who works as UX Innovation Manager at Intel.

About five years ago a colleague and I traveled to Sweden, Indonesia and PRC for a study of storage practices in homes. We were particularly interested in observing everyday activities related to the “stuff” one owns, like clustering, archiving, organizing, disposing, sharing, holding, recycling and so on. The goal was to gather useful insights from the analog world to better understand how people might deal with data in the digital one.

In each city we recruited a number of participants to be interviewed twice and to complete a cultural probe during the week between the interviews. The first interview (about 3 hours) started by focusing on baseline data for the first 60-90 minutes, and then shifted to a home tour in which we would go room by room, observing the environment and asking questions arising from what we noticed or from what the participant indicated during the baseline interview. During this part of the first interview we would often find ourselves opening drawers, cupboards, wardrobes and the like, with participants’ permission of course.

There is nothing more fascinating than seeing what people do with their stuff. To some extent you see yourself and your own behaviors in action, and in other cases you have to be prepared to find the most obscure things in those drawers – so obscure than even their owners are perplexed when they rediscover them!

I have fond memories of a young and bright Swedish woman laughing with puzzled surprise when she discovered the enormous amount of candles she managed to accumulate and that all those candles were in the same drawer as a flyswatter she did not recall owning. I still giggle when I think of a beautiful Indonesian family taking us in their storage room, to discover they had 6-7 identical broken appliances. I still remember the puzzlement of the husband, trying to work out how on earth that accumulation happened. And again, I always smile with affection and admiration when I think of a Chinese painter and his lovely wife showing us their feng-shui based order of things.

During this quite long study (a bit more than two weeks in the field for each country, long for corporate research) one of many adventures is about a Chengdu-based participant, who my anthropologist colleague has since always referred to as “the interviewee from hell.”

It all starts in the morning at 9 am; the first interview for that day. We ring the bell of an apartment, but no response. After a few minutes we try again, but still nothing. We start feeling edgy as we do not want to be culturally inappropriate or pushy. Yet suddenly the door opens to reveal a young pajama-covered woman with puffy eyes who is evidently just out of bed.

The young lady, which here will remain of course unnamed, looks at us evidently annoyed, flashing “how dare you to wake me up” eyes, and asks us what we want. The translator explains we are there for the interview and she tells us she’s pretty sure we are one day early.

My colleague and I begin thinking of ways to accommodate her interview another day but the participant let us in – even though we fear this is not the best premise for the best interview.

After the usual preambles and consent form sign-offs, we set up our video gear and proceed with the first part of the interview. I should have immediately realized something was off when I saw the participant clutching to her mobile phone with great intimacy – the glued-on-my-body type of intimacy. But no, her behavior did not immediately ring the “this is going to be a disaster” bell and I let my colleague start with the interview, while I start my picture/video taking activity.

There is something rather cool about framing another human being through a camera. You observe little details even more deeply. And now, all the little details immediately ring the infamous “this is going to be a disaster interview” bell. For the rest of the interview the following occurs over and over again:

  1. Colleague asks a question while participant checks her phone (text, emails, internet)
  2. Participant responds with “yes”, “no” and “hmm-I think so” type of answers
  3. Colleague’s face changes color into a subtle pink tending to a gentle red
  4. Participant continues checking her phone, rarely looking up or even acknowledging someone is asking her questions
  5. Another round of question and yes/no answers follows
  6. Colleague face increasingly changes shades till she looks like a pepper

This loop goes on and on as I take pictures of-er-participant checking her phone, while my colleague is about to expel her bile on the carpet in front of her. After a while we try to send a subliminal message by asking whether she would prefer to meet another time since she seems busy (read: distracted and totally unengaged). The young lady looks at us (finally!) and says “No, it’s fine. Let’s do it now” (read: this is tedious already, I am already upset you interrupted my beauty sleep, so let’s get over and done with it).

So…we go on. After a while as this situation continues I start having the giggles. I typically try to see the best in any situation so I find myself firstly intrigued by how limitless this somewhat dysfunctional situation is, then amazed by how upset my usually calm and controlled colleague can get. Eventually I was tempted to suggest we refocus the interview on her mobile phone usage, since that is evidently her passion.

My thinking was to make the best of the time, opportunistically refocus the interview to a totally different topic even if not helping our project. I wanted to use our time to learn something useful instead of pushing a cart into an evidently void-of-usefulness corner. Ultimately we’d have some use for data on mobile phone attraction, right?

Anyway, the rest of the interview continues on the same lines, with the exception of the home tour part, where my pictures are not of a user handling her phone while on a couch, but those of shoulders hunched on a phone. During the tour, the verbal part of the interview shifts from yes/no answers to a number of grunts and monosyllables. The red pepper is teary at this stage (or maybe it’s all that eye rolling that produces those tears?)

After three hours we finally leave. As the door closes I seriously think my colleague will either burst into tears, have a meltdown or light the apartment building on fire. She instead keeps her cool, aside from a few colorful words that I won’t put in writing.

But the fun part is not yet over, because of course after a week we have a second interview scheduled!

The second interview is definitely much more colorful: instead of taking pictures of a participant and her phone, I manage to take pictures of serious multitasking in action: send texts and check your social network on the phone with the left hand while checking the stock exchange on the laptop with the right hand. And do not forget the yes/no/grunt answers and minimal level of auditory attention paid to my frustrated colleague.

If now you were to ask me: what did you learn from this participant, Daria? I will tell you: lots.

Yet the real question is: did I learn anything useful for our project? Not a thing.

Regardless, she gave me a good story to share, I will never forget her and I seriously learned a great deal about human thresholds.

People Like Us

People Like Us was a mockumentary that ran on BBC radio in the late 90s before becoming a TV show. The radio shows are hilarious and a great illustration of what can and does go wrong in fieldwork. Each episode is essentially a total War Story.

The shows follow a hapless reporter, Roy Mallard, investigating the lives and work of ordinary people: a bank manager, an artist, a stay-at-home mom, an actor and so on. Things go awry: despite being married (Really? You?) he finds himself awkwardly attracted to an interviewee, only to realize that another interviewee is her bitter ex-boyfriend. He’s a passenger in a recklessly driven car. He’s witness to firings, incompetency, violence, relationship hassles. He trips, drops things, is sneezed upon, breaks a washing machine, and more.

At the same time, his attempts to interview people and get to the heart of what their lives are about are thwarted. If not by circumstances, then by the inarticulateness of his interviewees, or by their sheer misinterpretation of his questions (e.g., Q: You’ve been here for a long time. What kind of things have changed? A: My hair.)

People Like Us manages to be completely absurd yet with an eye-rolling kind of truth that any user researcher (and journalist, I imagine) will identify with.

The radio series has been posted to YouTube and I’m embedding all the episodes as a playlist below. Check ’em out and let me know what you think.

This week @ Portigal

It’s Monday after a holiday weekend. Whoah.

  • Today we begin fieldwork! We’ve been revising the field guide, developing materials, prepping incentives and release forms, collecting homework exercises, coordinating schedules, parking lots, and meeting locations, and today it all starts. Our whole week is primarily dedicated to completing this round of in-home interviews. We’ll be looking at how people live now and how they want to live in the future. Broad enough for you?
  • The UXPA has just posted Stick to the Knitting, my invited editorial for the Journal of Usability Studies. I challenge designers – especially those involved with technology – to return to the still-unsolved problems that we originally set out to address.
  • What we’re consuming: Gorilla Barbecue, The Queen of Versailles, Nina Conti.

Sharon’s War Story: Broken Windows Theory

Sharon Cartwright, a consultant with Optimal Experience, shares her story about uncovering context.

We were surprised that Anna wasn’t at home when we arrived at her house. We could see through the lounge windows that the house was empty of furniture and personal belongings, adding further to the intrigue. We had followed our usual protocol of sending an email confirmation clearly stating the time of the research session and Anna had been called the day before to confirm.

We decided to try calling Anna. She picked up our call as she was coming up her driveway. She was running late and seemed a bit agitated, telling us that she had locked herself out an hour earlier. She was just moving into this house and didn’t have a spare key yet. She’d decided, in the interest of proceeding, that she was going to smash a window to get in and had just called around to her brother’s house to pick up the appropriate tools.

Anna seemed like a practical woman, and smashing her front door window didn’t seem to daunt her. I indicated that there was no need to take such drastic action for our sakes. But she was adamant and was soon taking a hammer to the glass panel in the kitchen door.

Once inside, Anna, myself and the client (who’d come along for the ride) began the clean-up. I manned the vacuum cleaner and mused over the start to the session. There is something bonding about a shared clean-up!

We were there to observe Anna set up wireless broadband. On a good day the process wasn’t straightforward; we had already seen several participants struggle through it. Over the next two hours we observed Anna encountering several technical issues with hardware and software. She managed to resolve some issues on her own. Many times she resorted to calling the contact centre, although their advice was mixed – sometimes helping Anna, sometimes complicating matters.

We had scheduled the session for 1.5 hours expecting this to be sufficient, but many sessions – including Anna’s – extended over this. After two hours Anna had not succeeded in setting up her wireless broadband connection. Unable to stay any longer, we were disappointed to leave without seeing Anna ultimately succeed. We wished her luck, as she was clearly going to need it.

During the two hours Anna revealed a few things to us. Her long-term relationship had recently ended, explaining her move to Auckland. She was also looking for work. Her ex-partner’s teenage son had generally taken the lead on the technology front in their home, and it was dawning on her that this was now her role.

With the significant life stresses she was facing it was hard to watch her struggle through a technology set-up that should have been easier, dare I say simple. While we learned that setting up wireless internet often happens during a time of stress, as it’s one task of many when you move house, I felt for Anna and the difficult time she was going through.

Elysa’s War Story: Keep The Swiffer On Your Right

Senior strategist Elysa Soffer heads into the field where an adventure in building rapport awaits.

She’s Caucasian, 75 years old, retired, married with 2 grown kids, lives in Berkeley, and cleans her floors 2 – 4 times a week. This woman fits our qualifications as a participant for our research study. But you never know who you might be talking to and how best to get them to open up to you-a stranger entering their home.

Two of us spent a few hours interviewing this woman in her home for a floor cleaning study. We asked warm-up questions about her and her household. She mentioned that she was a writer and lived there with her husband. She showed us around her house, and pointed out the rooms where she spends the most time cleaning floors.

During the next part of the interview, she demonstrated her cleaning process and we asked her to test a few prototypes we brought along. She showed us everything from how she stores her tools, cleans, and puts everything away. It was as simple as that.

This was one of the last in-home interviews out of about a dozen conducted for this project. It went just as smoothly as the previous ones. We felt like we gathered insights. So, we asked our wrap-up questions and packed up. Once the video camera and recorder were off, we made small talk while heading to the door.

My research partner stopped next to the door to look at a handmade shrine-like structure sitting on a tchotchke shelf. It was made out of bones! Not fake Halloween-decoration bones, but real human-looking bones. We couldn’t resist, we had to ask.

The woman’s face lit up, and she was excited to tell us the story about her adventures visiting a tribe of cannibals in Africa. She explained that she published articles about this tribe and took many trips over the years to study their culture. She also pointed out how the shrine was made of animal, not human bones. To top it all off, she confessed that she “may” have been fed human during some of her expeditions there. Whoa!

We asked a few more questions about her adventures, but unfortunately we had to go. The vibe in the room had completely changed. She was enthusiastic and seemed more comfortable than she did for the previous few hours. Had we noticed the statue on the way in, would the interview had been different? If the camera was still on would she have reacted the same way?

Back in the car, I looked at the recruiter’s sheet again. Cannibal wasn’t listed anywhere. I wondered what secrets the previous floor cleaning participants hadn’t shared.

Carla’s War Story: A dirty diaper sitting in the mud

Consumer insights professional Carla Borsoi encounters the outlier that illustrates a greater truth.

There is nothing like home research to challenge your notions of whether or not everyone lives like you. Earlier this year, we were doing research on how people use multiple devices (phones, tablets ad computers) – what they are doing with each, what they feel about each device and how these are shared (or not). We were particularly focused on three audiences: Moms, Entertainment Junkies, and Earlier Adopters. Yes, in my world, we use Title Case to label our different audiences. At any rate, we picked three areas with high density for devices and plenty of each of these audiences in spades: NY, Seattle and Austin.

I headed to Seattle in late March to meet with people and to talk to them about what they do. The first interviews went swimmingly: one Dad told us how he used his tablet to collect coupons, his computer to develop his Saturday shopping plan with coupons, and his phone to go through with his plan. He also told us about watching movies during lunch at work on his tablet. An Earlier Adopter told us how he obsessively followed tech news as he rode the bus. Good, I thought, these interviews are going really well. The Seattle weather was appropriately grey and rainy, but these folks lived in warm and welcoming homes. Normal, to me, at least, with the typical toys in the home with kids, the nice entertainment system, clean kitchens, and so on.

It was our last day of interviewing. The rain had been pouring down the night before and I hoped it would hold off until I got to the airport at the end of the day. We were interviewing a young Mom who lived past Sea-Tac. I drove down pseudo-country roads and pulled up to the property for the interview. The driveway was full of mud. Thankfully, I was wearing wet weather boots. As I walked up with my colleagues to the front door I passed a dirty diaper sitting in the mud. Huh, I thought. Their garbage probably got torn apart in the storm last night. The house was old, but that’s how these things go. We were greeted by the young Mom and entered the house. Immediately the stale smell of cigarettes and mildew hit my nose.

Uh-oh.

The mom proved to be a bright young woman, who tended bar a couple nights a week, while going to school and parenting the rest of the time. I looked down at the dirty table in front of me while we continued talking. She had some great insights about how she used her tablet (often on loan to her parents who would watch the kids), how critical her phone was to keeping in touch, and how her computer was there as she worked on projects for school. However, the smell assaulted my senses. I could feel my two colleagues shifting in their seats, covering coughs. Our interview was scheduled for two and half to three hours, but after about 45 minutes, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it much longer. Someone asked if anyone had more questions. I quickly spoke up “Nope, think we’re good.” No one disagreed.

We walked out the door and I noticed more garbage outside – but breathed in the sweet clean air. I realized that as researchers we occupy a place of privilege. People allow us into their homes, without embarrassment or shame. This is their life. They allow us to see a window into it. People often participate in research for the chance to earn a little cash. This woman had spoken of how much they had saved to be able to rent this small, mildewed space. It reminded me that I have a lot of advantages that other people don’t. It’s a reminder that when we’re creating products, we’re doing it not just for some sexy early adopter, but real for people who are just trying to make ends meet and get started with their life. It also reminded me to go home and wash down the walls of our stairwell, covered in grime.

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