Posts tagged “interviewing”

The art of the interview

Here are two insightful takes on the art of interviewing, from two different sources.

First, Ira Glass is interviewed by Jacob Weisberg (the short video is embedded below). Glass explains how he helps people feel comfortable sharing with him by bringing himself into the conversation (a technique I’m not so keen on for user research, although I’ve seen some people be successful with it). He also reveals that what is edited out of the broadcast interviews are tons of clarification questions, where he’s following up to understand the sequence of events, or the different people involved in the story, etc.

Second, How to Listen makes a good case for the authentic personal elements that we ourselves bring to our interactions with interviewees.

Dr. Mason had a simple method of getting me to begin. He would lean slightly forward, all the while maintaining eye contact and then when he got my attention, he would nod. I will never forget that nod; it was a signal that he was with me and I could safely express myself about whatever was on my mind, but I realize now that he was controlling the conversation. A cursory nod encouraged. Elongated ups and downs, (and the raising of eyebrows!) symbolized agreement.

This is the first lesson for writers – or anyone – who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you’ve got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively. When I say, “interviewing,” I am talking from the perspective of a narrative or creative nonfiction writer. Interviewing for news is somewhat different; reporters usually know, more or less, the information they need to unearth. The writer of narrative, by contrast, is often seeking the unknown – the story behind the facts. You won’t always know the story until you hear it; your job as an interviewer, often, is to keep your subject talking.

Interviewing Users: Link roundup!

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Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

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

The Book

Reviews

Interviews

Presentations

Other

On Huffington Post – An Interview with Steve Portigal

Check out An Interview with Steve Portigal

Q. What’s the difference between this type of research and something like focus groups?

A: When interviewing people we arrange to meet with them in their own context: at home, at work, at the park, in the car; wherever the thing we’re interested in is happening. We’ll be with them and maybe some of the other people you would find in those settings. People behave differently in their own environment and there are details of those environments that turn out to be relevant but we could never plan for. The organized pantry reveals something about how they approach the apps on their device, the room full of the father’s previous generations of PCs tells us about the son’s rejection not only of specific devices but also a whole approach to what it means to own devices.

Q: How important is empathy for organizations?

Empathy seems to be a hot term right now. Developing processes that include empathy is wonderful and it can really help teams rally around solving the problems that people have rather than the problems they want to work on. You hope that there’s an overlap but not always. Maybe this points to what school of innovation you’re from; you may want to be a few steps ahead of the people who will be your customers but you do need to be thinking about where they will be headed.

Empathy, meanwhile, is only the first step. Having a good sense of how people feel can instill the desire to do the right thing for them, but it doesn’t tell you what that right thing is. Empathy is not the same as understanding a highly nuanced, unarticulated, latent problem space. That’s the hard work.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Interviewer Overlords

From Wired, comes These Adorable Robots Are Making a Documentary About Humans. Really.

Created by artist and roboticist Alex Reben for his master’s thesis at MIT, the BlabDroids are tiny, adorable robotic cinematographers who will be filming interviews at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York as part of the the film festival’s transmedia Storyscapes program. At least 20 BlabDroids will zip around to attendees-they’re self-propelled via motorized wheels- and ask them often very personal questions like, “Tell me something that you’ve never told a stranger before,” “What’s the worst thing you’ve done to someone,” and “Who do you love most in the world?”

Each droid carries a digital camera, a speaker that asks a series of pre-programmed questions to ask whomever it encounters and a button to be pushed to prompt new queries.

“We plan to give the robots to some interesting New Yorkers,” filmmaker Brent Hoff, who is working on the BlabDroid project with Reben, said in an email to Wired. “Hopefully Anthony Weiner and some Broadway types.” The robots, which are very adorable and voiced by a 7-year-old boy, are intended to test the theory of MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s “ELIZA effect,” which found that people are inclined to anthropomorphize computers and thus engage emotionally with artificial intelligence. Although this initially lead Weizenbaum to worry about AI’s potential to manipulate, Reben and Hoff have created the BlabDroids to appear comforting and non-judgmental, and to capture meaningful interactions with their subjects.

This is a fascinating experiment. I’d love to see the results, as well as the raw footage and of course to get to talk to someone about their experience being interviewed like this would be very interesting. Similar to Interviewing without questions, eye contact or rapport, the notion of freeing up people from human interactions in order to liberate them to reveal more deeply is a curious (and certainly valid) idea. No doubt the clips will be great; people are pretty interesting and curious, so pointing a camera at them will be entertaining.

War Stories, Live!

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This past Monday was the Interviewing Users book launch party. It was a fantastic good time. The room was filled beyond capacity with people happily diving into yummy beer, wine, snacks and desserts. We gave away 20 free copies of the book, and had the first-ever live War Stories.

It was fascinating to see how these stories, originally written for the web, changed when told aloud to an engaged crowd. Each storyteller seemed somewhat surprised that their stories produced laughter, with several folks beginning by disclaiming “I’m not going to be funny” only to produce that reaction from the group. Real human stories that involve screwups, frustration, surprise and conflict can be funny even if it’s not something we wish on anyone else. There’s a humor of recognition and also the humor that comes from the way a story is told. And they all did a great job at telling their stories, not a skill to be taken for granted. I was so impressed!

Our storytellers:

  • Kelly Braun, Senior Director, User Insights and Analytics at Walmart.com who told Pictures are language independent, about shooting fieldwork video and inadvertently getting the money shot.
  • Diane Loviglio, CEO & Co-Founder at Share Some Style told Interrupted Interview, a reminder that participants are part of larger systems that we don’t have insight into when we’re recruiting them.
  • Consumer insights professional Carla Borsoi told A dirty diaper sitting in the mud, where she encountered the outlier that illustrates a greater truth.
  • Tom Williams, Principal of Point Forward dispensed with his original story (Go With the Flow) and instead told a (richly detailed) story about an interview we did together in 1998!

Also in attendance were War Stories contributors Jon Innes (Beware of Trap Doors), Rachel Wong (Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate) and Vanessa Pfafflin (DDoSed in Vegas).

See also Susan Dray’s take on what the body of War Stories has revealed for her.

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photos courtesy of Tom Williams/Kate Edgar

Lena’s War Story: The Researcher and the Banana Thief

Lena Blackstock (@lenacorinna) recently graduated with a Master’s in Design Ethnography from the University of Dundee, Scotland. She is currently a Creative Contextualiser at Point-Blank International in Berlin.

While getting my Master of Design Ethnography at the University of Dundee I was able to dive head first into full-on ethnographic research projects with actual clients. We were asked to do research on self-service usage in Scotland. After the first few interviews and shop-alongs I met one of my last participants in a nearby coffee shop. Initially she was only going to do an interview but then agreed to also do a shop-along the next day. She offered to invite her roommate along, which was especially interesting as I was trying to understand more about how groups use self-service technology. I jumped at this opportunity.

I met the participant and her roommate in front of a large grocery store in town and we moved through the aisle as they stocked up on groceries for the week. They were sharing a cart throughout the shopping trip but when we came up to the self-service checkout area, they each took out their groceries and separated them on the checkout counter. They each managed to navigate through the self-service process without any major glitches (aside from the occasional “unexpected item in bagging area”), even with the loose fruits and vegetables they had to weigh and scan.

After the shopping trip we went back to their home and I wrapped up with a few informal questions to get feedback on their experience during this shopping trip. As I was finishing my last questions my participant’s roommate said something that caught me by surprise. I asked them about any issues they may have encountered during scanning or weighing items at the checkout, and almost as an afterthought, she mentions: “Well no, not really-but you can trick those machines when you weigh stuff, you know? For example, when I buy bananas, like today, I hold them up a bit when I weigh them so that the machine only charges for a smaller amount than it really is.”

Yikes! Had I just gotten myself into one of those ethical dilemmas that we had talked about in Uni? I had unintentionally captured a self-service banana thief. In one of our previous modules, we had conversations about dealing with these dilemmas, but those were theories. I was now in the real position of having to make a choice as a researcher. Should I stay true to the data and include the information in the final report for the client, even if I didn’t directly observe it or ask for it? And what about the fact that the banana thief wasn’t even the actual participant whom I had recruited, but her roommate? Does that make a difference? On the off chance that the client wants more details on this fact, how will I handle this? Surely I have to hold true to the confidentiality agreement with the participants, right? Or should I just leave that one tiny bit of information out of the report? Is it really that important to the report if I wasn’t asking for it? But what if this piece of information, which got me into this conundrum in the first place, is actually pertinent to the research project and addresses some of the client’s challenges and pain-points?

In addition to these concerns, I also had to work within the University Ethical Guidelines. And as an ethnographer-in-training, I had to make a decision on how to handle this information. Not only this once, but from this point forward if I was going to go out into the world and work as a researcher. I realized this was as good a time as any to ask myself: What kind of values am I going to live by as a researcher?

In this case, I chose to include the findings in my report and stay true to what I observed. I made a very conscious decision that no matter what, I would not share the confidential information of my participant. In the end the client was happy to hear the ‘real story,’ as it confirmed some of the security issues of this technology that they were suspecting. Now, would I make this same decision the exact same way in a project today? I can’t say. Many factors play into the decisions we make as researchers and often, we have to rely on some sort of gut feeling. But encountering this situation at the beginning of my ‘life as an ethno’, forced me to internalize the challenges and to make a choice.

Most research projects have their own version of a ‘banana thief’, an unexpected observation or something overheard, something that challenges our approach, our assumptions and our moral code for conducting research.

In the end, my chance encounter with the self-service banana thief didn’t provide me with answers for future encounters, but presented a first instance to ask myself questions and to begin shaping my personal approach to research. And that is a good start.

Winners of the Usabilla Q&A contest

On the Usabilla blog, I answered reader’s questions about Interviewing Users. The best questions won a free copy of the book. Check out the questions, answers and winners here.

Elise: What are your best tips for handling low-energy / quiet interviewees? I wonder if my extroverted body language is making them shut down more! Also, I have R&D team members who love to be involved in customer-facing activities. What’s worked for you in training teammates in user interviewing?

Interview with Steve, now in Spanish

The interview I did for Ethnography Matters is now available in Spanish.

Steve Portigal es el fundador de Portigal Consulting, una firma que ayuda a los clientes descubrir y actuar sobre nuevas ideas acerca de s?? mismos y de sus clientes. A lo largo de su carrera, ha entrevistado a cientos de personas, incluyendo familias que toman el desayuno, el personal de mantenimiento del hotel, arquitectos, m??sicos de rock, los entusiastas de la dom??tica, comerciantes swaps de incumplimiento crediticio, y los radi??logos. Su trabajo ha informado del desarrollo de los dispositivos m??viles, sistemas de informaci??n médicos, equipo de m??sica, envases de vino, los servicios financieros, intranets corporativas, sistemas de videoconferencia, y accesorios para iPod. Tiene su blog en portigal.com/blog y tweets @steveportigal.

Ethnography Matters: En primer lugar felicidades Steve. Estamos muy emocionados de tener una copia de tu libro. Antes de profundizar en las cuestiones concretas, queremos saber lo que te motiv?? a escribir este libro?

Steve Portigal: Thanks! He querido escribir un libro desde que era un ni?±o peque?±o. Sin embargo no me imaginaba que ser??a la no-ficci??n! Un mont??n de gente en la experiencia del usuario y el mundo del dise?±o han sentido la necesidad de un buen libro sobre esto y mi nombre apareci?? como el autor que necesitaban ver algo al respecto. Yo hab??a estado hablando con Rosenfeld Media mientras escrib??a algo, pero parec??a un compromiso de enormes proporciones. Pero cuando los compa?±eros est?°n pidiendo esto, resulta muy convincente!

Thanks to Luis Lopez Toledo for doing this!

Harry Dean Stanton and Silence

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Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!



hds
At SXSW this year we saw Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a moody and elliptical portrait of the actor. Despite the filmmaker being a long-time friend of his, Stanton is evasive and mercurial, seeming more earnest when performing music for the camera than in answering questions about his parents or his relationships with women. On more than one occasion, the subject doesn’t respond and just stares off or at the camera or the interviewer. And the interviewer stays quiet for a surprisingly long time.

There was a Q&A after the screening, so I asked the filmmaker about what she thought about the power of silence (for in addition using silence in the interview, they also chose to leave those silences in the final film). She told us “I just wanted to see what would happen, and to see the boundaries of being uncomfortable.”

I found this fascinating; in Interviewing Users I describe a scene from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man where the director uses silence to gives space for an astonishing and revelatory moment to occur. In this case, “nothing” happened. Of course, as the director reminded me, the “nothing” that happened with Harry Dean Stanton was still something; it revealed a lot about the subject and changed our own experience in hearing his story.

It’s further illustration of the power of silence, even when it doesn’t pay off in the obvious manner and bring something out, it’s still bringing something else out!

Empathy begets empathy

interviewing-users

Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!



In Chapter 1, I argue that in addition to gaining valuable information through interviewing, the process also builds empathy which in turn increases our overall capacity for empathy.

Marc Maron (describing his journey with the WTF podcast), in this Rolling Stone interview, says the same thing in his own way.

But once I started talking to people, I evolved a capacity I never had before, which was to be an empathetic listener. I still step on people a lot, and I interrupt them with my own bullshit. But I was a better person. I was humbled.

Also0 see yesterday’s Maron example here.

Body language changes you inside

interviewing-users

Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

In Chapter 2, I talk about how body language (see good and bad examples here and here) not only signals that you are listening to your interviewee, it also signals you to listen better. I based on this on some writing by Malcolm Gladwell (in Blink, but originally in The Naked Face) about how our physical self can induce changes in our emotional selves.

Now there’s more research to back up that claim. From this WSJ article

Researchers are finding that wearing a smile brings certain benefits, like slowing down the heart and reducing stress. This may even happen when people aren’t aware they are forming a smile. The work follows research that established that the act of smiling can make you feel happier. Frowning also may have a health effect: Preventing people from frowning, such as with the use of Botox, can help alleviate depression.

“You can influence mental health by what you do with your face, whether you smile more or frown less,” says Eric Finzi, a dermatologic surgeon and co-author of the study on frowning.

Bonus: the article includes this compelling image, explaining “Holding the sticks in the mouth activates the same muscles we use for smiling.”
chopstick-smile

Interview with Steve posted on Ethnography Matters

Here’s an interview with me at Ethnography Matters. We talked about the book, the writing process and other aspects of how interviewing users is playing out in the corporate world.

EM: How much heterogeneity is there between companies / clients? Are there any broad typological characterizations of companies and their attitude towards user research? Does this inform different ways of delivering research results, different ways of “talking to” these companies?

SP: There are no doubt dozens of frameworks (see for example, Jess McMullin’s Design Maturity Model on page 142) for characterizing the organization. But let me throw out a new one: in the Passover Haggadah there is the example of the four sons. One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. The wise son asks to have all of the history, insight and other findings explained to him. We’re encouraged to explain everything to him. The wicked son separates himself from the issue by asking why it’s important to you. We’re told to tell him why it’s important to us (and not persuade him that it should be important to him). The simple son doesn’t even focus in on the issue and just asks “What is this?” so we’re to give him the headline. We’re told to approach the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question and take the initiative to explain things to him. And one scholar writes about a fifth son who isn’t even in the room and it’s up to us to seek him out and give him the lowdown.

Sure, it may be a bit forced but it’s not hard to see those sons as archetypes of individuals, departments or entire workplace cultures. Whatever your framework is, you obviously need to understand the specifics of who you are dealing with and have a range of approaches for responding. All of this stuff with people (be they clients or research subjects) is messy and I’m not so comfortable with pre-emptive categorization and its resultant tactical choices.

Thanks to Tricia Wang and Jenna Burrell and everyone else at Ethnography Matters for a great discussion.

Grant McCracken’s foreword for Interviewing Users

Grant McCracken has posted his fantastic foreword to Interviewing Users.

This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen. Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.

Excerpt from Interviewing Users on Core77

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Core77 has posted an excerpt from Interviewing Users.

From my introduction to the excerpt:

I’ve talked to a lot of practitioners about their own experiences in doing fieldwork and often they try to address challenges when they experience the symptoms, but that’s usually not the right time. Consider this analogy: if you have insomnia, the best solutions are not those that you roll out at 3am when you can’t sleep. To effectively counteract insomnia you have to make specific choices during the day, before you go to bed. Doing research with people is the same thing and ideally you approach this sort of work with a well-defined perspective that will inform all of the inevitable detailed, specific, tactical problem solving.

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