Posts tagged “judgement”

Devika’s War Story: The Young Men Of Najafgarh

Devika Ganapathy is a design researcher and the founder of Anagram Research, a design research and usability consultancy located in Bangalore, India.

Last year, I was in Delhi doing fieldwork about a smartphone news app. The primary users for this study were male college students in their early 20s, who regularly read English news on their smartphones.

One of the participants scheduled for an interview lived in Najafgarh, a place I did not know much about. I checked on Google and what I found was not encouraging: it was more than an hour away from my hotel, near the Delhi-Haryana border (possibly even longer with traffic); It was also home to the Indian capital’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain!

Meanwhile, the clients who were to have accompanied me on the interview dropped out at the last minute. I was apprehensive about travelling to Najafgarh and conducting the interview on my own. The state of Haryana is notorious for being lawless and is known to be particularly unsafe for women. Men from Haryana are stereotyped as aggressive and misogynistic. I wasn’t sure if they would be comfortable being interviewed by a lone woman. Moreover, the village of Dichaon where my participant lived is infamous for its ongoing gang wars.

Despite these initial concerns, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Realistically, how unsafe could a pre-arranged hour-long meeting be? At the worst, I thought that it might be a challenging interview to conduct, but felt I would be able to manage.

Driving into Najafgarh, we passed a dead cow lying on some rubbish on the side of the road. The city looked markedly different from urban Delhi – all the women I saw on the road were traditionally dressed, scooters and public transport prevailed rather than cars, and all vehicles on the roads were driven by men.

It was difficult to find the participant’s home, though I was on the phone with him, getting directions. There were hardly any significant landmarks to guide us. Eventually, my participant asked me to park near a huge open sewage drain – He would come and find me.

My heart sank as a particularly scruffy looking young man approached the car. He confirmed that I was the person he was looking for, and got into the front seat to direct the driver to his home. We meandered our way through narrow roads and a crowded marketplace and eventually reached our destination.

His home was a multi-story building in the midst of commercial establishments; So narrow that there was only about 1 room on each floor. The steep staircase was cemented but not tiled, it didn’t have any railings.

As I followed him up to the third floor I wondered if I was being foolhardy going into his house alone. Perhaps I should have asked my driver to accompany me? And even worse, I was skeptical that this guy read English news on his smartphone!

We finally reached the top, and the room did nothing to reassure me. There were a number of rough wooden benches (typical to Indian government schools) placed in rows. Sitting there waiting for us was a very snazzy young man, with a prominent pompadour and reflective sun glasses! He greeted me with a cheery “Hi Ma’am!”

I had to now quickly decide who to interview. The first young man was the one we had originally screened and recruited. He did not seem promising: he was very quiet, his English was sketchy and I doubted that he read English news on the phone.

On the other hand, the snazzy young man spoke good English and possibly read English news. But I wasn’t certain he was a primary user or even genuinely interested in the topic since we hadn’t screened him.

It turned out that they were cousins. When the snazzy one heard about the interview, it seemed that he decided his cousin was not cool enough to be interviewed. He said to me incredulously “Why would anyone want to talk to him when they could talk to me instead?”

I decided to stick with the guy I had originally recruited, but told the snazzy cousin he could sit in and speak up if he had something interesting to add.

This interview led to some of the richest insights for this study – Such as the aspirational aspects of reading English news, where reading local language news is seen as infra dig and can invite ridicule.

The time I spent getting to know these young men also put all stereotypical thoughts I had about them to shame. I eventually learned that the room we were in was a classroom and that they worked with other young men to tutor school kids in their area. Throughout our interview, the guy I had recruited looked after his sister’s toddler son while she was busy with chores around the house. When I was done with the interview, they insisted on waiting with me on the road till my driver came to pick me up, pointing out that it was “not a good area” for women to stand on the road unaccompanied.

This experience strongly reinforced the guidelines I always need to remind myself about, even after years of being a researcher: Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never be dismissive or judgmental. Openness can lead to the best insights.

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.

Marta’s War Story: On confronting judgment

Marta Spurgeon plays the roles of design researcher, innovation capabilities consultant, and sometime photographer at Doblin in Chicago.

I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. Somehow, through an educational background in photography and videography and a unique set of personal contacts, I landed myself in a contracting gig at a design strategy firm. It turns out this was the perfect place for me. It makes sense that all roads led here, though I wouldn’t have been able to characterize it at the time. My experiences on that first project would solidify both my approach to ethnographic-style research and my interest in innovation in the business sector. The techniques and tasks associated with international development share some remarkable similarities with those we utilize in business innovation and design strategy.

In our Peace Corps training, we were encouraged to “do nothing” for the first 6 months of our service, to just sit with the host-country nationals in their day-to-day activities, observe, ask questions. And indeed, most of my Peace Corps experience was composed of these moments of quiet observation, learning about a culture so foreign to me as to ultimately challenge my beliefs about my own. Many of us are familiar with this participant-observer stance as one of the foundations of ethnographic study. It requires us to put aside pre-conceptions and biases, to embrace the other as a credible expert despite the legions of difference between us. In both international development occupations as well as strategic design efforts, this anthropological approach to learning about the people we’re designing for is the foundation of an often ambiguous process to create and launch new concepts that will be adopted by those-or people like those-whom we’ve studied, and ideally help them improve their lives.

Though I certainly had more casual experience doing this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was on my first professional foray into ethnographic-style user research. Our team was learning about people’s experiences using medical devices in the home. At this point, we had spoken with a couple dozen medical practitioners in their professional settings and patients in their homes. We were on our final interview of the study. My role had been to photograph and video the interviews, take notes, and generally to follow the lead of my teammates who were directing the session. But for this final interview, my colleagues asked if I’d like to conduct the conversation, and I took them up on the opportunity to lead my first formal in-context interview.

We drove to a relatively remote location in Connecticut to see a middle class family of two parents and three boys. Two of the boys had an immune condition that required them to pump medication for one to two hours every two weeks. The parents had decided that rather than stigmatize or de-vitalize the process of the boys’ drug infusion, they would celebrate it by joining together as a family for a pizza party and movies on Friday night. This celebration was in full-swing as we entered their home.

It was a lively atmosphere. It turned out this wasn’t just a family of five; they lived with a menagerie of animals in their small home-cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, reptiles, and guinea pigs, bringing their total number to between 20 and 30 inhabitants. We were introduced to the guinea pigs and shown the rabbits. Everyone was supremely generous and inviting. They gave us a little tour, encouraged us to get comfortable offering us food and drink several times. Cats snuggled up beside us, intermittently disrupting our video equipment or the conversation, while birds squawked in the background. Comfortable and confident amongst one another, this family moved freely and raucously around me and my two colleagues, us all a bit squished onto too few pieces of furniture for all eight of us humans.

The parents graciously answered our questions about their children’s health and their medical needs, as the boys played video games and watched cartoons energetically, occasionally peppering the conversation with commentary or a boisterous request for attention-“Watch this! Watch!” They showed us how they hooked up the medication pumps, from prepping their sons’ skin to inserting the needles, demonstrating how it all worked. Father proudly brought out two large toolboxes full of medical supplies that they took along whenever they got in the car. He had come up with the idea of creating toolkits for the supplies they needed to be mobile. The interview continued successfully, if a bit disordered, given all the different activities happening. Not at any moment were they embarrassed or ashamed of the boys’ condition or the things they had to do to treat it. To them, this was just their life.

And when we finally all said goodbye, and the door shut behind us, I think all three of us researchers breathed a small sigh of relief. Truthfully, it had all been quite chaotic, though we had done our best to take it in stride. But our last interview was complete, and we got into the car, heading toward New York to fly home the next day.

Driving along, one of my teammates offhandedly said, “Well, I don’t think we learned anything useful from that. That scene was a complete mess! What a waste of time.” This somehow infuriated me. Sure it was intense, chaotic, indeed a less tidy environment than might be desired. They had more animal friends than a small farmer might. The lifestyle this family lived was obviously busy and disorganized. Certainly they had some health problems, probably some difficulty making ends meet, and a shortage of square footage for all of the living things in their home. But they also clearly loved one another and were just doing the best they could to live full, healthy, enjoyable lives. I may have been totally green and unfamiliar with utilizing this research practice for new business innovation, but I knew it wasn’t our place to judge, whether we approved of their lifestyle or not.

I was so angry. Never one to hold back, I told this teammate exactly what I thought. That these people had generously and openly invited us into their home so that we might learn about how they live, how they experience their medical conditions, how they interact with these essential medical devices. Whether we found their lifestyle appealing or disgusting, it was valid. Their experiences were real, and we were there to learn about them. It was unfair and totally inappropriate to judge them, and it missed the entire point of what we were there to do. I said all this, I’m sure, not nearly as eloquently as I say it now, and likely with less respect than my colleague deserved as he had more experience and knowledge on the subject than I did. He actually took it relatively well all things considered, and we remain friends today despite the words exchanged on that trip.

But I’ve found this to be one of the formative moments of my career-a moment when I expressed with passion and understanding just exactly what our purpose was there. And I’ve found similar sentiments coming to my lips again and again (with increasing grace and respect, of course), as I’ve had to remind most often clients but sometimes colleagues why we do this work. For an hour or two, we go into the home of a stranger, with a respect and appreciation for the validity of each individual’s experience. We must practice empathy, reserving judgment, allowing ourselves to stand in the other’s shoes, understand how he lives, why she does what she does, what they want to achieve, what makes that hard for them. So that in the end we might create better solutions that help them do it and make theirs and other people’s lives better and healthier. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves.


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