Posts tagged “war stories”

Learning from the comic, tragic & astonishing moments in user research (transcript)


Last week I did an online chat with UX Mastery about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. See one snippet below, but please check out the entire transcript here.

crystal: Do you think that approaching the interview with some small vulnerability of your own allows them to be more vulnerable as well and open up and give more insight? And have you found that added insight to often add value to the research?

steveportigal: our own vulnerability – that’s fascinating and I don’t have a clear take on that. I think a shallow reading says being vulnerable means sharing about ourselves and I am mostly against doing that most of the time for most researchers but it makes me ponder what’s a richer more nuanced sense of what our own vulnerability is, if by being still, present, focused, listening, and not needing to make it about us, we might convey some vulnerability. I think it’s meeting people where they are, accepting them where they are and not putting ourself into it. Which – to your point – feels DAMN risky to a lot of people. Set aside your agenda and listen but do so in a productive effective you’re-on-the-job way, so you are balancing different forces and risks.

I dunno, is that ‘vulnerable?’

Stories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal

Gerry Gaffney interviewed me about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries (which he contributed to) – and user research in general – for his User Experience podcast.

Check out the podcast on iTunes. Or listen via Gerry’s site (which also features a transcript). Or, listen below.

The idea that some of these ideas are metaphors for life I think is absolutely true and, again, I can sound kind of highfalutin and pretentious here but I think the thinking that I went through in this book is looking at… some of these external factors, right? You know, make sure your camera is ready and you don’t break the cable and you know the sort of “equipmenty” type things that we have to think about. But so many of these are about what do we do when the unexpected happens and acknowledge the unexpected is going to happen and that those are definitely life skills. And I think one of the takeaways that I come back to several times, and I just alluded to it a minute ago, which is know when to walk away. You know and so when you’re in a situation do you keep trying to turn that situation from a failure into a success or do you say “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” and you leave.

What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

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My new book comes out today and Lou Rosenfeld has an enthusiastic appreciation and a bit of the back story about the book’s journey.
Read it all here

I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Steve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people.

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries available for pre-order

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My new book comes out on December 6!

You can pre-order (with a discount) from Rosenfeld Media (or from Amazon). Also coming soon is an audiobook version! Remember, your review on Amazon really helps drive awareness.

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Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries
User Research War Stories

User research war stories are personal accounts of the challenges researchers encounter out in the field, where mishaps are inevitable yet incredibly instructive. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a diverse compilation of war stories that range from comically bizarre to astonishingly tragic, tied together with valuable lessons from expert user researcher Steve Portigal.

The stories Steve Portigal knits together here have an extraordinary and immediate intimacy, like listening in on 66 researchers’ bedtime prayers. Anne Lamott says there are essentially three kinds of prayers: help, thanks, and wow! Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries covers the whole range, with humor and wisdom.

Dan Klyn, information architect, co-founder of The Understanding Group (TUG)

See more testimonials

Support the War Stories for SXSW and more!

Watch this space for a big announcement about the War Stories coming up after Labor Day. In the meantime, I’ve applied to speak about War Stories in design research at SXSW. You can help here (whether or not you are planning to attend SXSW) by creating an account, voting thumbs up for the proposed talk and even adding a comment.

We’ve got three recent stories, all from the Kitchener-Waterloo area: Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas, Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe and Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh. And coming up next month at Fluxible in Kitchener-Waterloo, I’ll be presenting Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories Project.

Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas

Jennifer Pretti is the Manager of the User Experience Design Team at Christie Digital in Kitchener, Canada.

At Christie Digital, we have a very niche population of users. Opportunities to observe them using our projectors are highly coveted by my UX team. In February 2014, we were invited by a good customer of ours, Staging Techniques, to observe their setup for the keynote address at Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference. The event was taking place at the Venetian Hotel, in Las Vegas, and the keynote speaker was going to be Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton!

Three of us from Christie made the trip: me, Chris (my lead industrial designer), and a software developer, Eric. Although I had conducted many user sessions for Christie before, this was the first time I was going on site to observe a live event setup and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My biggest worry was that, even though we made it clear we were there just to observe, I would be asked to answer a technical question or troubleshoot some problem and not have a clue what to say or do.

Setup was to begin at midnight the day we arrived. Working night shifts is very common for projectionists since it’s the best time to see and calibrate the light as other setup crews are already done and out of the way. The thought of staying up for a night shift wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to, especially given jet lag was going to make it feel 3 hours later. But I hoped a mix of adrenaline and caffeine would do the trick.

After landing in Vegas, we headed down to the Expo Hall to get our bearings. The scale of everything in Vegas is massive and oversized, and the hall was no exception. It was a gigantic space – at least two football fields long and one football field wide – and it was completely empty and bare. Whatever vision the event planners had for the space seemed hopelessly unattainable in the 5 days left before the show.

When we arrived, big transport trucks were pulling into the hall to start unloading the many tons of equipment that would be needed to run the show. It was clear that they were behind schedule already. Trusses and scaffolding needed for rigging the projectors hadn’t yet been built, so we decided to split up, with Chris covering the first night shift, and Eric and I heading to bed to get some much needed sleep.

Eric and I returned to the site early the next morning to relieve Chris. The first few hours of our observation time were slow and uneventful due to continued delays with the truss work, but eventually things picked up, and soon projectors were being powered on and rigged into position. Excitement peaked when one of the projectors failed to power on. I stood poised to capture an epic story of problem solving and error recovery, but the crew just shrugged, taped an ‘X’ on the top of the projector, and replaced it with a spare one. Even after I got in touch with tech support to help explain the error code (highlighting quite clearly that our error messages need a lot of work), it didn’t change their approach. Time is money and using a functional projector was simply the most efficient option. Whatever the problem was, it could wait until they were back in the office to sort out.

It became clear by the end of the second night that the most interesting portions of the setup would be delayed past our planned departure date. The senior projectionist, Pete, pleaded for one of us to stay a bit longer. I think there was mix of professional pride in his insistence, but (happily for us) a realization of the mutual benefit of our presence, observing their workflows and listening to their wishlists. It was on account of his enthusiasm that I agreed to change my flight and stay an extra night. My fatigued body howled in despair. Another night shift? Are you crazy?!

There is no better place to change your sleeping patterns than Vegas. That city looks the same no matter what the hour: there are always people walking around, always a restaurant open, and enough indoor walkways that it could be any time of day. Hotel rooms come equipped with industrial-strength black-out curtains, whose existence I suddenly appreciated in a whole new light (pun intended), as I tried to convince my body that falling asleep at 10 AM was a totally legit plan.

The little sleep I got left me with major doubts that I could keep up a respectable and coherent state of mind for my last night. However, early into the shift, Pete insisted I help him colour match the displays. Colour matching 26 projectors is a very laborious activity that had us whizzing around on a golf cart, playing with light meters, and debating whether one projector was a fraction more magenta than the other. Shifting from observer to honorary crew member made the night fly by and gave me a more rich perspective of how our products are used.

I didn’t sleep until I was on the airplane later that afternoon. I welcomed the rest, but felt a pang of regret for not extending my trip long enough to see Bill Clinton speak. As social media began to light up with pictures of the event, I cheered for Staging Techniques and Christie for a job well done. And smiled knowing that Bill Clinton was walking on the same stage where I had been, just 24 hours ago.

Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe

Julia Thompson is a Design Research & Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, Canada.

It all started with a simple question from the dispatcher: “Do you want a call when your taxi arrives?” My nonchalant answer: “No thanks, I should be okay.” was the nail in my coffin. This was my first error in a series of cascading mistakes.

The next morning I was heading out-of-country for in-home interviews. That night, in an effort to be as prepared as possible, I called to arrange a taxi for an early morning pickup. I hung up the phone and proceeded to pack my bags. I considered carefully what to pack. I visualised my next few days: what would the weather be like? What would be my mode of transportation? What clothing would be appropriate for the work – casual enough to fit into a home environment and dressy enough to fit into an office environment? I was sure that I had considered all the details. Unfortunately, the most important detail, my alarm, was what I missed.

Satisfied with my preparation, I went to bed, and slept well. The next morning I awoke feeling refreshed. With birds chirping outside, sunlight filled the room. Yet something felt terribly wrong. What time was it? Why was it so light out? I picked up my phone, checked my alarm, and then checked the time. My stomach fell to the floor. My flight was leaving now. Sheer panic overtook me. I couldn’t think straight. I had never missed a flight before. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was paralyzed, I had no idea what to do. I grabbed my phone and called our corporate travel agent. It felt like hours as I waited on hold to ask my pressing questions: Could I still make my interview? When was the next flight? Could I fly out of a different airport instead? The sound of my heartbeat drowned out every noise as I sat there waiting, palms sweating, phone clutched. The agent came back on the line and said there was a flight leaving from another airport in 2 hours. Could I make it there in time? It’s almost rush hour. It’s an hour’s drive with no traffic. What about parking? Customs? Security? If I took the car, how would my husband get to work? On top of all that the agent still wasn’t sure whether there was room on the flight. We decided, together, that I should start driving and I should stay on the line while she called the airline to confirm availability. I jumped in the car, with my phone on the passenger seat and that awful music taunting me as I continued to wait, on hold. I got about 10 minutes down the road when the agent told me to pull over and go home. That flight wouldn’t be mine. I would settle for another flight, hours later, and hours after my scheduled interview.

Later that day, as my plane came in for its landing, I just felt low. I was tired from the emotional rollercoaster of missing my flight, I was anxious knowing I’d have to tell the people I was working with what had happened and I was sad that I had missed out on an interview and the opportunity to see, first-hand, into the life of one of our customers. The only thing saving me was the fact that I was the client and so, even though I missed the interview, it still went ahead as scheduled.

The following day I awoke, in the right place and at the right time, with a better perspective on life. Our local research partner was gracious enough to include me in an interview that day. I was thankful. I was relieved. But now, that meant there would be four of us attending this interview. Two consultants and two clients; two too many. The consultant had called ahead and confirmed with our interviewee that it would be okay if an additional person (me!) attended the interview. Our interviewee was very accommodating and agreed to have all four of us into her home. I was so preoccupied with resolving my own error that I didn’t consider, until later, how the dynamic of the interview would now be affected.

We all got to the interview, we all walked in, we all sat down in the chairs offered to us by our interviewee. As everyone was setting up I started to look around and take note of the environment. I noticed several pairs of shoes neatly arranged by the front door. I looked over at our host, I looked down: bare feet. My eyes darted around the room, I looked down at all our feet. All four of us had our shoes on, laces tied. Bah! We were the worst guests ever. Weren’t we all, as researchers, supposed to notice something so simple but so important?

I spent the next five minutes cursing myself, my missed flight, the totally wrong and overpowering dynamic of four researchers to one customer, and the miss on basic shoe etiquette. I had to shake it off – all the feelings of shame, all the feelings of doubt – and I had to focus. I had to be in the moment, I had to get the most I could out of the interview and I had to show the interviewee the respect she deserved.

It ended up being a great discussion. It was, by no means, a textbook in-context interview, but we had a nice dynamic emerge nonetheless. My story is not one of a single epic fail, but instead of a series of errors with a cascading effect. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” Here, we had not a want for a shoe, we had too many.

Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh

Susan Simon Daniels is a Senior Design Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, ON.

In September 2012, I was interviewing people who had recently purchased and set up a smartphone. During the interview, I asked the participants to unbox and set up another, new smartphone to see if any usability problems emerged.

One of the interviews was with a male in his late 40s who worked as a translator for people whose first language was not English (I’ll call him “Rick.”) As he unpacked the box that contained the new smartphone, Rick frowned and sighed. I watched silently and noted that a few moments later Rick sighed again.

At this point, the researcher inside my brain was shouting, “Red alert! There’s a problem! There’s a problem!” After a few more moments, I turned to him and said, “Rick, I noticed you’re frowning a bit and you’ve sighed a couple of times. Can you tell me why?”

I waited, fingers poised to capture the fatal flaw that the participant had discovered in the product set up – something so egregious that it evoked a heavy sigh!

Rick turned to me and instead shared a personal story. Both he and his spouse had recently lost their parents. These major life events, complicated by delays in traveling to another continent for funerals and family arrangements, left a lingering sadness that crept up on Rick during quiet moments.

His sigh was just a sigh – not a signal of a defect or usability issue to solve, but a personal moment I happened to witness. We talked for a few minutes about his loss and how he was feeling and then Rick returned to the task at hand and continued to unbox and set up the phone.

We had passed through an awkward moment. I felt I had rudely probed into an open wound. But I had to ask the question. I couldn’t assume the frown and sighs were caused by the product or process. My job was to get to the why. At the same time, by taking a few minutes to let the person share how he was feeling, I was able to give Rick the time he needed to gather himself together and continue with the task at hand.

In the end, Rick contributed by uncovering a couple of areas of improvement for the product. And I found that taking a moment to pause, to just be human beings who shared a bit of sympathy, allowed us to resume the interview with dignity and purpose.

I’m reminded of a verse from the song “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) from the classic war-romance movie Casablanca.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And the fundamental things do apply: never assume and always ask “why?”

Jenn’s War Story: Burns, Bandages, and BBQ

Jenn Downs is a UX Designer at ShootProof in Atlanta, GA.

I was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit. While getting ready for the day I burned my thumb pretty badly on my hair straightening iron. It was the kind of burn you can soothe for about two seconds before it makes you roll your eyes back and cry out in pain. We’d planned ahead and given ourselves plenty of time that morning, so we had a few minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the hotel front desk to see if they had a first aid kit, but they did not. One of the staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, perhaps some kind of southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I let the front desk guy apply the mustard to my thumb.

Two seconds later I was again whimpering in pain, so I just filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. We sped out to a drugstore. We were staying on the outskirts of a college town and there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did finally find the one grocery store that was open before 8 am. I bought everything: burn cream, aloe, bandages, you name it. But nothing worked. Nothing but the cup of ice water could stop me from visibly wincing. We were running out of time and had to head to our meeting, hoping for some kind of miracle.

We found our way to our customers’ office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately the front desk person was keenly observant and before I could even say anything she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time for the interview. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in the cup of water. We worked for a really creative and weird company and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional southern company, so we were feeling a little out of our element; I thought for a moment that my thumb-on-ice was going to be a disaster, but it was actually a nice ice-breaker (pun not intended).

Then I spilled the cup of ice water all over their conference room table.

In that moment all I could do was laugh at myself and let everyone laugh with me and just continue the conversation as I was cleaning up the mess, calmly and confidently.

It turned out to be a great interview and gave our customers something to joke about with us as we shared a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped up in gauze and burn cream! My confidence through the awkwardness ended up helping them feel comfortable with having strangers in their office all day and we got great information we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

Jen’s War Story: Bad news turns to couples therapy


Jen Ignacz is the UX Research Lead at TOPP, a design consultancy focused on helping clients shape future products and services.

I was conducting in-home contextual interviews about home safety and security behaviours. In the recruitment screener, I had found out that a particular participant had experienced a break-in to her home about a year earlier.

When I arrived at her home for the interview, her fiancé was also there and ended up participating extensively in the conversation.

My research partner and I had been with the couple for about 90 minutes and they were obviously feeling quite comfortable; they offered up lots of intimate details about their routines and behaviours and were willing to show us everything and anything. I was pleased that they felt so comfortable with sharing (the woman more than the man).

Part of my protocol was to understand what happened when people find out about bad news about their home, like a fire alarm going off, a break-in, a water leak, etc. So, after 90 minutes of talking about home safety and security routines, I posed the question: “Now I want to talk about what you do when you get bad news. You mentioned that you had a break-in last year. Can you tell me about what happened?”

As I was asking, the couple looked at each other and an awkward silence fell over the room as I finished the question. They held each other’s gaze for longer than was comfortable (for us). Their sudden change in behaviour told me I had hit on a sore spot.

The woman broke the silence, still holding her partner’s gaze, saying “That’s not what I consider bad news. Your child dying is bad news.” Then a whispered “Do you not want to talk about this?” to her fiancé.

My research partner and I froze as if hoping that by not moving, time could stand still for us while they dealt with this incredibly intense personal moment.

The couple started to talk about the experience of losing a pregnancy in the second trimester about a year earlier. (I made the realisation when reviewing the recordings that the break-in happened around the same time as the miscarriage, so asking the question the way I did allowed for a connection between events I could not have anticipated). They spoke quietly and mostly to each other, but engaged me more and more in their conversation as they went along.

As a researcher, this felt way off-topic and I was trying to think of ways to get the interview back on track. But as a human being, I felt the need to let them deal with this issue that seemed difficult for them to talk about. From their conversation, it was quite clear they each were still working through their emotions and likely didn’t speak about it to each other often enough. I wasn’t going to shut down an opportunity for them to make emotional progress just because it didn’t fit anywhere close to my research goals.

So, I let them talk. And I even guided them to share some feelings with each other. I took on a counseling role; a total deviation from the research plan.

After about ten minutes, they turned to me and said “That’s probably not what you meant.”

I was honest with them. I told them it wasn’t the type of bad news event I was thinking about, but the conversation helped me learn more about who they are; their values, morals, and perspectives on life. Getting a better sense of who they are ultimately helps me understand their motives for their behaviours better.

My response allowed us to carefully ramp back up to the interview protocol. I was very cautious with that transition. I had to ensure that the trust and openness we had established in the first 90 minutes wasn’t harmed by the unexpectedly exposed vulnerability. It didn’t seem to be. I was able to complete the remaining hour of the visit with just as much openness (and gaining just as much insight) as we had before.

Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories project

Since 2012, I’ve been collecting War Stories, where researchers share the stuff that happens during fieldwork. There are more than 70 stories (start your reading here) and they’ve proven to be a valuable resource for the practice. I’ve been giving a talk over the past few months about the stories and what I’ve learned from the process of curating the stories as well as from the stories themselves. From UX Australia, here’s the audio, the (minimal) slides, and a few sketchnotes.

If you have a story about an experience you had doing contextual research, please get in touch! We want more stories!


To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

sketch1
Matthew Magain, UX Mastery

sketch2
Guillaume Hammadi

sketch3
Suj

Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader

Patricia Colley is an experience designer and the Principal of Creative Catalysts in Portland, OR.

In 1984, I was 23, and working for a market & social research firm in San Antonio, Texas. They sent me down to McAllen to collect voter opinions on the upcoming national elections. McAllen is a sleepy little town near the bottom tip of the state, just a few miles from the Mexican border, mainly populated with low-to-moderate income Hispanic families.

I was on my second day of door-to-door polling, asking voters their opinions on policy matters, and their thoughts on the state and presidential candidates. The work was progressing well. As usual, I was getting a high rate of interview completions, with lots of useful data. After four years of working in market and social research, I was quite confident in my neutral, non-threatening “aw shucks, I’m just one of you” act, and its ability to deliver great results.

But my confidence was shaken when I met Maria, a shy housewife in her early 30’s.

It was about 4 pm on a warm, dry Thursday afternoon when I knocked on the door of a modest, well-kept ranch house in a suburban section of McAllen. Maria opened the door part way. She was half-hiding behind it, sizing me up like a rabbit peering through tall grass at a coyote in the distance…curious, but poised to flee.

Me: “Hello, my name is Patricia, and I’ve been sent here by (XYZ Research) to gather public opinions on the upcoming elections.”
Maria: “Oh, hi.”
Me (turning on the charm): “May I ask you some questions? Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything!”
Maria: “Uhh, sure, I guess?”&
Me: “Great, thanks! This won’t take long.”

Wide-eyed, Maria flashes a shy smile before her jaw slacks again. This one’s cagey, I thought to myself, but I’ll get her talking.

Me: “Now, thinking about (Candidate X), what comes to mind?”
Maria: “Uhh, I don’t know? Is he a good guy?”
Me (shrinking): “Well, I really don’t have any thoughts on (Candidate X). Besides, my bosses didn’t send me all this way to talk about my opinions. He wants to know your opinion.”
Maria: “I don’t know. He seems okay?”

Now, I don’t think Mary is incapable of forming opinions. I suspect she’s simply never been asked to share her thoughts about such important things, so far from home. And she may never be asked again. But on this day, I was determined to make her opinion count.

Me: “Well, you’ve heard of him, maybe seen him on TV?”
Maria: “Yes.”
Me: “So, what did you think of him? Is he someone you would vote for?”
Maria: “Um…(pause)”

Her eyes darted across my face, scanning every crease and twitch, searching for clues. Those big rabbit eyes begged mutely for help. I stared back, apologetically. I took a few slow breaths, trying to ground us both, so she might relax into talking more naturally. Each time she hesitates, I carefully repeat the question, altering the wording and inflection to make them sound as simple and benign as possible.

Me: “Really, we’re just interested in what you think. Whatever you think is fine. Do you think you’ll vote for him, or not?”
Maria: “Uh…yes?” (seeing no reaction from me) “No?”
Me: “Okay, that’s fine. Alright. Now, thinking about (Issue A), is that important to you? Do you think it’s good or bad?”
Maria: “Uhh…I think it’s good?”

The back and forth went on for several minutes. I’m trying to go completely neutral and void of any emotional expression, but my contortions only intensified the awkwardness. The interview was in free-fall. I was failing miserably to collect any genuine responses from Maria. A hot wave of panic washed over me. How can I get this back on track?

In that moment, I just had to let go.

I quit fighting it, and fell back on connecting with Maria as a person. As Maria answered my questions, I began riffing on her responses, affirming and adding detail to them. While trying not to reveal my personal opinions, I offered supportive words and gestures to elevate everything she said, so that she might open up and elaborate. Eventually, she did relax, and her answers flowed a bit more freely.

Me: “So, what about the presidential candidates?”
Maria: “I guess I’ll vote for (presidential candidate B).”
Me: “Great! Is it because he is for (issue B)?”
Maria: “Oh, that’s good. Yeah, (B) is good for us.”

Although Maria was warming up to me, I felt I was way off book. It seemed impossible not to sway her answers. Whatever I wrote down, I feared it might be swept away by the slightest shift in body position, or an eyebrow lift. Well – at least she was talking, I told myself.

Finally, we got to the end. Walking back to my car, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The hardest interview I’d ever done was over. I went out for a well-earned drink and a tragicomic debrief with my co-workers.

Sometimes you just get a dud subject, and it is what it is. But something about that 15-minute exchange with Maria struck a deeper chord in me. As I drove out of town, troubling questions lingered. What is the value of a skewed interview? Was this the only time I’d failed to be impartial? Or, had this been happening all along, in more subtle ways? How can I ever know that the data I’m collecting is pure?

Maria taught me two important things that day.

1. People make stuff up as they go along. And, we can’t always see the flaws in self-reporting.
2. The observer effect is unavoidable. Interviewers shade their work in unpredictable ways.

I’m as diligent as ever about delivering valuable insights through my research. But ever since that incident in McAllen, I draw my conclusions with a fuzzy border, in humble deference to flawed inputs and shadow projections, on both sides of the clipboard.

David’s War Story: Let it Bleed

David Hoard is an interaction designer and here he shares his second story.

Years ago we were re-designing a device to cool a patient’s blood during open heart surgery. This protects the body during the procedure. The client arranged for us to witness a heart operation, and we were pretty excited about that. My only concern was that I would faint from seeing blood.

Research day came and we headed to a nearby hospital, prepared to be serious, professional researchers. A nurse helped us gown up and get ready. I was expecting the operating room to be a sober technical environment, and I saw that was true. The equipment was stainless steel; the walls and floor were blue-green tile. I anticipated that this would be an orderly collection of findings.

But as soon as the surgery team started to come in, the vibe changed. The nurses chatted. The anesthesiologist joked. The patient, a man in his late fifties, was casually whisked in on a gurney.

The nurses chatted with the patient as they put on the anesthesia mask and he drifted off to sleep. They slathered him with a brown antiseptic wash. It made his skin look like a basted turkey, and I thought “He’s just another piece of meat to them.”

Then things really got started. The surgeon came in and straight away had the nurse hit the music. The sound of the Rolling Stones filled the O.R. The jokes and banter increased. The technician operating the blood cooling machines set to work and we tried to stay focused on that. But it was futile.

When the patient was sufficiently chilled, they set to work with a powered saw and cut open his sternum. They were ripping a person’s body open, and they did it while talking about sport scores.

They pried the chest cavity open and prepared for a bypass procedure. They took a vein from the man’s leg that would be used as a new artery for the heart. “How you doing back there?” came the question from the surgeon. “Good!” we replied, and I realized I wasn’t woozy at all. It was all too fascinating.

It was at that moment that the most surprising thing happened. The surgeon said “How do you like this?” as he put his hand down in the chest and lifted the beating heart up and out. The music thumped, the heart pumped and the surgeon gave us a wicked grin. He knew full well he was holding the patient’s life in his hands. But at the same time, it was all in a days work for him. No big deal.

After completing the bypass, they finished their work and stapled the man up. The surgeon cleaned up and zoomed off to something else important. Before we knew it our research session was over.

As for our actual goal of observing blood-cooling machine, we did gather information about that, but the bigger lesson was in understanding the true nature of our users. We expected one-dimensional experts and we saw three-dimensional humans.

My work on projects like this has taught me that experts are simply regular humans with a specialized job to do. Help them be smarter, help them be more successful. But don’t forget the human underneath that needs ease of learning, ease of use and help preventing errors. Humans don’t want to devote 100% of their brainpower to your product. They need to reserve some for cracking jokes and singing with the music.

When your research goes in an unexpected direction, go with the flow and let the Stones play. You might learn something more meaningful than your original plan.

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About Steve