Posts tagged “war stories”

Rachel’s War Story: Research, in Sickness and in Health

Rachel Shadoan is co-founder of Akashic Labs, a research consultancy that leverages hybrid methodologies to create rich and accurate portraits of users.

It was my first field assignment out of school. Okay, technically it wasn’t my assignment–a contractor would be conducting the interviews, and I would be along to observe and record. But I’d spent the previous two years and six months in a lab writing code, so I would take what I could get. To say that I was excited would be an understatement. I was stoked.

Plus, I’d get to fly to California! I’d be on an honest-to-goodness business trip! It was going to be great.

It certainly started out great. In the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I counted citrus trees. Citrus trees! Growing in the ground! In people’s yards! And no one seemed shocked by this! Of course, I had plenty of time to count those trees, as we crawled through traffic for hours. But the weather was glorious and I, like it, was ebullient.

Things began to look dicey, however, when I met the researcher I would be working with. She was a smart, gregarious woman, who also happened to be sick. Very sick. Down-a-bottle-of-Nyquil-and-sleep-it-off-for-a-week sick.

Rest and recuperation, unfortunately, were luxuries we could not afford. The project was on a tight timeline and already behind. At least one of the interviews we had planned had been rescheduled once. Stakeholders across three organizations were chomping at the bit. It was, in the melodramatic way of business schedules, do or die.

And so we did. We pre-gamed with Thai food, guzzling tom yum soup for its sinus-clearing properties before returning to the hotel for an early-to-bed. The following morning we set off, my compatriot fueled by a powerful cocktail of cold medicine and espresso, myself running mostly on nerves and the delicious feeling of being free of my cubicle confines.

Still, we felt uncomfortable bringing sickness into the homes of our participants. “Give us your insight, and we’ll give you the plague!” is not the most enticing slogan a researcher could come up with. We tried to minimize risks. I shook hands with the participants; she abstained. She positioned herself as far away from them as their living rooms and rapport-building would allow, with me, a human note-taking buffer, in between. We strove not to be vectors of disease.

Given the circumstances, the first two interviews went well. But after hours of driving hither and yon across the north Bay Area, in traffic that I would have avoided navigating even with a clear head, my partner’s energy was flagging and the cold medicine wearing off. She tossed back an emergency booster of DayQuil in a Starbucks parking lot and we steeled ourselves for the final interview. It was perhaps more disorganized than the first two interviews, but we muddled through together.

And then, as the sun sank below the side of the endless freeway, it was over and we were once again untroubled by the inflexibility of a corporate system that put us in the ethical quandary of whether to conduct field work–or work at all–while ill. We parted ways at a BART station. She headed home to collapse into a restorative, cold-medicine induced coma; I went in to the city to spend a few days basking in the glow of more-or-less-successful fieldwork.

My basking didn’t last long, of course. In no time at all, I had a cold.

Jon’s War Story: Of Speed and Strip Clubs

Jon McNeill is the Principal of Hunter.

Relatively early in my career, as I began stepping out and leading studies on my own, I was in Miami Beach doing ethnographic interviews with participatory “drive-alongs” for a luxury car brand. It was the last day in town, and I, with client in tow, had three 3-hour interviews scheduled that had to get done before we could fly out in the morning, the last one being scheduled for 9pm. This last interview was with Kenny, a guy who was actually supposed to be interviewed earlier in the week, but had to cancel because his yacht broke down and he was stranded for the day on a small island off the coast. We hear a lot of different excuses for non-participation, but that was a new one.

My client and I get through our first two interviews that day at around 8, hop back in the rental car, and start the trip to interview 3, feeling hungry and tired, having missed dinner. I called Kenny to confirm that we were coming, in case he was on another island. He answered in an energetic but distracted tone: “Yeah, laying out the drinks right now. We’ll get in the car, go get some speed, and come back and I’ll give you whatever you need.” Click.

“Speed? Oh no. Who is this guy? He must mean going fast, in his car,” I thought to myself.

I warned my client that we might have a live wire on our hands, but that we’d just go get the interview that we needed and then grab a bite.

We arrive to the address to see Kenny out front, waiting for us. “My wife is putting the kids to bed right now,” he told us, “so I’d rather not go in just yet and disturb them. Why don’t we get in my car, do the drive, go get a beer, and then come back and do the interview thing?”

We usually did the drive-along as the last part of the interview, but as intrepid researchers, going with the flow is what we do best! Plus, at this point in the day, a drink sounded pretty good. My client and I nodded our agreement and squeezed into Kenny’s convertible: me riding shotgun, and my client folded into the tiny backseat area, holding the camcorder.

As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, Kenny hit the gas and I saw the speedometer jump up to 110 mph. I looked back at my client, white knuckled and – like a champ – rolling video on the whole thing.

We rocketed through a number of dark, mostly empty Miami streets. I was disoriented but loving the way the car gripped the pavement as we took turns in high gear. Just as I was wondering why he was choosing to take us to a bar that was so far from his home, I noticed a police cruiser waiting at a stop light ahead of us. Either Kenny didn’t notice, or he wasn’t worried; we flew through the intersection, still doing over 100.

I flashed on how the rest of the evening might unfold: sirens, mug shots, bailing my informant out of jail… but the cruiser didn’t even give chase. I think the officer knew he wouldn’t catch us.

Finally we pulled into a large parking lot, full of expensive cars, in front of a small oblong building. Two huge bouncers stood out front.

Kenny turned to us and said, “Welcome to the best all-black strip club in Miami Beach!” and headed for the entrance before I could fully process what that meant. My client’s mouth was agape.

Neither my client nor I are what you might call “strip club people”. He had been telling me about how he and his partner were remodeling their house into a real mid-century modern masterpiece. As I looked down at myself, I saw with dismay that the polo shirt I was wearing kind of made me look like the guy on Blue’s Clues.

Since this experience, I’ve heard stories of researchers obliging their clients by taking them to strip clubs, all in the name of client services. And Miami’s relationship to strip clubs did seem to be more casual than other parts of the country, because a few of our other participants had mentioned in passing eating lunch or getting a drink at a strip club. But I was mortified – this was not something I was anticipating. Yet at the same time, I felt cuffed: I knew we had to get this interview checked off, and I didn’t feel like I could demand that we return to his home without ruining our chances at building strong rapport.

I turned to my client and said, “I am so sorry. If I had any idea that he was taking us here, I wouldn’t have agreed. But at this point, I’m worried about insulting him; so let’s just go in, have a quick drink, and head out.”

My client, a saint, shrugged and said, “This is just what happens when you do ethnography, right?” Right.

The bouncers patted us down and we walked inside. Not having a depth of experience in this area, I had to take Kenny’s word for it being the best of its kind in Miami. Kenny was already at the bar, waiting with our drinks.

“So, what do you want to know?” he asked me, as he handed me a beer.

I struggled to remember my protocol questions, and we talked for about five minutes before Kenny excused himself to go to the bathroom. I looked over at my client and we both made a silent acknowledgement that we were done with our beers and ready to go.

Just then, Kenny came back with a stripper on his arm. He turned to my client: “Hey, I bought you a lap dance.”

My client’s face went white. The room began to spin. My client tried to politely decline.

Kenny, confused, said, “No, she’s great, I’ve had her before!”

My client politely declined again, and suggested Kenny go for it.

Kenny asked him, “What is it? Are you married?”

“No.”

“You have a girlfriend that would disapprove?”

“No.”

“Well, then, what is it?”

My client started stumbling over his words, trying to come up with a firmer excuse. Then Kenny laid down his trump card.

“Look, man, I’m doing this because everyone thinks you’re cops. You’re white, clearly not having a good time, and if you don’t do this, they’re probably going to take us outside and beat us up.” He waited for my client to answer.

My client looked at me the way survivors of a shipwreck must look at the person holding a life preserver. To my shame, I looked away.

My client, resigned, was led back to a private room. I turned back around in my seat and started processing all that had happened: my conversations with my client, some of the things he said that I hadn’t caught at the time, his answers to Kenny just then… and it all suddenly clicked for me, with a sickening certainty.

Kenny handed me another beer and said, “You know, I think your colleague might be gay.”

“Yeah,” I told him, “I just figured that out myself. But what you don’t know is he’s actually not my colleague, he’s actually my client. You just gave a private lap dance to my gay client.”

I felt ill. Kenny started laughing.

“That’s really funny, man. That’s really funny.”

I think Kenny really felt badly about the whole thing. After my client returned, we left and Kenny took us out to dinner at a kitschy piano bar owned by an old gay friend of his. We all laughed and told stories about crazy things that had happened to us in our lives, and at the end, without us knowing, Kenny paid for everything.

The night ended back at Kenny’s house, in front of a literal parking lot full of his Audis, Porsches, and huge SUVs. He was a fantastic informant, and helped me craft the recommendations for the brand based on his interview.

The car ride back to the hotel was pretty quiet. “Strange night, huh.” I said. My client nodded his head.

We shook hands at the hotel elevator and said goodnight. That was the last time I saw him – he wasn’t at the final presentation, and I heard that he had left the company not too long afterward.

At the end of the study, we sent him a client satisfaction survey, which was standard practice for us at that time. To my shock, it came back straight 10s. My client was a saint.

Unlike many of the other War Stories, this doesn’t paint me in the best light – mistakes were made, character flaws became apparent. But in some ways, the ability to realize that you’ve made mistakes and are flawed is one of the things I treasure most about anthropology — ever since my Intro to Anthro college courses where I began to learn about the long, illustrious line of mistaken and flawed anthropologists who came before me. In fact, often those mistakes and faux pas were the keys to unlocking some heretofore hidden cultural truths. And I think that night was no different, although I don’t think the cultural truths that were unlocked for me were necessarily about luxury automobiles.

I can’t see myself getting into the same situation now – there were at least two inflection points that night where today I would have directed things differently – but it could be that going through that experience together, the three of us, led to a deeper connection and (eventually) a successful interview. It certainly led to a War Story.

Doug’s War Story: Knock-knock! Who’s there?

Doug Cooke is founder of Tinder, a research consultancy focused on people-centered innovation.

In a recent research and strategy project focused on defining a new global platform for a medical device, our research plan required us to shadow clinicians and others as they used existing devices in the “context of care.” With minor issues like HIPAA protecting patient privacy and other security issues at big urban hospitals in the US, our team decided that conducting research in Europe provided a better opportunity to understand these devices and their users.

Planning started with all the usual steps: multi-day client sessions to assess the domain, issues and problems; auditing reams of client data and documents; becoming familiar with competitive products, etc. We developed a research protocol that went through many rounds of revision with a large, multi-location client team, arriving at a clear understanding of relevant and important user issues. We developed screening criteria for participating medial institutions. Pilot studies were run at US hospitals. Months of preparation were spent in making sure our research team was fully prepared to bring back insights and perspectives that would help define the next generation global respirator platform. Ready, set, on to Europe!

Our first stop was a hospital in Wales. They had lined up the appropriate people for us to shadow and interview, including department heads, physicians, and medical techs. We spent two days shadowing, probing and gathering, and everything worked according to plan. Wahoo!

At our second stop in London (hauling two large model cases that would not fit into London’s very spacious cabs), we arrived at the check-in desk and ask to see Dr. Smith (or so we’ll call him). Upon arrival at his department wing, we learned that Dr. Smith was not in. Even more concerning was that Dr. Smith was out of the country at a conference and had not let anyone else know we were coming. After speaking with a few more people, the answer was “Please come back at another time when the doctor is in.” Ouch! In spite of all the planning, effort, and resources to get here, a few uncooperative people were about to jeopardize our research program.

How could this happen? Well, I ignored one of my primary rules: never let the client take on a critical path item that could endanger the project’s success and my firm’s reputation. Specifically, because of the difficulty of gaining access to the right people and institutions, and extremely high cost if we were to use a traditional recruiting process, our client took on the responsibility for arranging our visits to hospitals through Europe. Few clients understand the level of effort needed to screen, schedule and triple-confirm each participant. When the “research gig” is complex and requires the participation of a number of people carefully choreographed in a short time, it is essential to have a dedicated, experienced resource to make that happen.

We made it all work in the end. With no Dr. Smith and an apparent dead end, we literally started on-the-spot networking, walking up and introducing ourselves to doctor after doctor until we had made some friends that would grant us two days of access in the ICU and ER. It worked out in the end, but presented unforeseen delays and stress to an already pressure-filled project. Painful but constructive outcomes, nonetheless.

The rest of the trip in Germany and Italy presented various levels of preparedness on the part of hospitals we visited. Some hospitals were planning on hosting us for our full two day itinerary and some were expecting only a few hours meeting (which we were able to extend by turning on our best charm).

I have always been a very careful planner and can fastidiously orchestrate research logistics. I know what it takes to gather user insights. But the lessons learned from this European research foray is a clear reminders that whenever I can, I must control the recruiting and scheduling process. I hope to never again knock on any unsuspecting doors.

Chauncey’s War Story: Secrets, Security and Contextual Inquiry

UX architect Chauncey Wilson shares a rather scary story about permissions gone missing.

In the 1980s, I worked for about 7 years at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as a usability engineer. My group was led by John Whiteside, who pushed to make usability a serious discipline informed by metrics, fieldwork, and lab studies. The method of contextual inquiry was developed in our group by John, Karen Holtzblatt, Sandy Jones and Dennis Wixon. We did a lot of fieldwork to refine our methods and inform product teams about how to improve their products.

During my tenure at DEC, I set up a set of interviews with a major client who must still go unnamed. The client did military research and used some of our products. I got clearance to interview people at the site with the caveat that all videos, tapes, and notes would be surrendered when I left. I would analyze the data at their site and do a presentation about my findings, leave all data, and not discuss any details of my interviews. I got to the site early in the morning and signed in at the front desk. In those days, we had 8mm video cameras as our primary tool for field interviews. I had permission from the senior security chief to videotape the screens and record sound for 5 different users of our DEC products. I started setting up my equipment for the first interview and about the time I got to mounting the video camera on a tripod, three really large security guards with weapons blocked the exit to the office and asked me what I was doing (“I’m here doing some research for DEC”), then they grabbed my equipment and took me to a holding area and proceeded to interrogate me. I said that I had sought permission and had an agreement with the chief security officer – but that agreement was not to be found.

My name had been on the visitor list and the people I was interviewing vouched that I had set things up with them, but there was no clear approval for videotaping. I asked if they could contact their security chief, but he was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands. While they called and left messages for him, I spent a few hours in the holding area (you might call it a “cell”) concerned that I might go to prison. Though it took a while, they did catch up with the security chief and took me back to the cube where I had started my set-up and let me continue.

I spent a week at this site and noticed that the guards walked by and checked in on me a lot. Every night when I left during the week, they had me empty my pockets and remove every item from my briefcase. On Friday, I put together a report and presented to an audience of very serious people who asked no questions. I left all the data, submitted to my final contraband search and left the most bizarre field visit of my entire career.

Gerry’s War Story: Right to be Wrong

Gerry Gaffney runs the UX consultancy Information & Design in Melbourne. He publishes the User Experience podcast and is current director of publications at UXPA.

I was researching, with my colleague Patrizia Bordignon, how people thought about and dealt with home renovations.

One of the methods was a diary study (“cultural probe”), and we had carefully recruited – or so we believed – a small set of participants with whom we would work for several weeks.

Warning bells sounded fairly early with one of the participants, who showed up very late for the initial briefing. These things can happen, so we ran a separate briefing session for him, gave him his kit of reporting materials (camera, diary and so on) and sent him on his way. Let’s call him Mr. W.

Three days after the briefing we telephoned each of the participants. It’s a good idea to do this to remind people about their commitment, to redirect as necessary, and to address any issues that arise. All our participants were on-track, with the notable exception of Mr. W, who seemed somewhat evasive in his answers.

At the end of the first week, we visited the participants. Again, this is good practice; it’s an opportunity to see how the data is being gathered, and what changes might be needed to the process. We also use that opportunity to make a part-payment to the participants, which can serve as a nice motivation.

We were delighted with what we saw. Participants had kept bills and receipts, photographs and magazine clippings, they showed us their renovations or their plans, and we were confident that we were getting plenty of highly relevant data.

When we visited Mr. W’s house, however, it was evident from the first moment that his home was different. The front gate didn’t work properly and the hinges squeaked, the garden was unkempt and the house gave an overall sense of dilapidation. Inside it was a similar story. Every room was in dire need of immediate restorative work, but none was evident. I felt a tad depressed as we drank tea from cracked mugs and listened to Mr. W list the things that needed to be fixed.

Mr. W was not an enthusiastic renovator. His house represented a series of urgent and necessary tasks, none of which had been tackled.

It looked like we would collect no useful data from Mr. W, and as we traveled back to the office we talked about our disappointment and reexamined our recruiting strategy.

However, as we moved into data analysis, we found ourselves referring quite often to Mr. W, and gradually came to realize (no doubt this should have been obvious earlier) that Mr. W’s world was in fact directly relevant to our project. While the enthusiastic renovator was undoubtedly a key consideration, the unenthused or reluctant could also present great opportunities. Their needs and goals were different, their attitudes were different, and the way that we would design for those characteristics was different.

In many ways, in fact, Mr. W was an ideal participant specifically because he didn’t fit our expectations. He challenged the underpinnings of the project, and made us examine our design decisions in a much more rigorous fashion.

I often reflect back on this experience when I’m doing user research, and I specifically watch out for negative reactions and experiences, because they can often teach us things that we might not otherwise learn.

I still believe it’s important to recruit carefully, but perhaps we should be more open to the idea that the “wrong” participant is sometimes precisely the right one.

Steve’s War Story: Finding Mojo “In the Moment”

Steve Sato is the Principal at Sato+Partners, a customer-centered strategy and stakeholder-centered organization design consultancy.

We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

War Story: Seeing Ourselves As Others May See Us

Here we break with tradition and present a story anonymously, to mitigate against mortification of those involved.

Twenty something and fresh out of my MA program I obtained a little consulting job which I completed from afar. The company mailed me a video camera and interview guide and sent me out to discover what people think of dinner food. I was to recruit people who would participate in a video recorded dinner we share and an after-dinner interview. I was instructed to send footage back to the company with the camera along with notes and analysis.

My first interview was with a man about my age who ate convenience foods. He was shy and awkward with me as I was with him. When I got there I set up the tripod and attempted to build rapport beyond our obvious discomfort. In an effort to focus only on him as he opened a can of soup and poured it into a casserole dish I spent very little time adjusting the equipment. He prepared soup-in-a-dish dinner and we ate together and then I went through what was left of the interview content. Perfect recruit for “convenience food eater,” and I was off.

Later at home I looked back at the video to make sure my notes are correct and to complete a partial transcript. To my surprise and immense embarrassment I realized that I set the camera up so that the composition includes only one thing in the foreground completely obscuring the participant’s head. It was a close-up view of my right breast – interrupted only occasionally by my arm each time I raised the fork. The entire dinner and interview video contained nothing more than this view. I had never met the employer or the team in person but I reluctantly packaged up the camera and my notes and sent them away without a word. Later they mention that their view of this video inspired quite a few laughs around the office. Oops.

Lindsay’s War Story: Sexism in the City

Lindsay Moore is an independent design research and strategy consultant from Colorado.

We were in New York City, on day four of a three-week fieldwork trip. We had had some bumpy interviews the first few days, including a participant who clammed up because her husband was in the room, another who wasn’t comfortable showing us any of the software processes she had been recruited to show us, and a third with whom the conversation was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with us hanging on for dear life. But I was finally starting to settle in to the interview guide and was feeling positive about what we were learning. Plus we were getting a great apartment tour of Manhattan!

We were accompanied on each interview by a rotating member of the client team so that they could all experience the research firsthand, and this day was our first with a particular team member. Our morning interview had gone fairly well, but I could tell our client partner was having some trouble staying in the background, as she was used to more actively managing her interactions with customers.

We walked in the door for our afternoon interview, and I made some small talk, saying something like “How is your day going so far?” to our participant, who was an older gentleman. He answered that it was going much better now that we three pretty girls were there, but that it would be even better if we didn’t have clothes on. I experienced a shocked moment of “Did he really just said that???” and took a sidelong glance at my client to see her reaction. She had one of those impenetrable customer service masks of politeness on her face. I tried to shake off the comment and proceeded into the interview.

For the first 30 minutes, I found myself utterly unable to manage the flow with the participant, who would physically turn towards the client to answer my questions, and then turn back to me and say “You understand?” The interviews were about financial behavior, and he made it very clear that he thought I wouldn’t be able to follow what he was saying. Meanwhile, in an effort to be polite, engaged and responsive with her customer, my client was unintentionally making it worse. I realized I needed to gain some kind of credibility and after the umpteenth “I don’t know if you would understand” I told him that I do have some financial background and that I was following just fine. After that I was much better able to lead the interview and he engaged directly with me. Still, for another hour and a half he continued to condescend and make inappropriate/sexist comments (The number of times he suggested we “girls” go shopping at Bloomingdales after the interview? Five. What he wanted us to buy? Blouses.)

After leaving the interview I was hopping mad and said to my client and my colleague that I couldn’t believe what we had just experienced. They agreed but felt like we had still been able to uncover great information in the interview. They also thought that sometimes older men are just “like that” and that I shouldn’t let it get to me. I was bothered but decided to let it go. The interview had been uncomfortable but not unsafe, and the client was pleased with what we had learned. As an interviewer, wasn’t I supposed to be able to set my own emotions aside?

When revisiting the transcripts and coding the interview data, it really became clear to me that I was not overreacting to what we experienced. It was blatantly bad. Still, what should we have done? When I’ve related the story to other friends and colleagues, they’ve said that we should have left the home after the initial no-clothes comment. I want to agree on principle, but I also know that if I never allow myself to experience something uncomfortable, I’ll miss out on the richness and depth that is a part of this kind of work. What I do know is that it’s okay to share and talk about our own emotional responses to difficult research situations and that doing so is an important part of self-care for researchers. In the future, I will also make sure to have a plan in place with my fieldwork partners for when — and how — to end an interview, so that it’s not a process we need to invent in the moment.

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.

Raffaella’s War Story: A hot day in a bank

Raffaella Roviglioni is a UX designer at usertest/lab. In this story she experiences, like the title says, a hot day in a bank!

I like planning for fieldwork as much as carrying out those plans. But if there’s one lesson I learned from my experience it’s that no matter how well you think about any detail in advance, there’s always room for problems.

During a current project with a nationwide bank the client agreed to conduct a round of interviews with employees from four different offices located between Rome and Milan.

The day of the interviews in Milan I got an early train. I was aware of the long day in front of me: four interviews in two different offices with the lunch break to be spent moving from one office to the other.

I was fully equipped with laptop, backup recording device, spare batteries, charging chords, pens, paper, water and even some food for an emergency. I thought I covered every possible glitch or obstacle given the context. After all, I was going to a bank: can you think of a more predictable, comfortable and reliable location? I couldn’t.

It was an unusually warm day of June. The temperature was above 38°C (100°F) and after the first two interviews my coworkers and I were heading to the second location, on the look-out for a quick lunch on the go. We walked from the underground to the bank for a few blocks and when we arrived everyone was pretty flushed. All I could think about was the relief of a air-conditioned office where I could start breathing again and conduct the last two interviews.

The came the surprise of the day: the air conditioning was out of order! Meanwhile, the two employees were waiting to be interviewed so we simply sat down and started with the first one.

I had memorized the guide in order to concentrate better on the interviewee without having to look at it, but during the first fifteen minutes I had serious problems concentrating. The heat was unbearable, humidity was close to 90% and my coworkers were panting all the time. I had to exercise some yoga breathing to calm down and try to detach myself from the uncomfortable situation and be able to focus on my task. I managed to get through the interview pretty well, then we moved to the second employee’s office.

He started telling us a lot of interesting information that didn’t come out in the previous interviews but at that point we were completely burnt out. It was really hard to follow up with him. Every question that came out of my mouth seemed nothing like clever to me. Luckily for us, the employee was pretty enthusiastic about the topic and basically conducted the conversation himself, giving us a number of significant insights despite our minimal interaction.

Usually the toughest field work has to do with reluctant participants or with poor planning. In this case, it was certainly not so, but still it was very hard for me to get to the end of the day. I guess those last insights were literally hard-earned!

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

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.

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.

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.

Susan Dray on War Stories

In Lessons from the Front Line, Susan Dray reflects on the impact the War Stories have on her as a researcher.

These war stories are at times inspiring, at times comical, but always interesting. As I have followed them, I have increasingly been figuring out ways I might be able to use them with teams, clients and students. For example, I might share a selection of them of them to give a new team some sense of what to expect when we go into the field together. In addition, when I teach at the Technological University of Panama next year as a visiting Fulbright scholar, I plan to use these stories to help give students a better idea of the variety and nuance of ethnographic work. War Stories are rich not just in data but also in terms of technique, and they have made me think about my own experiences in the field.

Thanks to Susan for such a thoughtful and heartfelt piece, and to Core77 for publishing it!

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