Posts tagged “war story”

Krispian’s War Story: If Texas and England Had a Baby

Krispian Emert has over 12 years experience working in UX. She has worked all over the world: for startups, agencies, and companies like Microsoft, The NFL, Thompson Reuters, ING, etc. Currently, she is lead UX Researcher at TELUS digital. She told this story live at Radical Research Summit.

It was my first field study at my new job in Sydney, Australia. I had just uprooted my family and flown to the other side of the world to work for Australia’s largest user experience consultancy. Did I want to do a good job? You bet. Was I nervous? Hell, yes!

I had had a couple of weeks to settle in and explore the city, and to get to know my colleagues. My impression of Australian culture was that it was surprisingly similar to Canadian culture: We both have the Queen on our money, we both drink copious amounts of beer, and we both say “no worries” a lot. The only glaring difference I was able discern up to that point was that for a casual greeting Canadians asked “How’s it going?” and Australians asked, “How’re you going?” So I had experienced little culture shock thus far.

The assignment was for one of the big banks. We were to conduct contextual field studies in the moment while people used the bank’s ATMs. The only problem was that due to privacy constraints we had to recruit people just as they were about to use the ATM. This was made more challenging because the bank gave us very little in the way of official ID.

This meant that I, an extra polite Canadian, was nervously approaching busy Australians and anxiously stammering the first few sentences of my recruitment spiel. To say that I got turned down by my prospective interviewees is an understatement. The fact that I didn’t look “official” or in any way affiliated with the bank made me seem suspect at best, and criminal at worst. ATM users glared at me as though I were panhandling, and time after time, I was told to “Fuck off!”. I was worried that I wouldn’t complete the assignment. I needed 10 participants and after two hours I had exactly none.

As I stood in the street in Sydney, miles from home, failing to secure participants and on the receiving end of some choice language, I had a “Dorothy moment.” I was not in Canada anymore. Despite my initial impression that our countries were similar, I was in whole new culture – one where people were not afraid to say the F-word to a complete stranger. I realized I had to stop assuming people would stop and politely listen to my lengthy recruitment pitch, and that I had to just accept Australians for what they were – blunt and direct. I changed my approach, and went up to prospective participants boldly, waving my gift cards at them. I shortened my pitch to state only the benefits of participating in the research. This produced much better results.

They say that if Texas and England had a baby, it would be Australia. After this experience, I grew to appreciate the unique Australian culture of “wild west gunslinger meets cricket games and meat pies.”

And despite our differences, I guess we’re pretty similar after all.

Joe’s War Story: Clean Break

Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!

Elizabeth’s War Story: Nail Polish for Insights

Elizabeth Chesters is a UX consultant based in London, who volunteers for organizations like EmpowerHack and CodeFirst:Girls. She told this story live at User Research London.

I volunteer for EmpowerHack, an organisation dedicated to building technical solutions for refugees. When I joined in 2016, I was working on a project called HaBaby; a mobile app that stores medical records of pregnant refugees and offers symptom cards to help them communicate with doctors. Throughout my time volunteering, I noticed a lot of barriers. One of the biggest was that a lot of people in the organisation did not understand refugees! Many had never spoken to an actual refugee, which led to some wild assumptions (such as how some women had got pregnant or the age they would typically marry).

In April 2016 my team member and I planned a trip to the refugee camps in France. We did not feel comfortable turning up as researchers, as our digital skills didn’t directly help refugees or fit the environment. They needed houses, not interviews. Our plan was to spend as much time as possible observing, in order to better understand issues refugees faced. Our research would then be reported back to the organisation, validating our ideas about what it means to be a refugee and our technical solutions.

The first visit where we were able to talk with refugees was at the Dunkirk camp. Dunkirk was a much cleaner camp than one of the other camps we had been to, The Jungle in Calais. My team member and I met with a volunteer and a group of refugees who were working on an open-source map project. After introductions, we quickly gained the trust of a refugee, who I’ll call “Zach”. We went to his cabin, met the temporary family he had made in the camp and mentioned that we were in the camps to do research.

We walked around the camp, and came across a group of three mothers who were sitting outside with their babies. By the time we communicated to Zach what we were trying to do, so that he could translate for mothers, it was raining. The women looked at us and stood up, gripping their children. Zach explained that the women would not talk to us without trading for makeup. We were testing an app, so we had nothing physical to give them. In the end they went inside to get out of the rain, and we had to walk away… though not without a few marriage proposals from passing men.

On our last day volunteering we were invited to help at a spa day for female refugees in The Jungle. Here we could get close to the women and ask questions in their safe space. This time we also brought makeup to exchange! We turned the top of a donated double-decker bus (with no seats) into a beauty room. Everyone relaxed, leaving their shoes downstairs. We laid out carpet, lined the windows with bunting, and scattered cushions around the room. My friend and I set up our nail polishing stations and settled in for a long day of painting nails.

Throughout the day we were able to meet refugees and ask questions. The women were from all around the world, with the majority from Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Sadly conversations did not flow as well as expected, partly due to my inability to paint nails. Most seemed unamused at my efforts. So, I spent most of my time redoing the same nails and ensuring we still had enough polish for women who would come later.

Halfway through the day journalists from Grazia, a fashion magazine turned up to interview volunteers and refugees about the spa day. They made no effort to ask for help to translate questions. The more questions the journalists asked, the more you could see the women retreat into themselves.

By the end of the day we had no makeup left. I had a makeover done by a little girl and looked like I had two black eyes. My friend also had a bright red face, due to being sat on and having her eyebrows threaded by an Iranian beautician. I walked down to the bottom deck of the bus, to an empty box of shoes. After scanning the whole bottom deck, it became apparent that I no longer had shoes. The other volunteers helped me find something I could wear temporarily. We found a pair of silver slip-on shoes. They were slightly too small, so I had to stand on the back on them. Someone reassured me that I could go to the warehouse to pick a donated pair that fit me. But when I walked outside, the woman we had arrived with (and her car) were gone, our passports along with her. We were now stranded in The Jungle, late in the day, with the warehouse an hour’s walk away. All I could do was pace up and down, frantically phoning volunteers who I knew were at the warehouse. I prayed the woman got my message to stay at the warehouse after dropping off other volunteers, so we could retrieve our passports.

In the end we were rescued by a volunteer called “Superman John”. He drove us back to the warehouse which housed the donations, so we could get our passports back and I could pick out some shoes that fit. I have never been so happy to see that little red book!

Kristina’s War Story: Trampoline Spies

Kristina Lustig is a researcher at Stack Overflow, and is currently based in London. She told this story live at User Research London.

Last year, I was in Bangkok with eight members of my product team. For our research, we planned to speak with people who we saw taking videos with their smart phones. We split into a few groups, each with their own interpreters. My group tried – and failed – to find people at an open-air market or around a couple of malls before we got the idea to look for parents taking videos of their children. Our interpreter, Kay, in a flash of genius, suggested that we’d probably see a lot of this behavior at a trampoline park, so off we went.

After riding several long thin escalators far into the interior of an extremely large mall, we arrived at the trampoline park and bought our tickets. Before we went in, we put on the mandatory lime green sticky socks and neon pink wristbands.

Now, I’ve done a good bit of international research in questionable situations, but at this point, this was the strangest research situation I’d been in. Let me paint the picture for you: two white people in business casual with neon pink wristbands and lime green sticky socks, holding notebooks, accompanied by our Thai interpreter, all wandering through a trampoline park full of Thai parents and children. On the 700th floor of an upscale mall on a Wednesday morning.

But really, it was also a research goldmine! We found many mothers with their smart phones out, filming their children. We spent about 30 minutes chatting as casually as possible with a few different women. We learned a lot about how they shared videos on social media. Then we were approached by a trampoline park employee. She began speaking with Kay, and although we couldn’t understand a word, we watched as Kay moved from confident to concerned and finally to incredulous.

As Kay translated for us, the employee was concerned that we could be spies from a rival trampoline park, or that we were we attempting to sell these women passes to a rival trampoline park!

Kay explained to the trampoline park employee that we were from a big company in the US and that we weren’t selling anything, but she didn’t believe us. We gave her our business cards (with potentially impressive or reassuring titles like “UX Researcher” and “Product Designer”) but no dice. She started to kick us out of the trampoline park, but in a last ditch effort, we asked “Well, can we just… stay and jump?”

So, we didn’t get to do too much research, but we did spend a lot of time bouncing around under that employee’s watchful anti-research eye. We observed as much as we could, while bouncing. In retrospect, we probably should have cleared our research with the trampoline park beforehand…but any research endeavor that starts with intercepts and ends with extreme trampolining is a win in my book.

Devika’s War Story: The Young Men Of Najafgarh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David’s War Story: The Well-lit Redhead

David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

Standing in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages, I started to become anxious. I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

“Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.

in memoriam: Steve Sato

I was stunned and saddened the other day to learn that Steve Sato had passed away. I had known him as a friend and colleague for many many years. In 2014, Steve contributed a War Story and then got up at my CHIFOO presentation and told his story to the group. It’s a lovely story that I think captures Steve’s humanity as he reveals how life at home grounded him creatively and intellectually no matter how far away, geographically, he was.

Thanks to CHIFOO, we’ve got a short video of Steve’s talk (embedded below) and I’m reposting his story below that.



Finding Mojo In The Moment

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.

Steve’s War Story: Giggling and Grunting

I originally posted this in 2006, and revised it slightly for Interviewing Users. I thought it was time to add it to the War Stories archive and so here’s the original version.

As we rang the doorbell, my colleague and I unconsciously straightened, preparing ourselves for that all-important first impression, that moment when our research participant would come to the door and size us up. We waited for a moment, looking at each other as we heard footsteps, mustering a smile as the inside door opened.
“Hello,” I offered, “Are you Brian?”

As I began to state the obvious, that we were here for the interview, he grunted, opened the screen door, and as we took hold, he turned around and walked back into the house. We glanced at each other, and stepped into the foyer. What did we know about Brian? Our recruiting screener told us he was 22, lived with his parents, and his brother, and was employed part-time. The rest would be up to us to discover.

It was 7:30 in the morning and we were taking our shoes off in a strange house. Eventually someone beckoned from the kitchen, and we came in. But already we were out of sync. The kitchen was small, with an L-shaped counter, and a small table for dining. The mother was at the end of the L, working with bowls and dishes and burners on the stove. The father was perched against the counter, while Brian, and his younger brother sat at the table. The father was a small man, while the other three were quite large. The room wasn’t intended for the six of us, so we managed to set ourselves up for our interview in the only place we could; at the far end of the counter, at the far end of the table. We wedged ourselves (one behind the other) on small chairs, pulling our knees in, our paraphernalia of notepads, documents, video cameras, tapes, batteries etc. clutched in close. It wasn’t ideal, but we hoped we could make it work.

But then the real challenge became clear – although Brian had agreed for us to meet and do this interview, he was actively disinterested. We were positioned 45 degrees behind him, in his blind spot. With his physical bulk, he managed to loom over his food in a way that eliminated even any peripheral eye contact; somehow this was something a smaller person couldn’t have done. His brother sat across from him, echoing his posture.

We had recruited Brian specifically, but of course, here we were with the entire family. We pressed ahead, explaining our study, and starting in with our planned questions. Since Brian was the person with whom we had the arrangement, we focused our attention on him. He would not respond, beyond one word answers (which sounded more like grunts), and the occasional glance up to his brother, causing them both to giggle.

My colleague and I avoided looking at each other (it may have not been physically possible, given the tight quarters) for fear of displaying our despair at the situation. Sure, we had arranged this interview, but the cues we were receiving were making it clear the arrangement wasn’t worth much. At this point, we had already woke up quite early to do this interview, so there was no point in giving up. If they changed their mind explicitly, they’d let us know, and we’d leave. Meanwhile, what else was there to do but press on? I asked questions, with very little response. I tried the brother, at which point Brian bolted out of the room for a few minutes, without a word. The brother was only slightly more amenable than Brian, mostly interested in making critical comments about his parents (to Brian’s great grunting enjoyment) as much as provide any actual information.

Indeed, the mother and father seemed not to have been warned that we would be coming; although I directed some of the questioning towards the mom, she reacted with pretty serious hostility, informing us (in the context of an answer to a question) that they did not welcome strangers into their house, and (while she was preparing food) highlighted the intimate nature of food preparation as a symbol, and that was even less open to strangers. The message was very clear.

But again, what could we do? Pressing on, until asked to leave, under the explicit agreement we had made, seemed the best approach. We asked our questions, following up on the information they had shared, listening closely, looking for clarification, offering up as much space as we could for them to talk, all in trying to build some flow and dialog. Even though the message was negative, at least the parents were willing to talk to us. And so, the young men faded out of the conversation, and the interview eventually switched over to the parents. Two hours later it turned out that we had completed an excellent interview with them; they each had great stories about our topic area, and revealed a lot of background about their family, about growing up, about their activities, and even their perspectives on what made the United States the country it had become.

Before we left the house, the mother insisted on cooking up some fried bread fresh and hot for us; admonishing us that “no one comes here and doesn’t get food” – reiterating the intimate nature of food she had mentioned at the beginning, but this time as a compliment rather than a shield.

As soon as we left the house, my colleague turned to me and said “I don’t know how you pulled that off; I thought we were done for and would have to leave.” I was very pleased with how the interview turned out, especially because it began at such a low point, but there was little magic to it. I didn’t try to solve the big problem of the complex dynamic we had walked into; I focused (especially at first) on just the next problem; the immediate challenge of what to say next. I was certainly keeping the larger goals in mind of how to cover all the areas we were interested in, but I was focusing my energy as an interviewer on the next thing. And by working at it in small pieces, bit by bit, the dynamic shifted. As interviewers, we had to compartmentalize the social experience of the event – the extreme discomfort and awkwardness of the early part of the interview, and just stick to our jobs. We didn’t handle the situation that differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up (and showing that we were listening by the way we followed up), building rapport and trust, bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information.

Years later, it’s obvious that there are better ways to communicate with the participants ahead of time to screen out unwilling participants. For example, the person who is going to be in the field should always speak live to the person they will be visiting before they day of the interview just to get that person-to-person communication started early, so both parties can get a sense of each other and start to feel comfortable (or agree that it’s not a good fit and move on to someone else). But, given the diversity of people, we will always end up interviewing people who are more or less comfortable with the process, and it’s our job to make them comfortable in order to get the information we are interested in. Doing so may make us uncomfortable ourselves, but with practice we must learn to set aside the social dynamics and focus on the question asking and listening that will make the interview a success.

Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run

Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).

The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.

I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu or gari. For one thing, it was spicy as hell…so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.

I had spotted guinea fowl wondering around the village. I asked my host family about it and they just laughed and said they are wild animals.

So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.

The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slip knot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.

The string was about 50 feet long and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.

The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.

As dusk fell the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings and I reeled in the string, and soon had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.

I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep him secure. It was too late to cook them so I ate my mind-alteringly hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.

I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.

That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.

The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.

We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”

So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused as he had earlier told me they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor and my daughter will cook it for you.”

So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with him. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.

I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side-effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.

Note: A similar recipe is here.

Erik’s War Story: (Don’t) Go Toward The Light

Erik Moses is the Director of Research and Insights at Product Development Technologies in Lake Zurich, IL.

Not long ago I was on a project where we were tasked with understanding current practices in BioPharma labs. Overall the program was a huge success and we uncovered critical new insights for our client, which is always rewarding. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about my iPad.

As a researcher, I admit to having a bad memory. I am a dedicated note taker. I love my notes and can’t do much without them. A few months before this, I had begun using the iPad as my main tool for data capture in the field, moving on from my old friend the pen and paper.

For one of our site visits we were in the Midwest at a notable university lab. We were there for the day, courtesy of our client’s long-standing relationship with this lab. That is to say, we were welcome guests. Part of the process we were observing involved a lab technician processing images in a darkroom. At one point during our visit, the PI (Principal Investigator), who was our client’s main point of contact and with whom they had the relationship, invited our group into the darkroom to understand how the process continued in this environment. Of course, I brought my iPad.

Our group piled into a cramped university darkroom to find not only the PI, but also a few other technicians from the lab processing portions of their project. It was dark in the darkroom, so the only thing I could see was the soft red glow of dark room-specific lights.

The PI began the demonstration, while we tried not to impede the movements of everyone else in the darkroom. At some point, our participant said something very interesting that caught my attention. I thought “Hey, this is a must-have insight I need to remember!” and so I opened the cover of my iPad.

Immediately, I hear a technician behind me exclaim “Wha-what? Oh, great!” While I now recall hearing this comment just like it was yesterday, at the time I was so focused on capturing this important piece of information, I did not put it together that the technician was referring to the blunder I had just made.

After noticing a tremendously bright light in this room of black, only then did my mind stitch together the visual information of the bright light with the auditory cue of the mumbled comment. In a matter of seconds I realized what I had done.

While afterwards the PI ignored the incident and the session continued for the rest of the day without another incident, I felt horrible and was flustered for some time. Reflecting on it today, I still feel flustered. I like to imagine that I didn’t mess up that technician’s experiment that much, perhaps only by hours but given what I know about that group and the process, in my heart I know I ruined at least two days’ worth of hard, time- and event-specific work.

Because of this incident I am now very careful in the field, perhaps to the point of being overcautious, often times wrapping my arms around my iPad to physically tell myself to be mindful of my actions. Learn from my experience: remember, don’t (immediately) go toward the light!

Rachel’s War Story: Subject Matter May Be Inappropriate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valerie’s War Story: Rank order

This story comes to us courtesy of Valerie Green, Research & Strategy Manager at Teague.

I was recently working on an air freshener project. It’s important to note at the onset that I live in Seattle, enjoy fresh air most of the year, and don’t favor perfumes or fragrances in my home. So it was already a bit of torture to go into three homes a day over the course of a week and smell all these strong, artificial fragrances. Most participants used multiple air fresheners in the home, and they would spray the air fresheners multiple times during the interviews. As the lead interviewer I would of course participate, sniffing the air appreciatively when they exclaimed how much they loved the scents.

The types of people who use air fresheners in their home like to create welcoming home environments, so most of the homes we visited were nicely kept up and relatively organized. Nancy’s (not her real name) home was a different story. We walked into a wall of stink. At first I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but shortly after the interview started Nancy told me her three small dogs were indoor dogs (as if there is such a thing). In this case, it meant that they peed and pooped indoors. That’s when I noticed a pee pad in a corner, while other people on the interview noticed some poop indoors. I figured this would be a short interview.

The saddest thing is that Nancy, like the other participants, talked about wanting her home to smell good for herself and guests, and how much she loves air fresheners! It would have been incredibly awkward and inappropriate to say anything, so I kept my mouth shut and just nodded in affirmation…

Jaimes and Aico’s War Story: Sumimasen!

Jaimes Nel of Connected Futures collaborated with Aico Shimuzu to tell this story about their rapid research in post-quake Japan.

Research often feels like a process of managing confusion and uncertainty until we find conceptual tools to understand a situation. Failure (and subsequent redemption) are, after all, a well-worn trope in ethnography. The journey from outsider to insider is an effective literary technique that boosts the credibility of the storyteller.

My experience is an ordinary day’s work on a more asymmetric battlefield than a typical client project. On the 11th of March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, causing a tidal wave that devastated towns up and down the coast of Tohoku province. Travelling to Japan later that year, I was interested in how the earthquake had affected people around the country. They had been experiencing rolling power blackouts for several months in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear emergency and I wanted to get a sense of whether this might prompt change in a country that has experienced sluggish growth for nearly two decades. I was only in Tokyo for a week, with other commitments, but managed to set aside a day for some research time with Aico Shimuzu, a friend who works as a design researcher and innovation consultant in Tokyo.

Our very straightforward approach was to meet at a busy train station, a little way away from the usual Tokyo hotspots of Shibuya or Shinjuku, and simply approach people in the street, asking for a few moments of their time. We spent around 3 to 4 hours wandering through the streets around the station, striking up conversations when we could. As you might expect, more people said no to us than yes. It was probably quite helpful that we were a man and a woman, and Japanese and a foreigner. In a culture that can be very reserved, it was much easier for me to approach strangers than it was for Aico. This small cultural sin was more easily forgiven of a foreigner. My faltering Japanese also made for a great opening line, as Aico would have to step in and rescue our victims! In all we managed to have brief conversations with 7 people (some in pairs and some on their own). They kindly agreed to let us photograph them and told us about their experiences since the earthquake and what they thought had changed in Japan.

Their stories were moving, and worrying. They all agreed that things had to change, but the events of 11th March had shaken their confidence in the authorities. Some emphasised the need to appreciate daily life, as the things that are ordinarily taken for granted had become impossible for people in Tohoku. One woman felt Japan had become selfish, and needed to re-emphasise connections between people, telling us “In the end, we can never live alone. We have to help each other.”

Aico and I were struck by the earnestness with which the people we spoke to desired change. This was truly an event that made people notice that the infrastructure around them could not always be relied on. In a way, an event such as this is like a giant “breach” experiment, in which the unspoken assumptions we rely on to get along with each other have broken down. As we walked, Aico and I talked about all of these issues and the people who took the time to chat with us helped us learn a little bit more about our own perspectives and gave us fuel to think about things. In many ways, this type of guerrilla work is as much a tool for your thinking as it is a way to understand a topic. This is what I mean when I say it’s almost inevitably a failure. I don’t mean that it’s not successful, but rather that it can never hope to represent a coherent view. It’s simply too random. The people we spoke to had little connecting them, apart from the fact they were all going through the same experience in some fashion Doing this work outside Tohoku, we were a little distant from the events there and so were our participants. We also noticed that many of those who were willing to break stride and talk to us were from outside Tokyo, which says a little about both big cities and our process!

Our guerrilla tactics may limit the claims we can confidently make from this data, but we can still explore them as individual cases, and use them to frame our own thought processes. Eventually, our day of guerrilla research left us with more questions than ever, just like our participants, but often that’s entirely the right place to be in a situation which is fluid and unresolved. Discussing this piece now, a year and a half later, Aico makes the point that repeating the exercise would help understand whether the social ripples from the quake were still being felt, or if people were forgetting and moving on. At the time, Japan was still working on making sense of what happened to it all those months ago and this day helped sensitise us to that atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.

See Aico’s pictures from Tokyo just after the quake and from Tohoku a month later.

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh.

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

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

Debbie’s War Story: Sometimes Ignorance is Bliss

Retired from HP, Debbie Mrazek shares her story about not knowing she she was getting a little too much attention in the field.

Many years ago, when international “day in the life” visits were not common in my company, I led a study to better understand technology usage in typical homes.

As a US-based team, when we spent time with a European family, we typically included a translator and local researcher in the team. Each visit started with getting to know the family over a meal that we brought with us. We then toured the home and divided into smaller groups in order to spend focused time with each family member.

During a visit with an upscale German family, I was interviewing the very friendly and excited older teenage son. He very enthusiastically showed me every gadget, software program and PC trick he knew. He was constantly trying to impress me with his technical skills and knowledge, speaking in a mixture of German and English. The interpreter did her best to help me understand the boy’s key points, but I continued to notice that both she and the local researcher were exchanging knowing smiles. Eventually, the mother joined us and graciously suggested that the son had “bothered the poor girl” (me) enough, and we should join the rest of the family for coffee.

During our post-visit debrief, it was revealed that the interpreter was strategically not translating some of the boy’s most blatantly flirtatious comments, leaving me unaware that this was even happening. While typically I think the translation should be unbiased and accurate, in this case her careful filtering was a good thing. It allowed me to focus on watching how he used the technology…but it did make for plenty of teasing from my colleagues during the rest of the trip!

Series

About Steve