I'm pleased to share this excerpt from Chapter 2 of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. This part off the book sets up the overarching framework for successful interviewing: most experts have a set of best practices—tactics, really—that they follow. But what really makes them expert is that they have a set of operating principles. This ends up being more like a framework for how to be, rather than a list of what to do.
I've talked to a lot of practitioners about their own experiences in doing fieldwork and often they try to address challenges when they experience the symptoms, but that's usually not the right time. Consider this analogy: if you have insomnia, the best solutions are not those that you roll out at 3am when you can't sleep. To effectively counteract insomnia you have to make specific choices during the day, before you go to bed. Doing research with people is the same thing and ideally you approach this sort of work with a well-defined perspective that will inform all of the inevitable detailed, specific, tactical problem solving.
I think getting to this point as an interviewer (or for anything that we do at a certain level of both passion and expertise) is a journey. I'd love to hear about your journey or any other feedback or questions that you have!
When Wayne Gretzky apocryphally explained his hockey success as "I don't skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be," he identified a key characteristic of many experts: the underlying framework that drives everything. This platonically idealized Gretzky could have revealed any number of tactics such as his grip, or the way he shifts his weight when he skates. Keith Richards explains his guitar sound, which involves removing the 6th string, tuning to open G, and using a particular fretting pattern, as "five strings, three notes, two fingers, and one asshole." Even though Keith is explaining the tactics, he's also revealing something ineffable about where he's coming from. The higher-level operating principles that drive these experts are compelling and illustrative. Expert researchers also have their own operating principles. In this chapter, I'll outline mine, and I hope to inspire you to develop your own interviewing framework. As you develop, the process evolves from a toolkit for asking questions into a way of being, and you'll find that many of the tactical problems to solve in interviewing are simply no-brainers. As George Clinton sang, "Free your mind...and your ass will follow."
Check Your Worldview at the Door
I've been asked, "What was the most surprising thing you ever learned while doing fieldwork?" I scratch my head over that one because I don't go out into the field with a very strong point of view. Of course, I'm informed by my own experiences, my suspicions, and what my clients have told me, but I approach the interviews with a sense of what I can only call a bland curiosity.
As the researcher, it's my responsibility to find out what's going on; I'm not invested in a particular outcome. Even more (and this is where the blandness comes from), I'm not fully invested in a specific set of answers. Sure, we've got specific things we want to learn—questions we have to answer in order to fulfill our brief. But my hunger to learn from my participant is broad, not specific. I'm curious, but I don't know yet what I'm curious about. My own expectations are muted, blunted, and distributed. Although I will absolutely find the information I'm tasked with uncovering, I also bring a general curiosity.
Now, the people I work with don't have the luxury of bland curiosity. Whether they are marketers, product managers, engineers, or designers (or even other researchers), they often have their own beliefs about what is going on with people. This makes sense: if there's enough organizational momentum to convene a research project, someone has been thinking hard about the issues and the opportunities, and has come to a point of view.
Figure 1 - Capture everything that everyone thinks they know so that it's not stuck in their heads. Photo by Lena Blackstock (2012)
The Brain Dump
At the beginning of the project, convene a brain dump (see Figure 1). Get what's in everyone's heads out on the table. Whether it's real-time, face-to-face, in front of a whiteboard, or asynchronously across offices on a wiki, talk through assumptions, expectations, closely-held beliefs, perspectives, and hypotheses. Contradictions are inevitable and should even be encouraged.
The point is not establishing consensus; it's to surface what's implicit. By saying it aloud and writing it down, the issues leave the group specifically and enter an external, neutral space.
It's also not about being right or wrong; I encourage you to anonymize all the input so that people don't feel sheepish about expressing themselves. I wouldn't even go back and validate the brain dump against the resulting data. The objective is to shake up what is in your mind and free you to see new things. Think about it as a transitional ritual of unburdening, like men emptying their pockets of keys, change, and wallet as soon as they return home (Figure 2).
Figure 2 - Transitional rituals are actions we take to remind ourselves that we are shifting from one mode of being to another.
Work It Out
Chicago's DD+D (who bill themselves as "a theater-based design team") offers a Design Empathy workshop. Using improve and other theater techniques, this workshop "helps designers to check in and acknowledge their own biases and to explore assumptions before going out and doing research."
Make the Interview About the Interview
Another transitional ritual is to make a small declaration to yourself and your fellow fieldworkers in the moments before you begin an interview. If you are outside someone's apartment or entering their workspace, turn to each other and state what you are there to accomplish. If you were in a movie, you'd probably growl purposefully "Let's do this thing." Sadly, fieldwork is not quite that glamorous, so you might want to clarify what you mean by "this thing." Remember, even if you consider the fieldwork part of a larger corporate initiative to "identify next-gen opportunities for Q3 roadmap," that's not where you should be focusing as you start your interview. Set aside the underlying goals for the duration of the session. "This thing" might instead be learning about Paul and how he uses his smartphone or GlobeCorp's IT department and how they deploy new routers. It's important to take that moment to tangibly confirm—and affirm—your immediate objective.
Embrace How Other People See the World
If you've effectively purged yourself of your own worldview, you are now a hollow vessel waiting to be filled with insights. Lovely image, isn't it? It's not quite accurate. You need to not only be ready to hear your participant's take on things, but you should also be hungry for it. This willingness to embrace is an active, deliberate state.
Figure 3 - Displaying your affiliation may be appropriate in some settings, but not typically during fieldwork. Image credit: Hells Angels, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from brimelow's Flickr photostream
Go Where the People Are
Rather than asking people to come to you to be interviewed, go where they are. In order to embrace their world, you have to be in their world. Inviting them into your realm (and let's face it, even if a neutral market research facility isn't technically your realm, that's how your participants will perceive it) won't cut it. You'll benefit by interviewing them in their own environment--this is the environment you are interested in, where the artifacts and behaviors you want to learn about are rooted. By the same token, you'll also benefit from your own first-hand experience in that environment. The information you learn when going into other people's worlds is different from what you learn when bringing them into yours. To that end, try not to bring your world into theirs. Leave the company-logo clothing (and accessories) at home. Wearing your colors is fine when you're rooting for the home team or taking your hog to Sturgis, but it has no place in the interviewing room (see Figure 3).
Be Ready to Ask Questions for Which You Think You Know the Answer
You already know how you plan a balanced meal, prepare your taxes, or select an aspect ratio on your HDTV. You may already have an idea about how your participant does those things (because of what you've learned about them during the screening process, or implied by something they said earlier in the interview, or assumed by what you've seen other people do in the past). However, you need to be open to asking for details anyway. I'll have more to say in subsequent chapters about asking questions, but for now keep in mind that to embrace their world you need to explore the details of their world. Some people fear that they are being false by asking a question if they think they know the answer. But don't be so confident with your own presumptions. Interesting tidbits can emerge when you ask these questions, as this hypothetical example suggests:
Question: When are your taxes due?
Answer (which you already know): April 15
The response you fear: "Why are you asking me this stuff? Everyone knows that it's April 15. Get out of my house, jerk face!"
The type of answer you are just as likely to get if you swallow your discomfort and ask the question anyway: "I always complete everything by March 1. I think it's April 15 this year, but I never really pay attention to that."
The goal here is to make it clear to the participant (and to yourself) that they are the expert and you are the novice. This definitely pays off. When I conduct research overseas, people tangibly extend themselves to answer my necessarily naïve questions. Although it's most apparent in those extreme situations, it applies to all interviews. Respect for their expertise coupled with your own humility serves as a powerful invitation to the participant.
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