The gulf between abstracted plans and on-the-ground reality is a real concern to the user researcher. These stories remind us that you can't anticipate all of what will happen in the field. We anticipate our destinations in their optimal versions, but unanticipated ordinary and extraordinary occurrences are coming for us.
Ironically, the bonus value of field research is in the things that you can't anticipate—that you'd never think to ask about—but discover once you enter the context you're interested in. If you go to a customer's site, you can't control what's going on in their business that day. If you do research in public, you can't plan for who else will be there or what will take place.
In this excerpt from my new book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Nicolas Nova and Elaine Fukuda show us that we can anticipate and design for anything, but the lesson we take from the drama in these stories is that we will fail if we believe that.
Nicolas Nova: Do You Want Me to Act?
I remember a study I conducted that was set in a big shopping mall in France. We were there interviewing users of smartphones for an R&D project. The place was pretty standard, and we decided to sit in a fast food joint called "Quick," at the entrance of the mall (which means a lot of people were passing by). Given the focus of the project, we had to videotape the interviews and take pictures of the posture of the user. This meant that the presence of cameras was hard to hide and that passers-by couldn't avoid noticing them.
After four interviews, we started the fifth one, kind of tired after hours of discussions with informants. Right in the middle of this interview, my colleague and I saw a tall guy moving toward us with urgent haste, putting his two hands on the table, and screaming the following line: "I've just been released from prison, and I'm hungry! What are you guys up to? Are you in the video business? Do you want me to act? Or what?"
The size of the guy, his level of excitement, the face of our informant, and the people around us made the event very odd, as it stopped everything for a second or two. It's this sort of situation in which you have to behave yourself and avoid pissing off the nervous intruder, take care of the informant awkwardly paused in her description, and reassure the audience that was frowning at us. The guy seemed so energetic (after all, he'd just re-entered society), and he looked at the same time excited about a new opportunity and being a thug about to rob us of our devices. The "or what?" was said with so much hatred in his voice that we were a bit nervous.
We explained to the guy that we were interviewing someone, asking her about her perspective for a research project, and that he could be a participant later on. We were hoping that would be the end of it, a sort of way to make him understand that this was not the moment to chat with us.
Of course, he didn't seem convinced, or he simply didn't get it because he said, "Oh yes, I've got a friend in Marseille in the video industry. I know your stuff!" To which he added, "But why do you have so many telephones?" My colleague explained the project and that was the end of it. "Arf, I don't get it, I don't care, plus I'm hungry," and he left as fast as he had arrived a few minutes before.
Nothing really bad happened here, but it was awkward for us, a sort of break in our interview day, which actually readjusted our energy because we then completed three more afterwards!
Elaine Fukuda: They Call Me Mister
I admit I don't have a lot of experience with children, but the opportunity to shadow a patient through an entire day's hospital visit was one not to pass up. The patient being 13 years old added another layer of consent and assent, a mythical ethnographic research unicorn of sorts.
The goal of shadowing was to understand the experience of the entire visit from start to finish, through multiple provider visits, labs, tests, and the waiting times in between. I met the patient and her mother as they were pulling into the parking garage, and the girl started the day with a scan. During the next two hours, this girl patiently laid in a claustrophobic tunnel, and did everything as asked, from changing positions ever so slightly, holding her breath for 30 seconds at a time, and breathing at a specific pace.
Having fasted since the previous evening, she was ready for lunch, but wanted to get everything done before their provider visit, so she and her mother decided to get a blood test done before lunch.
We arrived in the pediatrics department and her mother stood in line to check in while I joined the patient in the waiting area. After a few minutes, a volunteer came over for what I felt was a break in our somewhat awkward small talk.
The volunteer was a kind elderly man with a book cart offering free books for patients to take home. The patient, tired from the scan and possibly feeling out of place in the bright and cheerful pediatrics environment, shrugged and said there wasn't anything she liked. Determined, the volunteer took out a "magical coloring book," which colored itself with a flip of a page. She was still not impressed.
Then came the pièce de résistance. From the cart, the volunteer pulled out a heavy woven rope and introduced the patient to his friend, Mr. Stick. Mr. Stick had a magic ability, you see: with a grand gesture, he could become taut. In order to turn back into a rope, the patient was instructed to ask, "Mr. Stick, will you go down?"
The shade of red across the teen's face had long passed lobster, and she and I stared at each other in disbelief. Her mother was still in line across the way, and as the adult I felt responsible but conflicted on what to do. Surely the man had no idea what he was implying? Being a very good sport, she complied and sure enough Mr. Stick fell limp.
But the volunteer didn't stop there. He turned to me, holding the middle of Mr. Stick, now back in its rigid state. He asked me to tell Mr. Stick to go down, which I did. Nothing happened. The volunteer said I must say, "please," which I did. And again nothing happened. He then said, "I guess Mr. Stick doesn't go down if you're not a child."
"Hey, I think they're calling your name," I quickly said to the patient. And with that we escaped the somewhat creepy, but well-intentioned volunteer.
"That was awkward," she said.
It wasn't until after the blood test and during lunch that we were able to debrief and talk about the encounter with the volunteer. I was afraid her mother would be upset that I hadn't intervened sooner. She was shocked but laughed, wondering if someone could really be that clueless. As I started to explain what had happened, the patient (who had been sitting right next to the volunteer) intervened:
"No, its name was Mr. Stiff, not Stick."
Me: "Oooh, that's even weirder."
Mother: "I'm really curious how you're going to write this up."
• It's OK to walk away, especially if you've tried everything. Sometimes circumstances totally prevent you from accomplishing your research objective. But trying and failing can be illustrative, whether it's about participants and aspects of their culture, or about how your organization is perceived, or even about this particular research venture. If nothing else, it's a chance to have a laugh. Knowing when to walk away (from anything, not just an interview) is a life skill and not something easily codified.
• Improvise. This often is expressed as saying "yes, and . . . " to everything that comes your way. In research, you have to be more selective about what you say yes to. When you're in the field, think about improvising as working from a script that is being created on the fly. Of course, improvised performances don't always proceed gracefully and sometimes splutter to an awkward halt. Improvisers don't consider that a failure, and as a researcher, neither should you. These awkward moments can happen, despite doing everything "right." If the script you start with falls flat, you can start creating a new script, pivoting to a different conversation. You can build improv muscles by taking an improv class, especially one that is less focused on comedy and performance and more on improv as an approach for solving problems creatively.
Interested to read more? We're pleased to offer Core77 readers an exclusive 20% discount off the list price of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories, Steve Portigal's new book. Simply place your order through Rosenfeld Media and use the coupon code CORE77DDD upon checkout.
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. In the past 15 years Steve has interviewed families eating breakfast, rock musicians, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies like eBay, Adobe, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, and Dolby Laboratories. He has a graduate degree in Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Guelph and is an avid photographer who has a Museum of Foreign Groceries in his home.
Design with Personality Spark:03 The More. The Merrier Total Recall: Looking Back at 2004? Shopping for Innovation Debbie Millman: Design Matter. LISTEN NOW (39 min.) | Download 35.3MB (right-click)
Nathan Shedroff on Making Meaning LISTEN NOW | Download 41.7MB (right-click)
Chris Miller of LifePlays LISTEN NOW | Download 33.8MB (right-click)