Ethno-unpacked – A design research toolkit.

Design research toolkit(UPDATED Feb 2016)

Every band needs a manager and a ‘roadie’. The manager books the gigs – The roadies set the stage so the band can focus on playing the gig. Between them, they’ve usually got a big truck full of kit, and lots of gaffer tape.

With design research (contextual inquiry or ethnography, if you like), there’s an amount of planning and kit required too. When running in-home interviews I need to play  both manager and roadie roles, but isolate these activities as much as possible from my role as researcher.

Every minute spent with a customer is valuable, so I can’t afford to be distracted by practicalities like recording equipment and timings.

After a few years experimenting with these practicalities I’ve arrived at a ‘toolkit’ of things in my backpack, so when I pull up at the customer’s house the ‘roadie’ can take a back-seat and let me get on with capturing the insights.

Here’s what’s in my bag:

The contents of my bag when I hit the road on an ethnography / contextual inquiry / design research

1. Discussion guide. I try to keep this to a one pager with topic areas rather than ‘script’ like questions. I have the research objectives embedded in my curiosity, so by the time the first interview kicks off, this serves as prompts only. As you can read in my article: ” To uncover the story, first lose the script”, I’ll be completely free-styling after the first few interviews.

2. Livescribe Pen & Paper. Records every word and lets you playback what was said when you took notes or sketched. Here’s a detailed article about how I use a smartpen to free my mind and eyes during user research.

I tape spare ink refills to the book, as they run dry with no warning after about 50 pages. I use the display on the pen for timing – it’s less obvious and distracting to check the time on here than glancing at your phone. If a subject seems interested in the pen (or any technology you use) take the time to explain what it does and why you use it, this removes the distraction, so you can get on with it.

When I can’t use the pen,but know I need to record, I use  ‘Highlight’, a great iphone recorder app, with ability to add ‘moments’ just by tapping the screen… It’s very discreet. Olympus and Sony voice recorders also let you ‘highlight’ moments in recordings, but they are not so discreet.

3. Video camera.
I’ve tried many many cameras and always come back to a handycam with accessories.
Everything else has compromises in battery life, audio quality, zooming etc.

I use a Sony, with a stack of SD cards and a Sennheiser shotgun microphone – I find audio is more important than video quality.
A wireless lapel mic is essential when you want to cut out all the noise except the person you’re interviewing, or you’re in a sensitive context (like a hospital ward project I worked on) where the subjects may tend to whisper. I use a Sony ECM-AW4
I also have a beast of a battery on there, which can do a whole day of fieldwork on one charge, which has made #4 below obsolete.

4. Extension cord.  I used to carry this but opted for bigger batteries for the video camera. They are pricey, but essential.

5. Tripod. I carry a Gorrillapod SLR tripod with a Manfrotto ball mount and quick release, it’s compact, instant to set up and perfect for tabletop work. When you need to ‘walk and talk’ with someone, it’s a snip to just grab and use as a handle.

When I need the camera to be further out of the conversation, I go with an entry-level Sony tripod. It’s discreet, is smaller when folded than higher quality ‘mini’ tripods, goes up to about 1.2m high. I sort this out with the same quick release mount for the camera so there’s no screwing things on and off while you’re with the participant. This comes in handy

6. Laptop. I use this immediately after sessions to type up my reflections while they are still fresh. I always drive a bit down the road first …best they don’t see you frantically typing about them from behind their curtains.

7. Schedule. Who, When, Where and sometimes demographics; age, segment, occupation etc. I usually have a pared down version on the dash, but the full version stashed away in case I need phone numbers etc. This is a part of how I maintain my curiosity.

8. Map. As well as Google Maps I try to have a hard copy with all participants located, named, numbered and timed. This comes into it’s own in a city you’re unfamiliar with, when there’s a change in the schedule and you need to know whether you can actually shoehorn in a replacement participant and make it from A-B in the timeframe.

9. Cables, chargers etc. Including 12V in-car USB for boosting phone and livescribe pen while driving.

10. GPS / Satnav. Yes, I can use my phone, but sometimes I prefer a dedicated tool for the job, leaving my phone free for other things. I input all the addresses with names the night before. So when I arrive, the Satnav will tell me ‘arriving at ‘Daves’ number 26′. Geeky I know, but this really helps.
Yes. I make sure I delete all this data before handing it back to the rental co.

11. Smartphone. I use Alarm clock for when I can’t afford to run over the allotted time in a session, Voice to text to brain-dump my thoughts while driving between sessions, Camera for improptu shots, Messaging for contacting participants for timing / directions etc. and ‘Highlight’ for recording those moments.

12. Stills camera. As unobtrusive as possible. Must be usable by ‘feel’ alone (real buttons) and with one hand, so I can maintain my connection and focus while snapping away. Good as a secondary video camera too. I use a Canon S120

13. Rental car. Small & discreet – depending on the context, I sometimes park round the corner or out of sight of the address and appear to arrive on foot. …unless I’m in a rural area.

14. Cash incentives. In marked envelopes – for the participant’s time and involvement. Folding cash speaks everyone’s language – I avoid vouchers or direct payments. I always pay the participant at the start of the session and reinforce that it’s a payment for their time, not ‘for saying the right things’.

15. Receipts / NDAs. To be signed by participant. This keeps accountant and lawyers happy. I always include permission to video record session and detail the rights of use.

16. Smart/casual clothes. I dress up or down a bit depending on the topic I’m working with and neighbourhood I’m visiting – Dress smart enough to be credible, but not authoritative or superior in any way.

And the most important tools of all…

2 eyes

2 ears

1 mouth

…but I’m all ears if you’d like to add to my list, or suggest how I might adapt for different contexts?

5 thoughts on “Ethno-unpacked – A design research toolkit.

  1. Simon Johnson

    Excellent article Nick. I would just add..

    Breath mints. Eat one yourself if you’ve had garlic the night before, or better still, offer them to participants who are in need!

  2. Blake

    Yes mints and a bottle of water are always part of my pack. I also recently used TripIt to coordinate some research interviews/flights/meeting/driving directions/etc I have been doing in NZ and Oz and it worked pretty well particularly having the mobile app which I was checking regularly. I definitely use it again even without the international travel component.

  3. Nick Post author

    Minty Minty… Fresh!
    … A water bottle wouldn’t get a look in with me, as I make a point of accepting all offers of cups of tea.

    … Of course there are knock-on effects, like using the loo at the next subjects house – which I’ve found is a great icebreaker if timed well.

    Maybe a Mint tea is the answer.

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