Category Archives: Contextual inquiry

Breaking the wall in design research

Breaking the wall in Design Research


Film directors use a term to describe zooming out from the scene to deliberately demystify the production process.

This reveals backstage activity usually out of the frame, like the edges of the studio set, sound crew, equipment etc..

They call this ‘breaking the wall’.

Thanks to an ambitious client, and a two minute edit from a mountain of footage, I feel like I can do something similar, at least trying to answer some design research FAQs I’m often asked. In particular the approaches and practicalities of fieldwork. Continue reading

Context is everything, even in a motorcamp

Design research, especially ethnography, means being right there with your customer while they interact with your product.

In my current project this means collecting stories from tourists in their campervans around a few of the hotspots we are lucky to have ‘Down Under’.

“Tough gig”, I hear you say…

…but we’re doing what the real anthropologists call ‘getting off the verandah’.

Design research on the road

We’re studying the customer journey of these rolling tourists via observation, and interviews at various stages of what is a highly-anticipated holiday experience. For some tourists it’s a ‘bucket list’ item – so under the surface of a relaxing holiday, the stakes can be high and the details matter.

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The value of immersion

The tourist experience is in striking contrast to the patients I shadowed in hospital wards this time last year, where their situation was undesirable, unplanned …and the sooner it ended the better.

One aspect, though, is the same – the value of being immersed in their environment.

This value reveals itself immediately, demonstrating the closer you can get to experiencing your customers’ reality the better you’ll understand what matters to them.

Breaking the ice

Parking-up and staying in motor-camps moves us across an invisible, but tangible line. Somehow the ‘ice’ is broken for us when approaching our likely subjects, we’re seen less as nosey researchers – more as fellow travellers. This sense of ‘permission’ makes the vital first few minutes of an interview so much easier – rapport and empathy are built much quicker than I’m used to.

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Research in context

By walking (well, driving) in their shoes, we’re also relying on the same tools they use, like maps, guidebooks, facilities etc. We’ve also fallen into the rhythm of the campsites, observing and being part of activities happening at different times of day / evening. All this context provides a vital frame of reference for everything we’re observing, and helps us relate to experiences described to us.

Sure, it would be more convenient to snaffle these customers at the tail end of their trip, herding them into an office to collect holiday anecdotes but the opportunity cost of missing out on those rich insights is too great.

…and it’s much easier to focus when you’ve had your eyes opened that little bit further.

To uncover the story, first lose the script.

A while back I clocked up my 1000th interview. This got me thinking how much my approach has evolved over the years.

Interviews with customers / end users of products and services are often the foundation of my research.

In the earliest projects I’d work from a page or two of questions all lined up in advance, in the shape of a ‘script’, or discussion guide. These were questions I’d literally recite to each participant. Sometimes these had been contributed to, signed off by, or even provided by the client.

I’d been told I should ask the same questions to all participants to maintain consistency, but found it awkward to work to the script, and at times like I was only hearing half of the story from the subject.

Over time, I found the questions I asked in response to the answers revealed more than the questions on my script, so I developed a more conversational approach.

Sounds like a convenient way to take the effort and rigour out of the process, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

Whilst interviewing, you’re running a mental cache of what’s been said, where you need to take the conversation, how much time is left etc. …and all the while you’re trying to make the participant feel like the conversation is following natural twists and turns, rather than being steered by you, the interviewer.

There are plenty of techniques to learn in the craft of interviewing; building rapport, non-verbals, open ended questions, asking ‘the 5 whys’, repeating their words etc.

In fact, there’s a great book dedicated to interviewing customers by a cohort of mine, Steve Portigal. Totally recommended for design researchers / UX people.

These techniques, combined with your curiosity will get you so far. …But they are not enough.

When clients ask (and they still do) “So, what are the questions you’ll be asking them” …

I explain:
When it comes to asking the right questions, there is no substitute for actually wanting to know the answer.

Instead of a script, I agree on a set of objectives with the team. This describes the ground we’d like to cover during the conversations and reads like a list of topics around which we’d like to learn.

Some of these might be framed as questions, but it’s far from being a ‘script’.

As an interviewer, you need to truly understand the context and objectives of your client / project sponsor:

It all starts with a set of questions to which I need the answer in my own head, before I begin planning the interviews…

  • Where is the business and product at in the development process?
  • Why is this the right time to conduct the study?
  • Which aspects stakeholders agree / disagree on?
  • What assumptions exist about the market, end user or value of the product to end users?
  • How will the client measure market success for the product / service?
  • How will the research be used, by whom?
  • What design decisions do the team need to make based on the insights you uncover?
  • Why are we including these types of participant in the study?
  • Which areas does the team have enough insight about already?

This goes beyond the due diligence of taking the brief, scoping the study etc.
It’s a deep understanding of the business, product and design context and should be embedded in your curiosity.

The flow of the conversation and lines of questioning should all come naturally if you’ve built this level of empathy for your client’s position.

In the end it’s about user centred design – The user of the research is your client, so you need to understand your end users’ needs to be able to design the product (interview structure) to give them the best outcomes. In this case, rich and useful insights.

Stories in stereo – Sketching customer journeys

How do you share stories collected during dozens of interviews?

What if your ‘Customers’ are actually patients in a hospital?

…Rather than take notes and quotes, why not sketch it ?

Let me explain…

Collecting patient stories
I’ve been part of a team mapping the ‘patient experience’ through a hospital. The foundation for the project is collecting stories from patients in context.

This means interviewing patients at their bedside in Emergency, on wards and later in their homes. The context can be sensitive and the content emotional.

The scale of the work means a raft of interviewers and large number of interviews, each with their own style. The stories have been so rich, diverse and engaging that working to a note-taking template went out the door…

So I began to experiment…

Getting sketchy
At one patient’s house I began sketching her story freestyle, in real time, as she told it.

My partner steered the conversation, while I scribbled furiously with a fat marker and a flipchart on my lap…

Below is a segment of about the first 15 minutes of an interview:

A small section of the sketch notes I took during an interview

I’m glad I tried it
I’ve spoken before about the power of visualising research findings, and particularly sketched visuals over polished.

A sketch on the project room wall is very accessible, so gets a lot of eyeballs – great for sharing the story. As well as a standalone artefact, It can be a great prompt for discussion – As you talk others through it, somehow the context and tone of the conversation comes flooding back to you. It’s not quite video, but it does bring the story alive.

Try it yourself…
Here’s a ‘Top 10’ …Some starters from my experience:

  1. This works best if your job is only to listen and capture. Have someone else lead the interview.
  2. Go BIG – use a large format pad and fat pen. This makes it essay to socialise later, and prevents you from getting too detailed.
  3. Try to maintain a few seconds ‘buffer’ between what you’re hearing, and what you’re drawing.
  4. Don’t analyse as you go – just scribble like mad, or your ‘buffer’ will max out and you’ll miss bits.
  5. Use visual metaphors, e.g. If the subject is looking for something, draw binoculars, magnifying glass, map, compass etc.
  6. Pepper the notes with verbatim quotes, I use speech or thought bubbles.
  7. Use a couple of sizes or styles of text to indicate strength of a comment, specific themes etc.
  8. Talk the subject through the sketch at the end of the interview. They’ll be pleased to see what the hell you’ve been drawing.
  9. Ask for comment. “What else would you add?” They might correct you in places or add further texture to the story which you can add on the spot.
  10. If you’re recording with video sit away from the microphone, felt-tip markers make quite a racket when you’re going full-tit.

Give it a try…
This is something I’ll definitely be doing again, trying not to be admitted to hospital myself from marker pen fume inhalation.

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?