IDEO. NYC. Early 2010.
I had been summoned from Europe to lead a project about the future of education in the US. At IDEO, there is a well-established a code of ethics for site visits. This code takes extra measures to protect the privacy of informants – especially their identities and contact data. IDEO also has sensible, street-smart guidelines for fieldwork in sketchy environments. In previous jobs, I had seen a situation in which two of my female design researchers had to go to remote, sparsely populated parts of the Midwest and visit big, burly, smiling men who stored every conceivable power tool in their dungeon-like tornado cellars.
There is never a shortage of people in NYC though, and recruiting there offers many delights. For instance, NYC is one of only several places where it is possible to recruit for impossibly specific profiles like: “Seeking 3 single dads who have volunteered with their children at a local charity organization within the past 2 weeks, and who also must struggle with their own gender identity and make at least $150K/year.” In the Tristate, if you are one in a million, by definition there are at least 22 of you.
Our recruiter used Craigslist for most projects and straightaway found us one of our targets: a working mother who had successfully completed a BA online while still raising a family. I had a new team and my associate design researcher was an eager, empathic and articulate ethnographer doing her first project at IDEO. We headed out to Inwood in Brooklyn for our first site visit, hoping to get insights from this working, baccalaureate mom.
During the ride, I played the senior mentor guy, offering advice about doing ethnography “in a design context.” We arrived at the address in Inwood, an obscure part of Brooklyn that looks like a sad, dilapidated part of Queens that in turn, tries to look like a nondescript suburb in Long Island. We were buzzed into the building, walked up to a door and were greeted by a large woman with a curly red mane of hair. Her name was “Roberta-but-call-me-Bert.”
She let us in. The apartment was dim. It smelled of litter box mixed with burnt Dinty Moore beef stew that Ramon, Roberta-call-me-Bert’s husband had overheated on the stove. The dingy plaster walls were covered in old shopping lists, written in a mangled scrawl that suggested vaguely menacing pathologies and personality disorders suffered by their author.
The sofa we sat on smelled of cat piss, and the living room offered up no pretense of ever having been cleaned. We sat up straight, made eye contact in that standard, pious, non-judgmental manner that earnest ethnographers often adopt. We began the paperwork. We were offered water and politely declined.
I asked her about work, family, free time; all of the perfunctory questions before we got into her BA experience. Since I was the seasoned professional, I led the discussion, “Tell me a story about your favorite class…”, “Did you make friends with your classmates?”, “Do you still keep in touch?” Since my associate was taking notes, I focused on keeping the discussion moving and letting Roberta-call-me-Bert lead us to all sorts of exciting insights.
The trouble was, she didn’t.
“Oh, I don’t remember much about that class,” she said about her favorite statistics course she took just before graduating 18 months ago. “Yeah, I pretty much kept to myself, because I had to work and raise a family, you know?” I nodded my head earnestly.
I began asking her questions about change: “Do you view your daughter’s education differently now since you got the degree?” “Not really,” she said, as her daughter ate ice cream from a container while watching a YouTube video about dog fighting.
We eventually went on our way. Once out the door, I was about to launch into the debrief. Since I was the experienced one, I was going to teach my associate a simple, time-honored 20 minute structure I often use for debriefs: Interesting Behaviors/Motivations and Drivers/Problems and Frustrations/Opportunities.
I noticed that she was grimacing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That was a waste.” she replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She lied, she never went to college.”
I was gobsmacked.
And she was absolutely right.
There were no interesting behaviors. There were no drivers or motivations. There were no problems or frustrations. There were no opportunities.
There was no diploma. It was “packed away somewhere.”
We returned to the office. Another colleague was leading a project in men’s fashion and desperately trying to recruit shop-along dyads of couples in their 40’s and 50’s where wives selected the husband’s clothes. She said they had already recruited one couple on Craigslist and that her name was Roberta from Inwood, Brooklyn.
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