Ryan’s War Story: Enthusiasticus Interruptus

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  • UX Reseacher Ryan DeGorter relates a familiar uncomfortable scenario, finding himself in the field with a colleague who isn’t quite on board with the whole listening thing.

    Our UX Research team created a program called “Coffee with Customers” where we conducted interview sessions with our customers over a hot brew. It not only allowed us to take a step back from the daily grind, but gave the chance for others in the organization to be involved in the process. With this particular coffee and research session, I took along a product manager “Bob”.

    Prior to the coffee session, I walked Bob through the interview style, and provided him a rough sketch of how the interview would flow. Bob was particularly interested in gaining insight on how people use social applications, so I worked those into the discussion guide. The research session started at 10am, so I picked Bob up at 9am to give ample time for one last review with Bob. I explained that I would like to be the one to lead the interview in order to maintain flow of the discussion. However, if he had a question to ask, he should try to remember to start the question with Who, What, Why, How or When.

    It was a wintery day and Bob and I arrived at the coffee shop shortly before 10am. It was quite crowded as we did an initial scan for the participant “Kevin”. A few minutes later Kevin arrived. During introductions it was clear Kevin was a bit tentative about the session. When we were ordering coffee and muffins, it was difficult to start a conversation with him. Nevertheless, we found a table where we could sip our coffee and chat. Since Kevin was clearly nervous, I spent a little longer making small talk in hopes of trying to remove the awkwardness. We chatted about the weather, and how Waterloo [Ontario] never seems to get a proper winter anymore. Before long, we had a stronger rapport with Kevin, so we dove right into the interview.

    I started with questions like “Where did you buy your smart phone?” and “What was your thought process for choosing that one?” Kevin continued to open up and was providing us good detailed information. He gave us very clear stories about why he chose this particular phone, what he enjoys about it as well as points of frustrations. All this time my partner Bob was sipping on his slightly cooler coffee and taking it all in without writing any notes. It was as if this was his normal daily routine and this interview was like every other research session he has done before.

    As we delved deeper into Kevin’s usage patterns, we moved on to the topic of social applications. I asked Kevin to walk us through why he uses Facebook and Twitter and asked him to show us how he did this on his smart phone. Bob shuffled his chair closer to Kevin so he too could observe Kevin’s actions. Kevin confidently swiped through the Twitter application, explaining his rationale for following certain friends. At this point there was a sudden interruption which caught both Kevin and I by surprise. Bob leaned in even closer to the device and pointed to the screen as if it was his own phone. “Do you do it like this?” Bob asked “Um…I don’t think so.” Kevin replied hesitantly. Bob then suddenly grabs his pen, hunches over the table, and with both arms on the desk, furiously writes on a piece of paper, acting as if he needed to catch every word that was coming from Kevin’s lips. I felt like everything started going to go in hyper speed as I was no longer the pilot of this interview. I could not make out what Bob was actually writing, but he obviously had some specific answers that needed to write down personally. I tried to ease the tension Bob’s action had created, saying “That’s great that you use the application that way, what else do you do on this phone?” I tried to convey to Kevin that he was not being tested and that we instead were just seeking inspiration and understanding. Although I tried to move on, Bob interrupted again and asked Kevin to navigate to another area of the application, asking “Do you do this?” type of questions while he clearly had specific answers he was looking for. This went on for another few minutes, despite my efforts to regain control of the interview by trying to rephrase Bob’s questions in a more open manner. My efforts were in vain and I could see Kevin was shutting down and resorting to Yes and No answers. I needed to act and act quickly. “It looks like we need some refills. Why don’t we take a short break?” I said in a desperate hope to try and free Kevin from Bob’s interrogation. I was lucky that Kevin needed to use the washroom, so I took the opportunity to speak to Bob in the coffee line. I reminded him that we had an audio device so we did not have to write down any notes. I also addressed his interview style. I politely stated that I will be asking the questions during the remainder of the session while making sure to address those items that he provided me with in the discussion guide. Bob took my concerns to heart and allowed me to complete the interview without interrupting. We never fully gained the openness back from Kevin, but overall, it was an inspiring session for Bob and me. As we shook Kevin’s hand goodbye, I made a mental note thinking “This is why those UX books encourage you to ask questions instead of your stakeholders.”

    In the field you always have to be on your feet. A single participant can be tricky as you try and figure out their personality and what will help them feel comfortable enough to openly talk to you. Additionally, your colleague may also become too eager and sidetrack the session in order to get their questions answered, despite being told how they should approach the participant. When things go awry, you need to be able to stay calm and get the interview back on track. It was great that Bob realized his mistake during the break and I will not let this experience prevent future colleagues to accompany me during a session. However, I will definitely spend more time explaining to my colleague the importance of rapport and emphasizing the proper technique on how to ask participants questions so as not to overwhelm them.

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