The Well-lit Redhead: A User Research War Story by David Bacon

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  • David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesStanding in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

    Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

    Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages. I started to become anxious, I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

    I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

    After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

    As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

    I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

    “Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

    When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

    I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.


    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.

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