Don’t Fall Flat: A User Research War Story by Randy Duke II

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  • Randolph Duke II is an Experience Strategist with Cantina. He is always open to connecting on Slack or LinkedIn. He presented this story live at the Advancing Research conference. (This post will be updated with videos etc. as available)

    As a researcher, you come to expect the unexpected. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get surprised. I had received my first project as the lead researcher and designer for an internal IT group. The IT group hired me to help them learn about and fix some internal software tool. I agreed to a really tight deadline so the client provided an employee to support and shadow me. We’ll call her “Laura”. Laura was really bright and took well to instruction – the ideal apprentice, if you will. Although I shared some potential questions I might use during employee observations, I warned her that fieldwork could go any which way and that she should try to be ready for anything. I hadn’t realized we were both going to need that advice.

    Two days into visiting offices across their different buildings, we were finally scheduled to meet “Carol”. Carol was important to my small data pool; she represented an important team within the company and previously shared unfiltered, critical feedback. Compared to her colleagues more nuanced responses, we knew time with Carol was going to be different. Upon introducing myself and thanking Carol for her time, she immediately responded with “I know who you are and I have opinions.” Before I could even come up with a response I just instinctively smiled and thought I am going to need to bring my A game. I planned to be approachable and responsible in guiding a fruitful conversation instead of just letting her complain. As therapeutic as it might’ve been for Carol, I needed to help Laura and myself understand why Carol felt the ways that she did so we could do something about it later. That’s what I planned, at least.

    I first attempted to build rapport by asking Carol to describe how she works which immediately sent us down another path. One of the first things Carol brought up was a coworker she introduced to the company: Flat Carol. Flat Carol was a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of Carol. It was a 10-year old photo of her, smiling and holding a phone to her ear. It had a blank speech bubble encrusted with the remnants of old pieces of Scotch tape. I was caught completely off guard! Was this something that people just did here? I looked to Laura to gauge if something like this was somehow common and the look on her face confirmed that yes, Flat Carol was definitely out of the ordinary. I had warned Laura to be ready for nearly anything but here I was the one who needed to act. I thought to myself: do I find a way to make this conversation more about the software as scheduled or do I show Laura how to react to the unplanned?

    In the few seconds I had to collect my thoughts I made my decision: I was going to be as present for Carol as possible. How could I hold onto a well-intended plan of talking about software when Laura and I had the chance to meet “someone” Carol was willing to share? I put down my question guide, and just focused on Carol. She told us how she put Flat Carol in her seat when she was away from her desk, whether she was going on vacation or as far as the restroom. How Flat Carol would have kind words or notes taped to the speech bubble for people passing her desk. We occasionally spoke about company processes connected to the software research, but that wasn’t my priority. Every so often I would look over at Laura to see what she was gaining from this experience and saw several approving nods, smiles, and fervent note taking. By the end, Carol shared that she was grateful for our conversation and Laura was relieved. Once we left Carol, Laura let out a sigh of relief and said “I don’t think I could ever recover the way you did.” That’s what research is about.

    In mentoring Laura (who was, after all, still my client), I had spoken generally about being ready for anything, but when we were faced with a real surprise in the field, I had to live up to those words in a way that surely exceeded what either of us had in mind. We all walked away better for it.


    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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