Alexandra Wills is an ethnographer working at Fuse by Cardinal Health, an innovation center in Columbus, Ohio. She told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.
I’ll never forget when I did ethnographic research for a project aimed at helping a car manufacturer learn what Millennials with small children really needed.
The project was hard. Taking on a project at the height of the Great Recession meant navigating a radical change in client engagement from what I had experienced since starting the work two years prior. “It’s Friday at 5 p.m. in Ohio and you want me in Los Angeles on Monday?” Okay. “We’re doing video diaries and in-home interviews and a post-interview ideation session with participants in two cities, all in two months?” Okay.
Added to all that, I had a nine-month-old and simply didn’t want to leave her for days at a time. Over the past few months of work, I had already breast pumped on an airplane and in dirty airport bathrooms. I had already begged flight attendants and fast food workers for ice to put in the cooler carrying pouches of my “liquid gold.” Did I mention it was my birthday?
At one point in the project, I was hanging out with a family in Austin who had a toddler. I knew nothing about toddlers. After all, I had a nine-month-old. Did I mention I am not a ‘kid person’?
We had just returned from running errands in their car. As we got out of the car, they were showing me some specific details about the vehicle. They had a Honda Element – the car with the interesting doors that open and close like a book. I was paying close, close attention to the parents and I had no idea that the little kid was right near me. So I closed the door. Suddenly, we all heard the kid screaming! His parents rushed to his side and looked him over, examining his hands. All I could do was yell impulsively, “I didn’t do it!” I was horrified. I thought, “I hurt a child! This child! A participant’s child! Oh noooooo this is bad. How am I going to fix this? What am I going to tell Melinda (my boss)?” To this day I don’t know if his finger got caught in the door, or if me closing the door just scared him.
There was no blood, no broken fingers. But inside, I wanted to die. I already felt plagued by my own mommy guilt and that feeling spread throughout my body like lava. So, not only did I feel like a horrible mom for leaving my kid, but here I was in Austin, making someone else’s kid cry. What a moment. Needless to say, any rapport I had developed in my time with the family evaporated in that instant.
I stopped recording, stepped back, apologized to the mom and waited for the parents to finish calming down their kid. I waited for them to say, “This is over.” They didn’t. Miraculously, they continued the interview, even if I could feel all their judgment the entire time as we wrapped things up. “Maybe I didn’t traumatize this family,” I thought insecurely.
The icing on the cake was that we used video to capture all our data, so not only did this happen, but my boss got to see the whole thing when she reviewed the video. Later in the project I mentioned the incident and she said, “Yeah I saw that.”
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.