Sea Legs: A User Research War Story by Tamara Hale

Posted on | Leave a comment

  • Tamara Hale leads the research practice at Workday. This story is adapted from Hale, T. 2018 People Are Not Users. Journal of Business Anthropology. 7(2):163-183. She will be telling a completely new story at the Advancing Research conference.

    A ferry boat is a place of questionable comfort for conducting research. A ferry boat in a storm is an altogether different matter, as I found out several years ago, when I was researching the experience of travelers sailing across the English channel between Dover and Calais, on one of Europe’s biggest ferry companies.

    My objective was to inform a complete redesign of the newest fleet of ships, based on an understanding of the needs of ferry travelers: from queuing, to parking and wayfinding to the deck, to using the facilities on board and deboarding, all viewed through the perspective of service design. I spent a week observing and interviewing couples, families, traveling groups, truckers and staff on the ship. With time I felt I had become part of its very inventory: adapting to the ebb and flow of passengers for their three hour crossing. At each port, the ferry emptied itself of people, cars, buses and trucks and grew quiet, as if the ship sighed in relief and then braced in anticipation for the next wave of passengers. While the staff cleaned up from the last crossing and prepared for the next sailing, I would organize my fieldnotes and change the batteries on my audio recorder (yes, we had those back then). With multiple crossings a day I eventually forgot which port we were at, and it was only by locating a flag on the docks outside that I would know whether we were in Dover or Calais at any given time.

    In my second week of fieldwork, just as I became accustomed to the daily routine of life aboard the ferry boat, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a formidable storm. As the waters grew rougher, and the ship floor started responding to the undulation of the tempestuous waves, I gave up on asking passengers to show me around the ship because none of us could walk or stand confidently. Instead I wobbled over onto the luxury travel deck, hoping for some relief amidst the red velvet lounge sofas, oak bar, and unobstructed ocean views. There I attempted to interview a retired couple on their vacation, my audio recorder sliding back and forth on the table between us. But I was soon forced to abort the interview, trying my best not to throw up on the red velvet, or worse, my research participants. The ferry staff, seeing my distress, tried to assure me that this weather did not pose a threat to our lives, while simultaneously scooping up the wine and champagne glasses off the bar into the safety of lockable wooden cabinets. At the end of the night, I stumbled off the ship to my hotel, wondering if I could ever set foot on another boat.

    After a few nights of rest, I returned to the ship to complete my research over a span of a few much calmer days, this time focusing on truck drivers who regularly made the crossing with different concerns than my holiday travelers. I attempted to regale my research participants with the story of my storm of Titanic proportions days earlier, an endeavor which sparked pity and laughter rather than admiration. I wrapped up fieldwork as I always do, with a sense of deep humility and an expanded sense of different lifeworlds. This time, however, that humility was less intellectual in nature than corporeal.

    The storm had added a new layer of complexity to my role in the project and to my personal and bodily relationship with the site of my research, the ship. Through the storm I became acutely aware that, despite my best intentions, I had treated the ship primarily as a backdrop for my interviews instead of considering it as a space and material object that seemingly possessed its own agency. The affordances of the ship when activated by the storm had challenged my sense of safety, comfort, and routine and replaced it with fear, confusion and malaise. Through my own body I learned of the ship’s potential to make its passengers feel a range of emotions and physical sensations. This attuned me more fully to the ship’s design shortcomings, to travelers’ and staff needs, and ultimately enhanced my ability to shape the decisions in the design and funding of the new fleet. While I never did fully find my sea legs on that research trip, I had reached a turning point in my appreciation of the spaces and environments in which research takes place.


    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.

    Leave a Comment