The following story is featured in Steve Portigal’s book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. The book is a collection of 65 true stories about user research gone wrong and how researchers handle unexpected mishaps in the moment.
Burns, Bandaids, and BBQ by Jenn Downs
I was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit, and while getting ready for the day, I burned my thumb pretty badly on my hair straightening iron. It was the kind of burn you can soothe for about two seconds before it makes you roll your eyes back and cry out in pain. We’d planned ahead and given ourselves plenty of time to get ready that morning, so we had a few extra minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the front desk of our hotel to see if they had a first aid kit. They did not. However, one of the hotel staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, some kind of Southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in old Southern food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I slathered the burn in mustard, hoping for the best. This remedy was not the best.
Two seconds later, I was again whimpering in pain. I filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. This provided a tremendous amount of relief, while being completely impractical. So we sped out to find a drugstore. Being on the outskirts of a college town, there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did find a grocery store open before 8 a.m. I bought everything—burn cream, aloe, bandages, anything that looked like it might work, just in case. But nothing I purchased worked! Nothing but the cup of ice water could stop me from visibly wincing. We were running out of time and had to head to our meeting, hoping for some kind of miracle. My colleague and I found our way to our customer’s office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately, the front desk person at the office was keenly observant. Before I could even say a word, she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in this cup of water.
I should mention that we worked for a really creative and weird company, and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional Southern company. We were feeling more than a little out of our element. I thought for a moment that the interview was going to be a disaster, but my thumb on ice was actually a nice icebreaker (pun not intended). Then I spilled the cup of ice water all over their conference room table. In that moment, all I could do was laugh at myself and let everyone laugh with me. We continued the interview as I was cleaning up the mess—calmly and confidently.
In the end, it turned out to be a great interview and gave the guys at the company something to joke with us about over a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped in gauze and burn cream. My confidence through all the awkwardness ended up making them feel comfortable with having strangers in their office all day, and we got great information we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes, you just have to roll with 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.