During our “Ask Me Anything” with Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, we touched on subjects ranging from how to handle difficult clients, Steve’s favorite band, and his recommended reading, to dealing with “heavy topics” in interviews and how to improve your skills. Read on for a recap of the session, and please join our Slack here to stay informed about when our next #rm-chat author AMA will be!
Q: What book except your own would you recommend to read for UX designer? -Natalia H.
A: There are so many things to learn about. For design, I think this recent book by Scott Berkun is a great examination of how design is everywhere and in everything. It’s a quick read, it’s fun, and it’s empowering for designers I think, telling us again about all that we do, we have done, we can do.
Q: I often deal with “heavy topics” such as life, disability, cancer etc in my line of work, so it is not unheard of that we have someone break down and cry in interviews. We try our best to mitigate and avoid unnecessary stress (participants health and safety is our primary concern and we tell them in advance about the topics that we will be discussing), but can you talk about some advice how to mitigate these situations or what to do when this happens? -Fabian B.
A: Of course the stress and the emotion is going to impact all the people involved, say the participant and the researcher. I think researchers need to keep in mind that they aren’t (in most cases) trained for this, and that they need to find ways to take care of themselves. Often we will emote less in the interview than we might want to, so we want to leave space for ourselves to have feelings, to have reactions, to have someone to talk to. Work out what that is going to be. Who are you going to be able to speak with? When will you be able to speak with them?
For the participant, I learned something new to me from Sarah Fathallah at the Advancing Research conference when she talked about referral paths, something that if you are doing academic research that has an IRB ethical review needs to be put in place (someone correct me if I have this wrong) – where you identify things that might come up, like if someone reveals they are being abused, or is going through addiction, or having suicidal thoughts, you already know what your action is going to be.
I don’t know that we need that level if we aren’t doing say specifically traumatic research, but it’s the idea of planning for that. I’m also not saying that we need to DO anything; I think well-intentioned but under-informed do-gooderism is potentially worse than doing nothing in certain situations.
The complexity here is you can’t come up with every possible thing that might come up. But you can come up with SOME. I am also intrigued by sort of a generational shift in how we see our role; from “we need to observe, listen, empathize, not judge” to “all those, but we must also help.”
Q: I suspect a lot of us always did at least some of our research remotely, but now with covid, we’re seeing way more remote/virtual research. What are a couple of your top best practices for doing remote research well and getting high-quality information from respondents? -Amy B.
A: I think it’s worth co-opting that thing I see tweeted all the time “you aren’t working from home, you are working from home amidst a global pandemic.” Same for research, right? All the parties are living through an emergency. So yes, there may be dogs and kids, and construction noise, and someone may be in their garage so they can get some privacy. And as we’ve adapted our tolerance for informality in terms of focus, energy, duration, attention in work, we can apply those to these interactions with strangers. A guy I spoke with yesterday put us on pause as his daughter asked for the car keys, she just got her license the day before. It was fine. I didn’t get ruffled like I might have in another time (no that’s crazy I’m nothing if not entirely cool and rolling with the changes). I don’t have a good answer for how fully remote research locks us out of getting to certain people. I just had a brainstorm with a colleague who was thinking about how to understand how people were or will be using transit, given that we can’t go on transit right now, and that the people who he’d want to learn about are possibly not sitting at home with a room with a laptop and a webcam and a good internet connection that is available all the time for them to just get on a call with us over Zoom. So who are we excluding even more so now (as society is excluding people in those circumstances even now) ? I know people are trying hard to deal with this, but I don’t know?
Q: Which musical group has had an interesting impact on your life and how? -Corey B.
A: I’m going to say The Tragically Hip. Being an expat Canadian, when the Hip would come to town it was always an interesting gathering of the community, at least a bunch of fellow Canucks. You’d go to a show and see hockey jerseys and University leather jackets, and just stuff you don’t EVER see in the US. And as time passed, we all got older, the fans got older, the band got older, and how we expressed ourselves and our identity shifted, gradually. I haven’t really moved through an era of my life as clearly in common with other people, not close friends, just strangers, but to feel it so tangibly through ANOTHER experience has impacted me. And of course the ultimate end of aging is death and the loss of Gord Downie still impacts me every day pretty much. I listen to the band and my many bootlegs and think about them and him, constantly. Perpetually.
Q: Do you have any tested tips/tricks on working with difficult clients? I recently had a challenge of convincing the client to use our approach when they wanted to do something else. Curious to hear what you do in such situations. -Kama K.
A: I don’t know enough about the context, and the power dynamic, as I think it often comes down to that. Two big directions, though: Empathy/Walk away. For the first, and I don’t mean to tell you stuff you already probably know and do in all your relationships, but there is that weird power to detoxify some broken interactions when you just listen, when you ask more, when you acknowledge, etc. Probably this has some buzzword for leadership people, I don’t know what that is. It sets you up to say authentically “Yes, And, and not No, But.”
For the second, if someone is a client, then you aren’t in a full-time job with them. Of course as someone who also provides services to clients, I want to do a good job, I want to be appreciated, I want to bring value, I want to be employed, and brought back in, etc. So I don’t like that framing that design people in agencies sometimes like to espouse which is making the client the enemy. But we can walk away. And even if we just hold in our head that we have the OPTION of walking away can making a less desired choice perhaps more tolerable. I’m CHOOSING to do this which I don’t agree with and which distresses me but I could and may at some point choose NOT to do it.
Q: What are your most counter-intuitive insights about research as it propagates through the product development process? -Scott W.
A: I don’t know that I can claim counter intuitive as a goal, if you agree with me then it’s probably not THAT counter intuitive? I think there’s this desire to create models and visuals that say if you are here do this, if you are here do that. Whether that’s the double diamond model or (VERY HELPFUL) recommendations for methods based on a stage in a process like Christian Rohrer’s.
I just am not that organized, I am just not able to constrain myself to a discrete stage, maybe I’m trees and that’s the forest and I just can’t do the forest well enough. That all being said, I think there’s something about how these processes are a continuum, a gradient, and not stages. I know Software Development Lifecycle Methodologies are all about gates, and stages, and review cycles, and (ugh) sprints, but I think in terms of where we are in terms of certainty, of belief, of ideas, it’s a much more creative process, I can’t control what thoughts I have in the shower in that way we have of considering and being inspired about what it means, what to do, what the opportunity is. Some of that is always happening for creative people – and research is ABSOLUTELY a creative process of sense making and understanding.
Q: Are there any topic(s) or technique(s) you hope more places of instruction cover for individuals entering into research? -Randolph D.
A: As you know, I love storytelling, and I think it’s such a powerful tool, but it’s just kind of considered to be something that is maybe part of your personality, your own personal toolbox. But obviously it can be taught, practiced, developed. Research is about gathering stories and creating new stories, and “story” is of course an ENORMOUSLY broad construct so one can take it however one likes.
I mentioned ethics in another question, I think as a field we haven’t reckoned with it sufficiently. I’d like people coming into the field to have a perspective on it. I know a researcher who wrote up their own research philosophy, not even as a document to publish but as a way of working out what they were trying to do. I was extremely impressed with that.
Research as a practice to me is a constant consideration of who we are in the world, as people, how we relate to other people, how we judge and don’t judge, and just how we move around and exist and perhaps make and help. So, being intentional about what you believe and what you want, damn. It’s a brilliant activity. I haven’t ever done that and hadn’t ever thought of doing it. So philosophy isn’t ethics literally but is adjacent?
I’d like something in training – and I don’t know that the places people are learning about research are the right environments to be considering this aspect – about what the researcher’s role is relative to the rest of the people they work with. I do not like the idea of research as “support” – you hear “oh I support three teams” – I know research is a helping profession like say librarians, and I don’t mean to squelch that strength, but I think we are partners and leaders, and if we don’t believe in the value we can bring in the role we can play, no one else will. I think it’s a hard field to break into and there are a lot of entry level people and so if they are told they have to be subservient, that can set a long running pattern for their career and for the practice.
Q: Someone interested in working with us recently asked how we recommend she improve her interview skills. I recommended your books, but are there any classes or seminars you might recommend as well? -Amy B.
A: I’m going to pitch my upcoming workshop. Also very very good is the cycle of “do, observe, reflect.” (which probably has a smarter name than I’m giving it). Listen to Terry Gross – listen to her technique. Reflect on her technique. Print out a transcript and mark it up. What choices did she make? What other choices could she make?
Listen to your own interviews. Print them out. Listen to a colleague’s interviews. Same same. Have someone ELSE listen to your interviews. Have someone else mark up Terry Gross (or anyone who does a lot of interviews).
I think training will get you further than you are, but practice, man practice is the way. Do a lot of interviews. A LOT. Reflect and analyze!
Q: What are some tips for building rapport in remote interviews? (with camera and without camera) -Erika
A: One avenue to explore is pointing to the medium, just acknowledging that you are doing what you are doing. And not pretending that you are as smooth as you are when you are in the same room. I did an interview yesterday where I had to share screen from Google Slides (not what I normally use for giving talks) and see speaker notes and it’s just a mess, and so I stopped and said what was going to happen, and then you heard the “unprofessional” sounds of me, saying, “Okay I’m going to hit share screen…yeah I think it’s shared now, okay, now I’m doing this, can you see this?” It just normalizes the interaction so you are both having a similar experience.
One thing I think needs to be explored is around shared sensory experiences. I saw Alice Waters talk recently and she described how she’d meet with people and she’d put a piece of fruit or something else down in between them and they’d just eat it beforehand and it created these interesting connections and well, rapport.
I don’t know how to operationalize this for remote research but I’m imagining having everyone pet their furry animal before starting and just sharing that moment that is about the senses, even though we are having our own experiences, we are having similar ones together. I think there’s probably some work to do to create that in a non-weird-sounding way.