Image credit: Dan Dimmock
Acquiring a qualitative mindset.
Carrying out user research has always been something that I have shied away from. That’s partly because I think there’s an expectation for a researcher to be an expert in their field, and I’m yet to feel like an expert in any facet of the tech industry. After deciding on a topic for my prototype last week, this week I’ve made my first foray into user research.
With my background in psychology, I’m more familiar with heavily controlled lab and field studies and chewing through quantative data. From what I’ve seen in my studies, pyschological research is always under heavy scrutiny— my tutors through undergrad drilled into me the importance of well-considered sampling. Therein lies a source of confliction.
Coolican, 2009 pp. 46-50, acknowledges haphazard sampling methods (i.e. the convenience sampling method I used, by asking online members in the course’s discord channel) as being susceptible to bias, despite the methods’ names implying selection without conscious bias.
I suppose the research I’m doing now isn’t derailed by sampling bias in the same way my previous experiments might have been. The reality is that this qualitative research demands a different mindset to the one I used at undergrad. Through Coolican’s book, I found a statement on ‘quantophrenia’ that alleviates my turmoil.
There is too much measurement going on. Some things which are numerically
precise are not true; and some things which are not numerical are true. Orthodox
research produces results which are statistically significant but humanly insignificant; in human inquiry it is much better to be deeply interesting than accurately
– Reason and Rowan, 1981.
Conversationalism in inquiry.
With the interviewing process out of the way, I’d like to take time to reflect on how it went.
Formulating the questions for my discussion guide didn’t come naturally for me. I found that I had a tendency to lean towards closed-ended questions in place of tougher questions that might put interviewees on the spot. As someone who takes pride in their ability to make others feel comfortable in social contexts, potentially uncomfortable questions are somewhat against my nature.
A blog post on Medium by Rob Hayes, 2015, provided two useful insights that helped me overcome this aprehension. The first was to lead with softball questions as a means of easing my participants into speaking their minds. The second, most valuable, insight was to not be a slave to my guide. As above, this came in challenge to my quantitative, lab study foundations. But it encouraged me to trust in my skills as a conversationalist. As it turns out, those softballs were as much an icebreaker for me as they were my interviewees.
A few interviews in, I noticed an idiosyncracy creeping into my lines of questioning that I’d like avoid in future. As a means of softening the hardballs, I found myself appending questions with polar perceptions, in an either-or fashion. For example:
“What are your thoughts on wearables that focus on fitness tracking? Are they useful, or a bit pointless?”
In effect, what I was doing was asking an open-ended question, prime for exploration, and immediately giving my interviewees the opportunity to respond as if it was actually closed-ended. I found that staying silent after their initial response remedied this issue. Nonetheless, it’s a habit I hope to grow out of with more practice.
Steve Portigal, 2013 pp. 90-91, provides a list of question types to probe what’s been unsaid, which includes probing delicately, probing without assumption and regularly asking why. These seem to be good practices to apply, to help me navigate my idiosyncracies and apprehension.
In the last few days, I’ve made a conscious attempt to feed these question types into my usual interactions. My thinking is that, by including them in conversation, they’ll start to appear organically in contextual inquiries, whenever I branch away from my discussion guide.
After five interviews of around 45 minutes, I had amassed nearly 250 pieces of insight. It was about there that I hit a wall. I found it near-impossible to organise my affinity map; blinded by the sheer quanity of post-its. The task at hand just didn’t seem practical. So, after some breathing time away from my desk, I decided to consult literature.
Being a lone researcher in this project, I wrote my own notes during the interview. Evidently, that isn’t ideal because it fractured my attention – half towards the user, half down at my desk, scribbling notes. A post from the Interaction Design Foundation, 2020, corroborates my view on interviewing with a partner, and warns that “If the researcher asking questions takes notes – there’s a good chance that the interview will be derailed and become hard to manage.”
A knock-on effect of juggling interviewing and note-taking was that my notes were cluttered and repetitive. That’s where the ~250 post-its came from. In a post on synthesising design research, Marion Baylé, 2018, highlighted the importance of keeping the saturation phase of my research synthesis organised. I hadn’t written in concise and complete sentences, and many of my notes didn’t address a behaviour with an associatied motivation. I’m pinning disorganisation as the source of my mental block.
I broke down that wall by carrying out some pre-synthesis consolidation and pruning. Thankfully, I had recorded all of my interviews, so I sanity-checked my consolidated notes against the footage. While not an ideal working process, the free practice of this course is the best time for me to work through turbulence. I’ll have other opportunities to improve my execution in modules to come.
BAYLÉ, M. 2021. ‘Synthesis: How to make sense of your design research’. UX collective [online]. Available at: https://uxdesign.cc/synthesis-how-to-make-sense-of-your-design-research-d67ad79b684b [accessed 16/05/2021].
COOLICAN, H. 2009. Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology. 5th edn. London: Hodder Education, 46-50.
HAYES, R. 2015. ‘Creating an effective discussion guide for your User Research’. Medium [online]. Available at: https://medium.com/getting-started-with-user-research/creating-an-effective-discussion-guide-for-your-user-research-c566288d4c2e [accessed 16/05/2021].
INTERACTION DESIGN FOUNDATION. ‘How to Conduct User Interviews’ Interaction design foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/how-to-conduct-user-interviews [accessed 16/05/2021].
PORTIGAL, S. 2013. Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insight. New York: Rosenfeld media, 90-91.
REASON, P. & ROWAN, J. 1981. Human enquiry: a sourcebook in new paradigm research. Chichester: Wiley.