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Baking is to Design Process as The Simpsons are to Research Observations

29 October, 2014

From Order to (Eton) Mess; Organised for research to analysis and synthesis.

At work we’ve been out in the field researching with users. I’ve talked before about research before on here.

Again it’s a topic in government and I can’t share details. But this time, from a design process perspective I’ve played the Second Chair role – take care of everything (finding the place, confirming anything with the participant beforehand, logistics of getting there, interview packs, back up interview packs, recording, keeping time, follow-up) so that First Chair can wholly engage in conversation with the person.

A wee note about research roles and responsibilities here: I’m a strong advocate of process. Probably no more so than when in the field. These have been deep dive one-on-one interviews for an hour or more in the homes/workplaces of the participants and on a particularly sensitive topic. You have so much going on that process frees the part of the brain that needs to be organised, rigorous, ethical and practical. That leaves the rest of your brain to be empathetic, engaging, probing, curious and on-topic (or off- as is beneficial to the project outcome).

But what my role has meant is that I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the interview process itself. Enough that I wanted to capture these observations in this off the cuff and probably over-verbose post.

So, to the observatoring!

  • It is so satisfying professionally to see someone physically change as they relax in front of you from crossed arms and suspicious expression to laughter and open gestures and genuine curiosity to explore their own thoughts. And when they start swearing? Gold.
  • Witnessing an interview that is transformed into a true conversation through rapport and authentic empathy between interviewer and participant. That is, the interviewer can articulate their understanding of a range of experiences but also able to build on the rapport with a sharing of their own feelings.
  • From a personal perspective, being presented with different ways of thinking is a total perk in some cases – sometimes people share extremely inspiring or thought provoking perspectives and experiences. It can change the way you look at your own life or attitudes. These interviews are a delight.
  • Also from a personal perspective, it is, fortunately, a rare experience, that you can come across someone who not only has completely opposing thoughts, attitudes and demeanour but who can be boorish, egotistical and really not someone you want to talk to at all. But you do. And you always find out something of value. These interviews can be a test, requiring circumnavigation of topics and questions, and strategising of responses to reach, if not rapport and openess, then at least genuine perspectives and input.

From talky-talk to writey-write (some rubby-rub out) and then re-writey-write

As we’ve gotten into the analysis and synthesis phases, I, as an introvert who needs to layer up my analysis and understanding over time (however short), have forced myself to type up my notes the evening of the interview. Yes, I know, I, who extolled the virtue of process only six paragraphs ago doesn’t follow all good process all the time. Whatever. Been doing it more than 10 years – know the rules to break them baby. Anyhoo, the love/not-love of the research phase is followed by the love/not-love of notes and analysis. We’re in that space now.

My notes are structured around themes, quotes (which I get verbatim wording from by checking the recordings – really liking as 2nd chair being able to note the times in the recording when someone shares gold), insights from the users, insights from the car debriefs.

It’s all a set-up and preparation for what I think of as the 20% of actual fun and free design time you get out of any design project. The whiteboard, the conversations in the office, the referencing of the notes, and exploring the interpretation, the different perspectives the design team brings. This is the great stuff of design.

As we move to synthesising and refining the 20% gives way to the necessary 80%. Oh, sure, we’ll get back some 20% glimpses during prototyping and viusalising, but the fact is, after analysis/ synthesis /exploring we’re through the looking glass here, people. And on to the actual design part!

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