Dan’s War Story: Focus, no matter what!

Design researcher Dan Soltzberg has a brave and touching story about the best of intentions – and their consequences.

I was doing fieldwork for a project on at-home computer use, and a client and I were at “Richie’s” house–a double-wide in a Mid-Peninsula mobile home park. Richie’s small-to-begin-with mobile home was filled with heavy wooden furniture, boxes of paperwork, and old pieces of technology, making it feel even smaller. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and Richie was saying that he liked to lie on the couch and work on his laptop, so I asked him if we could go into the living room so he could show us.

We re-situated in the living room, and when Richie started opening up emotionally about how meaningful his work was to him, I got down on one knee next to the couch so that I would be on eye level with him, rather than standing over him. As Richie was talking I was totally focused on listening to him and guiding the conversation forward, but in the back of my mind – somewhere really far in the background – I was aware of a strange cold feeling in my leg.

In addition to leading the interview, I was also manning the video camera and shooting stills, so I wasn’t able to give this strange feeling much bandwidth. When we finished our conversation and I stood up, I saw that there was a wet spot on my khaki pants. A wet spot that covered the area from the middle of my shin to above my knee. A massive wet spot.

I hadn’t figured out yet what it was, but I knew I’d kneeled in something liquid that was lurking in Richie’s carpet. One of the cardinal rules is, I don’t make research participants feel bad, and I figured if Richie saw that this had happened, he could only feel bad. So I followed him back into the kitchen, conducted the rest of the interview, paid and thanked him, and left, all the while keeping my wet-spotted leg as much out of Richie’s sight line as possible. As far as I know, he had no idea I’d been befouled.

The day’s next interview was scheduled tightly, and there was little time to take stock of things. I thought about doing a quick pant leg wash in a gas station bathroom, but made a judgement call that showing up at the second interview with a soaking wet pant leg would be worse than whatever was already starting to dry, so I decided to let it be. As I drove, my leg continued to dry, and it became apparent from the emerging smell that the mystery liquid was cat pee.

The 10-inch wet spot dried to a hard, shiny, stinky consistency as I pulled up to our next interview. The woman we were interviewing had a house that was neat as a pin, and let’s say she was not the an easygoing type of person. I sat as far across the living room as I could, but I could only imagine during the whole interview that she could smell my ripening leg. Let’s hope not. Nothing to do but keep calm, and carry on.


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