Raffaella’s War Story: Learning to deal with expectations

Raffaella Roviglioni reflects on an earlier part of her career where she learned new interview skills by adapting to a situation on the fly.

I’m currently a freelance UX designer based in Rome, Italy but I used to be an agronomist. I like to see my professional shift not as a mutation but rather as an evolution: I understood that my passion was working with people, and now user research and UX work is fulfilling that need. Despite the different context and purpose that drove me as an agronomist, I had to interview people quite often and I didn’t have any formal training on it. I guess I was attracted to this kind of activity because I’m an outgoing person and consider myself a good listener.

Back in the days when I was a research fellow at the University of Viterbo I was involved in a pretty interesting project: investigating the old fruit tree varieties in my region. Part of the job (for me the most exciting part!) was interviewing old farmers who were between 80 and 90 years old; they were both the guardians of those old plants and the living repository of the related knowledge.

The job required me to travel to their houses and farms to perform the interviews. Given the distance and the remote location of the rural areas the best way of getting there was by car. As a research fellow, though, I wasn’t allowed to drive the department car, since I wasn’t considered to be an actual employee, according to Italian law.

A lab assistant (also a good friend of mine) agreed to come with me with on the field trips. He was basically acting as my driver, but helped out with taking pictures and collecting plant samples in the field.

It was during a first visit to one farmer’s house that the unexpected happened.

We arrived, got out of the car and went over to the farmer who was waiting for us at the front door. He greeted my assistant first, and then looked at me and said to him: “So this must be your wife!” Even after an embarrassed explanation from our side he clearly could not believe I was the one in charge of the research (with a college degree!) whereas my friend was “only” my assistant.

I have to confess that at first I had to rationalize a bit not to feel offended by his reaction. But after all, I told myself, he was over 80 years old and even my grandfather would have had the same reaction in a similar situation. But the awkwardness continued because, given the context, this famrer wouldn’t expect me to conduct the interview either!

So what I did instead was direct us all (the farmer, his wife, my assistant, and me) to have coffee together, inside the house. We started chatting while drinking our coffee, as any pair of couples would do. Slowly I moved the conversation to the questions on the plants we were interested in. This allowed us to establish a more acceptable situation where the farmer felt comfortable enough to start sharing that information.

What I learned from this experience is that in order to ensure my interview is successful I needed to be able to deal with the expectations of others, embracing them and trying to let go of my emotions (as in this instance, avoiding feeling offended). I also realized that as interviewer I needed to adapt to the interviewee’s setup (in this case, transforming what I view as an interview to a visit to the house) and act accordingly.

It wasn’t my first interview nor the last, but taught me a lot!


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