Posts tagged “contextual research”

Reading Ahead: Fieldwork highlights – Peter

Reading ahead logo with space above

During the fieldwork cycle, we write quick summaries of each interview session and send these immediately to our clients so they can start to circulate stories. At this point in the process we strive to stay descriptive; our goal is just to get stories about the people we’re meeting out to the extended team (us, our direct clients, and their stakeholders).

Peter (not his real name), the first Kindle user we’ve interviewed, works in web production. When describing himself, he says,”I like gadgets.”


We met with him at his home in Vallejo. He describes doing several types of reading: instructional reading to expand his knowledge about topics of interest like photography, fiction as a “form of engagement with a piece of art,” and non-fiction as a way to vicariously experience other places and lifestyles.

Peter’s had his Kindle for a couple of years. He says when he first got it (as a gift from his partner), it “got him” buying books right away, and he used it almost exclusively for around a year.

He says serious limitations of the Kindle are that you can’t have two books open at once (if you’re using a reference book, etc.), that it is unable to “capture” the act of flipping through a book looking for a passage, and that it still doesn’t create the same quality of experience as “the whiteness of paper” and crisp black text.

When I ask Peter if he has any emotions about his Kindle, he calls it “neutral.”


The biggest frustration for Peter is that he can’t share Kindle books.

In the clip below, Peter tells the story of how this desire to share led him back to printed books:

Reading Ahead: Fieldwork highlights – Erica

Reading ahead logo with space above

During the fieldwork cycle, we write quick summaries of each interview session and send these immediately to our clients so they can start to circulate stories. At this point in the process we strive to stay descriptive; our goal is just to get stories about the people we’re meeting out to the extended team (us, our direct clients, and their stakeholders).

Erica (not her real name) is 28 and lives by herself in an apartment in San Francisco. She described growing up without a lot of money but in a house where there were “walls of bookshelves.” When she and her Mom had free days, they would visit different libraries, and Erica still remembers physical details from some of these places.

She had been planning to open a cookbook store, until the recent economic slump. She’s working now as an office manager at a software startup and regrouping.

Erica talked about buying certain books just because she likes them as objects: “I love books. I almost like books more than reading.”


She says that lately she’s really been noticing how “the computer lifestyle has seeped in so deeply,” which she feels is making her attention span shorter. She says that on the computer, “everything is fast,” and that books are a way to “unplug” and slow down.

Erica has different types of books for different weather, moods, and reading situations. On public transit, she reads books that can be easily stopped and started; something she says is difficult to do with complex works.

In the clip below, Erica talks about how she organizes her bookshelf by feeling:

Reading Ahead: Fieldwork highlights – Tracy

Reading ahead logo with space above

During the fieldwork cycle, we write quick summaries of each interview session and send these immediately to our clients so they can start to circulate stories. At this point in the process we strive to stay descriptive; our goal is just to get stories about the people we’re meeting out to the extended team (us, our direct clients, and their stakeholders).

Here is the first of these highlights for Reading Ahead.

We met with Tracy (not her real name) and her two sons at their home in a suburb of Santa Cruz. Tracy is a stay-at-home mom and part-time massage therapist, and is going back to school in the fall to get an MA in Occupational Therapy.

Reading is a big part of her family’s life. She reads every night with her sons (including a two-hour Harry Potter session the night before), and told us she does different voices for each character in the stories.

Reading has always been important to Tracy, and she showed us several books from her own childhood that she keeps on her shelves–including one that her father had when he was a child. She also talked about sharing book recommendations with her Mom and her friends.

Childhood books

In addition to a regular set of reading rituals with the kids, Tracy reads on her own, which she describes as: “My way of getting completely unplugged.”

Tracy and her boys make a weekly trip to the library, which usually culminates in a big spread of books on the living room floor.

Back from the library

I asked them to show us what this is like. Watching the boys comb through the pile to choose a book, I was struck by how physical their interaction with the books was.

There was also an interesting family moment where I asked about a book Tracy mentioned (Tacky, a children’s story about an iconoclastic penguin), and all three spontaneously recited the names of Tacky’s friends in perfect unison.

Here’s a short clip from that part of the interview:

Reading Ahead: First day of fieldwork

Reading ahead logo with space above

Here’s what my day looks like today–3 interview sessions starting this morning in Soquel, then up to San Francisco, and then over to Vallejo where I’ll finish up around 9 pm.


I’ve tried to schedule everything so I’ll have time in between each interview to write notes. It’s amazing how hectic what seems like an ample schedule often becomes once you factor in traffic, parking, eating, checking email, and the general miscellany of a day.

I got everything ready last night: video camera, still camera, release forms, models and materials for participatory design activities at the end of the interview session.


I went over the interview guide, and am feeling really good about it. I always get kind of charged up when I run the interview through in my mind the night before fieldwork starts. There’s this unique feeling that comes from knowing that I’m about to go out and find out things from people that, sitting at my desk the night before I go, I can’t even imagine.

Reading Ahead: Props For The Field

Reading ahead logo with space above

As we get into actual fieldwork this week, we’ll be using (as is typical for us) a mashup of techniques. In addition to interviewing people, we’ll be watching how and where they read books or Kindles. But we’ll also want to get into a discussion of future possibilities. Reading Ahead is not about evaluating existing designs but instead getting inspiration and information that can drive future designs. So we don’t have anything to test, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use testing-like (“What do you think of this?”) activities. In this case, we’ve built extremely simple representations that suggest book and digital reader.

Dan building a thing-to-hold for this week’s interviews

The idea (and we’ll learn what happens once we do a couple of interviews) is to have something neutral to put into people’s hands and let them gesture, sketch, or otherwise perform, so the activity of discussing the future isn’t just a verbal one. We’re going to ask people to draw on these props, and then we’ll have an artifact created by the participants themselves. Those artifacts can be compelling, and can also be a much more impactful symbol of what took place in that part of the interview.

We’ve never used this exact prop before, but in just about every project we’ll come up with a range of tools to use in the field. Our interviews are very open-ended so we could use either of the props to explore any emergent themes, depending on what we use them to talk about (From “How would you hold this?” to “Well, if it did come with your Happy Meal, draw what you’d expect to see on the main screen.”

For more, see Moving with a Magic Thing (PDF) and Design the Box

Reading Ahead: The Interview Guide

Reading ahead logo with space above

Before we go out in the field we write an interview guide (or field guide), a list of all the topics we want to cover.

Interview guides end up being very linear and structured, but the interactions we have in the field are looser and more conversational. We’ll let the way we pose our questions flow much more from what the person we’re interviewing is saying than from the sequence and phrasings of the interview guide.

Even though we know this will happen, we’ve still been working hard to hash out our questions ahead of time–even the basic ones. It’s like John McLaughlin said about jazz improvisation: you have to learn all the chords so that you can forget about them.

The interview guide is also something for everyone (including our clients) to look at, to make sure we’re all on the same page as we head into fieldwork.

Our interview guide for Reading Ahead is here.

Breathe their air


In Iain M. Banks’ “The Algebraist”, the protagonist Fassin Taak is a “Slow Seer” who spends years embedded alien cultures (including the complex Dwellers), engaging in conversation and seeking insight, in an activity referred to as “delving.” Because he favors traveling to these other planets in person, he is challenged by the establishment who prefer more efficient methods [boldface emphasis mine].

“Have you tried remote delving recently?”
“Not for a long time,” Fassin admitted.
“it’s changed,” Pagges said, nodding. “It’s much more lifelike, if you know what I mean; more convincing.” Paggs smiled. “There have been a lot of improvements over the past couple of centuries.”

Ganscerel patted his arm again. “Just try it, will you, Fassin? Will you do that for me?”
Fassin didn’t want to say yes immediately. This is all beside the point, he thought. Even if I didn’t know there was a potential thread to Third Fury, the argument that matters is that the Dwellers we need to talk to just won’t take us seriously if we turn up in remotes. It’s about respect, about us taking risks, sharing their world with them, really being there.

In Seventeen ways to not suck at research, number 9 was Breathe their air, my response to the increasing desire for remote ethnographic-like methods. I think the insight and empathy that is gained from getting out of our own environment is essential, and as Banks points out, showing up on someone else’s planet is a a very effective way to start building rapport.

(Ironic detail given my choice of metaphor: Dwellers reside in/on gaseous planets, so Fassin actually visits them encased in a pressurized vehicle, and never literally breathes their air).

Also see Great interviewing means feeling the subtext


A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann


Poet Kenneth Goldsmith calls himself an “uncreative writer,” and his works include: everything he said for a week; every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period; a year of transcribed weather reports, and the September 10, 2001 issue of The New York Times, transcribed.

My first reaction to Goldsmith’s work was that it seemed like a good piece of conceptual art scamming, but then I heard him read one of his transcribed weather reports on the radio.

Before he read the piece, Goldsmith explained that the process of transcribing these artifacts creates an experience for him of the poetry in everyday language use. And it was true-as Goldsmith read the weather report, in a fairly rapid, uncadenced style, I was struck by how vividly evocative the place names, the verbs of wind and temperature, the homey advice to “stay indoors” all were.

I think what Goldsmith is doing is a word-focused parallel to what we do in contextual research practice: we carefully observe and document the everyday, as much as possible suspending our own preconceptions of what is and is not significant, in order to see in new ways.

When I was younger, I effortlessly seemed to think in a more lyrical and poetic way than I do now. My hypothesis has been that this change is a result of being more involved with “putting my hands on things” than I was in my 20s. My creative energy now goes much more towards describing and solving problems-juxtaposing complex alternatives, articulating ideas that have the potential for real impact-and there’s just not the same kind of energy available for playing with language.

I’m happy with the direction my way of thinking has evolved, but at the same time, I feel a certain sense of loss for that earlier version of myself, and the ease with which I used to make words do tricks.

Hearing Goldsmith reminded me that I needn’t draw a hard line between between playing with language and solving problems, between the lyrical and the practical-that it’s all out there, evocative and full of potential.

User-Centered Government

Student Protest, Bonny Doon, CA 1987

Today is the 5th anniversary of the current US military involvement in Iraq. I heard Army Major General Mark Hertling speaking on NPR this week about helping members of Iraq’s central government figure out what people in the different provinces really want and need.

“We call it reverse helicopter governance – bringing the ministers to the provinces.”

This starts to sound a lot like the kinds of contextual research we use to inform product design. Going out and talking with users in their own environments. Seeing what people’s needs really are, rather than making assumptions.

There’s been a thorny debate in the Anthropology community about doing anthropological work in military contexts, but this is a different type of situation. Hertling is talking about facilitating Iraqi ministers to do contextual research on the people they are charged with serving as government officials.

What would it look like to take a further step, and take a design approach to creating a “user-centered government?”

One important aspect of design is a spirit of playfulness-in the sense of “serious play.” A spirit of willingness to reassess the meaning of a problem and the range of possible solutions. To prototype rapidly and try multiple approaches.

Michael Schrage, the author of Serious Play states that

“…the real value of a model or simulation may stem less from its ability to test a hypothesis than from its power to generate useful surprise.”

Ideation and design processes have been used to solve some pretty complex problems. Steve wrote last year about introducing empathy and user-centered design into government. Participatory processes and contextual inquiry have become much more prevalent in development work.

What could be done to bring more of the spirit of serious play to bear on the ways that problems like civil and international conflicts are framed and addressed?

Design Research: A Conversation with Steve Portigal

Over at Functioning Form I’m in conversation with LukeW.

To help me work through some recent thoughts I’ve had about Design Research, I asked Steve Portigal -founder of Portigal Consulting and all around bright guy- to talk about context within digital products and the connection between ethnographic research and design. Part one.

Part two will be here (although where “here” is remains in slight flux as this blog is soon to move to but is not yet ready. We’ll announce the move when it happens and we’ll make sure you find part two of the conversation!


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