Posts tagged “war stories”

Listen to Steve on the Why UX? Podcast



Thanks to Helena Levison (“Queen of UX”) for having me on the Why UX? podcast to talk about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. The audio (28 min) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

This was a particularly exciting conversation for me because over the past while Helena has been hosting a online book club where she reads from the book, and even features appearances from some of the authors of the stories themselves!

Tamara’s War Story: Piercings, Power and Getting Older

Tamara Hale leads the research practice at Workday. She presented this story live at the Advancing Research conference. (This post will be updated with videos etc. as available)

As a researcher, I’m quite used to changing my appearance and my bodily practices to fit the circumstances. I’ve donned a headscarf when recruiting door-to-door at the Mosques of East London. I’ve traded my butch boots for kitten heels when interviewing scientists who adhere to biblical beliefs of Creationism. I’ve dyed my hair black and acquired a rural accent to better pass as a Peruvian when conducting research in Peru. From Managua to Caracas, I received instruction from my hosts about how to walk the Latin American city with purpose, and how to develop a second pair of eyes in the back of my head. That’s right, in my research experiences, I have literally relearned how to walk.

A few years ago I was about to embark on a research trip to Tokyo. I knew enough about Japanese business culture to consult the interpreter I had hired about appropriate dress for doing business in a large, traditional Japanese company. I wanted to know specifically should I remove the multitude of visible piercings I had acquired in the last few years? Earlier in my career I’d been a consultant, and had done a lot of work for conservative financial services firms and had been part of large sales pitches. But then I joined a California-casual tech company, in an arguably more casual Colorado office. Over the years, what my business suits accumulated in dust, my ears collected in precious metals. It was probably a good idea to remove the piercings, my interpreter confirmed.

Soon I arrived in Tokyo and in the tiny hotel room I proceeded to carefully remove my jewelry. After my sacrificial act of extraction, I made my way to dinner with the team. I’d only met the product manager a few times, mostly over video conferencing tools, and as soon as she walked in, with her gleaming nose stud, I realized that I’d neglected to share my knowledge about piercings and Japanese business attire with her. What to do now?

To some people (perhaps non-researchers especially?) the acts of bodily modification and change to my bodily practices that I have undergone for research may seem inauthentic, maybe even a betrayal of my unique “self”- that which has come to be called “identity”. The reality is more complex. Other people familiar with fieldwork that crosses cultural boundaries, will understand that at times such modification comes from a place of respect, and an attempt to lessen the distance between ourselves and our research participants. Further, women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and other minorities are deeply familiar with having to modify bodies and bodily practices as steps for protection and self-preservation, necessary acts to go about living in spaces that were not designed with us in mind or deliberately designed to exclude us. Yet other acts of bodily modification are ways to enact agency, to question and subvert the social and cultural constraints imposed on some, even while some bodies’ trespassings are scrutinized more heavily than others.

All of these thoughts went through my head over dinner and I was unsure of what to do with them. I chose not to mention anything to the product manager. The next day over coffee before our first customer visit, I fretted with my interpreter, “What should I do?! Should I ask my colleague to remove her beautiful nose stud?!”

He informed me matter of factly not to worry too much about it since it was going to be obvious to our customers that I was the “serious business lady” and that the PM was the “cool, young California kid”. My heart sank. What the f*&?! Clearly this guy didn’t understand – I’m the one working in the Design department! I’m hip! ‘I have an asymmetrical haircut!’ What’s more, how dare he refer to me as a “lady”? I’m a millennial! Just barely, but still!

But then he added that what was important was that in the eyes of the customer, I, an important, formidable, business leader had been sent to listen to their concerns and relay them back to executives in our company – and that I conveyed the part authentically. I was reminded in that moment, that whatever image I had attempted to craft for myself was at best tenuous and always subject to interpretations that I could not control. At the same time, I realized that many of the bodily adaptations I have undergone over the course of my career have allowed me to discover and come into alternate and new versions of myself. Through practicing research over more than a decade and a half, I’ve learned not to hold on too tightly to the ideas I’ve constructed about myself. And so, at once humbled, and feeling a little more powerful than usual (at least for the day) I stepped into the elevator to meet our customer.

Randy’s War Story: Don’t Fall Flat

Randolph Duke II is an Experience Strategist with Cantina. He is always open to connecting on Slack or LinkedIn. He presented this story live at the Advancing Research conference. (This post will be updated with videos etc. as available)

As a researcher, you come to expect the unexpected. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get surprised. I had received my first project as the lead researcher and designer for an internal IT group. The IT group hired me to help them learn about and fix some internal software tool. I agreed to a really tight deadline so the client provided an employee to support and shadow me. We’ll call her “Laura”. Laura was really bright and took well to instruction – the ideal apprentice, if you will. Although I shared some potential questions I might use during employee observations, I warned her that fieldwork could go any which way and that she should try to be ready for anything. I hadn’t realized we were both going to need that advice.

Two days into visiting offices across their different buildings, we were finally scheduled to meet “Carol”. Carol was important to my small data pool; she represented an important team within the company and previously shared unfiltered, critical feedback. Compared to her colleagues more nuanced responses, we knew time with Carol was going to be different. Upon introducing myself and thanking Carol for her time, she immediately responded with “I know who you are and I have opinions.” Before I could even come up with a response I just instinctively smiled and thought I am going to need to bring my A game. I planned to be approachable and responsible in guiding a fruitful conversation instead of just letting her complain. As therapeutic as it might’ve been for Carol, I needed to help Laura and myself understand why Carol felt the ways that she did so we could do something about it later. That’s what I planned, at least.

I first attempted to build rapport by asking Carol to describe how she works which immediately sent us down another path. One of the first things Carol brought up was a coworker she introduced to the company: Flat Carol. Flat Carol was a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of Carol. It was a 10-year old photo of her, smiling and holding a phone to her ear. It had a blank speech bubble encrusted with the remnants of old pieces of Scotch tape. I was caught completely off guard! Was this something that people just did here? I looked to Laura to gauge if something like this was somehow common and the look on her face confirmed that yes, Flat Carol was definitely out of the ordinary. I had warned Laura to be ready for nearly anything but here I was the one who needed to act. I thought to myself: do I find a way to make this conversation more about the software as scheduled or do I show Laura how to react to the unplanned?

In the few seconds I had to collect my thoughts I made my decision: I was going to be as present for Carol as possible. How could I hold onto a well-intended plan of talking about software when Laura and I had the chance to meet “someone” Carol was willing to share? I put down my question guide, and just focused on Carol. She told us how she put Flat Carol in her seat when she was away from her desk, whether she was going on vacation or as far as the restroom. How Flat Carol would have kind words or notes taped to the speech bubble for people passing her desk. We occasionally spoke about company processes connected to the software research, but that wasn’t my priority. Every so often I would look over at Laura to see what she was gaining from this experience and saw several approving nods, smiles, and fervent note taking. By the end, Carol shared that she was grateful for our conversation and Laura was relieved. Once we left Carol, Laura let out a sigh of relief and said “I don’t think I could ever recover the way you did.” That’s what research is about.

In mentoring Laura (who was, after all, still my client), I had spoken generally about being ready for anything, but when we were faced with a real surprise in the field, I had to live up to those words in a way that surely exceeded what either of us had in mind. We all walked away better for it.

Tamara’s War Story: Sea Legs

Tamara Hale leads the research practice at Workday. This story is adapted from Hale, T. 2018 People Are Not Users. Journal of Business Anthropology. 7(2):163-183. She will be telling a completely new story at the Advancing Research conference.

A ferry boat is a place of questionable comfort for conducting research. A ferry boat in a storm is an altogether different matter, as I found out several years ago, when I was researching the experience of travelers sailing across the English channel between Dover and Calais, on one of Europe’s biggest ferry companies.

My objective was to inform a complete redesign of the newest fleet of ships, based on an understanding of the needs of ferry travelers: from queuing, to parking and wayfinding to the deck, to using the facilities on board and deboarding, all viewed through the perspective of service design. I spent a week observing and interviewing couples, families, traveling groups, truckers and staff on the ship. With time I felt I had become part of its very inventory: adapting to the ebb and flow of passengers for their three hour crossing. At each port, the ferry emptied itself of people, cars, buses and trucks and grew quiet, as if the ship sighed in relief and then braced in anticipation for the next wave of passengers. While the staff cleaned up from the last crossing and prepared for the next sailing, I would organize my fieldnotes and change the batteries on my audio recorder (yes, we had those back then). With multiple crossings a day I eventually forgot which port we were at, and it was only by locating a flag on the docks outside that I would know whether we were in Dover or Calais at any given time.

In my second week of fieldwork, just as I became accustomed to the daily routine of life aboard the ferry boat, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a formidable storm. As the waters grew rougher, and the ship floor started responding to the undulation of the tempestuous waves, I gave up on asking passengers to show me around the ship because none of us could walk or stand confidently. Instead I wobbled over onto the luxury travel deck, hoping for some relief amidst the red velvet lounge sofas, oak bar, and unobstructed ocean views. There I attempted to interview a retired couple on their vacation, my audio recorder sliding back and forth on the table between us. But I was soon forced to abort the interview, trying my best not to throw up on the red velvet, or worse, my research participants. The ferry staff, seeing my distress, tried to assure me that this weather did not pose a threat to our lives, while simultaneously scooping up the wine and champagne glasses off the bar into the safety of lockable wooden cabinets. At the end of the night, I stumbled off the ship to my hotel, wondering if I could ever set foot on another boat.

After a few nights of rest, I returned to the ship to complete my research over a span of a few much calmer days, this time focusing on truck drivers who regularly made the crossing with different concerns than my holiday travelers. I attempted to regale my research participants with the story of my storm of Titanic proportions days earlier, an endeavor which sparked pity and laughter rather than admiration. I wrapped up fieldwork as I always do, with a sense of deep humility and an expanded sense of different lifeworlds. This time, however, that humility was less intellectual in nature than corporeal.

The storm had added a new layer of complexity to my role in the project and to my personal and bodily relationship with the site of my research, the ship. Through the storm I became acutely aware that, despite my best intentions, I had treated the ship primarily as a backdrop for my interviews instead of considering it as a space and material object that seemingly possessed its own agency. The affordances of the ship when activated by the storm had challenged my sense of safety, comfort, and routine and replaced it with fear, confusion and malaise. Through my own body I learned of the ship’s potential to make its passengers feel a range of emotions and physical sensations. This attuned me more fully to the ship’s design shortcomings, to travelers’ and staff needs, and ultimately enhanced my ability to shape the decisions in the design and funding of the new fleet. While I never did fully find my sea legs on that research trip, I had reached a turning point in my appreciation of the spaces and environments in which research takes place.

Listen to Steve on This is HCD

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Chirryl-Lee Ryan about user research and more – we got into outcomes versus deliverables, tipping points for the tech industry, and a few other fun areas. The conversation is now live on This is HCD (including a transcript), and embedded below.


Chi shared her own user research war story

We didn’t have a car. We should have hired a car or we should have had a driver because we had no idea what the traffic was like in Manila. One of the team members went to catch their flight back to Australia and the taxi driver kind of kidnapped them because they didn’t have cash – all the things that you don’t think about when you’re going to do research – they happened to us on that on that particular research trip. And so you know, we got great insights and the client was just amazed but at the same time we sort of went through this wild adventure of our own on the back side of what was actually happening on the trip.

Video from User Research London keynote: Learning From User Research War Stories

Last summer I went to London to give the opening keynote at User Research London, User Research War Stories. The video is now available and I’ve embedded it below.

Steve Portigal, War Stories - User Research London 2017

The talk features bonus war stories from Kristina Lustig (27:24) and Elizabeth Chesters (31:20)

Listen to Steve on the User Defenders Podcast


Artwork by Eli Jorgensen

I had a wide-ranging and personal conversation with Jason Ogle for the User Defenders podcast. We talked about my professional trajectory, my disdain for Forrest Gump, rapport-building, listening, disgust, and war stories from fieldwork. Our conversation is now live on the User Defenders site, and embedded below



And yeah, that’s me in a black-and-purple cape, but you’ll need to listen to the episode to understand what’s about.

Alexandra’s War Story: When One Door Closes

Alexandra Wills is an ethnographer working at Fuse by Cardinal Health, an innovation center in Columbus, Ohio. She told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

I’ll never forget when I did ethnographic research for a project aimed at helping a car manufacturer learn what Millennials with small children really needed.

The project was hard. Taking on a project at the height of the Great Recession meant navigating a radical change in client engagement from what I had experienced since starting the work two years prior. “It’s Friday at 5 p.m. in Ohio and you want me in Los Angeles on Monday?” Okay. “We’re doing video diaries and in-home interviews and a post-interview ideation session with participants in two cities, all in two months?” Okay.

Added to all that, I had a nine-month-old and simply didn’t want to leave her for days at a time. Over the past few months of work, I had already breast pumped on an airplane and in dirty airport bathrooms. I had already begged flight attendants and fast food workers for ice to put in the cooler carrying pouches of my “liquid gold.” Did I mention it was my birthday?

At one point in the project, I was hanging out with a family in Austin who had a toddler. I knew nothing about toddlers. After all, I had a nine-month-old. Did I mention I am not a ‘kid person’?

We had just returned from running errands in their car. As we got out of the car, they were showing me some specific details about the vehicle. They had a Honda Element – the car with the interesting doors that open and close like a book. I was paying close, close attention to the parents and I had no idea that the little kid was right near me. So I closed the door. Suddenly, we all heard the kid screaming! His parents rushed to his side and looked him over, examining his hands. All I could do was yell impulsively, “I didn’t do it!” I was horrified. I thought, “I hurt a child! This child! A participant’s child! Oh noooooo this is bad. How am I going to fix this? What am I going to tell Melinda (my boss)?” To this day I don’t know if his finger got caught in the door, or if me closing the door just scared him.

There was no blood, no broken fingers. But inside, I wanted to die. I already felt plagued by my own mommy guilt and that feeling spread throughout my body like lava. So, not only did I feel like a horrible mom for leaving my kid, but here I was in Austin, making someone else’s kid cry. What a moment. Needless to say, any rapport I had developed in my time with the family evaporated in that instant.

I stopped recording, stepped back, apologized to the mom and waited for the parents to finish calming down their kid. I waited for them to say, “This is over.” They didn’t. Miraculously, they continued the interview, even if I could feel all their judgment the entire time as we wrapped things up. “Maybe I didn’t traumatize this family,” I thought insecurely.

The icing on the cake was that we used video to capture all our data, so not only did this happen, but my boss got to see the whole thing when she reviewed the video. Later in the project I mentioned the incident and she said, “Yeah I saw that.”

Joel’s War Story: From Moscow with Love

Joel Kashuba has practiced design for nearly two decades, with a career spanning the practices of architecture, industrial design, branding, UX, and innovation consulting. He currently leads the Innovation & Design functions for Fifth Third Bank located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

While working for a major CPG company I was placed with a cross-functional innovation team assigned to write and vet concepts that would take a well-known women’s shaving brand into several other personal care categories. The focus was on serving the needs of young women in several BRIC countries. The theme we had been asked to unlock was “A Day at the Spa” – a theme the company had uncovered in earlier research within the United States and projected as a fruitful area to mine for opportunities and frame our expansion.

Before going out into the field – specifically, to Moscow – the project team undertook countless hours of concept writing sessions, often with heavily resourced vendor partners. We created roughly 25 concepts, each taking unique inspiration from the theme “A Day at the Spa”. Armed with our concepts we set off to Russia and began collaborating with consumers in the field to vet each concept.

By the noon on the first day, none of our concepts were resonating and we recognized our first challenge. The translator we had been assigned by a local agency was an older Russian gentleman who sounded much like a James Bond villain. As he readied each of our painstakingly word-smithed concepts, they each ended up sounding like the dastardly ideas of a dour old man who may like to cross-dress. To fix this, we recruited a spritely young woman who worked as an assistant concierge at our hotel to read the concepts. She was great! Several of our consumers even mentioned that she had the perfect voice for commercials in this category.

Despite this change, our concepts still weren’t hitting the mark we were aiming for and we couldn’t figure out why. These concepts had been exceptionally well received in our early test back in the States – what was going on here in Moscow that made them such tankers?

Finally, near the morning of day three, one of our consumers asked us plainly, “Why are you trying to make me feel old?”

“Old?” we asked her with sincere confusion, “Can you say more? Is there something in the concepts that makes you feel old?”

“Yes,” she quickly retorted, “you keep talking to me about spending a day at the spa.”

“And what does that mean to you?” we had our translator ask her.

She looked surprised and a little pissed off. She explained, “It means the place we send our grandmothers when they are too old to take care of in their homes. It’s the place people go before they die.”

It hit us like a ton of bricks. In Russian culture, a “spa” is what we’d call a retirement home. As we had been pulling out concept after concept trying to get these young women to fall in love with our theme, all they saw was of tone-deaf Americans shoving the idea of products for a retirement home down their throats.

We were horrified. We called off the rest of the day’s consumers and stayed up all night re-writing the concepts. The young concierge we had hired to translate became an adjunct team member. Constrained by time, we changed our strategy and turned consumer research into consumer co-creation. We had consumers work in teams to read and re-write the concepts, which were passed along to other teams of consumers to be refined. By the time we finished we had three great concepts that all resonated well.

Coming back to our home base, we reflected on the experience as a team. What we had set out to do was valid, but how we remained nimble in the field is what made the clear difference in how we would found success.

Nadav’s War Story: Baptism by Tears

Nadav Zohar is a UX researcher at AEP in Columbus, OH.

My first ever user research project was for a healthcare app. Our users were nurses who work with poor and high-risk patients, often called “the under-served.” My supervisor and I had a reserved conference room at the client’s site, and our pre-scheduled users rotated in about one per hour. It was a grueling two days of nonstop interviews. For the first day I took notes while my supervisor moderated.

On the second day, after he moderated the first couple of interviews, my supervisor turned to me and asked if I thought I was ready to take the lead on the next one. I said “Sure” so he handed me the discussion guide. In came our next user, a middle-aged nurse who was very sweet and eager to help us in any way she could. This was my very first user interview and I was ready for a clean, uneventful affair.

As the questions on my discussion guide turned to the technological hurdles she encounters when helping her patients, her frustration mounted. At one point, while discussing how her technology failed to help her manage the stress of the enormous workload placed on her and her colleagues, she mentioned having lost a patient. I watched her relive that pain – she broke down and started sobbing. None of the other users we’d talked to had even come close to that kind of emotional response, even though some of them had lost patients too.

Right then and there I learned there’s an awkward balance between not wanting to seem clinical and cold at that crucial moment, but still wanting to preserve an interviewee’s dignity: I figured weeping in front of strangers at work must be somewhat embarrassing. So I bowed my head and looked down at my notes, or my lap, or at nothing in particular, to give the crying nurse a bit of privacy. I waited a few sobs so it didn’t seem like I was trying to shut her up, and then I warmly and gracefully offered her a box of tissues. I let her know I empathized with her pain (although looking back on it I don’t see how I really could have…but my empathy felt genuine anyway) and she eventually calmed down and we finished out the interview. After that, back at the office I was jokingly known as the guy to call in to make people cry.

I think I deal fairly well with very emotional user research situations and over my career I’ve learned they are not uncommon, but it was interesting to have one right off the bat.

Emily’s War Story: Getting To The Point

Emily Mayfield (Twitter, LinkedIn) is a User Experience Researcher at The Kroger Co. in Cincinnati, OH.

Before my current job, I spent six months in Bangalore, India, doing research for a lab that was part of a design school in the northern part of the city. I did not drive while I was in India – I took public transportation and little “autos,” which resemble a golf cart in terms of size and a lawnmower in terms of sound. At that time Uber was barred from India. The driving style in Bangalore struck me as very different from the States: sometimes the traffic lights/stop signs are ignored, sometimes drivers go well beyond oncoming traffic lanes, sometimes when a freeway exit is missed drivers throw their cars into reverse on the freeway. I saw enough daily to get my heart pumping.

I was doing research to understand what the notion of “smart city” might mean in India? As part of the research, I made cold calls to different innovation centers and companies, setting up expert interviews that would inform the research. I learned a lot about how companies had explored the concept of “smartness” in cities. In retrospect, the interview part was easy. Finding the location of the interviews was the challenge.

I had a smart phone. I had a camera. I took photos of the locations on Google maps on my computer or on my phone in case the connection on my phone was lost or hiccuping. One time, I got on the bus headed south and rode it two hours deep into the city to a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with. I hopped off when it seemed like I was close to where I needed to be. There was a queue of auto drivers at the bus stop. I showed my phone and camera screens, with their neat pin-point of my destination on the digital map, to the first driver in the queue. I showed him the address: a building number and street name. The driver waved me in. “No problem!” I thought to myself. I smiled and held on tight to my bag and the rail of the auto. We were off! Turning and bending through little streets and big ones, weaving in between cars and buses. We flew past people crossing the street, animals doing the same, and carts selling food and tea. We drove and drove and drove some more. Minutes led to double-digits. The driver was flying…in what felt like circles. Checking the time, I thought “Oh boy…”

Eventually the driver pulled over to ask other auto drivers for help finding the location. Local folks came to help. A cop or some kind of military person joined in the effort. The mass of people tried to help, pointing around like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz guessing all directions to try next. They discussed, pointed, checked and double-checked the address and the maps. At last I got a solid idea: I called my interviewee and he chatted with the driver. We met in a place that the driver could find and then I walked with the interviewee to the building together.

Afterwards, a colleague let me know that the European conventions of maps as we know them don’t make sense to some people in India who have never seen a map in that form. Also, Bangalore is constantly changing, adding streets and changing names of streets. Later on I learned that landmarks are the way to go, as well as calling people sooner rather than later. Still, the worst case scenario was handing my phone to friendly-looking strangers to communicate with a driver when I’m really lost and it worked. A quick shout out to the kind and patient people of Bangalore: Thank you for your constant help getting me to and fro!

Side note: It’s possible my geographical difficulty is just a me thing. More than once I’ve gone to conduct research at the wrong Kroger store on the same street here in Cincinnati!

Steve in conversation with What Users Do

What Users Do has published our conversation about user research and war stories. Below is a tiny excerpt but please read the whole thing here.

Your book ‘Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries’ is a collection of war stories from the world of user research, collected from real life researchers. Are there common themes between the stories?

That’s how the book is structured, actually. Each of the 11 chapters considers a particular theme, something that is of particular challenge to researchers. Some of these are obvious (such as participants we have problems with, or the potential to end up in a dangerous situation) and some are less obvious (encountering not-safe-for-work content in the field, or dealing with our own emotions as well as those of our participants). The chapters begin with an essay by me, include a handful of different stories about the theme, and then wrap up with takeaways that researchers can use to develop their own practice.

You say that improving research skills is about coming to grips with our own ‘flawed humanity’ – how so?

Pulling off a research program is an enormous logistics exercise. Coordinating materials, participants, times, locations, stakeholders, incentives, recording equipment, and on and on. When you work inside a commercial enterprise, there’s a desire to optimize processes, create spreadsheets, build checklists, summarize objectives, deliver key takeaways, etc. But the truth we may forget is that research is an activity that researchers perform with participants. People who make mistakes, people who come to the session with something else going on in their lives, people who have emotions, people who have different verbal abilities, people who have different expectations of the session, and on and on it goes.

While the optimizing efforts are important, these will always be person-to-person interactions. You can fight that and always be frustrated or stressed or disappointed, or you can embrace that as part of the joy of doing research and a source for richer learning. Learning to overcome the pull of frustration and to find a way to actually embrace it is where we can personally grow in our practices.

Wisdom from “The Americans”

On the season finale of The Americans, there’s a bit of a post-mortem (so to speak) on a mission, including this bit of dialog

The people back home who aren’t in the field, sometimes they get what we do and sometimes they don’t. But when you’re in the field you have to make split-second decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of thinking things through every time…it’s important to be honest about mistakes. But acknowledging them doesn’t always keep them from happening again.

Obviously they are referencing a different sort of fieldwork. But the lesson applies, nonetheless. For more on this theme, check out my new book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

Steve’s War Story: Details Disconnect

This story was originally published on behalf of The Field Study Handbook.

Last year I was working on a project for a financial technology client. Finding participants is often a challenge, but on this project, for small business owners, it was particularly difficult.

We had hoped to base this research on previous studies, but it proved difficult to glean details about how previous studies were done. There were rumors that another team, elsewhere in the country, had developed a segmentation algorithm, but voicemails and emails went unanswered. We heard about great participants from previous studies that we should revisit, but no one would get back to us. The schedule ticked by and the pressure mounted. In the end, we were left with no choice to work around these limitations. Finally, I began to approach recruiting agencies.

My go-to recruiting team refused to take the assignment on as they had, ironically, recruited for one of these previous studies and felt like they had tapped out the local market. Another company had gone out of business, and a third didn’t think they could accomplish the recruit.

I ended up with a recruiter I had never worked with. In the end, I think they did a good job, but a new relationship added stress to the increasingly complex recruiting process.

In our introductory call, one of our recruits expressed surprise and concern that there would two of us visiting his very small office. We eventually agreed that even though it might be cramped, it would be okay. The recruiting agency, when asked about this disconnect, reassured me that they made it clear, as per my instructions, that there would be two of us. I was confused, as the participant had insisted they had never told him anything about this.

Later that day I got an email from the participant, who sought reassurance about the purpose of the interview. He had clicked on my website (seen in my email signature) and was concerned that I was actually going to be pitching him my services. He had been involved in a focus group through this agency before, and presumed this would be something similar. I confirmed that this was not a sales pitch.

A few days later we met with him in his exceptionally cramped one-person workspace. As the interview unfolded, he abruptly stopped and directly, yet politely expressed confusion and discomfort about the interview itself. Why were we asking these questions? Who do we represent? How are we going to use this information?

It took a long, unhurried conversation about the process and our objectives to put him at ease. We resumed the interview and learned a great deal about his truly amazing businesses, past, present, and future.

I emphasize his politeness in stopping the interview, because now, when I go back to the transcript, that’s what I see. But at that time, sitting in that interview, it didn’t feel that way. It felt aggressive and angry and I spent the remainder of the interview feeling uncertain about our rapport. I overcompensated with excessive deference, people-pleasing, and probably flattery. That’s not a comfortable feeling and it’s not conducive to a good interview. I have empathy for someone feeling uncomfortable about something as odd as two strangers with a video camera coming into their office space to ask about their professional history. It’s easy to mischaracterize people that don’t “get it” as difficult. And I assume that I am pretty good at managing expectations at all the common points of failure in establishing rapport.

But boy it’d be nice if we had someone to blame. That guy was a jerkface! The recruiter didn’t do their job (and then lied and insisted they did!). Steve didn’t handle the first call or the interview kickoff properly! Yet it doesn’t seem like any of these are true.

While I felt sheepish at the end of the interview, I was surprised to get a LinkedIn request from the participant immediately afterwards. And, I guess, less surprised when I heard from him a few times weeks later about not receiving his incentive payment (This was one of the very few studies where I asked the agency to send checks after the interview was completed, rather than handing people the incentive directly myself. Mistake? I don’t know). When I followed up with the recruiter about the missing incentive, I heard in some detail how this participant had already called and yelled at the admin staff.

And so it goes.

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