Tell me how you.. vs. show me how you…

We’re doing a bunch of fieldwork these days looking at how people are using their software and hardware to accomplish some tasks. It’s interesting to see the difference in the flow between the part where we ask people to describe what they do and how they do it, and the part where we ask them to show us how they do it.

The discussion part is hard. It’s a bit abstract to explain a detailed behavior in absence of any props or artifacts. People work to give clear explanations and it takes a lot of follow-up to get the details.

Most of the same people light up when they are asked to show us (although some simply decide to show us without prompting).

But I find myself liking the “tell me how” part of the interviews better; the comfort level is lower, but the struggle to articulate is very insightful. Looking at how people describe things from memory isn’t wholly accurate in capturing their perceptions or usage, but it pulls out some neat contrasts.

And ideally, we’re trying to get stories, not factoids. The discussion (not the demo) is much better for stories. The participant takes over in the demo, and it becomes a semi-hurried list of “this works like this, and this other thing works like that.”

Of course, we’re doing both, and we need to be doing both, and some of the insights will come of the tension or differences between the two.

I think we’ll switch the order on today’s interviews, and maybe try starting with the demo, and then doing a discussion afterwards. I sometimes feel the demo requires time, and rapport, and trust, before we can safely ask for it (especially if the equipment in question rests within an inner sanctum), and so this is a bit of a leap for me.

Of course, there are few “right” answers in evolving one’s technique, it’s about building up a larger palette of approaches and making intelligent choices about when to switch around. I’m not at all unhappy about how the interviews have gone so far; they’ve been fun and fascinating, but I’m thinking hard about how to keep doing better.


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