When we talk about user-centered design, we rarely talk about its role in research. But as an experience design company, it’s our job to be curious and thoughtful not just about ideas and design, but about the people we’re studying, their needs, and interests. The insights we’re asked to generate rely on seeing and hearing some version of the truth about people and their behavior. Putting people at the center of research from the moment a project kicks off not only smooths the process, it also yields more accurate results. Why? Because of trust. When people know you’re listening (and truly thinking about what you’re hearing), they’re more likely to feel comfortable and trust you. They open up, and that trust earns a researcher richer, more authentic qualitative data, and sometimes leads you down unexpected (and rewarding) paths.
It may seem contrary in the business world, but compassion and kindness works. And those aren’t just feelings, but qualities that you layer onto methodology. Employ both as you plan, prepare, and execute fieldwork, long before the moment you sit down with an interviewee. Here are five simple ways we take this approach in our work.
01. Schedule: Timing Is Everything
Understand how your research timeline meshes with stakeholder schedules and culture. Ask for client assistance, especially if customer interactions are involved. If you need to sit down with teachers, schedule them well before June. Accountants? Wait until after April 15. If no one’s available, don’t stop your work. Use the time for desk and expert research. And save the most influential voices—CEOs, customers, hard to reach populations—for last. You’ll be at your most conversant and, as a result, you’ll have a stockpile of killer questions that these people and ONLY these people can answer.
02. Research: Know Your Interviewee, Before You Talk to Them
“Research” doesn’t only apply to market analysis or design precedents. Channel your inner Nancy Drew and sleuth out who you’ll be talking to. Ask for your client’s org chart. (Or offer to help them make one!) Google them, scan LinkedIn, and employ your regular research tools. With the additional background you’ll craft questions that leverage the full breadth of your subject’s unique experiences and perspective and they’ll appreciate your thorough preparation.
03. Write: Script Yourself into the Deep Dive
Start with a real script—fully formed sentences and logic (“if they answer X, I will ask Y”). A script helps create data consistency while also giving you the confidence to follow new lines of inquiry or go deeper on particular questions without forgetting to cover the basics. Personalize your script for each interviewee. Skip questions that don’t apply. Rehearse with your colleagues. Get feedback. Edit. Repeat.
04. Interview and Observe: Step into Your Subject’s World
Start by making people comfortable. Cultural sensitivity puts people at ease, helps you blend into their environment, and lets you try on the culture you’re studying. Review the basics of your interview or visit, topics covered, how long it’ll take. Does your subject have a hard stop or can you keep rolling past lunch if the conversation’s hot? Respond to context, too. Don your best duds on Wall Street and save your jeans for the high school soccer coach interview out on the turf. Let the conversation flow. Don’t cut off a meaty response just because the clock is ticking. Instead, develop the ability to strategize, in the background, how you’ll use the remaining minutes.
05. Closure: Show Some Gratitude
Stay on schedule (or be appreciative of any extra time), and thank your subject as you say good-bye. Make it sincere. Reflect on an eye-opening response to let the interviewee know their contribution was valuable. Extend some thanks to your client (and their assistant!) at the end of the interview phase, too.
Trust is hard-won and easily lost. A little mindfulness around the people you’re learning about can go a long way. How you prepare for and manage fieldwork contributes to how your clients, stakeholders, interview subjects, and customers perceive you in that crucial first impression: you want your knowledge—not just your personality—to shine through. Keep people and their culture at the center of your research practice and you’ll be more confident, and inspire confidence from the people you’re talking with, whether you’re traipsing through a cornfield in Iowa or jumping on Skype with Singapore.
by Chris Prentice
FOUR32C is a web design agency, New York. We’re curious digital natives who bring creativity and intelligence to the world’s most beloved brands. We create thoughtful, compelling experiences by starting every project with questions. Our process leads to evocative products designed with a purpose for every pixel. For more information, visit us at www.four32c.com.