Tag Archives: ethnography

Six Tips For Doing Great Design Research Interviews


Interacting deeply and honestly with people who may be quite different from you is a nuanced art.

Understanding how the world looks to people who may be quite different from you and your teams is central to the practice of design research. This is true whether you’re doing B2C, B2B, or organizational change work. Interacting deeply and honestly with people in order to gain this understanding is a part of our craft that can seem deceptively simple, but to do it well is a nuanced art.

Here are some tips for conducting great interviews…

1. Create comfort
Read the situation and person. Be adaptive.

Nuance your demeanor and communication style to create an interpersonal dynamic where that encourages each particular individual to express themselves.

2. Make space
Switch from talking mode to listening mode. Minimize your airtime.

The space you create is one of your most powerful tools. Explain concisely what your focus is and the type of interaction you want to have so that participants are oriented, and start right away making room for them to express themselves.

Notice that I say “make space,” not “leave space.” When done well, you are actually creating a unique interpersonal space that encourages people to share deeply.

3. Ask real questions
Understand what you really want to find out. Be genuinely curious.

Frame your questions openly and simply. Let a question sit after you ask it–don’t answer it yourself. Leaving space and waiting for someone to process your question and give a real answer validates their thought proces and lets them know you are really there to try and understand them.

Give an interviewee space, even if they struggle at times to express themselves. Don’t put your words or perspectives in their mouth, even if you think you can help them say something or if you know something they don’t. Let them find their own ways to articulate their thoughts–you’re there to get their perspective, not to reiterate your own point of view.

4. Listen
Real listening is at the heart of interviewing. When someone knows they are truly being listened to, the interview becomes a collaborative process of discovery.

Deep, concentrated listening–combined with open-ended, targeted follow-up questions–triggers personal reflection and storytelling. Stories often reveal much more than “answers.”

Be deliberate about what you share and interject throughout the interaction. Sometimes it makes sense to share your own experiences and ideas, sometimes it doesn’t. Be clear with yourself about why you are doing it.

5. Lead AND follow
Great interviews are like jazz improvisation—creative exploration within structure. Balance letting the interaction guide you with guiding the interaction.

The dialogue will take you to places you didn’t anticipate; this is how discovery happens. However, it’s still your job to make the interaction purposeful and targeted.

Don’t fall into “just having a chat.” Use your interview guide like a lighthouse beacon, to know where you are in relation to the conversation you planned to have.

6. Be creative
Not everyone expresses themselves best verbally. And not every line of inquiry is best addressed through talk alone.

Use props, sketching, diagramming, role plays, simulations, etc, if it helps a person express themselves, or helps you better set up the inquiry. Context is a great tool; be observant and utilize situational details to have deeper, more concrete interactions.

Coda– Well-practiced design research is highly valuable to the design process, and on a personal level, the opportunities it provides to really experience other people without judgement or distraction can be incredibly rewarding and impactful.

Happy interviewing!

Physical Traces


Paper towel in club bathroom, Los Angeles, CA


Curbside trash, Palo Alto, CA

Tiny ethnography over morning coffee

Picking up coffee in Boulder Creek on my way to work this morning, I noticed an unusual photograph of a mountain lion stalking a white rabbit.

The proprietor of the cafe noticed me taking a picture of his picture, and made a little “come here” motion with his finger. He walked me into his office, and showed me a whole wall of photographs of various wild animals – coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions – stalking this ceramic rabbit. It seems this scenario is something he’s set up in order to take pictures of wildlife.

People often find it very gratifying when you take a genuine interest in them. It’s quite common after design research interviews for the interviewee to thank us profusely and say that they really enjoyed the experience. It’s a great kind of exchange – both sides benefit materially and on a deeper level.

At close range

We passed our local fire department doing drills the other day when we were out walking our dog.

They had their hoses laid out on the ground, and were practicing reacting to the intense pressure that shoots through the system when the water gets turned on. I’d never really thought before about how much energy runs through a fire hose; how easy it is for an incomplete coupling to separate, how if the hose isn’t held down, it becomes a wild uncontrolled force.

There are so many aspects like this to every job – every task and activity people do – things you wouldn’t think to think about until you see it in context.

So get out there – do research. No matter how good your imagination is, you’ll never match the detail you get from actually being there.

Come as you are

We have a fan in the back room that’s breaking. Sometimes when I turn it on, it makes a horrible squealing noise, then settles in and works, and sometimes it spins up slowly and quietly. I turn it off when no one’s going to be home, in case it bursts into flames.

Today, it was barely moving, and as I was watching that thing try to eke out a revolution, I could feel myself willing it to spin faster. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it, but I realized, as I caught myself trying to apply the mental voodoo, that I’d be much more likely to figure out what the problem was if I just watched closely what was actually happening.

So often we fail to take the mental deep breath necessary to suspend our ideas of what could/should be and let ourselves see what really is, but both perspectives are crucial. The dream – the vision of possibility (the fan works, organic food is ubiquitous, etc.) and the existing reality it will have to be built on.

That’s one of the things I love most about design & research – we work with both the dream and the reality.

Design Research is a Bridge

Cup used as iPhone speaker resonator, Tahoe, CA

I had an interesting dialogue recently at Steve Portigal’s excellent talk on ethnography as cultural practice at PARC. The woman I was speaking with had raised one of those classic and apparently insoluble “Is it ethnography…” questions during the presentation, and I started a conversation with her after the talk ended.

I don’t personally care whether the work of design research is or isn’t considered ethnography – “contextual” describes it well enough. But I do think this person’s assertion – that because design researchers are paid by companies to do their work they are somehow change-agent mercenaries of those companies bent on converting  respondents to customers – is worth addressing here.

It’s a commonly accepted tenet that the mere act of paying attention to people creates change. So any contextual exploration, whether academic or corporate, is going to inadvertently create some type of influence on its subjects – let’s just get that out of the way.

I believe what we do as design researchers is to serve as a bridge – connecting parties that are influencing each other anyway, but greatly increasing the fidelity of that influence.

Long ago, people made their own tools and crafted their own environments. The user was the producer, and there was a direct connection between a set of needs and the production of something to address those needs. In many cases, this is no longer true: production systems have become complex, many-headed entities, with people working in them who may not have ever directly experienced some/many/all of the situations for which they are creating solutions.

Silicon Valley map made of company logos, San Jose, CA

Enter the design researcher (a.k.a. corporate ethnographer, user experience professional, consumer insights person, etc.). As a skilled listener and observer – a professional outsider – and a synthetic thinker, the design researcher can map out not only the areas in question but the spaces within and between them. As a creative and collaborative facilitator,  the design researcher helps other producers see and build on a high fidelity picture of the domain for which they are creating offerings.

As providers of a communication bridge between parties that are already involved in mutually influencing relationships, I believe our work is, when done with rigor and integrity, truly positive and in service of a better world.