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Interviewing in Context: How to Avoid Disaster on the Road

I recently had the pleasure of going out on the road for a project with one of our researchers, Beth Yeckley, to help a large company identify User Types for one of their product lines.

I’ve been on the road before, but not for out-of-town contextual interviews, where the luxuries of a facility or home base are not available. I began to see very quickly how experience can make the difference between a positive, productive trip and a total disaster.

I knew that with Beth’s experience the trip would ultimately be a success, but I was very impressed with how prepared she was for everything that came our way (and there were various things that came our way)!  Below, I’ve listed the 5 keys to our success, as I saw them, for the in-home, out-of-town contextual interviews:

Preparation – Planning and preparing for out-of-town interviews, before you even set foot outside of your office, is critical as you will not have ready access to supplies and resources on the road. Be sure to plan out the equipment (e.g., voice recorder, camera, computer with power cord, etc.) you will need for the trip and check each one to be sure it works, has batteries and all of it’s supporting components before you leave. Having a GPS system is a must, although they don’t always get you to your destination.  Therefore, it’s important to have a list of the respondents’ names and phone numbers from the recruiting facility so that the respondent can guide you to their home if need be.

Pairs – It’s always best to do contextual interviews in pairs, in large part for safety reasons. On this trip, we entered a home that had goblins everywhere and a coffin leaning against the wall — yikes! It’s also important to go in pairs so that the experience can be correctly captured. Ideally, the researcher’s goal is to engage the respondent, make them feel comfortable with strangers in their home, and then pull out the necessary discussion guide information from the respondent. The goal of the second team member is to be the eyes and ears for the researcher. In addition to taking detailed notes of the interview, this person should be looking around the home and documenting anything that can provide additional information about who this person really is and what their behaviors really are.

Pictures – After 40+ interviews, respondents and their unique nuances begin to blend together. We end up naming them things like ‘blond lady with dogs’ to differentiate them from one another. It is therefore important to take pictures, both of the respondents and of the product, in context. They become especially important during the analysis phase of a persona or user type project because once you get back to your office and put up a picture of a respondent, all of the sudden – Voila! The respondent’s home, the way they spoke, the particulars of their life and how they interacted with the product come flooding back into your memory, allowing you to begin to compare and contrast them with the others you met.

Panera – I’ve never been a Panera or Starbucks type of person. I prefer McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts type coffee. But on this trip, I have learned that places that offer free WiFi (one Panera in particular on our trip) are invaluable for all of the following: checking email (to keep in touch with the home office and to check for updates from the recruiting facility), getting on the Internet to load our respondent payment cards and for debriefing after each interview. Oh yeah, and they have coffee and food too, another two crucial keys to success.

Patience – Last, but certainly not least, Patience is a must on contextual interviews. If you have a Type A personality like me, you need to just leave that way of thinking at home! There are many things that are out of your control on these trips; respondents are late, traffic can be hectic, driving to unknown locations can be challenging, GPS devices taking you to roads that don’t exist (e.g., Memory Lane), respondents who like to talk (a lot), computers dying in the middle of an interview, etc. The list can go on and on. But, if you’re Prepared, travel in Pairs, take lots of fun Pictures and rely on Paneras to provide sustenance, you will find that Patience is not that hard to come by.

Beth and I had a really great trip, met a lot of great people, and gathered a lot of interesting data that promises to keep us busy for quite some time.

What would you add to this list? Do you have any great contextual research road trip stories? Share!

1 Comment

  1. Jenny Sun

    I think you summarized it quite well, a research trip can turn disastrous at any moment for sure, but preparation, planning, and a little improvisation goes a long way. I don’t know if you need to leave the type A personality at home. I find that the right research duo is necessary, plus the type A person is great at keeping all the paperwork organized and getting the team to the right destination!

    I love that you mention Panera. Paneras and Starbucks have provided me a moment for catching my breath (and a bite to eat), and you just can’t beat the fact that they’re all over the country. Plus, if you want to stay reasonably healthy, they’ve got some great options.

    Thanks for the great post Michele!