The P’s and Q’s of User-Centered Research

Rikta Krishnaswamy & Selvan Thandapani

Keywords: Design Research, Ethnography, mindfulness, best practices

A professor of mine in college once corrected me, when I claimed that I had done ethnographic research for a certain school project. “What we (designers) do is not ethnography. We observe people, ask questions and document culture, but we are far too intrusive and far too superficial. You could call it a version of ‘people watching’ but not ethnography.”

While we borrow the tools of the ethnographic trade, the nuances of the pure science of ethnography are often ignored. The mere presence of an ‘observer’ disrupts the natural flow of the ‘observed’ subject’s thought and action. While we don’t have the liberty or time to gain their acceptance over a period of months (or even years at times), I feel that that there is a certain mindfulness that can still be borrowed from ‘real’ ethnographers.

While we borrow the tools of the ethnographic trade, the nuances of the pure science of ethnography are often ignored.

Conducting user research in an unfamiliar context is a daunting task for researchers and practitioners alike. This can get more complicated while venturing into a place where people from over a dozen different cultures and traditions coexist together. In situations like this even the well trained ethnographers need some introduction about the context to observe and to make sense of the situation.

Good planning before the study along with the right set of tools aids researchers in meeting interesting people and uncovering useful findings. In a new and unfamiliar place, especially somewhere you don’t speak the language, that sense of not having an anchor could make anyone anxious. This makes it extremely important that when conducting field research in a foreign territory, the researcher is able to feel confident of their rapport with the local moderator. From experience, we’ve realized that it’s important to include time for this when planning the research trip. This would ideally consist of some introduction/sensitization to cultural diversity within the local population, followed by some trial runs of the conversations. This second step is critical so that the moderator and the researcher build a mutual sense of trust. This is a great way to avoid embarrassing and/or potentially disruptive cultural faux pas.

“What is critical in design research is that the observing is intrinsically tied to designing.”
– Robert Blythe

Keeping all this in mind, here is a reference list of research do’s and don’ts to be mindful of (a) before you begin your research, (b) while engaging in research and also (c) on returning from the field.

1. Before the Research



Create a planning checklist of research activities, recruiting, field visit locations and resources.

You might be a rock star researcher but don’t go to the field without prior planning.

Research goals drive research activities. Also, keep the ground realities in mind.

Selecting activities based on your convenience will not yield any results.

Map a spectrum of participants covering both the extremes. Use this to pick people specific to the research activity.

For activities like focus groups don’t include more than six people.

Be selective while picking participants. To prevent people from hanging up on you, say you’re recruiting people for a paid study for a well known company.

Don’t use screeners to gather information.

Start recruiting in advance so you have time to follow up.

If your study requires 5 people don’t stop with just 5. People always dropout so you need some backups.

Be polite while cold calling someone. If they seem busy you can schedule a call for later.

Don’t blindly follow a recruiting script.

Once participants confirm their availability, send a confirmation email and a reminder one or two days before the study.

Don’t annoy participants with too many follow-up calls like a tele-marketer.

We have noticed a lot of research participants apologize or defend their thoughts when they are talking about personal opinions, almost automatically!

Whether they are being interviewed or observed, people are inherently afraid of being judged, of putting themselves out there. When we are meeting people, the most critical thing is to do whatever it takes to make them feel like they are in a safe environment, make them understand that we are not there to label them, nor ar we interested in creating absolutes of good or bad, this or that. Assume the role of a therapist – silence, sincerity and an impassioned non judgemental demeanor goes a long way in helping them feel comfortable and opening up to you. You being a complete stranger actually works in your favor (it’s almost cathartic to be completely open and honest to someone who will never meet you again); the trick is how much of a familiar stranger can you become in the small window of time you have with a participant.

2. During Research



Treat the participants like fellow human beings and not research subjects. Ask them how their day has been and tell them a little about yourself, the project and how much time you will be spending with them.

Don’t get down to business as soon as you meet them. Take out your research paraphernalia (cameras, recorders, notepads, laptops etc) after you have established a rapport.

Keywords: Design Research, Ethnography, mindfulness, best practices

In case you are taking photos or recording, be very open and honest about how the media will be used. Always seek consent.

Don’t coax participants if they are uncomfortable, even if they had agreed to be on camera before. People are allowed to change their mind.

In case you are taking photos or recording, be very open and honest about how the media will be used. Always seek consent.

To wrap things up nicely, it’s always good to send a short thank you note and to keep a database of interesting participants who might be a good fit for future studies.

3. Right After the Research



Whether it be using cash, giftcards or gifts, it is best to remunerate participants as soon as your session ends. If you are giving cash make sure they check it in front of you.

Don’t postpone the remuneration for later. Participants will get restless and upset. Also try not to give too much small change.

Additional Credits: Skull icon (created by misirlou) and okay hand gesture icon (created by James Fenton) used under the Creative Commons license from the Noun Project. Sketches by Shiraz Iqbal.

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