Beta — We’re reformatting our articles to work with the new site, but this is one hasn’t been done yet; it may contain formatting issues. No need to report this. We’re working on it.

What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting It

by Steve Portigal
on April 4, 2011

Julie Norvaisas and Steve Portigal originally published this article in interactions, March/April 2011. 

As practitioners, when we meet with people to conduct contextual
research, our focus is driven by our client’s business objectives,
nominally investigating how our client’s products are falling short
of people’s needs, or how this organization’s core capabilities
could achieve those business objectives by meeting those needs.
Because of this, our work leads us toward what’s missing, which we
identify as needs or opportunities that provide valuable direction
and inspiration for our clients at all points of the development

Along the way, however, we are inevitably astounded and
affected by what exists outside of those explicit constraints. As
professionals we believe this is why organizations should do
research; as individuals this is a key reason why we do research.

We indulged in a little reflection on some of the people we’ve met
and how meeting them took us outside of the business questions at
hand but had a real impact on the team and reframed the way we
thought about the business questions. This opportunity to dwell on
the exception provides a reminder of how these experiences deliver a
potent dose of humanity to the business of providing products for

In the earliest days of one consulting engagement, we visited a
young woman to talk about what seemed like a straightforward topic:
digital photography and home printing. As we sat down together in
her living room, surrounded by baby toys and child-rearing bric-a-
brac, our participant (we’ll call her Jenny) revealed that she had
very recently separated from her husband and was dealing with that
change in her life as well as managing her new role as a single mom.

While we came armed with dozens of carefully constructed questions
to help us uncover greater insights about how people were managing
their digital libraries and creating printed content, all Jenny
could think about was the massive upheaval she was experiencing. You
might as well have played D-I-V-O-R-C-E as the underscore to our
entire conversation.

When Jenny told us about her approach to taking pictures of her
young child, she naturally spoke about how the responsibility for
child rearing (such as documenting memories) had very recently
shifted. Even sharing photos was something Jenny was being forced to
reexamine through the lens of a change in the dynamic between her
and her extended family.

The interview took a dramatic turn when the estranged husband, whose
ears must certainly have been burning, burst into the house. He was
tall, heavily muscled, and wearing a military uniform. And he was
quivering with barely suppressed aggression. He demanded to know who
we were and what we were doing; in our most calming tones, we
explained the project and its goals. He glared at us for a moment,
and eventually he and Jenny went to the other room to discuss in
muted yet intense tones. During those few minutes, we both sat
quietly on the couch, imagining what sort of situation might erupt
and how we might respond.

After he left and Jenny apologized, we continued our discussion of
printing and digital images, but we were now insiders, having shared
in the experience of Jenny’s relationship situation. The interview
was still essentially about Jenny’s pressing life issues, but our
having participated in that scenario rendered the issues more
implicit, and we were able to delve deeper into questions of product

During another project, focused on consumer technology, we
encountered a man who caused us to rethink the role that digital
devices might play in people’s lives. One participant, whom we’ll
call Bruce, told us how he was hit by a car while riding his
bicycle. While we were dutifully asking him about usage scenarios
and desired features for his devices, he quietly told us about the
isolation his recuperation brought on.

For Bruce, a “mobile-computing task” like going into Starbucks with
his laptop was a way to reconnect with his community. While we might
have expected a tech-as-hero story about how he used his devices to
keep in touch with people while housebound, we learned that these
devices were now serving as props. Bruce passionately emphasized how
as his physical mobility increased, his laptop and other technology
served as excuses to get out of the house, opening the world up to
him again and serving as companions as he reintroduced himself to
the world. His story moved us deeply and allowed the team to
recognize that what they were seeking to enable went far beyond
performance specifications.

This interview follows a familiar pattern in these studies: We start
with what we know and what we want to know, but we make sure to
create space for people’s fascinating and unexpected stories to
emerge. At a distance, none of these stories is surprising, but what
continues to surprise us is their ability to empower teams to see
past the bills of materials and MRDs that can smother workaday

Another unexpected but essential outcome is a revisiting of whom we
understand our customers to be. This aspect of research can be a
vicious tautology since we choose—often through rigorous
definition—which customers to study, sometimes literally pulling
names from lists of individuals who have purchased our client’s
products. One surprise came in a lengthy project that explored how
people were experiencing major transitions with a financial services
firm. We worked with people in different regions of the country, at
different points in this transition. But during a final round of
ethnographies, we found something we hadn’t planned for: people who
were (to use the ugliest jargon) edge cases.

A number of participants, without realizing it, had certain criteria
that meant their transition was handled differently. One woman
(let’s call her Alana) had been providing us with regular updates
over the course of the study, describing her frustrations and
challenges. When we finally sat down to meet with Alana, the
extremity of her situation became palpably clear. Her voice rang
with emotion as she related the disconnect she had been
experiencing. While we can’t be specific about the transition or
exactly how she was an edge case, suffice it to say that at one
point in the interview, she began to cry.

Given that Alana was essentially a misrecruit (someone who wasn’t
actually using the recently launched services), we uncovered a
crucial opportunity for the organization to do a better job at
designing for a whole class of “other” customers. We’ve often heard
the refrain that a certain individual “isn’t our customer.” That
rhetoric tends to be used to mask the uncomfortable truths revealed
during fieldwork. Fortunately, our clients here recognized the new
opportunity and returned to their own organization prepared to
advocate for this group of people.

In another case, leaving the familiar behind yielded a powerful
perspective for the design team. While in New York City to study
people using high-end consumer technology, we were up against the
clock to find the last few participants. Our client was open to
creative recruiting, so we used Craigslist and found a woman we’ll
call Manuela.

As we made our way toward the interview, we began to realize that
this session was not going to be like the others. Having spent the
previous few days talking to people in the enclaves of the Upper
East Side and Brooklyn Heights, we felt challenged as we traveled
deep into East New York, a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood known for
its high crime rate.

The challenges kept coming. Manuela is a hoarder, complete with the
requisite cats. The smell in her sizable family home was
overpowering. After descending two harrowing flights of stairs to
the basement, past the floors where her grown children and elderly
mother live, we sat on the floor to conduct the interview (this was
the only option). We saw bugs.

Yet Manuela’s warm personality and intense storytelling style
rendered the uncomfortable environment neutral. She explained that
her father was in the hospital, dying of cancer. She told us of her
work as a funeral director and her passion for playing the lottery
and reading romance novels (which she emphasized by pointing to a
corner of the room piled high with them). Neither Manuela nor her
environment corresponded with what our client’s team had in mind
when they set out to learn more about their customers. Yet she was
one of them: We observed, tucked amid the mountains of household
debris, a new high-end HDTV, late-model game consoles, laptops, and
other items in our client’s categories.

An underlying paradigm of the project—whom we were designing for—was
enlightened. Rather than dismiss Manuela as an outlier
(or worse), our client embraced her story as an object lesson in
reality, reminding designers that their designs must fit more than
the privileged, pristine environments they like to imagine.

These sort of surprises and reframes are a necessary part of the
process; they are ultimately why we do this type of work and why
it’s valuable, but they are sometimes at odds with the focused
activities and totems of research objectives or the careful
structure of proposals, scope changes, and participant screening

Every project and set of interviews reveals surprises, personal
revelations, confessions, and sometimes, even tears. It’s key to
wallow in and celebrate these moments, not as exceptions, but as
important beacons that empower design teams and strategists to
transcend confined objectives.

Learn more from Steve Portigal

Steve Portigal presents a UIE
Virtual Seminar, Championing
Contextual Research in Your Organization
. He’ll describe the techniques,
processes, and discussion points to make sure your design best fits the problem you’re
trying to solve.

Share your thoughts with us

Have you had test participants change the
direction of a usability study? How has results from usability testing change the
direction of your business strategy? We’d love to hear your stories on our blog.