A review of
Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories
About this book
A good reference for Case Studies
Primary audience: Researchers and Designers with some or significant experience with topic
Writing style: Mostly text, Humorous/Light and Matter-of-fact
Publisher Rosenfeld Media, 2016, 248 pages, 11 chapters
Field studies, customer visits, ethnography – in whatever form they take – are a strange business. You arrive in people’s homes, businesses or communities to observe them in as natural an environment as possible. Out of the lab and on their turf, you don’t have to wait long for a surprise. You may have spent weeks or months recruiting, writing discussion guides, getting your recording equipment just right, preparing to be an active listener and neutral questioner; but there’s nothing like having your participant’s mom call the police on you to remind you what being a user researcher is all about: capturing people and life unscripted. Just another day at the office.
Steve Portigal’s Doorbells, Danger, And Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories had me laughing, gasping, and shaking my head. I had my hand over my mouth for most of the book. Portigal’s collection includes about 55 war stories, the type he says, where “the storyteller doesn’t necessarily prevail.” In this book, researchers from around the world share their omg moments for a deeper understanding of what it’s like to step into the world of the unknown, which is to say, the realest of the research methods.
There are some oldies but goodies in here: the oh-crap-my-shoes-are-on-in-the-wrong-area, the how-do-I-ask-to-use-this-nice-person’s-bathroom?, the this-person’s-place-has-a-distinct-odor, and the how-do-I-get-rid-of-this-non-interpreter-interpreter?
But have you heard the one about the ethnographer who was so tired of the local diet, he spent days setting elaborate traps to catch a very elusive chicken (Ari Nave)? Or the pseudo-confession regarding banana theft (Lena Blackstock)? How about an eager potential participant shouting in the middle of a shopping mall that he’s just been released from prison (Nicolas Nova)?
The benefit of these war stories is twofold: First, they allow us to empathize with and appreciate each other as a community. It is a brave act to step out of the safety of the lab into the real world. Sometimes chaos ensues (or just hilarity). There is a benefit to nodding one’s head in the privacy of one’s own living room and saying, yes, yes, I, too, have made a fool of myself (don’t tell my boss), and, yes, yes, I will again (don’t tell my future boss). Second, there is a retrospective analysis that may help some of us moving forward. Researchers and educators will find many ways to use the material for discussion and development.
Portigal makes it clear from the start that he has “encouraged storytellers to limit the impulse to turn everything into a lesson and instead just try to tell a story.” Perhaps in a different vein, he’s invited us, the readers, to “discuss and debate these stories – and your reactions – with your friends and colleagues.”
One story that strikes me as ripe for analysis is Elaine Fukuda’s “They Call Me Mister,” in which the researcher spends a day with a teenager and her mother at a hospital. In the course of that day, Fukuda and the teen girl find themselves alone with an elderly volunteer who says and does something inappropriate, but is described by the author as “well intentioned.” It appears from the story that the volunteer normally works with younger children (not teenagers) and that the incident is not reported to hospital staff.
In Nancy Frishberg’s story, “Look Sharp,” the author struggles with whether she should maintain her usual role of neutral observer or make an exception and take a more active part in her participant’s life. After conducting several interviews with a woman about her chronic illness, Frishberg and the woman talk about containers lying around the woman’s home that are used to temporarily house syringes and medical waste. On Frishberg’s last visit, the participant asks the author to take the containers to a hospital because “she’s embarrassed to take them all at once.” Frishberg offers instead to help the woman by driving her and the containers to a nearby facility. Frishberg’s decision, made after consideration, shows that researchers, especially after a project is done, or nearly done, can show compassion without affecting results. In this case, it appears Frishberg had a profoundly positive effect on this participant’s living situation.
One story that had me saddened by its ethical murkiness was Jon McNeill’s “Of Speed and Strip Clubs,” where McNeill knows he’s in dangerous waters when his participant deftly maneuvers his client and him to a strip club instead of letting them conduct an in-home interview. The setup is destined for disaster, but it just gets worse and worse. In the course of the evening, McNeil: thinks he has determined the sexual orientation of his client based on his disinterest in a lap dance; has revealed his thoughts about his client’s sexual orientation to his participant; and later thinks this is somehow all meaningful and deep. This scenario ruffled my feathers to no end in its cluelessness and its potential for danger.
In reading Portigal’s book, I was reminded of all of the doorbells we encounter. They make our hearts flutter a bit, don’t they? They symbolize the start of a new conversation, a step into the unfamiliar, a little adventure. Will the person behind the door be ready to talk, ushering you in with a warm smile? Or will you have an experience like Raffaele Boiano in “The Enemy Employee”? He has to hunt down his participant in a seemingly empty building. After his participant asks him to find him on a certain floor, the guy greets Boiano with, “You surprised me, and I’m never surprised. You took the hallway on the left, the darkest one. Most people simply decide to go toward the light; it seems they prefer their comfort zone.” Imagine having to start an interview that way.
As for the “dead batteries,” those obstacles we have and will continue to overcome, we can strive to do a better job in planning and preparing for these things. I know I can do a better job of making a list and checking it twice. But it’s the danger that’s the hardest to anticipate and that we must be vigilant about for ourselves, our colleagues and our participants. It’s cool to have a war story after the fact, as long as everyone comes back. As Jen Iudice says in “Trust Your Gut, It Can Save Your Life!,” “Be careful out there, everyone. Always be aware of your surroundings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”
“Chicken Run” by Ari Nave
Excerpt from pages 71-75.
My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).
The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe, and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.
I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu (a starch made from cassava and plantain) or gari (a fine flour made from cassava roots). For one thing, it was spicy as hell … so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.
I had spotted guinea fowl wandering around the village. I asked my host family about it, and they just laughed and said they were wild animals.
So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.
The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slipknot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.
The string was about 50 feet long, and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.
The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.
As dusk fell, the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot, I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings, I reeled in the string, and soon I had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.
I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep it secure. It was too late to cook the bird so I ate my mind-altering hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.
I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera, and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted, and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him, he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.
That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.
The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me, but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.
We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course, I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”
So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused because he had told me earlier they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor, and my daughter will cook it for you.”
So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with it. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.
I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode, and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.