How my user-interviewing process has changed over the years

Going through the stages from standoffish awkwardness to approaching empathy

One of the good things about studying architecture at SPA was the variety of projects, and therefore methodologies I was exposed to. I found the learnings from these made subsequent projects much easier to approach. Here I share some samples of work, along with observations of how I went about the process.

You get what you put in

A plan-elevation hybrid view of the Jogibara Road in McLeod Ganj; the kind of work we focussed our energies on.

We had site visits to Paragpur, Manali, Bikaner and McLeod Ganj, and each site visit had an accompanying site study, which included interviewing the stakeholders involved — be they shopkeepers, rural homeowners or migrants to new areas.

We learnt how to talk to people who were very different from us, and the first few interviews we did were really bad. We would march in with notebooks in hand and DSLRs hanging off our necks, and people assumed we were either press or government surveyers. No one looked forward to these, the conversations were awkward with responses very guarded. We usually asked loaded questions, using people as a means to confirm our assumptions.

Profiles made after interviewing with residents at Jogibara Road

We managed to get an overall idea of how the social groups feel about each other. However, we never got around to asking the kind of questions that would impact the designs architecturally, which was the purpose of the exercise.

Hanging out and building a rapport

I read in a book on photography that the way to carry a camera is to sling it on your shoulder, pointing away noticed a change when my camera was slung from my shoulder, pointing away instead off your chest announcing to the world that you’re out to document it.

One of things I worked towards was removing this notion of being the other, and diffusing any tension the individual might have by shifting the focus away from them in the moment.

The idea is that you don’t bring a clipboard and start firing away questions. Instead, you hang around the space, introduce yourself as you would do outside of the situation. You shoot the breeze for some time, assure them you’re not out to take something from them, and then bring up the topic you want to cover.

Even then, it’s better to have a list of topics you want to cover rather than making the stuffy with pre-set questions.

Documenting prodigiously

I’ve found the idea of taking notes while interviewing, journalist-style to be inefficient. Neither can you focus on the individual, nor are you able to write document their views, because human speech is fast!

Instead, now I record the audio of the speech, and play it back to myself while working on the project deliverables. This helps to refresh the content, and provides a second pass at understanding the inflections and finer points of what the other person was saying.

Having a methodology for processing the information

Once you’ve interviewed a lot of people, it can be overwhelming to process the information — both in showing it to the outside world, and in deriving conclusions from it.

Working in groups involved intensive discussions were had on how to collect and process data

My first exposure to a decent methodology was in the seminar on inclusivity we conducted in final year. We chose to identify key issues via a geographically-linked keyword analysis on our data, collected by interviewing over 100 users of public spaces near the Nizamuddin Railway Station. You can read the report here.

Converting extensive interview text into digestible geographically-linked keywords

Becoming the other person, and making a plausible model of them in your head

This is the part of UX I like the most, the one that presents the best opportunity for personal growth. By entering the thought processes of another person’s mind, you start understanding their decision process, and over time you become better at making them a plausible person.

You talk to a stock investor, and you learn how they think about money. You talk to a car lover, and understand how they evaluate cars.

Just like in fiction, you have to understand desires and motivations of an outside body, and that is really useful as a mirror to reflect on your own ideologies.

Fundamentally, I find moulding products into these mental models liberates them from the realm of technological concept to a real, in-the-flesh, useful entity. This, excites me greatly.