When life won’t stop for user research: The unique challenges and rewards of interviewing mothers

Deirdre Hirschtritt
Jun 28 · 4 min read
The front door of the Women, Infants, and Children office where we conducted our interviews

We were half way through the user research session. I’d asked all my interview questions and we were ready to move onto journey mapping. Just one problem: my interviewee was holding a 12-day old baby, and didn’t have a free hand to draw. That’s when I knew interviewing moms was going to be an education.

“Would you like me to hold her?” To my great joy, she handed her precious newborn across the table to me and got to task mapping her journey of maintaining public benefits. I cooed and rocked the little one, and asked clarifying questions of her mother — What else happened then? What documents did you need to submit? Where did you have to go to get that answer?

I work on the Integrated Benefits Initiative at Code for America. We work with states to improve the way they deliver social safety net services by leveraging technology and human-centered design.

Recently, two colleagues and I went to Louisiana to interview young mothers about their experiences discovering, applying for, and maintaining multiple public benefits (WIC, Medicaid, and SNAP, primarily). These mothers participate in public benefits to support themselves and their families; participation that can mean the difference between a hungry night and a trip to the grocery store.

A research participant completing a journey map activity

Having interviewed many people in a range of professions and life stages, I thought I was prepared for these interviews. And indeed, in the obvious ways, I was. I had consent forms, an interview guide, journey mapping templates, card sorting materials, a note-taking template, an experienced and organized note-taker and thought partner, and gift cards for incentives. But in many other ways, I wasn’t.

I’d never conducted research sessions that focused exclusively on young mothers, particularly those experiencing poverty, and I didn’t have a rulebook for it.

Here are 11 things I wish I had known, so you fellow researchers don’t have to learn them right as you’re sitting down to interview a young mom for the first time:

  1. Interviewing mothers is unique.
  2. Be clear and tell moms you come without judgment. Even if you’re not asking about their mothering specifically, it will probably come up. And there is little more toxic than the judgment of young mothers, particularly moms of color who are of low socioeconomic status (SES). Come with curiosity and kindness, and with the knowledge that being a mom is one of the toughest jobs in the world.
  3. Moms will bring their kids to research sessions with them (particularly low SES moms with kids under 5, particularly during summer break).
  4. Your job will be part interviewer, part notetaker, and part daycare staff.
  5. Wear clothes that wash easily. You’ll probably go home with spit-up on your shirt, slobbery kid stains on your pants, and/or unidentifiable goop somewhere on your person.
  6. Bring toys to entertain the little ones, especially very mobile and easily bored toddlers. Toys with colorful buttons and noises work well. Simple plain paper and markers work well, too. With kids well occupied, moms will be able to more fully participate in research activities.
  7. On that note, learn to tune out toy noises.
  8. If you’re asking moms to draw anything or do anything with their hands, be prepared to hold and soothe their babies while also interacting with the moms. Take a cue from your participants and use this opportunity to practice your multitasking. (And in case it wasn’t obvious: Ask before picking up someone else’s child. Ask in a way that provides plenty of room for the mom to say no, though many welcome the break.)
  9. If you have the headcount and budget, consider bringing someone specifically for kid-wrangling. And again, be sure to make sure to clear it with mom first. The goal is to keep your young guests happy and occupied so their mother can focus.
  10. Learn about babies’ developmental stages to some degree to establish a rapport with moms — show them you know at least a little bit about what they’re going through, even if you don’t have kids of your own.
  11. Be prepared to hear emotional stories — especially about meaningful people in moms’ lives. They often have wide support networks and are grateful for the people who are there for them; or, more painfully, those who have let them down. Bring tissues.

A bonus piece of advice: If you want to build even more rapport with moms, ask about who raised them. Listen closely. These are tender stories that will tell you a lot about the person sitting across from you. And this question will open up an opportunity for a deeper conversation with more candor. It’s simple, but powerful.

I have no doubt I have more to learn as we continue these research sessions, and I can’t wait. Moms are incredible.

Special thanks to Taranamol Kaur who collaborated on these research sessions with me. And to Rachel Edelman, Dustin Palmer, and Ruthie Reisner for your feedback on drafts of this post.

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