How concert photographers taught me to be a better researcher
The hidden lesson I’ve learned watching photographers at concerts by Taylor Swift, David Bowie, Rhianna, and others
It may seem like UX Researchers don’t have much in common with Concert Photographers. As researchers we often sit quietly in a lab talking with one research participant at a time, while concert photographers stand in front of a stage taking pictures of dynamic, live performances. But there are more similarities between the two jobs than you may think.
I have a summer side gig or “hobby job” as Media Coordinator for a local outdoor Live Nation venue. Using my research lens, I’ve watched concert photographers cover hundreds of shows including performers like Taylor Swift, David Bowie, Rhianna and Metallica (to name just a few).
Photographers typically approach the shoot in two ways: “Spray and Pray” and “Planned.”
When using the “Spray and Pray” approach, they throw caution to the wind — they simply hold their camera up, point, and shoot. This method seems fun, there’s an element of surprise and it looks easy — who knows what the outcome will be? They might have 500 beautiful images from 500 shots, or they might end up with only 5 suitable photos.
When photographers use the “Planned” method they consult with me before the shoot. They ask about the set list (which songs will be played when) the stage lighting; where the lead guitarist will be; etc. Sometimes they look on YouTube for concert footage from the Artist’s previous shows or show me a list of all the shots they want to get.
Our jobs as researchers mirror those of concert photographers: sometimes we follow a meticulous research plan, while other times we might execute with a “Spray and Pray” approach, embracing openness and improvisation in our session.
When should you “Spray and Pray”?
There’s no argument that approaching UX Research with a plan is a good idea. But is it ever appropriate to do “Spray and Pray” research? Photographers use “Spray and Pray” not only to (hopefully) capture unique images from various angles, but also when they don’t know what to expect at a shoot.
One of my photographer friends told me about a time when he was assigned to shoot a concert at the last minute. He had zero time to prepare and was shooting for an editor he hadn’t worked with before. This situation called for a “Spray and Pray” approach. By shooting hundreds of frames from many different angles, he knew he’d capture a few images that the editor would accept. In short, “Spray and Pray” when you have minimal time to plan.
“Spray and Pray” example: UX Researchers
My friend’s story reminded me of a time when I was tapped to do 1:1 interviews and had nothing but a high-level set of research objectives to guide me. I was filling in for another researcher who called in sick. Having zero context for this project, I quickly gathered high level goals from a Product Manager and did some “Spray and Pray” research. I asked questions that were connected to the objectives and followed the emerging conversational threads. Despite having little time to prepare, the research outcome was acceptable.
The ”Spray and Pray” method worked because I was an experienced UX Researcher and knew the best ways to pose questions and guide discussions. It also helped that I had some knowledge of the customer base (college students).
“Spray and Pray” isn’t for amateurs.
Just as my previous experience as a UX Researcher helped me in my “Spray and Pray” situation, according to my photographer friends, having previous experience helps them get more out of “Spray and Pray” as well. Because of their experience, they already have a sense of which angles work best for the various stage configurations, locations of performers and lighting set-ups. Chances are they’ll get several good images from their collection of 100+ shots. On the other hand, if an inexperienced photographer covers their first live concert and uses “Spray and Pray”, they might not get any usable images.
“Spray and Pray” example: Photographers
Here’s an example of a 44-frame “Spray and Pray” sequence that one of my favorite photographers, Paige Parsons, shot of bassist Matt Gentling from Band of Horses. In this case, Paige chose the “Spray and Pray” approach because Matt was whipping his hair around. If Paige had decided to go with shooting one frame at a time, it would have been difficult for her to capture Matt’s hair flying. By choosing “Spray and Pray”, Paige captured several great action shots of Matt and his lively hair.
When doing “Spray and Pray” research, rely on tried-and-true models and processes.
A break-down of my “Spray and Pray” research
“Spray and Pray” is especially appealing for situations where you need to cast a wide net. In my case I lacked context, so I needed to start on a broad level. This helped me fill in context-related gaps during the actual research sessions. Also, I knew that asking participants open-ended questions would make the sessions more conversational and easier for me to improvise as needed.
I started with a brief session Introduction including introducing myself and describing what would happen in the next 60 minutes. Then I transitioned into the Questions section. I relied on the TEDW model to guide my questions. TEDW stands for:
- “Tell me…”
- “Walk me through…”
My questions were based on the high-level Objectives given to me by a Product Manager. Here’s an example of what that looked like:
Objective 1 — Learn about pain points students are experiencing during their process today and any improvements they would make.
Objective 1 Research Question — Tell me about the last time you searched online for help with your homework — how did that go?
Following the Questions portion of my sessions, I did a basic Wrap-Up. I thanked people for their time, confirmed compensation and asked about their interest in participating in future research projects.
Side note: After finishing the first session, I synced with the Product Manger to make sure that I was on the right track with my “Spray and Pray” approach. Another advantage of “Spray and Pray” is that it gives you flexibility to quickly change things up if needed.
An intentional practice
“Spray and Pray” can look and be very unprofessional for an inexperienced photographer and/or an inexperienced researcher. However, in the hands of someone with experience, “Spray and Pray” can be an intentional practice allowing someone to adapt quickly to a situation, cast a wide net, and deliver a successful outcome.