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Demystifying “Tell Me More”: Notes from an Ethnographer

From 90’s Bronx fashion, to corn in the 30’s, to the modern interview guide. This is about the power in deviating from the manual.

Yuri Zaitsev
Aug 11 · 7 min read

There is something very wrong with how we approach user research. If normal user research is a wild goose chase then we are about to go on a hunt, and we’ll have to go to some unlikely places.

In 1995 DeeDee Gordon created the L Report. It was one of the most ambitious, trendiest, reports on cool you could find.

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This is a colorized depiction of the L Report among other industry reports at the time.

On a given day, DeeDee would be in a shoe store in the Bronx asking a young kid wearing a North Face jacket, a Kiss T shirt, and black jeans, why they were into the DMX RXT shoe with the ice sole (which at the time was a girls shoe). What that kid likes then goes in as an entry into the L Report. The report has thousands of entries, spanning hundreds of pages. They are all cataloged by category, subcategories, age, gender, and area.

If you wanted to know what white teenage girls liked in Southern California, at the time you could look at the L Report and see that they were into dressing up in “wife beaters,” long shorts, and sandals with socks. DeeDee had noticed that in Los Angeles, a few white teenage girls were dressing up in the style of Mexican street gangs. If you looked up “white teenage girls in Southern California” a few months later, then “cholos style” would be out and everything would be different because cool, trends, and culture changes.

The hardest part is that you cannot know what cool is. You can only find cool people and go from there.

“There are a lot of people in the gray area. You get these kids who dress ultrafunky and have their own style. Then you realize they are just running after their friends.”

At one point DeeDee tried to hire someone, but he had a problem with recognizing cool people. He was bad because he kept trying to look for cool things.

“You can tell them that if someone shops at Banana Republic and listens to Alanis Morisette then they are probably not trendsetters, but then they might go out and assume that everyone who does that is not a trendsetter and not look at the other things.”

What if the shopper also happens to have a blue mohawk and studded bracelets? Then they are exactly who you want to talk to. But you could easily miss them if you were stuck looking for things, not people.

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There is flip that happens when you start looking for unexpected people and asking them about the particulars that make them unexpected. You can only know what to ask them when they are in front of you, telling you their story.

One of the most common questions I get when people first start getting into user research and conducting interviews is: “How do I write an interview guide?” It’s not a bad question because it is such a basic part that is ingrained in the industry. One of the first deliverables a client asks to see when you start a project is the interview guide.

The problem with those questions is that it’s from the mindset of looking for things, not people. Writing questions to ask ahead of time means you already know what you are looking for. If it is predictable then it means that it isn’t unexpected and you will miss the ultrafunky shopper with the blue mohawk in Banana Republic. The big secret is: most designers have no idea what they are looking for when they start. They only recognize potential for innovation because it is unexpected.

So what do I do when a client asks me “Can we see your interview guide before you start?” I do provide a list of questions but really they are disguised versions of two basic questions which are generally enough to reach the unexpected cool:

  1. Why are you the way that you are?
  2. Tell me more…

The point is to find those radical new “innovators” and ask them how they make decisions. Really understand what makes them tick.

Whenever an organization decides to go be innovative (whatever that means), usually by making a new product family with new branding, or creating a new initiative, the following chart will invariably show up.

Source: Wikipedia — Diffusion of Innovation, and many many business development presentations around the world. (Creative Commons).

“My god! If only we can harness the power of early innovators, our idea will spread like wildfire.”

“Oh but there is the chasm between early adopters and the majority. We’ll need social media campaigns.” By the way, sometimes the chart is drawn with a scary looking gap called the chasm in between “early adopters” and “early majority.”

“So let’s find the users who use the stuff that is most like our stuff, and segment the market.”

This is how the problem starts, because the next course of action is to go look for “the stuff,” and miss the people. The teams start looking for users of things, not ultrafunky people in unexpected places. What typically happens is that the design team finds that big early and late majority in the middle of the bell curve. To repeat what DeeDee Gordon said:

“There are a lot of people in the gray area. You get these kids who dress ultrafunky and have their own style. Then you realize they are just running after their friends.”

The design team starts chasing their user’s friends, and friends of friends. By they time they find that one person who started it all, the trend has moved on. Sometimes a design team will stop early and try to do a campaign aimed for the middle majority and it sort of works. It’s just rarely innovative.

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The “innovation adoption lifecycle” chart was made from a study about corn in the 1930’s. Ryan and Gross began following a strain of corn in Iowa which was introduced in 1928. At first it was planted by a small handful of farmers, the “innovators”. It then took a year for 16 more farmers, the “early adopters” to start planting the new corn. 2 years later, another 50 ish farmers started planting it, the “early majority.” In 1936 alone 61 farmers, the “late majority” bought into new corn. The following years showed fewer and fewer new farmers planting new corn. Those last farmers were the “laggards.”

If you were to ask one of the ultrafunky farmers from that first small handful (the “innovators”) and ask them “why are you the way that you are?” you would find out that they are just different. They weren’t particular leaders in their communities, they didn’t have special farms, nor did they have predictable social circles. In fact, the only common thing about them is that they didn’t participate in common, predictable, traditional culture.

“The evidence suggests that the farmers most emancipated from from the traditional closely built neighborhood life more readily emancipate themselves from traditional technique.” (click here for source).

Finding ultrafunky can seem daunting at first, but I find it freeing. You are no longer at the behest of market segmentation. You get to go outside, explore, and observe. You get to hunt for new habits, blue mohawks in banana republics, people swimming against the flow.

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The point is that in order to innovate, you need to find the ultrafunky. Ultrafunky means unexpected. How do you know which questions to ask the unexpected? You don’t really until you are staring it in the face.

And when they tell you something interesting, I have found the best response to be “tell me more.”

Foot Notes:

Read more on DeeDee Gordon in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “The Coolhunt.”

Here is that corn study by Ryan and Gross.

We have some other articles on conducting interviews as a resource:

Numbers to Interview By to jump start your conversations.

Don’t Ask Probing Questions. Ever! to consider how to go deeper into an interview.

Demystifying Denouement to close an interview and get the most meaning possible.

Getsalt

Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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