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Framing a Study

use a person’s purpose to frame problem space studies

newsletter #5 | 16-Feb-2016

(Note: I have been teaching an advanced course on Framing Your Study once a year, as a capstone course for certification. It’s course #6. Bring your own study to frame and set up. Four weeks. The recordings are available, too.)

I just returned from the ConveyUX conference in Seattle where I gave a presentation and offered a little Q&A for attendees during the breaks. I got a few questions about how to set up a study in the problem space. Coming from careers in the solution space, doing generative or evaluative studies, it was hard for people to re-orient to framing a problem space study.

I use a person’s purpose to frame problem space studies.

Framing for Time Tracking

Here is an example using one of the situations I heard from a researcher at the conference.

“How do I scope a study for a client who makes time-tracking software for employees who must clock-in and clock-out at work?”

“Time-tracking software” is a solution in the solution space. Clock-in and clock-out is an action required of employees at a specific physical location, where time spent at that location is considered “working.” Dock workers, Starbucks baristas, stock clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, employees at big box stores, etc. It’s a goal in the solution space. If you switch to the problem space, what is the purpose? To make sure I get paid for my time, or make sure I only pay employees for their time. Also possibly to track patterns of who shows up when, duration, etc., for the purpose of improving the productivity in some way. Or the purpose could be balancing when people are there, either for coverage or to make sure certain roles are always present, etc. It seems there is more purpose from the perspective of the employer, so we will check that.

When scoping any research, the most important thing is to clarify why you are doing it. Research is simply knowledge creation, so what knowledge do you want? What knowledge are you missing? I ask the people I’m working with to describe as many types as they can think of, then we zero in on a person’s purpose. In the example above, we zero in on the employer, and then deeper into which purpose we are missing knowledge about. Perhaps it’s “calculate wages” or “avoid lawsuits stemming from neglect of Federal workplace requirements.” (In the online course, I provide an updated step-by-step guide which begins with the org’s goal, the knowledge needed, the knowledge already in-hand, and the risk of not knowing.)

Exploring this larger sense across employers yields clarity between distinct parts of the cognition process and between different thinking styles. Your organization can then choose whom and what to support more deeply, and design that support based on a much deeper understanding of how people are approaching the problem.

From the employer side, the priority is to get more accurate about calculating wages, as well as a few other accounting and HR things. So, for listening sessions conducted with these stakeholders, the opening question could be, “What have been your concerns, ideas, and battles in the past couple of months about accuracy of employee accounting?” And you would dig into each instance to discover their thinking styles and decision-making philosophies. It’s not about time-tracking, since that is one of many solutions to the purpose.

If we were interested in employees, though, the purpose of clocking in and out goes no deeper than that — clocking in and out. Employees don’t like being required to do it. They wish they could forget about it. (At this point there was the joke about inserting an RFID under the skin of each employee, ha, ha.) So what is the larger purpose from an employee point of view? They want to get paid accurately, but that’s a goal, not necessarily a purpose. We could choose only employees who have had to correct problems with their paychecks, but that would mostly uncover explanations of the correction process and opinions about the tools the process requires. This is not a lucrative avenue of investigation because it circles the solution in place. To get closer to a larger employee purpose, explore what goes through an employee’s mind leading up to and after the act of starting and ending a period of work. What other intentions is on their mind? Here are the opening questions for employees, “What went through your mind as you were getting ready to work each of the past several (or memorable or significant) workdays? What thoughts went through your mind at the end of certain of those work periods?” Possibly you’ll hear about things they want to accomplish that day, or that they need to go see their boss about something, or anticipating the first order of the day. The patterns you find across employees will outline areas that matter to them, in conceptual categories that will give your team clarity about where time-tracking might fit, especially if it were twisted to become a background component of prioritizing the to-do list, or checking in with the boss, or taking a customer order, if those things have a digital aspect.

Goldilocks: Not too broad nor too narrow

Framing a study is figuring out what, exactly, to explore to generate knowledge. It’s a Goldilocks problem: you don’t want the scope too broad, or you will not see patterns appear across participants, but you don’t want it too narrow, or the participants will tell you everything that’s gone through their minds about it in five minutes. You want to get the scope just right–somewhere in between these two extremes.

In case you haven’t read Practical Empathy, the purpose is how you begin a listening session. It’s how you introduce the subject you’d like the participant to cover, and it’s the only question you think of in advance. (And you cover this when you do your spoken screener with candidates as you are recruiting for the study.)

You can explore several different scopes over time, each examining a different purpose a person has before reaching for your solution. Deciding what knowledge you are missing is sometimes difficult–often it takes a week of discussion to figure out which area to explore for an upcoming study. Sometimes you get started with listening sessions only to discover a scope is too broad or too narrow, so you must adjust it mid-study.

Problem space studies are only difficult to define because teams have a tendency to tie research to a technology or tool in the solution space. In problem space research, your organization and its solutions should not be included or implied by the scope statement. (In fact, I ignore the solution, and decline invitations from my clients to review or demo their products. Not only do I want my mind free of prototypes and design problems, but I also want my mind clear of the whole solution space entirely. I want to come from a place where I don’t care about solutions, but instead care only, for the time being, about what each person is trying to accomplish in the larger sense.)

Here are some example scopes which define a particular problem space. The solution space appears in parenthesis:

  • Make sure the drivers in my commercial fleet don’t get us in trouble. (commercial vehicle speed tracking)
  • See if I can gain better insights from my engineering/scientific data. (statistical graphical software)
  • Figure out why my code isn’t working, to get it working how I’d like. (software API developers network)
  • Make sure we have reliable data storage access. (data storage configuration automation)
  • Improve my financial situation and make the future stable for my family. (technical & community college marketing plan)
  • Guide a business toward success where my employees must drive to customer sites. (decide whether to build a better dispatch tool)
  • Decide what to get for lunch. (fast food restaurant)

A Final Example

At the end of a workshop I taught in Silicon Valley in April 2011, where I had emphasized the difference between evaluative and generative research, a participant asked, “So I’m still not sure how I would research why people decide to buy an iPhone or an Android or a Win7 phone.”

Smiling, I turned to the rest of the people in the room and asked them to answer her. Silence ensued. Wide eyes and cocked eyebrows stared at me. True, it was nearly nine o’clock at night and everyone was tired. Yet even at midday, fired up on caffeine, smart professionals get stuck at this same point. We still couch our questions based on existing artifacts or ideas.

Instead, ask the root question. “When on the go, why do you stay in touch, and with whom or with what?” This root question is a generative question. It will enable you to empathize with the person who might buy one of the phones listed — or might not. This empathy will help you design better tools for them.



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Indi Young

Indi Young


Freelance problem space researcher helping digital clients find opportunities to support diversity; Time to Listen —