Research Tips

Indi Young
Aug 22, 2020 · 4 min read

Questions I often hear during workshops that I teach

newsletter #17 | 18-Oct-2016

I’ve taught a few workshops on problem-space research, listening sessions, and developing & applying empathy lately. These workshops always have room for Q&A and discussion, and the brilliance and depth of the topics always impresses me. I thought I’d pass some of them along.

Tips for persuading colleagues/boss to pursue problem-space research: If you’re in a tough situation trying to get people to understand the value of problem-space research, prepare a tiny set of sample towers. Put things in these towers that you’ve collected anecdotally over the years or from a sample listening session that you conduct on your own time. These sample towers will help you show the value of the data in relation to a current challenge the organization faces — tie it to a business need. Show how the data will help make better-informed business decisions. Also prepare a sample budget for a problem-space study. Include costs for different parts of it from different vendors (like transcription). Show a cheap option and an expensive option so that people are more likely to say yes to the cheap option, and therefore yes to the study. Additionally, have a couple of stories about people’s larger purposes, not tasks or goals, and show how these connect to new market opportunities for the business. One part of these will stick in people’s minds, so that it’s unconsciously present in their thinking from that point forward. It doesn’t have to be a diagram. You’ve got to be persuasive and persistent. You might get “no” at the beginning, but don’t let that stop you.

Are there times that you’d prefer to do listening sessions in person? “We used video to conduct data collection in people’s houses so we could also understand the physical context in which the thinking and decisions were being made. The tools themselves weren’t that important, but where they wanted those tools was. It feels pretty hard to get at some of those kinds of things without being able to see where that person is.” Since this research is about exploring the problem space, which is entirely within a person’s mind (inner thinking, emotional reactions, guiding principles), there isn’t a need to be in-person. You can go in-person, but only if the purpose being studied is habitual, and it’s hard to recollect what’s going through your mind as you do it (e.g. cooking dinner, commuting to work). Going in-person will also sometimes introduce a barrier to building rapport/trust. That barrier has more to do with physical human appearances and smells that invoke assumptions about how someone reasons and reacts. The barrier also consists of objects in a participant’s place that represent their “shell” which also invoke assumptions. To avoid piling up opportunities for assumptions, I always conduct listening sessions remotely, by audio only. In problem-space research, you want to know a person really well, and pretty quickly. Building rapport is paramount. I find that people have an easier time dropping their own baggage and accepting another person’s philosophies, reactions and reasoning (especially if it differs from their own) when they’re not in a face-to-face situation.

However, I need to be neutral about in-person or not, because I acknowledge there is in-person shorthand that can help. I have heard of people combining problem-space research along with solution-space research. e.g. An in-home visit to see unboxing and set-up of an electronic keyboard (solution space), pre-pended by a listening session about why the person decided to buy a keyboard (problem space).

How do you create the scope of a study that is problem-focused instead of solution-focused? I’ll answer this question with an example. Say a mobile phone company is trying to innovate their phone hardware and/or software. Usually they would ask buyers what they are looking for in terms of features, or how their current phone annoys them as they try to accomplish a list of tasks. To change this to problem-focused exploration, ask people what they are trying to do at a higher level. What are all the intents they’ve had in mind over the past week or two where they reached for the phone, including the times they finished that intent by doing something that didn’t involve the phone. In another example, a publishing company (that also hosts conferences) usually understands how they are doing in the market by conducting evaluative surveys. To create a problem-space study, they can set a scope like finding out all the different ways people “keep abreast of” a field. This can include seeing a co-worker do something that helps them change their own approach. For another study, this publishing company could pursue a study about all the thinking that goes into people “making a career change.” (Notice that none of these questions involve “how.”)

Avoid Listening Distractions:During the listening session exercise, instead of concentrating on what question to ask next, I focused on visualizing what the person was describing to me. This advice describes more clearly the tip I always mention: look out the window while you’re on the phone with a listening session participant. Visualizing what the person is detailing is a much better way to describe how your mind could be occupied. You’re not supposed to be analyzing what you hear. Instead you’re supposed to be making sure that you’re breaking through the crust of preferences, opinions and explanations to the rich reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles within. A great way to keep your mind from either analyzing or panicking about what to ask next is to imagine what the person is telling you. (Lightly imagine it — not too much detail, or it will be too much distracting cognitive effort.)

Note: I’ve heard that some people can’t visualize well, so instead they suggest focusing on recognizing the words being said as either surface or depth.

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