Parachuting in

I’m no Jan Chipchase, traveling to the far reaches of earth to discover unknown user behaviors. But over the years I’ve worked with midwives in Uganda, HIV/AIDS rights activists in Seattle, humanities scholars in Holland, oncologists in Basel, and Finnish kids wanting to travel to learn a language — so I know a bit about interviewing different types of people with vastly different life experiences from mine.

As digital product makers, it’s important that we know how to parachute into situations in which we’re unfamiliar. At the research institute of Novartis I’d interview scientists with deep expertise, and I’d have to quickly become familiar with their lab jargon so that they could speak freely and get to the bottom of what I was actually trying to discover.

A ‘subject matter expert’ embedded in the project team served as the critical bridge between scientific knowledge and design. These experts explained complex scientific information to the tech and design teams. Before most interviews, I’d sit with this expert and go through the words and concepts I’d expect to hear during the interview. After the interview, I’d often meet with the expert again to make sure I understood what I heard correctly.

When parachuting in, it’s important that we take the vocabulary of the person we’re researching. If you stop the conversation and ask them to clarify too much, then they might adopt the same mindset as a kindergarten teacher would to kids. Or they might never get to the “meat” of what you’re trying to discover because they think it would be too complex.

At Novartis, I had to make sure that the scientists were speaking on a similar level with me as their colleagues. That they felt free to tell me exactly about their workflows and their pain-points, without my lack of knowledge getting in the way.

But it’s not only expertise I’ve learned how to navigate, but also when a person I’m interviewing is vastly different from me in terms of ordinary life experiences. For example, when I interview 10 or 12 year olds, I have to “parachute in” to their mindset, their way of thinking. One of the ways I do this is by employing a “field partner” who knows the particular culture or age group well. Another way is during the actual interview, asking about their best friends, hobbies, music tastes, or favorite weekend activities. After they tell you, even if it’s totally unrelated to your research, I’ve found it makes them more comfortable throughout the conversation.

To navigate effectively into other people’s worlds is a fundamental skill in product design. Prepare for what you might encounter, use the interviewees’ vocabulary, and make people as comfortable as possible, so you can bring their stories back into designing meaningful products.

For more advice on how to do this well, check out Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users or listen to Michael Margolis’s interview on the Mixed Methods podcast.

I’d love to hear your suggestions and tips as well! Let’s chat. 🙌