Saranyan, thanks for posting about the contextual inquiries and the questionable data they may provide. I started to leave a comment, but it turned into a blog post. You asked:
Doesn’t me observing somebody brush his/her teeth make them conscious? If I am using this as a datapoint to derive information to provide to my client/use in my research, this data point has a level of uncertainty and no longer pure.
I think there are a few different types of data that design researchers can glean from contextual inquiry. One type of data is how a person acts or uses a product. You are probably right that the presence of another person during some acts will make them self-conscious, and this would skew the data. Perhaps in these instances, additional research techniques (like video camera or observation in the field) may be necessary. Another type of data is the story or mental model that the person has about the product/act/system, and I think the self-consciousness of the user during the act itself does not change their internalized stories they will be trying to tell you. There is also value in hearing these stories during the actions because people may have new insights themselves as they are trying to explain to you and externalize something that may have become habit. Another type of data is the context of the environment, and the connections between things within an environment requires the “new eyes” of a designer in the space or for the flow of stories to be revealed.
For this study, I would rather go to an airport or hotel and engage into conversations in the restrooms with people who are brushing their teeth by connecting with them in the angle of a fellow traveler. I think there can be more information from that exercise.
I brought this up in the discussion and the counter statement was, “well, if you just watch people, your understanding of the problem is based on only your view points”. Why? I ask. If I observe enough people, then can’t I find patterns and generalize?
I don’t agree that if you observed enough people, you would get enough relevant data. Because you may start to see patterns and generalizations. But these patterns would be based on your own mental models and frameworks (esp. if the research had to do with technology, since you are already tech savvy and work on the implementation model side of things). When we are talking to people during contextual inquiries or participatory interviews, we’ll be looking for patterns in the things THEY are saying or how THEY are acting, not only for patterns in what WE think is important.
For instance, if you were watching some video of how someone is using an Adobe program, and they always toggling their windows, you might assume that it is part of their efficient work flow. If you were there observing them in a contextual inquiry and asking questions, you may also find out that it’s annoying them because it’s the hypersensitivity of the new mouse they’re using and they’re not meaning to do that, but they’ve stopped showing annoyance because they’re so used to it. Similar to how each person and each group affinitizes their sticky notes into different patterns/categories/groupings, we can’t assume users see or think about things the same ways we do. We need to hear their sides of the story first and synthesize from there.
I’m curious to hear a continuation of this dialogue when we start talking about “designing for” vs. “designing with” in Kolko’s class.
For instance, if my trying to understand the life of a potter, I should become potter and spend time with him/her making pottery rather than asking that person to make pottery in front of me.
In this example, becoming a potter yourself would put you in the position of the “expert” (and also a designer with a lot of time on his hands), instead of honoring and empowering a master potter who has been throwing clay for 40 years as the true expert to show you how s/he works. I think there is a lot of value of acknowledging that we are experts in very few things, and that the people around us can teach us and tell us and show us a lot. Even if that means making them slightly self-conscious for a bit at the beginning of a contextual inquiry.