The Power of the Participatory Interview

A couple weeks ago, our class learned first-hand how to conduct a form of research called Contextual Inquiry. In this approach, the researchers partner with a participant to see them in action as they work. The goal is to observe and ask questions to understand why people do what they do–all within the context of their working environment.

Contextual Inquiry is a great way to notice workflows and breakdowns, but it’s not necessarily as helpful in revealing the participant’s hopes and wishes for what their work could look like.

That’s where another research method, the Participatory Interview, can come in. Participatory Interviews go beyond a typical interview by inviting the participant into a creative process. The interviewer offers tools and stimuli that grounds the participant in their current experience while helping them dream about what the ideal one could look like.

For our Participatory Interviews, Eli and I refined our research focus. When we visited Special Education classrooms for our Contextual Inquiry, we heard from at least one teacher that incorporating assistive technology at home could make a big difference in the classroom. We also observed technology used for education and communication with a student diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. We also thought parents likely have high hopes for their children and would be very vested in seeing them learn and develop. On top of this, we discovered a network of organizations in the Austin area that offer support services for families of people diagnosed with Autism, so we decided to focus on interviewing parents of people diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum who use assistive technology to communicate.

The Participatory Interview process itself was exciting, fun, and pretty natural. We spent time preparing some activities, words, and images to help facilitate the conversation. As anticipated, the interviewees had a lot to say, and the main task was guiding the conversation to go deeper into understanding not only what the person wished for, but why.

Here are a few things we learned along the way:

  1. Participatory Interviews are fun. We thought it might seem uncomfortable to ask someone to talk through images or words (or have another person type out copious notes), but the conversation felt natural. We learned a lot, and the interview was an enjoyable and energizing way to better understand our focus.
  2. This method takes time, preparation, and flexibility. We spent quite a bit of time revising our focus, lining up interviews, developing a journaling “homework” assignment, developing key questions, finding additional image and word stimuli, and practicing the interview. Plus a couple hours with each participant. And even with all the preparation, the conversation sometimes took a different direction than we anticipated. (Which is probably a sign that the method works!)
  3. Pictures are powerful. We were excited to see how an abstract, simple photograph provided a springboard for deep, thoughtful conversation about what the person wished and hoped for.

We still have a couple more interviews to complete and are considering reworking the journal a little bit to make sure the language and approach is understandable and it’s easy for the parents to return. We could also do a better job preparing the participant to know what to expect before the interview. During the interview, we can be more directive and interject with follow-up questions and summaries to make sure we understand what the participant is communicating. And finally, we continued to refine our focus as we started searching for participants, and having that established sooner probably would have made it easier and faster to line up the interviews.

Overall, though, we got a sense of the challenges and hopes that some parents have when it comes to technology helping their children communicate and learn. And I’m convinced that Participatory Interviews should become a regular part of my research as I’m working on new products or services.