Do More Than Talk

by Megan Fath

Novels are much more than a conversation between characters. In between the dialogue, meaning is construed via context, descriptive environments, emotions and behaviors. Similarly, research interviews with users are much more revealing than just what lies in the verbal exchange.

Yet ethnographic interviews are often treated as a one-on-one focus group in a participant’s home. While it is valuable to get a personal dialogue (without the group-think problematic in focus groups), sitting down with your user in their own environments only to ask questions and notate responses is under-utilizing the value of a rich research method.

Beyond the verbal, context, behavior and emotions yield richer insight for your project. Below are some starters to help you and your team get more than talk.

Context: Look Behind Your User
Examine the environment around the research participant for clues—better yet ask the participant to give you a tour of the space. Great fodder for discussion is lying right in front of you. Understanding the broader context of space and tools surrounding your research topic will help your team understand the opportunity within a broader landscape and experience.

Example: during an interview in a participant’s home, we observed an expired calendar posted on the wall. As we carried on additional in-home interviews, we found more abandoned calendaring systems. This was a critical finding to the client as they were undergoing a major push developing a calendar feature.

Emotions: Observe Facial Responses
Another layer of the story is uncovered by watching the user’s facial expressions. When do they become animated? A smile or frown reveals delight or frustration. Beyond recording this in field notes, I sometimes follow up with “I can’t help but notice that you are smiling/frowning as you talk about x. Can you explain why?”

Example: after numerous interviews, the team began mapping out participants’ experiences sending physical and digital greeting cards. The same experiences appeared emotively different depending whether the card was sent spontaneously or out of obligation. Participants lit up in interviews as they shared stories and demonstrated spontaneous occasions, while obligatory experiences failed to spark any animation.

Behaviors: Watch Body Language
In the same vein as utilizing the participant’s environment, get them and your research team off the sofa and move around the space. Interviews should be a combination of discussion and demonstration. “Can you show me?” is a great follow-up question. Demonstration helps the team observe key behaviors that will illuminate product improvements, as well as attitudes regarding the product.

Example: When talking to participants about using a particular aerosol product, they unconsciously brought their hands to rest near their neck and chest area. They would also wipe their hands after handling the product. These two behaviors spoke more than words regarding attitudes on the perceptions regarding the chemical component and product form.

Do more than talk during an interview. Your team will find rich insight when they examine the context, emotions and behaviors of these research interactions.


messy kitchen

Ethnographic home interviews provide more than just an opportunity to have a one-to-one conversations. Look around the room, take a tour, there is a an environment that is rich with user information.


Quick Tips
1. Share the responsibility. Bring along a colleague to help divide up the tasks of interviewer and observer.

2. Note more than responses. Your notations of the interview should include field notes of the observed behaviors, reflect on their emotions, and detail their environments.

3. Review the video and photos post-interview. In reexamining the photos and video during your analysis, look again at details, emotions and behaviors that may have gotten missed in the first pass through the data.


Dig Deeper!
1. For more on Ethnographic Research: Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (Ethnographer’s Toolkit)

2. Find out how to make a career move that will improve your life.

3. Now, learn how to get promotions and recognition on the job.

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One thought on “Do More Than Talk

  1. Florence Haridan

    Great conversation! I know when I am interviewing. I need to be careful to not make assumptions based on MY biases and preferences. I need to be able to ask the right open ended question to confirm a thought vs lead them to it.

    The leading question tendency when interviewing is a trap. Being really conscious of the flow of thoughts is required for me to be really curious.

    Thanks for this, got me thinking about my newest project and has me more conscious, Thanks!!

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