Figuring out what to explore in a problem-space study is difficult. For problem-space exploration, you ask participants about the larger intent or purpose; for user-research, you ask about your ideas or products. For example, in a problem-space study having to do with drive-through menu design at a fast food chain, we asked participants, “What went through your mind as you decided what to eat for a quick lunch over the past couple of weeks?” The purpose wasn’t to select from a menu, but to eat lunch.
Here is another example. Someone told me they want to try the active listening approach and asked how to frame a study for their B2B2C workplace and stadium safety startup. The organization purportedly knows the business customer pretty well but not the end user. Here’s the catch: a workplace or stadium safety events isn’t something the end users experience frequently. They don’t have to use the tools this organization provides except occasionally, and, more related to problem-space research, the end users don’t have to think about safety very often.
The key to structuring an initial study is to ask participants about actual things they have done and made decisions about. Stay away from generalities. Scope it down to a time period when this thinking was going on.
Choose boundaries so that patterns will show up for an initial study, then add different studies with different boundaries over time. Mental model diagrams are meant to be backbones for your organization to keep adding data to over time. You can use this backbone to layer in solutions below the line, measure strengths and gaps, tie to journey maps and epics, annotate with survey data, etc.
Also, safety means a lot of different things to different people–in different industries, too. Biotech lab, airlines, bus drivers … Someone may not realize they were involved with a “safety incident,” depending on how they recognize one. Try scoping your study around related topics, like safety training or a near-miss event. (I got traction asking about near-miss accidents in a study a few years back about insurance. I heard a lot of actual accidents that just didn’t cause bodily harm, so they weren’t considered an accident.)
When recruiting, try to find people who are not your customers, so that you can both focus on the larger purpose at play more easily. Screen participants for having actually experienced some thinking with regard to workplace safety training or near-miss events.
During a listening session about these topics, the subjects that might come up include communication (or lack thereof) during/after the event, reactions while witnessing an event, changing habits based on the event, etc. Allow all these concerns to be folded in under the main scope, instead of explicitly stated. You can’t dictate what will be discussed, but you can pick a promising vein and make that your study scope.
Here is a path not to follow: If you aim to ask participants about their perceptions or beliefs around safety, discussion will be too general and will involve a lot of conjecture. Conjecture is when you imagine what you would do or what would happen. You can’t develop a solid understanding of a person’s thinking when they are imagining what they would think. Stick with actual thoughts that occurred to the person and dig into why they passed through their mind. There you will find their beliefs, and participants will have an easier time describing them to you.
In particular, the person I was helping got stuck in the hypothetical behavioral audience segments to recruit. They were reviewing the Mental Models book wondering what the tasks are around safety to use for recruiting. I admit that I don’t go to that level of effort defining hypothetical segments anymore. First of all, I abandoned the word “task” about three months after the book was published. The word has too much baggage. Second, the segments can be discovered just as well through discussion and describing some hypothetical thinking-style traits. For recruiting, this is enough. The descriptions for recruiting won’t go into the final behavioral audience segments.
The single question to begin each listening session could be a number of things depending on what the organization sees as highest priority right now. For example, “What went through your mind during the near-miss safety or security event that you experienced?” Or, “What went through your mind during and after the last safety training you attended?”
(Note: My book Practical Empathy is an updated explanation of the whole thing approach.)
The article that made me feel the most hope in the past four weeks:
“Traditional Peacemaking is a system of resolving conflicts that Navajos used long before contact with Europeans. It is built upon K’e, and the fundamental idea is to restore relationships and harmony rather than to assign guilt and punishment.” by Mark Sorenson, Peacemaking the Navajo Way, Daily Good, February 11, 2017.
An article with the same goals I have: moving beyond the single solution for everyone:
“There are several ways in which constructively making the problem bigger can shift product-development efforts from being incremental to game-changing. … moving to a higher level of abstraction … exploring … other domains that have an abstract analogy with yours … broadens the scope of possible models, which increases the likelihood of your product being a novel approach in your space. … using … insights into people to generate, evaluate, and refine many potential combinations of value propositions and audiences. … Make the problem harder by throwing away convenient fictions, like, for instance, that understanding pain points and workarounds will point the way to big innovations.” by David Siegel, The Value of Making the Problem Bigger, Interactions Magazine, XXIV.1 Jan+Feb 2017, p. 68.
A good example of listening-based research to use as proof that others are doing this:
Arlie Hothschild did research using active listening with blue collar and middle class voters in Louisiana. She heard their reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. They are frustrated that the government seems to be helping people cut in line ahead of them to the American Dream—while they themselves have been working hard and obeying the rules. By Shankar Vedantam, The Deep Story, The Hidden Brain podcast Episode 59 (scroll down)
And some anti-examples, where empathy is used to manipulate rather than support:
“Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to. The purpose of this site is to spread awareness and to shame companies that use them.” by Harry Brignull, DarkPatterns.org
More responses about empathy as provoked by Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy:
“Bloom’s book has raised a lot of eyebrows. But it has also raised a lot of questions about what, precisely, we mean when we talk about empathy. … people have trouble agreeing on exactly what it is. Far from being a problem for morality … empathy can actually be a foundation of it—there’s compelling evidence linking it to kind and caring behaviors. But that depends on what kind of empathy we’re talking about.” by Sara H. Konrath, What’s the Matter with Empathy, Greater Good, January 24, 2017.
“… to keep the whole thing spinning, Bloom writes about some arguments he wants to respond to before his word limit is up and then says, ‘Then, because everyone loves a surprise ending, I’ll finish off by saying some nice things about empathy.’ The true purpose of the book appears to be to keep the whole Bloom engine running.” by Douglas Murray, Surely empathy’s a good thing? The Spectator, January 28, 2017.
“The reader has to ask: Why is it an Either / Or choice between empathy and compassion? This dichotomy is the rhetorical flourish – indeed sophistry looms large here – of a celebrity academic (no?) – who knows very well that empathy is NOT compassion, though the average person on the street tends to identify the two.” by Lou Agosta, reader comments on “The case for compassion, not empathy,” The Economist, January 28, 2017.
“In my experience in teaching and practicing Nonviolent Communication I frequently see people who believe they are doing empathy when in my judgment they are offering advice or sympathy. Without practice and feedback from a skilled person, I am doubtful that empathy is actually being practiced. In this case I would agree with Bloom, that what is being called empathy would escalate a conflict instead of calming a conflict. The problem is not that the person has a bad intent, they have probably been trained by society to offer advice or give sympathy. I say Bloom would more accurately be addressing an education problem and not an empathy problem.” by Jeff Tretsven, group email, International Empathy Trainers group, January 30, 2017.
More about empathy:
“Empathy and Jihad – read the details. Thumbs down. No sign of using empathy to get inside the heads of the suicide bombers … we suspect the Israelis are doing it, but they are not saying much and it seems not to be working very well.” by Lou Agosta, My score for last year’s (2016) top ten list of trends, Listening with Empathy, January 6, 2017.
“Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business … Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers.” by Lou Agosta, Ten Top Empathy Trends for 2017, Listening with Empathy, no date listed.
What’s our best fit?
“We’re trying to explore the problem space, but we’ve run into problems. Can you double check what we’re doing?”
“We want to make sure we do the research right. And we want the skills in-house so we can keep exploring.”
mentor the team
“We want to explore something, but we don’t have the cycles to get involved. We want answers that are credible.”