listening tips

workshop participants practice listening in pairs

newsletter #17  |  18-Oct-2016

I’ve taught a few workshops on problem-space research, listening sessions, and developing & applying empathy lately. These workshops always have room for Q&A and discussion, and the brilliance and depth of the topics always impresses me. I thought I’d pass some of them along.

Avoid Listening Distractions: “During the listening session exercise, instead of concentrating on what question to ask next, I focused on visualizing what the person was describing to me.” This advice describes more clearly the tip I always mention: look out the window while you’re on the phone with a listening session participant. Visualizing what the person is detailing is a much better way to describe how your mind could be occupied. You’re not supposed to be analyzing what you hear. Instead you’re supposed to be making sure that you’re breaking through the crust of preferences, opinions and explanations to the rich reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles within. A great way to keep your mind from either analyzing or panicking about what to ask next is to imagine what the person is telling you. (Lightly imagine it–not too much detail, or it will be too much distracting cognitive effort.)

Are there times that you’d prefer to do listening sessions in person? “We used video to conduct data collection in people’s houses so we could also understand the physical context in which the thinking and decisions were being made. The tools themselves weren’t that important, but where they wanted those tools was. It feels pretty hard to get at some of those kinds of things without being able to see where that person is.” Since this research is about exploring the problem space (the upper plane in the cube diagram), which is entirely within a person’s mind (thinking, reactions, philosophies), there isn’t a need to be in-person. You can go in-person, and it will give the researcher shorthand for what the person might refer to in a space (e.g. what the mess behind/beside the TV represents to that person). It will also sometimes introduce a barrier to building rapport/trust. That barrier has more to do with physical human appearances and smells that invoke assumptions about how someone reasons and reacts. The barrier also consists of objects in a participant’s place that represent their “shell” which also invoke assumptions. So, to avoid piling up opportunities for assumptions, I tend to avoid in-person sessions. In problem-space research, you want to know a person really well, and pretty quickly. Building rapport is paramount. I find that people have an easier time dropping their own baggage and accepting another person’s philosophies, reactions and reasoning (especially if it differs from their own) when they’re not in a face-to-face situation.

However, I need to be neutral about in-person or not, because I acknowledge there is in-person shorthand that can help. I have heard of people combining problem-space research along with solution-space research. e.g. An in-home visit to see unboxing and set-up of an electronic keyboard (solution space), pre-pended by a listening session about why the person decided to buy a keyboard (problem space).

How do you create the scope of a study that is problem-focused instead of solution-focused? Successful companies do exploration in both the solution-space and the problem-space. Don’t abandon one for the other. That said, I’ll answer this question with an example. Say a mobile phone company is trying to innovate their phone hardware and/or software. Usually they would ask buyers what they are looking for in terms of features, or what their current phone doesn’t accomplish for them. To change this to problem-focused exploration, ask people what they accomplish or try to accomplish with phones they have. Also ask them how they learned about a few recent things they now use their phone to achieve. In another example, say a publishing company (that also hosts conferences) usually understands how they are doing in the market by conducting evaluative studies. To create a problem-space study, they can set a scope like finding out how people “level up in” and “keep abreast of” a field. Or they could pursue a study about how people “effect a career change.”

Tips for persuading colleagues/boss to pursue problem-space research: If you’re in a tough situation trying to get people to understand the value of problem-space research, prepare a tiny set of sample towers. Put things in these towers that you’ve collected anecdotally over the years or from a sample listening session that you conduct on your own time. These sample towers will help you show the value of the data in relation to a current challenge the organization faces–tie it to a business need. Show how the data will help make better-informed business decisions. Also prepare a sample budget for a problem-space study. Include costs for different parts of it from different vendors (like transcription). Show a cheap option and an expensive option so that people are more likely to say yes to the cheap option, and therefore yes to the study. Additionally, have a couple of stories about people’s larger intents or purposes, not tasks or goals. Then show these to people. One part of these will stick in people’s minds, so that it’s unconsciously present in their thinking from that point forward. It doesn’t have to be a diagram. You’ve got to be persuasive and persistent. You might get “no” at the beginning, but don’t let that stop you.


Thought Provoking

Reasons why people laugh (Inspired by Hidden Brain NPR Episode 12 Humor):

  • Laughing because everyone else is laughing and I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t get the joke
  • Laughing at myself because I should know better than to think this same thing
  • Laughing in pain because someone close to me thinks this
  • Laughing because I believe this but I can never say it aloud
  • Laughing because it’s a refreshing way to think of this that I hadn’t thought of

Here’s a story about humans helping others retrieve technology that strayed … this neighborhood group email showed up in my inbox the other day. It shows the lengths some neighbors are prepared to go to reunite a lost iPad with its owner.

First email:
Found an iPad on Buckeye Rd. Based on the looks of it, it fell off someone’s car. Still works, screen is fine, but back is all dinged up.

Second email:
If it’s yours, send me the unlock code to verify that it belongs to you … and will be happy to return it.

Third email:
Now a few days later the screen is just showing an Apple Symbol and wants to run an initial setup. Wonder if it phoned home somehow and has been remotely erased. (SIM card says not active) It wants a code from j******@s****.com
Someone mentioned that folks at the Apple store can help find the owner, but I don’t have any Apple-y equipment or any reason to head to an Apple store. If anyone is headed that direction, let me know.

Fourth email:
The owner contacted me, and the iPad is home safe. Thanks everyone!

It’s a happy little human story.


What’s our best fit?

quick research help

“We’re trying to explore the problem space, but we’ve run into problems. Can you double check what we’re doing?”
quick help

mentor the team

“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

custom research

“We want to explore something, but we don’t have the cycles to get involved. We want answers that are credible.”
custom research

training & coaching

“We want to do solid problem space research. We want a workshop or coaching to tighten up our skills.”
training & coaching