how the process works

So how do you get these bigger insights? You get them by uncovering what goes through a person’s mind, their inner voice, not their opinions or outer voice. It’s asking via free-format conversation. You are like a detective, getting down to case-breaking details, giving people credit for making complex decisions as they negotiate with themselves to accomplish certain purposes. You are like an archaeologist, brushing away the preferences, statements and explanations to get to the precious bits. You’re after the tenuous thought-thread that got a person to where they arrived. You help the person retrace thoughts they had the last time they aimed for this purpose. You do all this without being interested in which tools they are using; there are no questions about a product or a service or any object. It’s a focus, instead, on the person and the way that person’s mind works. And when you examine enough people with similar purposes, you start to see patterns in the way their minds work. These sequences will help you clarify your support of people–it will allow you to make much better decisions about the direction, future, and diversity of your own offerings. Then later, all of the other user research rests on this foundation.

There are three basic parts to empathy-based research, after which point you can begin to make decisions, examine gaps, and draw conclusions based on what you’ve learned.

Scope of Exploration

You begin with a question or a gray area, and you devise a scope statement that defines what you are going to explore. Each scope explores part of something people are doing which you’d like to support. Scopes are difficult–they can’t be too big or too narrow, but just right. Often it takes a week of discussion to figure out which scope your team wants to explore for the upcoming study. You explore different scopes over time, as you illuminate the gray areas and discover more things to ask about.

Scopes are also difficult to define because of the tendency to tie it to some technology or tool. You want to tear yourself away from this habit for big-picture design research. You want each scope to explore a purpose that your grandmother or great-grandfather could have also had. Your organization is not included or implied by the scope statement.

Here are some example scopes for different clients Indi has worked with:

  • Make sure the drivers in my commercial fleet don’t get us in trouble.
  • See if I can gain better insights from my engineering/scientific data.
  • Figure out why my code isn’t working, to get it working how I’d like.
  • Make sure we have reliable data storage access and future expansion.
  • Decide whether/how I can get a college degree/certificate, given my financial and family situation.
  • Lose weight, even though I haven’t had success in the past.
  • Do something to mitigate the devastation caused by a natural disaster.
  • Decide what to get for lunch.
Listening Sessions

Exploring the big picture is different than user research. Many of the skills required are the same, but it also requires a few additional skills. Chief among these is being able to follow a person as they describe their inner thinking, with only a scope statement to get started, not a set of interview questions. A large component of this ability is allowing yourself to be seen as the follower, without any agenda, completely naive about what the person is saying.

Another skill it requires is leaving yourself behind–getting out of the problem-solver mindset and into a more open, curious, accepting mindset. It’s a temporary switch, but the open mindset allows you to broaden the envelope, giving your problem-solving brain more material to work with later. There are a few other keys to listening deeply and developing empathy that are explained in the books and workshops.

You sit down with one person at a time and help them retrace their thinking as they worked toward a larger intent or purpose, some part of which you’d like to eventually help them with. You encourage them to dig into something they really have thought about, through several memorable instances. You let each person lead you on an exploration of those instances, and like an archaeologist, you uncover the tenuous, sometimes unconscious thought-journey of reasoning, reactions, decisions, and guiding principles that ran through that person’s mind to get them where they arrived. You have to go deeper than the preferences, opinions and explanations that make up everyday conversation. And you laugh with this person, and cringe with them, just like you do with a good friend who telling you about something that happened that day. And you don’t ever touch upon your offerings. You want to step back.

Data Anyalsis

Often you will record and transcribe these listening sessions, but it’s not required. The next step–finding the concepts each person talked about and gathering them into patterns across participants–can be done with or without the transcripts. If you want artifacts to refer to over time, transcripts will be helpful. Without written documentation, you can still get about 30% of the total meaning out of the listening sessions. 30% is enough in certain situations.

Once you have the patterns, you can create a diagram from the data that aligns your current offerings to people’s cognition patterns. The diagram is called a mental model diagram; it is a thinking tool. The alignment between cognition and offerings allows you to do gap analysis and to use the diagram as a roadmap and decision-making tool.


How long does it take?

You gather the data in small bites, perhaps 10-25 participants at a time, and repeat the bites over time, varying the type of participants slightly and the scope of exploration. The data you collect does not go stale because it has to do with people’s cognition, not with the use of software. You can keep adding patterns to the data set.

For each iteration, you need to explore a big enough set of people, at just the right scope, that patterns of thinking begin to show up. Once patterns appear, you stop and digest what you’ve heard and compare your strategies to the patterns that showed up. This usually takes about 3-6 weeks of effort (in conjunction with other everyday responsibilities), plus time to find the people up front. (See a client-generated Gantt Chart for reference.) Then you do it again several months later with a differently behaving group of people, or with a different part of the overarching purpose or intent. For as long as you’re interested in getting insights, you keep collecting this information and adding it to what you already have.