How to turn some seemingly negative responses from a interview into some useful data to be used for generating design criteria.

On-site user interviews is a big part of the user process, especially if you are a designer hoping to gather some first-hand information from your target audience. However, they don’t always go as well as we planned. I’d like to share a personal story that has happened to me during one of many user interviews I have conducted.

The project I was working on at the time was about designing a product or a service that helps people with insomnia cope with their sleeping disorder. As part of the user research process we came up with, my project partners and I came up with a couple interview questions as well as asking our target users to have us physically come in and observe their bedtime routine and their bedroom setup. Our first couple user interviews went super well, and we gathered lots of useful feedback by chatting with them in their bedroom setting. And of course, we all thought that the rest of the interviews should go just as well.

It was 5 minutes before I was just about to arrive this next user interview that we had scheduled a week beforehand, I got a message from one of my partners saying “Hey Danielle, I just arrived but my friend told me that she doesn’t want you to be in her room.”. I was in my Uber when I got this message, and I literally didn’t know what to do as I was just about to arrive at her house. I said, “Why? I thought we have agreed on coming in and observing her room.”. Two minutes after, my friend texted me back saying that she is okay with me coming but I have to stay in the living room. That was better, but I still felt very offended and unwelcome, partially because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to gather any first-hand information from not being able to get into her bedroom.

When I got to her house, I felt very uncomfortable in the beginning knowing that she doesn’t want me to be there. But as we started talking, sharing, and exchanging stories with each other, she seemed to open up more. About 30 minutes after, my friend suggested to go observe her bedroom. He asked if it’s okay for me to join them, and surprisingly, she said yeah that’s fine. So I went with them, but I decided to stay outside of her bedroom to show my respect, and also because I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to step inside.

It was the moment when she opened up her bedroom that made me realize why she didn’t want me to go inside of her bedroom in the beginning. She really treated every single corner of her room as a place to express herself — she has a lot of different art installations floating around, some statues she has collected, a bunch of records laying around, and decks of books that seem to be from hundreds of years ago. Then she pointed to her pillow where there’s a seemingly very normal-looking journal that sits next to, and she said that’s her dream journal. (Afterwards when I was debriefing with my partner, we both confessed that we almost burst into laughs when we heard the term from her straight face, because what is a dream journal anyway?) Out of curiosity, I asked her what that is and what she does with it. She explained to us that she usually jots down her thoughts or her memories of the day onto her dream journal, and sometimes she does some random doodles just to help herself ease her mind a bit before she goes to bed. She also mentioned that she normally keeps her dream journal underneath her pillow or inside of her pillow case when she leaves the house.

After peeking inside of her bedroom and hearing about her story of her dream journal, I realized that her bedroom is a very personal and sacred space to her, and it all made sense why she wanted me to stay outside of her bedroom initially. Because putting myself into her shoes, I wouldn’t have let a stranger into her bedroom as well — I was more surprised that she wasn’t afraid of expressing her unwelcomeness.

Her response to me coming to her house actually turned into one of the design criteria we came up with. We found through our research that most people who suffer from insomnia are actually suffering from anxiety as the root cause, and they often times seek for ways to release it in a way such that no one else can see. So what we ended up designing is a feature we incorporated into Google Home where we let people simply “talk” to it to jot down their memories of the day to help offload their thoughts. Users can simply ask Google Home to record their memories before bedtime, and they can choose to review their memories through an app that converts the verbal memories into text memories or they can just leave these memories on the app. All of their memories will be stored locally, which means that only the users have the access to retrieve them.

Like I have mentioned in the beginning, user interviews especially if they are on-site don’t normally go as well as they were planned. As a designer or a user researcher, it is important to keep in mind to always be willing to shift your perspective and not be afraid to question why you get a negative response from your users. Empathy is something we often times emphasize during a design process — it is a great tool to connect us to our users and really understand their point of views.

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