Interviewing for research, 10 years on
In 2013, I wrote a little book called ‘Interviewing for research’ for Emma and Mark Boulton’s much loved publishing imprint, Five Simple Steps. 10 years on, it’s a moment for me to reflect on the process of writing and publishing it, and what changed for design and research in the intervening years.
Interviewing for Research is a pocket guide to running research interviews, written in a time where there were few user research-focused books available to people like me.
And by people like me, I mean user experience designers as we typically were then. Slogging away in design agencies, inside companies big and small, often swimming upstream in a prevailing culture of ‘Big Design Up Front’.
That changed pretty quickly shortly after this pocket guide came out when Erika Hall, Steve Portigal and others made huge contributions to our understanding in this field.
The book was designed selfishly to meet a need that I had: as a thing to flick through before a project starts, a prompt for how you might approach a particular piece of work. For people new to research, or to those who did research as part but not all of their role.
I didn’t write it because I thought I was the best user researcher out there. I wasn’t. But I cared a lot about user research and what it made possible, and I’d had enough of working with people, including designers, who didn’t. Or even worse, professed to, but didn’t.
Reading it back now, I can really hear in the writing just how close to the surface that frustration with user research as a kind of performative ‘project theatre’ was.
But, things have changed for the better in the intervening years. So let’s talk about why.
Well, from where I was sat, GOV.UK happened.
The work that Government Digital Service (GDS), and government departments in their wake, did transformed the way that design and research was practised.
Their approach was at the same time traditional in its understanding and application of design as a practise, rooted in graphic and communication design, and radical in its repositioning of content as an equal to design and lifting up both the visibility of user research as a discipline and its prominence in a design process.
Many of these ideas existed before GDS and GOV.UK, but it’s perhaps where they were popularised, thanks to GDS’ commitment to working in the open.
And in making these ideas mainstream, it made it easier for other practitioners, teams and, in particular, their organisations — whatever the sector — to adapt and to adopt.
In my current role, I often get asked what the difference is between working with the public sector versus the private sector, like these two things are monoliths. I think that framing is wrong: it’s more like modern vs traditional, agile vs waterfall, human centred vs technology driven.
The principles of how we practise modern user research, inside agile, inside larger organisations, so often came from the work that Leisa Reichelt and her team popularised, and shared openly, at GDS.
It was a step change from the kind of frustrations my book had been railing against. This was user research at the heart of a design process, not an optional extra. User research as an agile, iterative, learning process, not a one-off.
The maturing of user centred design means it’s less common these days to find a single UXer adjacent to, but not in, a delivery team. It’s more common for there to be more than one solitary voice for user centred design in a team. We’ve gained strength in numbers, and we’ve gained specialisation too.
There was a lot — a lot — of muddling through 10 years ago. The bar has risen significantly since then and modern user research isn’t just more robust now, but has a far better handle on ethics, inclusion and accessibility too.
I sometimes see less common purpose between what design teams and user research teams are trying to achieve — not so much at the delivery team level, but at a practice level and particularly in really large teams, where they can feel almost like rivals competing for an organisation’s attention.
I instinctively push against this — in part because of my own working history — but because I really do believe meaningful design work relies upon content and research as materials to design with, just as impactful research needs design to act upon it. User centred design is, I think, symbiotic.
A decade on, I hope that much of the subject matter of ‘Interviewing for research’ remains relevant today because I think talking to, listening to, observing, and understanding what people do remains at the heart of good design.
I think the conditions for good design — and good research — have rarely been better. And I think that’d give the me of 10 years ago a lot of heart and hope.
Books are funny, terrifying things. Unlike a blog post or a tweet, the feedback is never immediate. There’s no like button. Someone might have bought the book, but you don’t know when — if ever — they’ll read it.
So, I want to say thank you here to everyone who has ever got in touch over the years and said something nice about it, or told someone else to read it. In particular, I want to say thank you to Caroline Jarrett, John Waterworth, Adrian Howard, Ryan Sackett and Lesley Pinder who’ve done more of that than anyone, and made me blush repeatedly with their generosity about this little book over the years. Thank you.