What I Learned from My Week with an Adobe Design Researcher

(You can find this original post on Medium here)

This past week, I had the pleasure of doing a “mini internship” with a design researcher at Adobe. My goal was to learn the best research practices and methods to use in my own Adobe Creative Residency project. Because my background is in experience design, not research, this was a vital part of the design process for me to get a better understanding of. Below I’m sharing some useful ways that I learned to incorporate research throughout a project.

Step 1: Finding People to Interview

After you’ve found your topic to research, the first step is to interview people to find out about their experiences on this topic. When finding participants to interview, one option is guerrilla interviewing, where you simply approach people and ask if they’d like to sit down with you to answer a few questions. This method is great for quick iterations and tight budgets, because you don’t need a research lab, expensive equipment, or waiting to find the perfect participants. For my first round of interviews, I purchased 10 Starbucks gift cards, printed out a simple sign to put on a table at Adobe, and asked people if I could interview them for 20 minutes in exchange for one of those gift cards.

An alternative is to use a screener survey to find participants in a particular audience or who have specific skills. You can send out this survey on social media, by posting to sites like Twitter, AIGA, Slack, LinkedIn, Facebook or Reddit (don’t use Craigslist- the respondents can be a bit sketchy). Sometimes it’s better to ask your friends to post your survey on their social platforms rather than your own. That way you won’t be interviewing people you know, and possibly skewing the data. When posting the survey, add an intriguing blurb about they should sign up for the interview. Because there is usually a small return rate on the survey (1% or so), send it out to a couple thousand people. There are also paid sites with specific researching features available, like Amazon Mechanical Turk. If you know where your specific audience is, such as at design agencies, you can cold call them. After you’ve found your participants, it’s time to prepare for the interviews.

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Step 2: Asking Interview Questions

This first round of interviewing is called generative research, where you ask what the problems are. This is in contrast to evaluative research, where you evaluate a design or prototype that already exists. My goal in these interviews was to find opportunities for solutions within transportation (with automation in mind). You should come in with a guideline of questions that you’re going to ask, but don’t plan on following it exactly. When participants say something interesting, ask for an example or a follow up question. The goal isn’t to find detailed answers, rather to find key insights. You should ask questions about the general idea (transportation), and not the final solution you have in mind already (ex: an app for the visually impaired to know when to go at a stoplight).

Here are the questions that I asked during my interviews:

  1. What kind(s) of transportation do you normally use? What are your reasons for selecting that mode of transportation?

  2. How often? What alternatives? Why don’t you use the alternatives more?

  3. What are the key problems you face today specifically related to your chosen mode of transportation? Are there realistic alternatives you could use to fix the problems you face today?

  4. What do you like most about that mode of transportation?

  5. Do you feel like your current transportation solution is a long term solution?

  6. If there was one thing you could change or remove from your usual transportation routine, what would it be?

During the interviews, only write down the things that surprise you. This will not only make it easier to sift through the data afterwards because there’s less of it, but it will also help you focus on what the key findings are and steer the interview in that direction. A lot of times, it’s not about finding specific numbers and statistics. Rather, the goal is to determine what the common key problems are so that they can be fixed.

Step 3: Reviewing and Interpreting the Interviews

After you’ve finished the interviews, create a vignette of each participant. This is an analysis of trends and key learnings from each interview. What were the main motivations for each person? Come up with an overarching reason for their choices, such as safety. Once you identify the motivator, go a level deeper and determine why they feel unsafe (ex: Participant feels unsafe from the rideshare’s driving skills, or other drivers’ distractions while they are driving). From there, you can find an idea of a solution (ex: a gamified app that encourages everyone to drive better).

Write a short summary of the session as a whole, as well. Start out by identifying if there are any outliers that should not be included in your analysis. For documentation, you might include things like:

  • What type of session did you use? (in my case, guerrilla interviews)

  • How did you find the interviewees? (I went up to Adobe employees at Adobe and asked if they had time for an interview)

  • How many did you interview? (I interviewed 10 people)

  • What type of interview- was it an observation? (Contextual interview)

  • How long were the interviews? (~20 minutes each)

  • What were the questions? (See above)

Then let the data drive the writeup. Don’t quantify the data with numbers- again, focus on the key trends. Try not to use quotes (because that goes back to quantifying the data), but if you do, it should only be an example that highlights a key trend.

Step 4: Brainstorming Solutions

Think high-level about what you learned, and then go more specific. You might have started noticing patterns across all of them. Look for these repeat behaviors, and identify which are feasible to create a solution for, and have potential to grow. Start by throwing all of your potential solutions on a wall. Then ask yourself counter arguments for these repeat behaviors and by thinking of the factors that affect why people do a certain activity. Some behaviors may be niche activities where users only do them once or twice a month, which wouldn’t make for a successful app. Keep asking counter arguments until you get to the root of a problem. I asked myself things like:

  • Would this idea make sense outside of San Francisco?

  • Do free company-provided rideshare cards sway which mode of transportation that users take?

  • Do users have a child, where taking a stroller prevents them from taking certain transportation?

After continuing this cycle of noticing patterns, brainstorming solutions, and asking counter arguments, you should have enough ideas where you have a few that stand and you feel are worth exploring. Don’t focus on just one solution and call it a day!

Step 5: Another Round of Interviews

It’s not yet time to start designing an app! You need a second round of interviews for concept validation. Because you now have a solution in mind, you’re validating if your findings map onto that idea. This question should be in the back of your mind: “Do you have the same problem that I think others like you have?” It’s crucial that you have the right participants in this round. The selection of people should all fall into the same group. For me, this round could include people who only use ride shares, or only women, or only people who don’t drive. You may want to conduct more interviews in various locations to get out of certain bubbles.

Step 6: Next Steps

Once you’ve nailed down your subsidiary area and solution, you can do yet again another set of interviews to narrow it down even further. There aren’t any pre-determined number of rounds of interviews that all researchers follow, but the point is to get to a place where you have confidence in an idea.

Then, start designing the solution from a high-level, whether it’s on a whiteboard, talking it out, getting input from stakeholders, etc. Make sure to put the solution in front of users often to continue validating that you’re going in the right direction and not designing something that no one wants or needs. Research is just as important as the user experience or visual design. In fact, it’s crucial to making informed decisions when building products for an enjoyable and logical user experience.

mediumAndrea Hock