Unpacking Context During a Pandemic: Reflections & Tips
Meena Kothandaraman presented “Unpacking Context During a Pandemic: Reflections & Tips” at UX Camp Winter 2021. Enjoy!
Experience Strategist, twig+fish
With 30 years of experience, Meena has consulted to emphasize the strategic value and positioning of qualitative research in the design of product, space and service. Meena is fascinated by the complexity of human behavior, and applies a credible, structured and transparent approach to integrating human stories and anecdotes into mainstream processes. This ensures that research activities provide the best service to the organization, and that learning objectives are addressed to maximize potential.
Meena is a founding member of twig+fish, a research and strategy practice based in Boston, MA, that espouses these research beliefs, while maintaining a utopic work-life balance. She is also a key Lecturer in the Bentley University Human Factors and Information Design (HFID) graduate program. Over her 20-year tenure, her capstone qualitative research course has guided now-leading practitioners to integrating meaningful and successful research practices.
She holds an M.S. in Information Resources Management from Syracuse University and a B.Com. in MIS from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Meena is always inspired in her work by her other passions, namely performing as a South-Indian Classical Violinist, pursuing culinary arts through a cooking show, and staying up to date with knowledge by her two children!
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
I hope everybody’s doing great, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon. I’m looking at my clock and making sure that I stay on time.
So we are here to talk about unpacking context during a pandemic.
The gist of the session really is to share details about how we capture this thing called context, and the goal here is to really understand some of the lessons that we’ve learned in our work, and I’m hoping to share that with you, it’s gonna be a very light 30 minutes together. I’d like to save a few minutes at the end for Q and A. So let’s get started.
So the real gist of the discussion is, is what role is context and actually play as we start to learn about people, as we start to design for people who actually consume the offerings that we put out to the world, we really wanna think about context in terms of being that ever so important ingredient that all designers need to know about, because if they’re left guessing about context and guessing about what happens in people’s lives, it becomes a lot more challenging, I liken it to designing products then that you’re basically throwing over a wall and hoping to God that somebody is there to catch it, as opposed to looking somebody straight in the base and handing them what it is that you’re putting out to the world. So context is a very, very important thing. We focus on it so much in all the details that we look at when we’re designing our product and often falls into the realm of research and the work that researchers do, this iss no surprise to many of you, but just to sort of set the tone. So we start with the big question. What is context? What is context? Now, I’m not sure if some of you have heard, I have a chicken in the background… Yes, indeed to chicken, it is the co-indiaman chicken, and basically, this chicken is a very important member of our household, you might wonder though, what is a chicken sound doing in menus house and you might be left guessing, you might be going, Oh, wait a minute, do they have chickens, which some people do in their backyards, but that would be one loud ass chicken, or is it…
That it means something else. Maybe there is a little bit more context we have to understand about that chicken, so basically, the context is really everything, it’s everything that impacts and brings deeper meaning to a person, or in this case, our households.
Reality. Now, just to cut to the chase, the chicken is there actually, because whenever we’re having a bad moment in our house, any one of the four of us, we throw the chicken… Yes, it’s a toy, we don’t want any animal cruelty in this, but it’s a toy and we throw it, and when we throw it, it makes a loud noise and it tells everybody else in the house.
We’re having a bad moment and we need some support, and it’s our way of really communicating between the four of us.
0:03:35.6 S2: So context really helps understand what those deeper meanings are, so that we’re not left guessing summing and wondering about a person’s reality.
But we have other stuff going on right now that makes us wanna dig deeper into context, and bring a little bit more meaning. There is a pandemic going on, and we’re all part of it, and we’re all experiencing it. Many of us talk about experiences that were pre-pandemic and what was… And many of us talk about things that were going through during the pandemic that unfortunately in a million years, we have never thought that we actually have to go through this, and many of us are also talking about what I always love and sort of SMI at very smart and Lily is when people talk about what is going to be like after the pandemic, when things get back to normal, which is a loaded topic in and of itself, but we have to understand that there are details that have happened that really enrich and make us want to go deeper into peer of people’s reality so that we really understand more about those details to really summarize it in the last few months, a lot has changed about our context, so the question is, how do we get this information? How do we ask people of this information…
A key point to re here though, is that when we talk about people’s realities, this might seem almost an odd statement to make, but reality simply is, it is what is happening around people right now, it is what is going on, it is their definition of their world, and what our job is most important is, is we have to really understand how to get people to talk about it.
A quick introduction to who we are myself, I’m co-founder of tween fish. My colleagues are Aleutians also co-founder together, we are a micro-agency qualitative research practice based in Boston, and our goal is to really focus on the credible positioning of qualitative research so that it can actually be leveraged as a strategic tool in the organization. If we don’t understand the people that we serve, it’s very, very hard to bring greater meeting to the actual products, services, offerings, interfaces, whatever you wanna call it, experiences that we’re actually putting out to the world.
So its twins, we are focused heavily and only on qualitative research, and ever since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been very mindful to reflect and learn as much as possible as we can from every interaction that we have with participants.
I’m just gonna qualify that to Africans in a opole get as is very often. I think maybe in our afterlife, after we’re both retired, Arlen, I will actually start a pub called The Dinesh, and maybe it’ll be a really new, interesting spin on qualitative research, but for now, we are just a qualitative research practice.
So the talk then really, how do we elicit encourage context, articulation. Our goal is to get people to be able to share their context, what is going on in their lives, what are those details that we are so fascinated by, that we really want to get people to articulate with us, and that is our goal as researchers, and that is the skill of a good researcher, what we have found above and beyond everything is that creating clarity has been absolutely integral to getting participants to describe context.
There is so much going on more for some people, less for others, and we have to respect this and understand this and almost sort of clear the pods that are going on in our minds for people to be able to share what it is that they wanna share with us, that sense of clarity is incredibly important to sort of gaining a window into how they help us understand the context around them.
I’m gonna just very briefly go over four different offshoots of context that we’ve learned a lot from and yet new before, and we find it just really had a more heightened understanding of what we can do in order to be able to help people describe this sense of context.
Some of my previous speakers who have just enjoyed so much today, if I go back to what Margo was saying this morning about empowering people and making sure that we give them a chance to actually share their thoughts in order to gain their trust…
These are things that we think very, very heavily about as we actually interact with people in our sessions.
I also heard from amand and Megan and context in their world as well as they were talking about online dating, so… So important, but
What I’m sharing here are not new methods, this is really think of it as, if we think of our phase three gather in our world that tweak and fish, we use that language very clearly, gather is the phase we were actually getting information from participants and what I’m talking about here is really ways where we can heighten that sense of interaction and that ability of somebody in front of us to articulate their thoughts, so we’re gonna go over these four spaces… Four topics together.
Her first one is topic, which is pretty open, and I don’t know many, many of you probably can feel this as well, so all of these four that I’m covering, you’ve probably felt yourself… But the lines have been blurred. Think about you getting up in the morning, potentially having to get yourself ready, maybe other members of your household ready, there’s a lot going on, but maybe you’re not going anywhere, maybe you are going somewhere. Things have happened during the pandemic that have sort of changed our regular routine, but sadly, the lines have really been blurred, it’s a very blurry, when we ask somebody to think about answering to a particular question, if they are a participant in a session for us.
They have to hone in and almost unfairly, we expect the silver bullet from them that is gonna answer all of our questions so that they know exactly what’s going through our minds. But for them, that is a very big challenge. The lines have really, really been blurred, so what we have found as a wonderful tip is that we allow for a little bit of advanced consideration of our topic nuances now, for any of you going in Benin being biased. That could be a problem.
I will just say, it’s very clear to us that the way we deliver this information is very important.
In my 30-plus years of experience, it’s always always important to make sure that we curve off bias as much as possible, so what if we actually present advanced consideration of these topic nuances in a way that gets people to sort of dip their toe in the water, but doesn’t really give them too much more about where we’re headed, so that they don’t feel completely lost, but they actually can partake of a richer conversation. Let me give you an example.
So we just finished a really wonderful piece of work with an organization that wanted to learn more about monitoring in homes.
Think about what all you monitor, and it’s really nice when it’s open big topics where we can actually just talk about people generically, what all they monitor… If I was to sit Ruston right now and say, Russ, R in the middle of your day, you’re running UX camps, you’ve got this all squared away and I send the go, but I have a research question to ask you, and I say… And there is Rossi say to Ross, Hey, Russ, tell me about what all you monitor in your home is likely gonna be broad-sided and probably have to think a little bit… The answer is probably gonna a 10 week because she’s not thinking about it. It’s not top of mind. So what we have found doing is compartmentalizing the topic, almost seeing among all the other blurs that are happening in your mind right now, let’s just put a line box around something that we want you to focus on, and maybe I can do a diary study even… We’ll ask you to think about it a little bit at a time every day. Just spend a few minutes every day, what we found was that the response was incredible, it was fabulous actually, because people…
When we sat with them after sort of just reading down a few thoughts, the first thing we ask them always, ’cause we like to do this is, Hey, what did you feel so far? How are you doing? And they said, You know, thank you so much for just giving me a little bit more time to think about what it is you are asking. I still don’t know where we’re going with this, which is fine, but you’re now allowing me as a participant to give you something that I feel I really wanna share with you ’cause… My head’s all over the place these days. And we can all feel that there’s a lot going on, so compartmentalizing the topic helped people discuss their context, especially when it came to the topic of monitoring in great detail. Let’s move to the next one. Space space, as we know, has multiple purpose now, a dining room can be a playroom, can be where the dog saying out, it can be where you actually eat dinner, which doesn’t happen too often nowadays, somehow, and it can also be your office space, it can be a whole bunch of things.
So the key here is, is we need to understand space from the context of what the person is sharing with us, so space we have found… We started to realize that by inviting the creation of boundary.
Having people define their space exactly how would they wanna define it? Is the most important thing to do. It’s not please go and sit at your desk, it’s not, please go, it’s just to make sure we have a good audio connection, and if you’re comfortable… A video connection. Whatever that is, we just wanna be able to connect with you. And again, it’s that very human-to-human understanding of what’s going on, and again, this works for people within spaces where they’re confined to a specific space, or perhaps they do end up going to work to an office space, whatever that is, or they’re going and they’re in their UPS truck and they’re moving around, so spaces, almost ubiquitous, whatever it is, they get to create the boundaries of that space, and we actually learned about this very serendipitously, I’ll say, from a particular participant that we met at the beginning of the pandemic, what we found with this particular participant was… We were talking to, on behalf of an organization that we were working with that basically helps promote diversity and talent, they’re like a staffing agency, if you will.
And they wanted to understand a little bit more about how their partners actually staff these different people and what we were able to learn was that when we started talking to some of these partners, this one person in particular, they ran… They were New York City, so in a smaller apartment, if you will, with lots of other people in the apartment, they said, Oh, I’m all ready for you, but I need to run to my office, and he ran down to their car, shut the door, and they sort of canned around with their phone, which was sort of humorous for us, but they had set up their car to be their office, their car was now the place for them to do their work, and we were talking about things, and they literally had set things up in a way that almost reflected whatever it was that they did in their real world, they were able to give us more details about the context, they were able to think about some of the details about the space that they work with him, and I need it really… Detail-oriented in terms of the nuances that we were seeking from them, and they were able to re-create it, which was the best part, so rather than us push on them what we think the space should be in…
You need to be in a quiet space or whatever is let them choose where they can create clarity, began back to that word clarity, with that clarity comes a lot more richness and thick data that we can actually go after… Let’s talk able time. Context in time. Wow. Time has also been really distorted, I’m currently co-chair of a conference that’s running… Gonna be running in Canada in June. It’s flexible, and we’re smiling because just up until 2020, when I was working with my co-chair, every time we talked about last year’s conference, it was actually this year’s conference in 2020 because we had just run it in June, and I was smiling, thinking I have no sense of what time is and where time is going, time has just generally been distorted, as you can imagine, when we talk to people about what goes on in their lives, we really wanna get a little bit more sense of time as well, that adds to the context. So what we found is, don’t try to lead with time… What did you do last week? What was it like at the beginning of the month? Don’t lead with that because actually people can’t think about it that way, we found that collecting data just like a brainstorm, just like a big open brainstorm, get as much as you can from them as fast as you can in whatever way comes out in…
However, it leads down certain paths, get as much as you can, and we found that getting that information from people was the most important thing, we all have information trapped in our heads, it doesn’t exist unless it comes out and it’s documented. So our goal is to just collect as much as possible… We got the wonderful opportunity to work with K through 12 teachers. And in this opportunity, which is interesting because we’ve always done the work with this particular company remotely and never really met people in person, but we found a great difference because we’ve done projects with this company before, we have met with teachers before. But right now, time is just that time skills all over the place, and my heart goes out to teachers because teachers are really just magnificent heroes who are taking us and our children through everything that we’re all experiencing right now, and still keeping their own heads and their own families, a float. So when we started to talk to these teachers about digital tools that they were using in the classroom, and the sort of interaction between analog and digital tools and what that crossover was, if I ask somebody what they did last week and start that way, it became very difficult.
So we changed the approach, we took the brainstorm approach, just tell us everything, tell us as much as you can remember. And we found right off the bat that by getting all that information and then almost like putting a calendar in front of them and applying that leader layer of, What did you do last week, where did you do the week before, Hey, you mentioned this, when did this happen and almost taking that data point and then putting it into context of a timeline, we were able to get other details to pop out, so it was a very, very iterative approach, but it really was much easier for people to be able to share the context of time. The last point I raise here is perspective, and perspective is one of my favorite because it all depends on who’s around, who it is that we’re studying, you all know, and I think we’ve heard about pets and dogs and children and all sorts of people around you, sometimes there’s people milling in the background, so many times we’ve had these kind of things happen, and it still makes people feel a little uncomfortable when something happens and they feel like, Oh my gosh, I have something on the stove, would you mind if I ran and turned it off, no problem. It’s not a problem, ’cause that’s what it’s happening in my house too, but what we found is, is interruptions are part of the dialogue, and the more we can do a better job of bringing those interruptions in, the more discussion we can get related to the context.
So what we found was that integrating surprises and almost putting place for it in our discussion guy to really uncover points of view, because often, as you all know, when we do recruiting, we do find out some more details about the person, they have other people living in the household. Do they have any pets? We sort of know this information in Van who may be… Expect it to happen.
One of my favorite favorite stories that we did project over the summer was with a weight watching company, basically a company that helps people manage their weight, and we started to talk about exercise routines, as you can imagine, that’s a heavy topic during covid. And what we realized was this one particular story I’ll call out with this one participant, she was definitely sort of distracted, we could tell that there was a little distraction going on, and we said, You know, hey, at any point in time, you feel you need a little break or you feel like you need something else, he’s like, Well, if I can just be really honest with you, I’m actually trying to potty train my three-year-old… Any of you who’ve gone through this, this is no small task, so we needed to be very respectful, and I was the one moderating the session, I said absolutely at any point in time, and sure. Now, but one third through the session, we heard the piercing scream, and I didn’t realize at first, but the white door behind her was actually the bathroom… I will zero in here ’cause it was just adorable daughter goes running in, and I shut the video off because the door is now open, and basically she started to scream, she needed her mom, and I could see the participant getting uncomfortable.
I felt bad, so I was like, You know what, hey listen, don’t worry is all good stuff, you’re so kind to… Take the time for us to take care of her. Come back when you’re ready.
So we do patiently. Everything was great, success. Potty training, got the sticker, and then her daughter wanted to come and join us, so she did, she sat on her mom’s lap and we were talking about exercising, then her daughter jumped in and started talking about the lytic astral, and it was great to hear the conversation that ensued between her daughter and the mom, he started talking about the fact that mom was on Mom, he was on the pig all the time, and it was interesting to hear how the mom started to talk about her routines and she’s like, not on all the time, No, Mommy, you’re on… Every evening after dinner, I’m an after Dino that’s going to this a little bit more.
We started to get this great conversation going, and not that I asked the daughter any direct questions, but when I did ask the mom, sometimes the daughter wanted to answer.
And it was great, because it was a very fun way for the mom to relax, the daughter was there, she wasn’t disturbing us, we made it lots of fun, but the most important thing was we integrated what was happening, and that is, I have to say, one of the most… It’s the warmest to me because the more human we can be with the people that we are reaching out to to learn from, the more they can be a part of the process as well, and make sure that they really can describe the details that they wanna describe. It ended up being fantastic. I also got to see the sticker on the fridge, which was absolutely awesome from The Little Girl Who successfully did her potty stuff, but it was great because I just need it more human and it made it more approachable.
So as we wrap down here, just a few thoughts, really, really fine, and for any of you who wonder about bias and discussion advise in any of these examples that I’ve given them, happy to discuss it after as well, but something that we’re very attuned to to make sure. That it’s not affecting the quality of the data that we’re getting. It’s really enabling the person in front of us to be able to articulate their thoughts that really do relate around context, whether it’s videos that they’re sharing, pictures that they’re sharing, interactions, spaces, time, it doesn’t matter what it is, is that it’s allowing them to be comfortable to be able to share that information with us. And back to the previous conversations, it does gain trust, it does gain that sense of openness and transparency of what’s going on.
So empathic understanding makes a huge difference and it definitely heightens that sense of engagement. I would just see one thing, we have been very, very on top of briefly piloting every one of our ass, especially when it relates to context now.
So it could be with your own families, you could be with… People in the organization that you’re working with, or if it’s clients that somebody in their organization, but just sort of assess the ask and see how you’re getting at it, be creative. This is where I’ve given so many talks on creativity and research, there is so much room for creativity and research to be able to connect with people is truly a wonderful, wonderful thing.
And we wanna think creatively so that we are empathic and then were kind and respectful to them, but we also learn from them, which is ultimately what we seek to do.
So our goal is to really get people to talk about what it is that they take for granted in their world, not an easy thing because we don’t know sometimes what they think is important, but we learn and we have to learn that together, but that is honestly the fun of being a researcher, which I wouldn’t do anything else. So my final closing here, please take a moment, acknowledge people’s realities. Understand the rich description that they’re sharing with you, not only during covid, but I will say These are things that we’re gonna be able to do much beyond a covid for whatever that new reality is going to be. It’s a great way to be able to connect with people, to be able to get them to communicate those important points of context.
Thank you so much, everybody. Please stay safe. Please be. Well, and thanks for joining me this afternoon.