— 17 February 2004 —

Adaptive Task Analysis

There’s an interesting article by Indi Young over at Adaptive Path: Six Steps to Better Interviews and Simplified Task Analysis.

I wrote about this topic a few months ago, but it is where we designers do (or should do) our most important work. Overall she makes good points. One in particular is:

My last interviewing tip is to dispense with a list of interview questions. Reading questions in the order you wrote them is almost never in step with the current topic of conversation, so it’s tough to keep natural interaction going.

Stock things to ask (other than some basic demographic information gathering) usually accomplishes nothing other than to irritate your interviewee. If you are able to meet with multiple people over a long time period, say over a few days or even a week, you might want to build a list of questions to cover with subsequent interviewees. This is good to help test if what one or two people said about an issue is really limited to them, or is symptomatic of some of the problems you are trying to overcome with your design work.

The other point (point #3: “Ask why”) she brings up is something I also agree with, but I think it requires a bit of fleshing out:

The repetition of the word “why” drives most of us crazy, so I’m not recommending such a simple approach for your interviews. But keep the concept in mind.

The quote above is something to focus on, and I just hope that people don’t skip over it. Asking “Why,” too much will irritate your interviewees. There is a difference between questioning someone and asking them questions. “Why,” falls on the side of the former. However, root cause analysis is why you are there. Keep the concept in mind, as she states, but as better examples than “Why,” try things like:

  • What makes you say that?
  • Can you give me another example?
  • What causes that?
  • What’s that pine-fresh scent I smell?

Another tactic you might use is “restating.” This usually work the best for me because in these situations I may be the design SME, but I am not the SME for what I am designing. That title belongs to the interviewee and rightly so. Restating is a way to get accurate information, build your understanding of the system, and make your interviewee feel like they really know something and only they can give you the information you need.

But these tips are just a beginning. If you want to do it right, the User and Task Analysis book by Hackos and Reddish is still at the top of the must-read list for this kind of thing. It’s 70$US, but should be in the library of every designer who practices UCD.

My, but it does feel good to be pontificating again.

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