The Solution Lies in the Things

How a Unique IoT User Research Approach can Re-frame our Prickliest Design Problems

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“Things are made, but they also make us.” At a recent ethnography talk, Dr. Elisa Giaccardi revealed a refreshing perspective on how researchers can gather information, and a timely reminder to question what we really can ever know.

She opened up an interesting channel through which we as researchers can experience what the people we design for experience. Rather than just channeling people’s experiences through human-centered means (via interviews, human-centered ethnography, and the like), she advocated for an additional dimension: channeling our users’ experience through the seemingly ordinary objects that they interact with. She calls it Thing Ethnography.

The Perspective of Inanimate Things

The foundational basis of Thing Ethnography is that objects have “agency,” meaning that objects can affect the behaviors of the people that interact with them. Elisa uses the example of an electric tea kettle that, due to the lead time between getting filled with water and boiling it, galvanizes its users to check their phones, stretch, read, and a myriad of other behaviors.

“Since the artefacts in this project are data-enabled…we consider them as having perception and agency of their own…and we enlist them as partners in the design process to add a different perspective.” — Dr. Giaccardi

Channeling the User’s experience through the Thing’s experience

Up until now in my user research work, I’ve focused mainly on channeling the user experience via the user — through contextual interviews, human-centered ethnography, surveys, and the like. What Elisa Giaccardi suggests is to also channel it through everyday objects that users come in contact with by connecting them to Internet of Things sensors.

The point is to observe the experience of the user from different, unique angles. These angles can be literally from the low kitchen counter angle of an IOT tea kettle, but also from the angle of the temperature, motion, video, and sound data that is captured from the object and by replaying the data at different speeds. These angles offer a clearer picture of the holistic user experience.

This allows us to gather data about people that we, as human researchers, otherwise may have missed, and the human participant may not have thought to mention or even realized themselves.

Overcoming Response Biases

If we want to truly understand the experiences of our users in order to radically change their behavior, then we need to better understand all the factors that influence their behavior. But what if users don’t even realize how they’re being affected by the things around them? And they never think to mention it to us during interviews?

In another study, Elisa’s research team hooked up motion sensors to a fridge, and noticed a lack of fridge movement around dinner time. It turned out that the participant was embarrassed by the “anomaly” of going to her daughter’s house for dinner or microwaving meals instead of cooking on her own. However, when the researchers approached her and other participants “with the machine learning patterns as evidence on the table, participants were nudged to reveal a little more information about their everyday lives that might be considered slightly deviant from what is ‘normal’…” (Resourceful Ageing).

In this way, Thing Ethnography helped open up a tough conversation that might otherwise never have transpired, and whose insights may have been lost.

A larger frame to find design solutions in

A key benefit that struck me about Thing Ethnography is the ability to reframe our design and research questions. My Berkeley Political Governance professor, Mark Bevir, once warned, “How we frame a problem dictates the available solutions for it. Be wise about how you frame it.” If we frame the problem inaccurately, such as by asking the wrong questions, then the solutions might not actually be there to be found.

By framing our research questions in a broader frame — intaking data from additional sources — I believe we dramatically increase our chances of finding the most fitting and impactful solutions.

“How do we encourage sustainable behavior in the mobility landscape of Taiwan?” This could have been the frame for researcher’s study in Dr. Giaccardi’s Connected Everyday Lab. However, by employing Thing Ethnography in the research, the recorded experience of a connected scooter in Taiwan helped the researcher understand that smart mobility in Taiwan is not about sustainability. Rather, it’s about the social qualities of the scooter which support social behaviors that could then, in turn, support sustainable behaviors. One thing affects the other. The scooter turned out to be an agent that heavily affected the sustainability behaviors of its riders.

The Thing Ethnographic approach allowed the researcher to re-phrase the design question from “How do we encourage sustainable behavior” to “What role do social relations play in order for sustainable behavior to take place?” This second question is the starting point to a very different solution design process than the former, because it frames the challenge space according to the interrelated complexity of the reality the challenge exists in.

The filters of our brains

Yet even if we accept that Things can transmit otherwise invisible experiences to a researcher, a researcher still needs to absorb and process that information.

The sensemaking process doesn’t end with the researcher absorbing this information from the Thing’s sensors. The step in between, where the information gets filtered through the researcher’s brain, presents inherent bias and subjectivity.

Our brains are inherently rife with lifetimes of experiences, assumptions, and associations. It goes to say then, that the translation of information into problem-solving insight is not evidence-based design. It’s inherently subjective and based on one lens of an interpretation. Even if a holistic experience is gathered via Thing Ethnography, a holistic objective experience can never truly be turned into an objective solution, because it must pass through the human researcher’s subjective brain.

In Invision’s Design Better podcast, Bob Baxley recently shared his fascination with “trying to imagine the world from other people’s point of view.” He explained, “Earlier this year I was really obsessed with the fact that even when I’m talking with someone, they’re seeing me through their eyes. We’re having two widely different experiences of the same conversation.”

As such, even if Thing Ethnography offers an additional lens pointing us closer towards an objective holistic user experience, the fact that we need our uniquely-wired subjective brains to interpret that experience means that there will always be subjectivity in the resulting insights, design solutions and recommendations. Until machines can interpret and draw systemic conclusions from data, there will still need to be a human in the sensemaking process.

Towards a multifaceted perspective

There is no single way to interpret data — especially qualitative, messy ethnographic data. That’s why it can be so powerful and daunting to synthesize and analyze research in tandem with another researcher. Their eyes and brain on the same data brings more depth and multifaceted perspective to what I’m witnessing, yet also much more complexity. In the same way, adding the perspective of Thing Ethnography has the power to add even more of this depth and creativity to the research outcomes.

“It is a matter of how to partner with things as both co-researchers and co-designers and to make this new partnership an opportunity for more creative and hopefully, more sustainable solutions.” Dr. Elisa Giaccardi

Towards creative solutions to the prickliest problems

All this has served as a timely reminder that qualitative research is messy and that there is no objective truth in the work that we do. It’s a reminder of the importance of gathering data from as many different angles as possible, alongside as many different (trained) eyes and brains as possible. Only then can we finally arrive at wickedly creative solutions to our business’ or customers’ prickliest problems.

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