Inspiration through Interviews
October 29, 2019

REFLECTING ON:  My first human-centered interview process.

Reflecting on the lifestyles of students attending the University of Arkansas, a group of my peers and I identified healthy eating as a common challenge. In order to approach this challenge from a human-centered angle, we developed the following “how might we…” question:

How might we educate and empower college students living off-campus to incorporate healthier food choices into their diverse lifestyles?

In order to fully understand the true challenges of a wide range of students, rather than projecting our own biases and experiences, we set out to speak to real students. Engaging with target users in person is the first step in including the public in the design process, and interviews are considered the “crux” of the inspiration phase in human-centered design research. My research group and I selected three potential users with extreme experiences of the student lifestyle with nuances ranging from health ideologies and social lives to severe food allergies. Interviewing these individuals allows us to have a more complete understanding of our users because if we can accommodate students with extreme challenges, then we will likely accommodate all students in between as well. With the goal to gain the deepest understanding of our target users, we began the interview process.

My role as an interviewer involved more self-awareness than I expected. Most of my previous “interview” experiences consisted of reading off of a predetermined list of questions, and the participants were generally family members or friends who I was already familiar and comfortable with. When I set out to interview one of our extreme users who I don’t know as deeply, I was faced with the challenge of creating a comfortable atmosphere so that they didn’t feel like they were on the spot or like they would be judged for the food choices they are less proud of. One way I accomplished this was by conducting the interview in the participant’s home. This not only allowed the interviewee to feel more comfortable, but it also allowed me to understand the context of their story more deeply by observing the environmental factors of their daily life. Some factors that were relevant to my research were the participant’s proximity to fast food restaurants as opposed to grocery stores, the dirty appliances and kitchen utensils sitting out which signaled that they were used frequently, the appliances that didn’t seem to get used as often, and social elements such as their phone which was constantly lighting up and even people visiting in person throughout the interview. In addition to the location of the interview, I made an effort to be present in the conversation and to allow conversation to flow more naturally than the abrupt question-answer method that I used in the past. When the conversation extended beyond the question list, I learned information that we would not have thought to ask about and was able to gain a deeper understanding of the participant’s story and lifestyle.

After all three interviews were conducted, my team and I reconvened to share the stores. As we recounted our interviews, we followed an exercise from The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by IDEO and individually wrote down our insights, observations and overarching themes on sticky notes. We then combined these notes, reviewed each other’s thoughts and categorized them as a group. Interestingly, as we shared, we found that we could start to guess how each participant responded to certain questions. This demonstrates that a full understanding of our target users allows design researchers to understand their users’ challenges and mindsets and effectively design from a user perspective.

This post exists within a series of reflections on  topics and coursework from my Human-Centered Design class, taught by Marty Maxwell Lane at the University of Arkansas.