We’re All Researchers

Forget what you know about the lonely researcher toiling away in isolation. In design and medicine, good research takes teamwork.

I recently came across a story on NPR about the increased role of medical scribes during doctor-patient visits. They do data entry in real-time, taking detailed notes directly into a patient’s file for the doctor to sign off on later. The approach came about as a response to the government’s mandate for electronic medical records by 2015, and the partnership frees the doctor up to listen to the patient and eliminates the double-work of taking notes by hand and logging them after the fact.

As a design researcher, I can’t imagine doing interviews any other way. At Mule, we always conduct design research interviews in tandem. I lead the conversation, while my partner takes notes, though there’s much more to the role than that. Similar to the medical scribe, my interview partner allows me to focus on what the subject is saying (or not saying) and to let the conversation flow naturally, rather than running through a list of questions, half-typing, half-listening. And without that focus, I am likely to miss out on some really valuable stuff.

What kind of valuable stuff? For example, if an interviewee hesitates, laughs, looks down, cuts themselves off, or starts to editorialize, this points to something deeper, potentially the real gold of an interview. When I’m completely focused on listening—not staring at my screen or scribbling in my notebook—I have the ability to pick up on these hints, and my scribe will, too.

One of the most important benefits of having a scribe is the shared knowledge and what we at Mule do with that knowledge. The scribe—content strategist, designer, developer, project manager—isn’t just taking notes to help me in the moment. They internalize these conversations and contribute to a shared knowledge base that creates a fuller, more nuanced, understanding of the stakeholder and user needs.

I learn a lot from my teammates. Throughout the discovery process—and sometimes during an interview—they’ll have questions for the subject that hadn’t occurred to me, or an angle I hadn’t considered. Right after the interview, we might spend a few minutes sharing things we found interesting, e.g., a turn in the conversation, a surprising revelation, etc. And if there’s a question that isn’t working how we’d hoped, we’ll talk through it and find another way to get what we’re after.

Once we’ve had some time to dig into the interview notes and transcripts, the entire project team meets to share our findings, raise perplexing questions, and start constructing our strategy. The key here is that this knowledge doesn’t reside solely with the researcher. By taking part in the discovery process together, we’re all researchers, contributing to a shared understanding that is championed through the life of the project.

In the medical profession, missing a detail from an interview can lead to an incorrect diagnosis and potentially devastating consequences, so having that extra assistance can be crucial. Designers also diagnose and treat problems. As design expands to include solutions that we depend on for both our physical and mental well-being, the repercussions of our mistakes expand as well. We have a responsibility to the people we’re designing for, and this starts with asking about their habits and needs. Then really listening, together.