A good user experience researcher is able to suspend judgment in the moment of data collection. I’ve heard it said that a UX researcher ideally has the ability to see with “new eyes” as if completely ignorant, like a visitor from another planet.

That is a difficult skill to acquire, but a few summers ago I found myself in a situation in which I had basically no choice but to practice it. After telling this story to some coworkers they encouraged me to write it down so it could be easily shared, so here it is:

One evening, arriving home late from a weekend trip with my family and unloading the car, I realized my keys were missing. After much fruitless searching I determined by process of elimination that the only place my keys could be was inside of the dumpster where my wife had tossed some trash soon after we’d arrived. We reasoned the keys must have been in her hand as she threw the trash in, and she must have accidentally let go of them in the same motion.

This was back when we lived in a condo complex, and there was a huge 6-yard dumpster, the kind with sliding doors on the sides, where everyone from the condo complex (and occasionally outside trespassers) deposited all kinds of junk. Since “trash day” was coming up the day after next, the dumpster was already very full.

My options were to either forget about the lost keys and cough up about $200 for a new set (one of the keys was to a car we were leasing, so not cheap) as well as risk a bad person finding the keys and gaining access to my home and both cars, or else to crawl into the dumpster and recover the keys.

First I tried a compromise: several 20-30 minute sessions of peering inside the dumpster with a flashlight, poking at objects with a long stick, trying to look under things, hoping I’d see a glimmer of metal and be able to just fish out my keys without compromising my bodily cleanliness.

No such luck. Trash day was looming and I was running out of options. Eventually I decided that a few minutes of discomfort was not worth $200 and lingering paranoia about being burgled or having my car stolen. So the next day I resolved to travel inside the dumpster and leave no stone unturned, as it were.

I went in the daytime when I’d have the most light. I suited up in waterproof fishing boots, elbow-length kitchen gloves, a headlamp, and some old gym clothes I was prepared to throw away immediately after this excursion. I also tied a handkerchief around my face to filter out the taste of the air.

That’s right: taste. Obviously, I was resolved not to smell anything. That was Rule #1: I forswore inhalation through the nose; only oral respiration permitted. One whiff and you’re done, my inner drill sergeant barked. Knowing I’d still have to taste the air inside that dumpster, I decided I’d at least try to filter it a bit.

As it was summer, the air and metal were both hot as I probed for hand- and footholds and hoisted myself up toward one of the open windows of the giant rusted box. One knee in, then one leg in, then both legs in. I was sitting on the ledge, facing the abyss. I leaned back and took a few deep breaths outside, then held the last one in and I slid forward into the stifling darkness.

I was crouching on various kinds of trash. As I slowly let the air out of my lungs and prepared to suck in more through my bandana (which immediately tasted awful), I glanced around and was almost overwhelmed. Everywhere I looked was something horrendously nasty; things that would be unpleasant enough immediately after being thrown away, but which had by now been sweltering in what was essentially a small oven for almost a week. The refuse was haphazardly piled up around me, ready to avalanche, giving way under my feet.

That’s when I discovered Rule #2, the most important of all: judge nothing. The demands of my circumstances dictated that I internalize this rule immediately and fully, so I did. This amounted to nothing less than a new lens that materialized in front of my eyes, a new filter on existence. A whole new way of seeing things.

A leaking bag of party trash was no longer tepid beer and grease-covered empty cans and napkins that had been dragged across the sweaty faces of drunken pizza eaters. Under my left boot was no longer a torn couch cushion with questionable stains and a bewildering backstory. The three inches of opaque wet stuff sloshing around my right foot in the bottom of the dumpster was no longer a mixture of rainwater and bile and fermenting backwash. The taste in my mouth was not a flavor, it was just a pattern of molecules. The sloshing mixture was just a liquid substance. The cushion and trash were just objects.

These were the new categories of my reality: rigid materials (to be moved so as to be looked under), flexible sheet-like materials (to be drawn away or inverted so as to be looked behind or inside of), liquid materials (to be probed either by boot or by hand), and so on.

Really, there were only two kinds of objects in the universe at that moment: Things That Were My Keys, and Things That Were Not My Keys.

That was my insight. I could judge the world the way I normally would, and fail and suffer, or else suspend all judgment and use my senses only to serve the purpose of disproving my research hypothesis (in this case, “my keys are in this dumpster”). My arms and hands and fingers were now scientific instruments, gathering and testing binary data. My mind had been temporarily optimized for lost-key-finding, and importantly, nothing else.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I did not end up finding my keys in that dumpster. Eventually my Dantean tour of the Inferno was cut short when I accidentally inhaled through my nose and barely clambered out in time to avoid throwing up into the handkerchief tied around my face. Later that day I was hopelessly searching again around my car’s tailgate, and the keys dropped into my open hands. Apparently my wife had placed them on the roof of the car while she was on auto-pilot (not her fault; we had a young child at the time and were both sleep-deprived), and during the day’s driving the keys slid down the roof toward the rear of the car.

The dumpster dive would have been a most unpleasant waste of time and effort if it hadn’t taught me such a valuable lesson. Abstaining from value judgments is essential for good research, and cultivating that ability is crucial for a good researcher. There are probably less-disgusting ways to practice that abstention than crawling into a hot dumpster full of your random people’s garbage; I recommend exploring them.

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