What searching through a hot dumpster taught me about UX research

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.


DACUM as user research blitz

When I conduct research with users of internal enterprise systems, a significant portion of my interviews is spent learning about users’ roles, duties, and tasks. This information is critical to understanding the context in which users interact with their technology, and what their goals are when using it.

A few months ago I learned about a systematic process dedicated to uncovering and ordering this information. The process is called DACUM, an acronym for Developing a Curriculum. It exists to support training development, since trainers need to know what duties and tasks comprise the various roles within their organizations so they can develop training content for them, and also identify training gaps. I have been working closely with a training development team, and had the privilege of sitting in on a DACUM workshop. I hope to eventually become certified to moderate them myself.

Whereas interviews can take weeks to plan, administer, and analyze, a DACUM workshop takes two days and generates a concise and efficient set of artifacts listing all the duties and tasks for a given role. I have found that observing a DACUM workshop instills a reasonably confident level of understanding about the role discussed. I would otherwise not expect to attain that level of understanding without conducting and analyzing data from a dozen or more interviews.

A DACUM workshop operates somewhat like a focus group, with a panel of subject matter experts (SMEs) and a certified moderator walking them through a semi-structured discussion. The SMEs all share a particular role or job title in common but may (and ideally do) vary in years of experience, work location, and other factors. Through collaborative brainstorming and analysis between the moderator and the SMEs, the key duties of the SMEs’ role are listed and ordered, and then the same method is applied to the tasks that fall under each duty. Other items such as required tools and common acronyms are also listed. These then become the basis of a set of artifacts to which training development personnel can later refer.

Observing a DACUM workshop is beneficial to me as a UX researcher because it affords – in only two days – an in-depth look at a user role, and a strong basis from which to further investigate existing needs not only in learning and training but also in technology and other systems, potentially shaving weeks off my research effort. This means I can deliver findings and recommendations on tighter deadlines, and dedicate time to other research activities.

More information on DACUM can be found at

Book review: The Driver in the Driverless Car

I got through the first four chapters of Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever’s The Driver in the Driverless Car before deciding not to continue.

The Driver in the Driverless Car is appropriate for readers who have very little familiarity with emerging technology and have never thought much about technology ethics issues. I’m not part of the intended audience but I was prompted to try the book anyway because it seemed to be specifically addressing the issue of how we should choose which technologies to adopt. That is a very important question, and I was excited to see it posed by a book you might find in an airport terminal store.

The authors spend a lot of time familiarizing the reader with various emerging technologies and some of the most well-known ethical dilemmas those technologies pose. As they do this the authors (who admit to being early adopter tech-enthusiasts themselves) seem unable to stifle their excitement about the new technologies well enough to provide serious criticism at the same time. So their attempt to be even-handed somewhat fails, but this might have been a deliberate choice.

My problem with this book is not its simplification, but the authors’ rubric for how to assess technology. They propose a 3-question test of all new technology: Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are the risks/rewards? Does it create autonomy rather than dependence?

These are fine questions to explore, but can they serve as a basis on which to build a useful technology adoption assessment? Aside from being indistinct from each other, the questions encode and promote the authors’ own personal values (equality, rationalism, autonomy) rather than create a stable framework that works for different people in different situations. Technology users and use contexts are extremely varied, so a technology that might seem to, say, promote equality to one user in one context could still raise all kinds of red flags to another user in another context.

I like that the authors are thinking about the question of how to assess technology for adoption, but there is danger in going about this the wrong way. Concepts like equality and autonomy don’t mean the same thing to everyone, and are easily politicized; it’s easy to take them and run very far and very quickly, irreversibly, in the wrong direction.

My social media quitting story

One day around 2012 I was walking to the corner store to pick up some beer. As I walked, I caught myself composing a status update (something about buying beer, probably) that I would type into Facebook when I got back home. At that moment I realized I had been doing this sort of thing for weeks or months, maybe longer: mentally translating my meatspace experiences into content to share on social media.

Facebook had influenced my day-to-day thought process in a way I hadn’t anticipated when I started using it. It had essentially rewired my brain, and I found this intrusive and disturbing. I also felt that by constantly mentally framing my experiences to support social media posting, I was diluting my connection to the world around me. It felt like a technology-induced mental disorder.

Fortunately it was a disorder I had the power to rid myself of. Right then and there on my way to the store I decided I was not going to post that status update. Instead I was going to delete my Facebook account and never look back. When I returned home, that’s exactly what I did.

Do you have a social media quitting story? Please feel free to share it and I will publish it here! Post it as a comment or email me.

Beyond the Trolley Problem: more ethical issues with driverless cars

I. The Trolley Problem

Much has been written about the ethical problems with driverless cars, but in most of those writings the emphasis is on a specific hypothetical “Trolley Problem” scenario where the car must decide between swerving to avoid a crash that would be fatal to the passenger, or allowing the passenger to die so that someone else (e.g. a pedestrian) is not killed.

The Trolley Problem itself is many decades old and ethicists are still not close to settling it. There’s no good reason why recasting it with driverless cars will suddenly inspire a solution. Besides, people die in car crashes every day, in situations of much greater ethical clarity; it doesn’t nudge our answer to the question “should we drive cars?”

Furthermore, the driverless car Trolley Problem scenario is unlikely to happen much, and even then it can be somewhat mitigated with more technology: better sensors to avoid road hazards, signage or barriers to limit pedestrian road access, better airbags, better brakes, etc. So what other, deeper ethical issues are raised by driverless cars?

II. Driverful and driverless cars cannot coexist

Research suggests that driverless cars are safer than human-operated cars–so long as the driverless cars are interacting only with other driverless cars. But when human drivers have to interact with driverless cars, that is the least safe scenario: human drivers have trouble “reading” driverless cars, and can get spooked by them, leading to accidents.

This means if driverless cars come into regular use, they may need to be mandated, at the exclusion of human-operated cars, at least within certain zones. For people living within those zones, the rule will be “driverless car or no car.”

III. “Ours,” not “yours”

Now consider the economics of owning a driverless car. The car itself will be expensive. While you are not driving it, a normal car is sitting in your driveway or in a parking space basically just leaking value and gathering rust. A driverless car, on the other hand, could be out acting like a taxi, making you money and helping to pay for itself.

Turning your driverless car into a taxi would require after-market alterations, some virtual hailing and payment services, and some additional legal and tax work, all with additional price tags. Driverless car manufacturers or dealers might anticipate the demand for this and price it into the vehicles as a standard feature package.

This creates a strong incentive for people who buy driverless cars to essentially start their own cab companies. Actual cab companies would probably just beat them to the punch, so long as unions don’t get involved (though if cab companies with actual unionized drivers have trouble competing with Uber it’s not clear how they could possibly compete with Ace Driverless Taxi Service).

So in a place where driverless cars are the only cars allowed, and where owning a driverless car has considerably more up-front costs than car ownership does now, the default way for most people to get around will be by hailing a driverless cab.

IV. Cascading effects – family impact example

A generation of DOD (driverless-on-demand) and you will see suburban and exurban homes built without garages, while new development will continue to be designed around cars. That will cement the DOD arrangement, because it will become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who wants a house with a garage, but it will also become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who walks or rides a bike places.

Living without a family vehicle in a city designed for cars means that having a family will become more costly too. Driverless cars might be built with fold-out kids’ seats like the newer Dodge Grand Caravans have, but anyone who has young kids and a car knows that the car is also a portable storage facility for toys, changing supplies, spare clothes, a stroller, and bunch of other things that would be a pain to lug in and out of the DOD car every time.

Having kids might therefore mean either putting up with a bigger hassle each time you travel, or having to shell out for your own driverless car–no more getting off easy with a used minivan or SUV. This adds up to one more excuse on the “it’s too expensive to have kids these days” pile, and as a result we might see lower fertility rates (at least among people who are future-oriented and careful with their finances).

V. The end of something beautiful

There’s something about being a teenager, craving freedom, learning to drive, and finally getting your license that is an essential part of the American experience. Another part of that experience being able to occasionally get out on the open road and command the movements of a machine that can take you across the continent. And there’s also something about when the machine is yours, putting the hood up and tinkering with it, changing its brakes and oil, even vacuuming it and washing it that millions of Americans find intoxicating and are able to bond over.

OK, maybe driverless cars will bring their own set of unique rituals and beautiful experiences and rites of passage that we can find culturally unifying. (Sure, maybe.) But driverless cars definitely spell death for driverful cars as an institution. This means the death of classic cars too. You can’t have classic cars without having cars that regular people can drive and own and maintain.

If you’ve never been to a classic car show, I highly recommend it. Sometimes they are quasi-spontaneous, so that one day there will simply be a few dozen spectacularly well-maintained half-a-century-old cars sitting one after the other in a parking lot as you pass by. Take a stroll through one of those shows. Talk to the owners. Look at those cars, their shapes and lines, the way they were built. With permission from the owners, feel some of the materials with your hand. When people say “They don’t make’em like they used to,” those aren’t hollow words. The whole character of those cars is different. It would be a tragedy to lose that piece of Americana or relegate it to museums.

In the end we are faced with a kind of Trolley Problem after all. Driverless cars do offer their advantages–any avid reader who has to drive places can understand that. By steering our technology adoption choices in that direction we assure ourselves some convenience, some safety, some freed-up time to be productive or to rest, maybe even some savings per mile traveled (averaged over our lifetimes at least). But is it worth what we would give up?

MWUX the morning after

My presentation was received relatively quietly as usual, but this is part of a pattern whenever I speak on the topic of technology’s impact on society and social values. Weeks, months, years, and many deep and challenging conversations later, I have cultivated a circle of colleagues who’ve heard my words on this topic and are thinking about the same kinds of technology ethics issues as me. They push me to examine new things and re-examine the old.

It isn’t a reward I can reap by glancing at Twitter the day after my talk; it becomes clear later on when I’m having those great conversations, and when I’m drawing on those important insights in my research and my daily work.

Thanks to everyone who’s taken part so far.

The importance of customer experience

Having a good customer experience can sometimes be more important than just delivering the product successfully to the customer. The primary reason is that most business comes from repeat business. And also in some cases, what the customer remembers is the experience, not the end result.

Imagine a scenario where you are representing the client in a relationship with a vendor. The vendor’s reps do a horrible job with customer experience: you are kept in the dark; appointments are forgotten; you have to hound them for basic information; their systems are buggy and hard to use; you are handed off from rep to rep and given conflicting accounts of their protocols and business structure; etc.

Just as you are at your wit’s end and ready to recommend the relationship with this vendor be terminated, they come through for you and get you exactly what you wanted. On paper, you come out of the relationship better than you had gone in. You should be a happy camper, end of story, right?

The frustration you felt in that journey is still very real, and it is likely to translate into negative word of mouth. Just as positive word of mouth is the best advertising, negative word of mouth can destroy a product or a brand.

“Pain points”

“A pain point by any other name…”

“Pain points” is a UX term of art referring to steps in a process or workflow that users typically dislike, find problematic, or even seek to avoid or work around.

Basically all UX practitioners understand that this idiom doesn’t necessarily mean the user literally experiences pain, only that the user finds some aspect of the experience to be negative and, presumably, desirable to change or eliminate.

Pain points can of course be very serious, for example if an emergency worker has to spend an extra minute fidgeting with a tricky latch in order to access some life-saving piece of equipment.

But due to the nature of UX work, the vast majority of pain points identified in user workflows are trivial: they are sometimes little things that irk or inconvenience people (e.g. having to orient a key a certain way so it can be inserted into a lock), and other times they are problems most people are not even aware they have until there is a solution (e.g. many people say they did not realize being disconnected from the internet while out and about was a problem until they owned a smartphone).

Does the use of this dramatic-sounding phrase introduce or reinforce a bias on the part of the UX practitioner? Specifically, I am referring to a bias in which we are inclined to escalate the stated seriousness of problems, or to solve problems that did not need solving. I’m not sure whether this is happening; the names we give things are important and transformative—but sometimes they aren’t. The aforementioned escalation could be happening for plenty of other reasons, but this doesn’t rule out bias resulting from our language being one of them.

So, I often add scare quotes to the term “pain points” as a way to exercise caution and remind myself not to become biased.