In context research can be a powerful way to gather qualitative data — theres so much richness to uncover!
I’ve done design research in airport lounges, jewellery stores, the library, and even on the streets of Dublin. Most recently, Made Manifest has been doing intercept research at the largest mall in Canada for our s/mallTALK project in collaboration with designWITH.
While approaching strangers is never going to be easy, we’ve learned some things that will help to take the edge off.
1. Make a rigorous plan, and then stay flexible
Part of what makes intercept research so stressful is that things are way less predictable in the field than in a scheduled, recruited 1:1 interview. But that doesn’t mean you should throw your research planning out the window.
Taking the time to build a detailed research plan covering your research objectives, research questions, and data collection methods will serve you well.
For example, when working on s/mallTALK, we wrote a multi-page research plan with several different research methods including 1:1 conversations, a gallery wall for people to share their stories, and archival research. We thought through the research questions we wanted to explore, and made sure we had multiple options for gathering data.
That way, if things didn’t turn out quite as we expected in field, we knew we still had approaches to fall back on.
(A resource we like for research planning is the Austin Centre for Design’s ‘planning contextual research’ worksheet. )
2. Make it an invitation
People tend to immediately shut down any kind of approach from a stranger in public, and usually assume you’re trying to get money from them. You have a split second to try to explain what you’re doing and what you’re asking for. And for most researchers, even the most extroverted among us, stopping people in the street is our worst nightmare!
The trick here is to flip it and make people come to you! Turn it into an invitation and have people approach you, instead of the other way around.
You can do this in various ways. For s/mallTALK, we created posters with question prompts like ‘Tell us about the mall you grew up going to?’ or ‘Come chat with us?’ and had them on sandwich boards outside our space.
You can create displays that catch people’s eye and make them curious to engage — like our custom pegboard and neon sign. Or you can do something out of the ordinary like have a couch on the street in Dublin city (true story).
3. Provide multiple ways for people to engage
One of the challenges of intercept research is that you don’t know what you’re going to get. People may have twenty seconds or twenty minutes to engage. They might not feel comfortable chatting with you but would be happy to add to a post it wall.
Think through your research goals and questions, and the type of data you need, then design flexible ways for people to participate.
For s/mallTALK, we had the option of drawing or writing on prompt cards and adding to a gallery wall, having a short (or long!) chat one on one with a researcher or sharing online (responding to an instagram or linkedin post) and having us add to the research data.
Think about modes of engagement, length of time, and level of depth. That way, you’re more likely to get more yeses from people!
Too many teams avoid in person intercept research because it feels too scary and nerve wracking, but hopefully this post shows you some of the ways you can design your research to make it easier! We believe the results are worth it.
After all, design research is often best when it stretches our comfort zone and leads to surprising findings!