As a human being that happens to be a design researcher, I have to acknowledge that I may introduce my own biases to round out participants’ experience stories. At work, I have spoken with users and consumers that may have the same life practices or experiences I have (i.e., rituals), and in my translation of anecdotes to action items, the participant’s lived reality can easily be lost. It is because of this that I like to introduce reference points into my interviews. These reference points ground the discussion in that participant’s expectations and frame of mind, rather than leaving me with enough guesswork to introduce my own later on. Although this technique can make for a more complicated analysis (everyone’s reference point is different!) I have the comfort of knowing that my assumptions aren’t muddying the findings.

Below are a few examples of how I’ve used reference points:

1. Talking with facilities and building managers on the topic of monitoring alternative energy resources.

Prior to getting feedback on what and how these participants want to monitor alternative energy sources, which is typically not monitored today, we began by asking them to talk about something they keep track of, the goal of keeping track, and how it impacts their work. We received answers that helped us determine what kinds of monitoring needs to be proactive, the different tiers of information exposure (i.e., who should see what), and expectations around communication streams.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: What do you keep track of today at work? How? Why? What’s the goal?
FOLLOWED UP WITH: What kinds of information you want to keep track of regarding alternative energy?

2. Speaking with cell phone trade-in customers to understand their needs from a trade-in service.

Trading in consumer electronics is a fairly new consumer paradigm, and many of our participants tried it out on a lark, meaning it wasn’t an established behavior. Speaking with them in their homes, we asked them to tell us about how they think about the lifecycle of the things they have in their home. We learned that one-of-a-kind collectibles, family heirlooms, and furniture had the longest lifecycle and were primarily associated with feelings of guilt and nostalgia. Items with shorter lifecycles tended to have a more rational connection to the consumer and often they had a place to be when they were finished being used (i.e., the trash). This information helped us identify triggers for introducing this new paradigm like awareness at the right time, and channels for effective outreach like bumping up communication in big box stores.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: Tell me about something in your home that has a long lifecycle, and one that does not. What makes the distinction? Show me how this product exists in your home.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Where do you keep your old electronics? Tell me about how and why you buy, use, keep/dispose of them.

3. Talking with DIYers on their experiences undertaking electrical projects in their homes.

Although many people relate to the DIYer, we began with the hypotehsis that most avoid projects that require electrical work. Rather than carrying this assumption into our research, we asked participants to complete two collages: a project they would do, and project they would never do. We often found that projects that felt out of reach were sometimes associated with time, while others were associated with fear of getting hurt or screwing it up. This became the basis for personas, which then helped define who would be a compelling target customer.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: Tell me about a DIY project that you feel is within reach, and one you feel is not. What makes them feel this way?
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Where does electrical DIY projects fall on this scale, and why?