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Field note—

Questioning the comforts of home

Ellie Morris

8 July 2018

In a home there is no hiding. From a design research point of view, this is great. Ethnographic researchers love to get the context of a person. We can learn a million and one things from spending time in a home environment, but does this happen at the expense of the person we’re learning about?

When a stranger comes to my house, I feel pressure. Pressure to tidy up. Pressure to make them comfortable, to offer them something to eat or drink. My mind races. I hope they found a park OK. What do they think of my house? It’s not the nicest area but it’s all I can afford right now. Is it warm enough in here? They want to use the bathroom. Has my partner forgotten to clean up in there again? My flatmate’s cigarette packet is on the coffee table. I hope no one thinks they’re mine. Does it smell like cigarette smoke in here? He doesn’t smoke inside, but sometimes he leaves the front door open when he steps outside.

The list goes on.

OK, maybe I’m a little more pedantic than most. But I bet you can relate to at least one of those a-stranger-is-visiting thoughts. In design research we enter people’s homes as strangers, expecting them to share their experiences, thoughts and feelings — sometimes about intimate or sensitive topics.

We need to be mindful of the perceived power balance in all interactions. But I’ve been thinking about this particular dynamic for a while. I stumbled into this career after starting mine in nursing. I’m always looking to learn, and I think a lot about how my previous career can inform my current one.

In nursing, much of my energy was spent trying to minimise any perceived power imbalance between myself and patients. People seeking medical attention are in an inherently vulnerable position. It’s common for them to feel unwell or in pain, and like there’s no choice but to trust a stranger with their body and mind. Often, there was little time to build rapport before I needed to wash or shower someone — a delicate position for a person to be in. Patients put their trust in me. They thought of me as someone with answers.

A co-worker and I chatted about this subject recently, too. She works in radio sometimes, and usually conducts interviews in a person’s home to make them feel more comfortable. Empathy’s design researchers often suggest meeting people in their homes for that same reason: participant comfort.

The intention is good and genuine, but remember my worried list of thoughts? Having a stranger visit you at home can make some of us less than comfortable. Keeping this in mind is important in the way research is designed, and also in the way a design researcher works.

It can be easier to understand someone’s experience if you’re hearing about it in their own environment. But when it’s not necessary to meet someone in their home, give them options. You can offer some ideas and leave the decision about where to meet up to them. When it is necessary, like when a project directly relates to life at home, find ways to help them feel comfortable. Explain to the participant what you will and won’t be doing. For example, in a consumer issues project it would help to have a look at the washing machine they had a problem with and photograph it. But you’re not going to photograph the rest of their home.

Design researchers can’t work without the generosity of participants. It’s only fair we offer them control over parts of the process when we can. Everyone should be able to choose whether to put out their welcome mat.