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Q+A with Sarah Henry

Instructor, Research Methods in Interaction Design

Tell us something about your summer course we might not expect based on its course description.

There’s no way to get around the fact that design research is mostly about talking to users. Interviewing can be a horrifically stressful thing to do, especially for beginners and especially in front of classmates. To help counter that stress, and to assist introverts, the course will incorporate a few individual exercises to help students grow accustomed to the idea of convincing a stranger to talk to them.

SarahBioColor 2019

What will students be making or working on in your class this year?

Throughout the five weeks we’ll work on both smaller, individual research exercises, as well as one large group project that students will present at the end. Class time will be devoted to conversations and presentations of materials. There’s a lot to cover in five weeks, so be prepared to spend a good amount of time working on assignments outside of class. I’ve heard from IxD alumni that synthesis and analysis can be one of the harder aspects of design research to master, so we’ll spend an entire class on that.

I think the best kind of design research helps a designer soften his or her ego and let other people, namely strangers, lead the creative process. We’ll be working on ways to let down our own barriers and learn how to conduct interviews that bring the user directly into the design.

Got a good book or article recommendation for people interested in the course?

I’ve been diving into the interviews of famous authors published by The Paris Review. The interviewers, though named in the byline, are simply referred to as interviewer throughout the articles. That anonymity, combined with the simplicity of the questions posed, facilitates an authentic response from the interview subjects.

There’s very little interaction of personalities, like when Howard Stern or Terry Gross interview someone. I’ve been paying attention to the types of questions being asked, the order in which they appear, and the decision to ask leading questions in lieu of open-ended ones.

Interviews regarding the creative process of famous people are particularly useful for understanding design research interviews. Interviewers of this population inherently approach their subjects with respect and deference, which is how we should approach any user when conducting research.

Sample questions from The Paris Review interviews include:

  • “In the other places you’ve lived, have you done your work in similarly small rooms?”
  • “What’s wrong with cyberpunk?”
  • “How do you begin a novel?”
  • “Do you take notes?”

What are you excited for in NYC this summer (aside from the summer intensive)?

I’ve traveled a lot in the last six months, spending a large chunk of time in South Florida, with brief stints in Chicago, Richmond, London, Tallahassee, and Belize. I’m looking forward to not going anywhere or doing anything for several months.

What are you working on these days?

I’ve spent the last year as a freelancer and am hopefully transitioning that into a design research company this year, if only so taxes won’t be so awful. I split my time working with clients from very different industries. My clients in the past year have included an agricultural start-up building sensor-based hardware for farmers and an open source start-up building collaborative technology to allow networks of organizations to securely and responsibly share data. I have also partnered with a foundation building a management and content app for afterschool care providers, as well as an organization focused on racial equity.

Conducting research of users’ behaviors, attitudes, and expectations is fundamental to understanding the very users who will be utilizing a given product. Spend Tuesday evenings with IxD this summer, learning how to engage users and expand your research techniques.

Follow Sarah Henry on Twitter for updates on her work.

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