Past Apprenticeships

Guerrilla User Research at a Bohemian Café

By December 20, 2012 No Comments


Painting of Juana Galán (1787-1812), famed Spanish heroine guerrilla fighter against Napoleon’s forces in the Penisular Wars (La Galana, guerrillera de La Mancha, by Carlos Isidro Muñoz de la Espada, circa 1990s; source: Wikicommons/public domain)

Famously, Napoleon Bonaparte’s formidable Grande Armée, consisting of hundreds of thousands of well-drilled and disciplined professional soldiers, were thwarted by an unconventional strategy used in the 19th century Peninsular Wars in Spain. In one example, the fierce Juana Galán and her supporters helped force the French invaders to abandon the province of La Mancha by leading Spanish villagers through highly improvisational tactics, such as pouring boiling oil on roads and scalding water out of windows. Today, that strategy is known today as “guerilla” warfare, and Jaime Levy’s guerrilla approach to conducting qualitative user research embodies this same kind of unconventional spirit. What TradeYa’s leaders aim to do with their apprentices is to chart an alternative way for UX thinking and practice, one which moves away from unwieldy, well-drilled orthodoxy to user research far more ready to take inventive risks, turn on a dime, and respond resiliently to sudden hiccups. I had the pleasure of observing this fieldwork in action at a bohemian Santa Monica café on a recent rainy afternoon.

The fieldwork revolved around interviews of a potential customer segment as they were being introduced to the TradeYa platform for the first time. Tactical preparation was crucial, and interview questions and participant recruitment scripts were refined multiple times beforehand. TradeYa apprentices agonized over whether participants should be asked to bring items or snapshots of items they might barter. They consulted their Funnel Matrix (see previous post) and pondered deeply over the best way to screen candidates for demographics and know-how, if at all. In the end, the apprentices posted want ads to the most relevant sections of Craigslist (including the barter section), and the screened respondents (some double-booked) ALL showed up.

In contrast to expensive and retrospective focus-group research practices, the guerilla approach depended on teams of just 2 or 3 novice researchers to interview users. Each interview took place in an informal public setting and lasted less than 45 minutes. One of the most intriguing aspects of the guerilla style I observed was how Jaime and her team smoothed over any logistical problems in their fieldwork environment, such as using generous cash tips to stay in the good graces of the café staff or quickly reorganizing teams when more interviewees arrived than expected.

But good guerrilla UX practice isn’t just about agile management of the interviews’ informal, public environment but also about the innovative use of technology and careful team coordination. As I saw demonstrated, audio and video recordings weren’t necessary because of Internet access. Nor was the arduous task of having to listen to and distill hours of recordings after the “attack”.  Instead the WiFi allowed the researchers to collaboratively update one Google cloud-based spreadsheet with user responses while interviews were live. While one apprentice talked with the participants and prompted them with both qualitative questions and usability tasks, the other teammates sat discreetly nearby to capture positive and negative feedback to particular features. The collaborative format also allowed for parallel multi-tasking—enabling apprentices to flag critical responses using a color coding system as the sessions progressed.

Guerilla User Research Template

Unlike conventional, standardized approaches to UX research, guerilla-style UX research is inherently fast-moving and in-the-moment. The instruments and techniques are, by design, continuously subject to immediate critique and adjustments. Still, when all the fieldwork was done (total cost less than $500 for six in-depth interviews), the team gathered over a table to carefully debrief, discuss, and reflect on big picture clues that emerged from the interview data. Jaime and the apprentices drew new conclusions about target demographics along with a prioritized list of UI design tweaks for immediate deployment to the TradeYa MVP. In discussion later with a colleague, I wondered how much more time and effort grander and more conventional UX research efforts would have used to gain the same level of insights. And she pointed out that my thinking could probably parallel what Napoleon and his Grand Armée didn’t consider when they marched into Spain 200 years ago.

– Zhan Li, USC PhD Student, Researcher and Project Blogger.