Making the most of stakeholder interviews

Recently, I was asked for any tips or suggestions for stakeholder interviews.   I realised it was going to be more than would fit in the response to an IM message!

I’ll assume that this is purely for requirements gathering. For participatory or co-design, many of the same things hold, but there would be additional activities.

See also HCI book chapter 5: interaction design basics and chapter 13: socio-organizational issues and stakeholder requirements.

Kinds of knowing

First remember:

  • what they know – Whether the cleaner of a public lavatory or the CEO of a multi-national, they have rich experience in their area. Respect even the most apparently trivial comments.
  • what they don’t know they know – Much of our knowledge is tacit, things they know in the sense that they apply in their day to day activities, but are not explicitly aware of knowing. Part of your job as interviewer is to bring this latent knowledge to the surface.
  • what they don’t know – You are there because you bring expertise and knowledge, most critically in what is possible; it is often hard for someone who has spent years in a job to see that it could be different.

People also find it easier to articulate ‘what’ compared with ‘why’ knowledge:

  • whatobjects, things, and people involved in their job, also the actions they perform, but even the latter can be difficult if they are too familiar
  • why – the underlying criteria, motivations and values that underpin their everyday activities

Be concrete

Most of us think best when we have concrete examples or situations to draw on, even if we are using these to describe more abstract concepts.

  • in their natural situation – People often find it easier to remember things if they are in the place and amongst the tools where they normally do them.
  • printer-detailshow you what they do – Being in their workplace also makes it easy for them to show you what they do – see “case study: Pensions printout“, for an example of this, the pensions manager was only able to articulate how a computer listing was used when he could demonstrate using the card files in his office. Note this applies to physical things, and also digital ones (e.g. talking through files on computer desktop)
  • watch what they do – If circumstances allow directly observe – often people omit the most obvious things, either because they assume it is known, or because it is too familiar and hence tacit. In “Early lessons – It’s not all about technology“, the (1960s!) system analyst realised that it was the operators’ fear of getting their clothes dirty that was slowing down the printing machine; this was not because of anything any of the operators said, but what they were observed doing.
  • seek stories of past incidents – Humans are born story tellers (listen to a toddler). If asked to give abstract instructions or information we often struggle.
  • normal and exceptional storiesboth are important. Often if asked about a process or procedure the interviewee will give the normative or official version of what they do. This may be because they don’t want to admit to unofficial methods, or maybe that they think of the task in normative terms even though they actually never do it that way. Ask for ‘war stories’ of unusual, exceptional or problematic situations.
  • technology probes or envisioned scenarios – Although it may be hard to envisage new situations, if potential futures are presented in an engaging and concrete manner, then we are much more able to see ourselves in them, maybe using a new system, and say “but no that wouldn’t work.”  (see more at hcibook online! “technology probes“)


As noted the stakeholder’s tacit knowledge may be the most important. By seeking out or deliberately creating odd or unusual situations, we may be able to break out of this blindness to the normal.

  • ask about other people’s jobs – As well as asking a stakeholder about what they do, ask them about other people; they may notice things about others better then the other person does themselves.
  • strangers / new folk / outsiders – Seek out the new person, the temporary visitor from another site, or even the cleaner; all see the situation with fresh eyes.
  • technology probes or envisioned scenarios (again!) – As well as being able to say “but no that wouldn’t work”, we can sometimes say “but no that wouldn’t work, because …”
  • making-teafantasy – When the aim is to establish requirements and gain understanding, there is no reason why an envisaged scenario need be realistic or even possible. Think SciFi and magic :-) For an extended example of this look at ‘Making Tea‘, which asked chemists to make tea as if it were a laboratory procedure!

Of course some of these, notably fantasy scenarios, may work better in some organisations than others!


You need to make sense of all that interview data!

  • the big picture – Much of what you learn will be about what happens to individuals. You need to see how this all fits together (e.g. Checkland/ Soft System Methodology ‘Rich Picture’, or process diagrams). Dig beyond the surface to make sense of the underlying organisational goals … and how they may conflict with those of individuals or other organisations.
  • the details – Look for inconsistencies, gaps, etc. both within an individual’s own accounts and between different people’s viewpoints. This may highlight the differences between what people believe happens and what actually happens, or part of that uncovering the tacit
  • the deep values – As noted it is often hard for people to articulate the criteria and motivations that determine their actions. You could look for ‘why’ vocabulary in what they say or written documentation, or attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ process to find purposes. Unearthing values helps to uncover potential conflicts (above), but also is important when considering radical changes. New processes, methods or systems might completely change existing practices, but should still be consonant with the underlying drivers for those original practices. See work on transforming musicological archival practice in the InConcert project for an example.

If possible you may wish to present these back to those involved, even if people are unaware of certain things they do or think, once presented to them, the flood gates open!   If your stakeholders are hard to interview, maybe because they are senior, or far away, or because you only have limited access, then if possible do some level of analysis mid-way so that you can adjust future interviews based on past ones.


Neither you nor your interviewees have unlimited time; you need to have a clear idea of the most important things to learn – whilst of course keeping an open ear for things that are unexpected!

If possible plan time for a second round of some or all the interviewees after you have had a chance to analyse the first round. This is especially important as you may not know what is important until this stage!

Privacy, respect and honesty

You may not have total freedom in who you see, what you ask or how it is reported, but in so far as is possible (and maybe refuse unless it is) respect the privacy and personhood of those with whom you interact.

This is partly about good professional practice, but also efficacy – if interviewees know that what they say will only be reported anonymously they are more likely to tell you about the unofficial as well as the official practices! If you need to argue for good practice, the latter argument may hold more sway than the former!

In your reporting, do try to make sure that any accounts you give of individuals are ones they would be happy to hear. There may be humorous or strange stories, but make sure you laugh with not at your subjects. Even if no one else recognises them, they may well recognise themselves.

Of course do ensure that you are totally honest before you start in explaining what will and will not be related to management, colleagues, external publication, etc. Depending on the circumstances, you may allow interviewees to redact parts of an interview transcript, and/or to review and approve parts of a report pertaining to them.

A week in Athens

Last week I visited Athens again to give keynote “Long-Term Engagement” at Usability And Accessibility Days 2014.  The rest of the event was in Greek, so I got excused to wander across to see the exhibition of contemporary icons by Helena Krystalli in the adjoining room.

The talks included vignettes about Walking Wales, Tiree Tech Wave and other technology projects on Tiree, the InConcert musicology data project, and Talis software for learning analytics.  the linking theme was the different time frames for engagement and key properties/heuristics at each level including ‘desire and disaster‘, matching cost–benefit, and ‘Micawber management’.


As well as the talk I got to see old friends in Athens, many of whom I’d not seen for five years since my last visit for the 2009 SIGCHI Greece event when I was talking about ‘Touching Technology‘.  Despite the years it seemed like just yesterday when we’d last talked together.

Although there was some evidence of change (Angela who I stayed with now has two daughters instead of one), much was the same (George’s house is still waiting to get its central, hearing working).

However, when I was in the research office the day after the talk I decided that Athens definitely is in stasis when I am not there.  We were sitting talking and I happened to look up at the board and saw writing there.  It was a little obscure, and intriguing, but as I examined it I realised t was in fact my own handwriting, written there 5 years ago during a discussion in the same office.



To be fair there was some additional evidence of change beside Angela’s child; the new Acropolis Museum has opened, a wonderful building of glass and steel built to display the many treasures found by archaeologists, and most especially the whole of the upper floor laid out to recreate the frieze around the top of the Pantheon.  There are some gaps, but much of the sculpture is either there, or, where the original is elsewhere, in plaster cast.

The plaster cast sections all say where they come from, except the vast majority simply say ‘BM’ … it took a few before this sunk in, the British Museum … the Elgin Marbles – too sore a point even to write the words in full.  Indeed the whole museum is partly a statement to show just how much is in London not Athens, and also that Greece is now quite capable of preserving them.

It is a complex question undoubtedly much more would be missing, eroded or damaged if Elgin had not shipped them to Britain in the 19th century, and clearly not every work originating in a country should be returned … I imagine all the obelisks around Rome being sent back to Egypt!   However, seeing the museum and vast proportion saying ‘BM’ brings home that this is not simply a small amount elsewhere, but a large proportion, and in many ways the ‘best bits’.

There is also something different about the iconic monuments of any nation: it is as if parts of the Tower of Pisa were in Germany or London Bridge in Arizona …

To take our minds off such heady matters Angela and her family took me swimming in a volcano.  Christmas music playing in the background while bathing in water at 22° C.


more on disappearing scrollbars

I recently wrote about problems with a slightly too smart scroll bar, and Google periodically change something in Gmail which means you have to horizontally scroll the page to get hook of the vertical scroll bar.

I just came across another beautiful (read terrible) example today.

I was looking at the “Learning Curve“, a bogspot blog, so presumably using a blogspot theme option.  On the right hand side was funky pull-out navigation (below left), but unfortunately, look what it does to the scroll bar (below right)!


This is an example of the ‘inaccessible scrollbar’ that I mention in “CSS considered harmful“, and I explain there the reason it arises.

The amazing thing is that this fails equally across all (MacOS) browsers: Safari, Firefox, Chrome, yet must be a standard blogspot feature.

One last vignette: as I looked at the above screen shots I realised that in fact there is a 1 pixel part of the scroll handle still visible to the left of the pull-out navigation.  I went back to the web page and tried to select it … unfortunately, I guess to make a larger and easier to select the ‘hot area’, as you move your mouse towards the scroll bar, the pull-out pops out … so that the one pixel of scrollbar tantalises, but is unselectable :-(

details matter: infinite scrolling and feature interaction

Many sites now dynamically add content to a page as you scroll down; this includes both Facebook and Twitter feeds, which add content as you get near the bottom.  In many ways this is a good thing, if users have to click to get to another page, they often never bother1.  However there can be unfortunate side effects … sometimes making sites un-navigable on certain devices.  There are particular problems on MacOS, due to the removal of scrollbar arrows, a usability disaster anyway, but confounded by feature interactions with other effects.

A recent example was when I visited the SimoleonSense blog in order to find an article corresponding to an image about human sensory illusions.  The image had been shared in Facebook, and I found, when I tried to search for it, also widely pinned in Pinterst, but the Facebook shares only linked back to the image url and Pinterst to the overall site (why some artists hate Pintrest).  However, I wanted to find the actual post on the site that mentioned the image.

Happily, the image url,, made it clear that it was a WordPress blog and the image had been uploaded in February 2009, so I edited the url to and started to browse.  The site is a basically a weekly digest and so the page returned was already long.  I must have missed it on my first scan down, so I hit the bottom of the page, it dynamically added more content, and I continued to scroll.  Before long the scrollbar handle looked very small, and the page very big and every time I tried to scroll up and down the page appeared to go crazy, randomly scrolling anywhere, but not where I wanted.

It took me a while to realise that the problem was that the scrollbar had been ‘enhanced’ by the website (using the WordPress infinite scroll plugin), which not only added infinite scrolling, but also ‘smart scrolling’, where a click on the scrollbar makes an animated jump to that location on the scrollbar.  Now many early scrollbars worked in this way, and the ‘smart scroll’ options is inspired by the fact that Apple rediscovered this in iOS for touch screen interaction.  The method gives rapid interaction, especially if the scrollbar is augmented by ‘tips’ on the scrollbar (see the jQuery smartscroll demo page).

Unfortunately, this is different from the Mac normal behaviour when you click above or below the handle on a scrollbar, which effectively does screen up/down.  So, I was trying to navigate up/down the web page a screen at a time to find the relevant post, and not caring where I clicked above the scroll handle, hence the apparently random movements.

This was compounded by two things.  The first is a slight bug in the scrolling extension which means that sometimes it doesn’t notice your mouse release and starts scrolling the page as you move your mouse around.  This is a bug I’ve seen in scrolling systems for many years, not taking into account all the combinations of mouse down/up, enter/leave region etc., and is present even in Google maps.

The second compounding factor is that since MacOS got rid of the scrollbar arrows (why? Why? WHY?!!), this is now the only way to reliably do small up/down movements if you don’t have a scroll wheel mouse or similar.

Now, in fact, my Air has a trackpad and I think Apple assumes you will use this for scrolling, but I have single-finger ‘Tap to click’ turned off to prevent accidental selections, and (I assume due to a persistent bug) this turns off the two finger scrolling gesture as well (even though it is shown as on in the preferences), so no scrolling from the touchpad.

Since near the beginning of my career I have been fascinated by these fine design decisions and have written previously about scrollbars, buttons, etc.  They are often overlooked as they form part of the backdrop to more significant applications and information.  However, the very fact that they are the persistent backdrop of interaction makes their fluid usability crucial, like the many mundane services, buses, rubbish collection, etc., that make cities work, but are often unseen and unnoticed until they fail.

Also note that this failure was not due to any single feature or bug, but the way these work together what the telephony industry originally named ‘feature interaction‘, but common across all technological systems  There is no easy fix, apart from (i) thinking of all possible scenarios (reach for your formal methods in HCI!) and (ii) testing across different devices.  And certainly (Apple please listen!) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Happily, I did manage to find the post in the end (I forget how, maybe random clicking) and it is “5 Ways To Hack Your Brain“.  The individual post page has no dynamic additions, so is only two screens big on my display (phew), but still scrolled all over the place as I tried to select the page title to paste above!

  1. To my mind, early web guidance, was always wrong about this as it usually suggested making pages fit a screen to improve download speed, whereas my feeling, when using a slow connection, was it was usually better to wait a little longer for one big screen (you were going to have to wait anyway!) and then be able to scroll up and down quickly.[back]

Death by design

Wonderful image and set of slides describing some of the reasons multitasking is a myth and how the interfaces we design may be literally killing people (during a mobile outage in Dubai cat accidents dropped by 20%).

Thanks to Ian Sommervile for sharing this on twitter.

“lost in hyperspace” – do we care?

I have rarely heard the phrase “lost in hyperspace” in the last 10 years, although it used to be a recurrent theme in hypertext and HCI literature.  For some time this has bothered me.  We don’t seem less lost, so maybe we are just more laid back about control, or maybe we are simply relinquishing it?

Recently Lisa Tweedie posted a Pintrest link on Facebook to Angela Morelli‘s dynamic infographic on water.  This is a lovely vertically scrolling page showing how the majority of the water we use is indirectly consumed via the food we eat … especially if you are a meat eater (1 kilo beef = 15,400 litres of water!).  The graphic was great, except it took me ages to actually get to it.  In fact the first time I found a single large graphic produced by Angela as a download, it was only when I returned to it that I found the full dynamic info graphic.

Every time I go to Pintrest I feel like I’ve been dropped into a random part of Hampton Court Maze, so hard to find the actual source … this is why a lot of artists get annoyed at Pintrest!  Now for Pintrest this is probably part of their design philosophy … after all they want people to stay on their site.  What is amazing is that this kind of design is so acceptable to users … Facebook is slightly less random, but still it takes me ages to find pages I’ve liked, each time I start the search through my profile afresh.

In the early days of hypertext everyone used to talk about the “lost in hyperspace” problem … now we are more lost … but don’t care anymore.  In the Mediaeval world you put your trust in your ‘betters’ lords, kings, and priests and assumed they knew best … now we put our trust in Pintrest and Facebook.

logo design competition – final days

The first entries are in for the logo design competition for the open HCI course I’m presenting in the autumn.  Arunn @ Talis has posted them on the wall in the office.  One is a very good cartoon style illustration, but I’m sure I don’t really look like that :-/

Final entries due by tomorrow midnight … and then Arunn is going to post them up for popular vote … and whichever gets most votes I end up wearing on a T-shirt at the HCI conference in a few weeks time.  There are times when democracy just feels wrong!

a radical design for mobile telephony

We are all aware of the phenomenal growth in smartphone and tablet use.  However, these are often designed with the needs of media and internet access above plain telephony.  Touch screens do not have tactile feedback leading to mistyping, especially problematic when using touchtone-based phone services, for tablets especially, the form factor is far from optimal, … and try answering your phone call quickly by sliding your finger across the screen!

There are solutions.  A recent gigaom post “Here’s why tablets (yes, tablets!) will replace the smartphone” suggested that hands-free headsets were already common, hence reducing the brick-to-the-ear effect.  This of course does not deal with the key pad, but there are some solutions to this using the vibrator motor to give simulated tactile feedback, and various technologies are in development that will (in time) allow tactile features to be programmed onto the screen (e.g. see “Mobile tactile tech gets physical“).

Over a slightly longer time frame we can expect smart materials to develop to the point that concept pieces such as Fabian Hemmert’s Shape-Changing Mobiles will become possible.  Instead of being a fixed shape not only will your tablet screen be able to develop solid buttons of all shapes on demand, but will potentially become travel mug, long-haul flight pillow or angle grinder.

The trouble is that not only are such technologies some years off, they are also tinkering at the edges, attempting to fix piecemeal some of the fundamental flaws of smartphone and tablet technology when it comes to telephony.  Clearly a more radical approach is required.

While Bluetooth headsets are effective, they tend to suggest call centre rather than cool, a single device would be preferable.  In addition this should ideally include some form of miniature key pad to facilitate typing telephone numbers (more extensive tasks such as address book management can be performed on the full-size tablet screen, especially if this is augmented with tactile feedback). Furthermore, for times when it is inconvenient to carry your full size tablet and it is in your handbag, rucksack or its custom wheelie bag, the perfect telephony attachment should also have a small additional screen to view the number you are dialing.

As a result of extensive research into user needs and in the spirit of the information appliance, the single purpose device optimised for a a single purpose, I have devised the perfect device: small, yet not too small to be lost, pocket sized so that it can be easily accessed when you receive a call, tactile, exploiting the deep understanding of the physicality community and knowledge from writing TouchIT. It will connect via Bluetooth to your existing smartphone/tablet and of course via WiFi or (in premium models) using 3G/GSM direct to mobile networks if you accidentally leave your smartphone at home.

I plan to demonstrate my early prototype at the forthcoming Physicality 2012 workshop, where Fabian will be giving a keynote.

Alt-HCI open reviews – please join in

Papers are online for the Alt-HCI trcak of British HCI conference in September.

These are papers that are trying in various ways to push the limits of HCI, and we would like as many people as possible to join in discussion around them … and this discussion will be part of process for deciding which papers are presented at the conference, and possibly how long we give them!

Here are the papers  — please visit the site, comment, discuss, Tweet/Facebook about them.

paper #154 — How good is this conference? Evaluating conference reviewing and selectivity
        do conference reviews get it right? is it possible to measure this?

paper #165 — Hackinars: tinkering with academic practice
        doing vs talking – would you swop seminars for hack days?

paper #170 — Deriving Global Navigation from Taxonomic Lexical Relations
        website design – can you find perfect words and structure for everyone?

paper #181 — User Experience Study of Multiple Photo Streams Visualization
        lots of photos, devices, people – how to see them all?

paper #186 — You Only Live Twice or The Years We Wasted Caring about Shoulder-Surfing
        are people peeking at your passwords? what’s the real security problem?

paper #191 — Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool
        do you want to make thing teens think cool?  find out how!

paper #201 — A computer for the mature: what might it look like, and can we get there from here?
        over 50s have 80% of wealth, do you design well for them?

paper #222 — Remediation of the wearable space at the intersection of wearable technologies and interactive architecture
        wearable technology meets interactive architecture

paper #223 — Designing Blended Spaces
        where real and digital worlds collide

Open HCI course website live

The website,, went live last week for the (free!) open online HCI course I posted about a few weeks ago (“mooHCIc – a massive open online HCI course“).  Over the summer we will be adding more detailed content and taster material, however, crucially, it already has a form to register interest.  Full registration for the course will open in September ready for tyhe course start in October, but if you register at the site now we will be able to let you know when this is available, and any other major developments (like when taster videos go online :-))  Even if you have already emailed, Twitter messaged or Facebook-ed me to say you are interested, do add yourself online in case the combination of my memory and organisation fails :-/