Our field is full of tools and techniques for planning and executing contextual research projects, but the truth is sometimes you just have to make it all up as you go. I ran into this during a project while interviewing local farmers in Savannah. I wanted to understand how their business models changed throughout the year, whether their biggest challenges occurred during the peak of off-season, and how seasonal transitions were managed.
So, I decided to make a one-page worksheet out a full calendar year, and invited my interviewees to join me in decorating the page with notes, timelines.
Here are a few interviewees’ worksheets:
Looking back, I’m still delighted by the conversations that took place on these worksheets. By visualizing their thoughts, my interviewees each told a great story. Sometimes they would get lost in a long pause, thinking back to last year, that long deathly grind of a summer, or that early spring cold snap that hurt market turnouts for an entire month. These conversations brought a richness to the research that I might have missed, had I not created a place for them to take shape.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that is easily overlooked.
The searchis what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might as well be dead.