When “Bad” Interviews Go Good, Part 1

Contrary to what people say, there is rarely such a thing as a bad fieldwork experience.  I won’t say never, because they do happen. But more often than not, what the client would be inclined to look at as a bad interview, event, etc. is in fact an opportunity.  There is always a chance to learn something and things like outliers often shed light on the larger cultural patterns and lead to innovation.  Case in point, when doing work for a large brewer some time back, we were given very clear, though perhaps suspect criteria we were to recruit against.  But one participant proved that you can’t always think of your target audience in such cleanly defined terms.  In this case, it was Roberto (and yes, names have been changed to protect the innocent).

We arrived at Roberto’s Upper East Side apartment at 11:00 a.m. on a cold, bright Sunday morning ready as we would ever be to talk about beer. We had been out the night before with another participant until 4:00 a.m., touring the Washington Heights haunts and listening to the stories of old Dominican men reminiscing about the old country and young men recounting their exploits from night before.  It had been a very productive night in terms of the fieldwork, and it had been a unique pleasure to be invited into the group, not so much as an outsider but as something approaching a friend.  So, on this cold January morning, with only a few hours of sleep under my belt, I wasn’t sure what my colleague and I could expect.  We knew the basics (I had spent an hour or so on the phone with Roberto leading up to our visit), but were not sure what a late Sunday morning in a reasonably erudite section of Manhattan might tell us about domestic beer consumption.  As it turned out, it told us quite a bit.

Roberto’s apartment didn’t overlook Central Park, but the building did – clearly this 29 year old man who came from Michigan to New York only seven years prior had done well for himself.  Roberto buzzed us in and we headed up to the 18th floor.  Roberto answered the door and graciously invited us into his home.  Fieldwork begins with the subject and so our participant’s greeting moments began the analysis.  Contrary to the image he had tried to project in the initial phone call with us, Roberto was anything but “exotic” (his phrase, not mine) in appearance or bearing.  A very handsome young man of slightly above-average height, with medium-length light brown hair and blue eyes, but not someone you expected to be named “Roberto” – as it turned out, he had added the “o” to his name only several years before.  Consequently, I assumed there would be an interesting story and I was not disappointed, though the story turned out differently than I anticipated, and in an important way. Cold as it was outside, his apartment was very warm, with numerous lush plants scattered strategically about the living room. Roberto was dressed in beat-up tan shorts and a grey polo.  On the inside of his left upper arm was a tattoo of a bicycle, but done in such a way as be stylistically of a Neolithic cave drawing.  As it turned out, the tattoo, like the name were extremely important in the end.

The apartment was neither lavish nor ostentatious, but it was as large as the home of the participant the night before, an apartment that had been shared with his younger brother and mother.  This was not the home of a pauper or someone simply wanting a more status-oriented zip code.  Roberto’s tastes were minimalist in nature, but there were original works of art in the living room and two bed rooms, one of which served as an office and home studio, and the electronics he owned were very high quality.  His wine rack was well stocked and several expensive bicycles, each designed for a different environment, hung from the high ceiling in the foyer.

When we had spoken with Roberto originally, he had told us that he wasn’t currently making more than $60,000 a year and in fact, this was the case.  He had just taken a “sabbatical,” as he termed it to focus on selling his art, but was planning to return to his job in about a week.  As it turned out, at the ripe old age of 29, Roberto was pulling in a little over $600,000 a year running the interactive strategy department for a fashion designer.  The initial inclination for most market researchers would have been to stop the interview on the grounds that the participant was outside the demographic target provided by the client (which he was).  But being an ethnographer my first thought was that if a man who clearly did not need the money from participating in the study and who in every way other than income met the criteria laid out by the client was interested in inviting me into his life for a few hours, then surely there was something important to be explored here.  This isn’t to say we did not find a replacement for Roberto, we did, but also made a point of remembering we were in the exploration moment and that we had an opportunity. As it turned out, we were absolutely right.

Roberto made $600k a year and was “poor on the weekend.” He stressed how, 6 years earlier, he had lived in squalor in the Lower East Side and had often had to make the decision between two 40s or a 40 and a slice of pizza.  (If you aren’t familiar with what I mean when I say “a 40,” head to the web and get dialed in.)  I’ve said it before, but I’ll stress it again: Being a collective drink means that beer choices are shaped by season, the socio-cultural roles we assume in different contexts, identity, the invention of tradition, etc. “Identity” arises when an individual constructs and presents any one of a number of possible social identities, depending on the situation.  Roberto’s 40 was a cheap drink, yes, but it was also so much more.  But more about that in Part 2.

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2 thoughts on “When “Bad” Interviews Go Good, Part 1

  1. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received in my career was from Howard Becker over lunch, when I was a frustrated brand new grad student and he’d just given a talk at UCLA: “Nothing can go wrong in the field. If you aren’t getting the information you expected to get, the problem is that you have expectations about what you’re going to get. The point of ethnography is that you get to see what’s really there, not what you expect to be there. If you have expectations, you’re doing it wrong and you won’t learn the really interesting stuff.” It’s as applicable to business/design ethnography as it was to my MA thesis.

  2. Great point about taking advantage of every given opportunity and viewing situations that don’t fit the criteria as opportunities for learning and discovering. I bet the company [would have] appreciated the insights you gained even though Roberto didn’t fit the profile they desired. Something comparable is speaking with people who don’t actually use or buy a specific product or who are not connoisseurs of some given commodity. For example, Starbucks coffee. Of course you would want to talk to people who frequent their shops, buy their grounds at the grocery store, study there or meet blind dates there, etc., etc. But you can learn so much from the people who don’t shop at Starbucks as well, about their perceptions of Starbucks consumers, why they don’t patronize the shops, why they prefer other brands, etc.

    And great article in general, I always enjoy reading your posts. Look forward to part two.

    Julie – you make an excellent point about the pitfalls of ingoing expectations and assumptions. It’s so important to set those aside in fieldwork. I wouldn’t necessarily forget them completely but keep them in mind in terms of research design while not letting them cloud your judgment or the direction you take in terms of data collection and analysis.

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