Mary Ann Sprague

INTERVIEWER

Mary Ann is joining us from [PARC, a Xerox company, in Webster,] New York. Hi Mary Ann. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

MARY ANN

Sure. I work for Xerox I’ve been at this company for 31 years now, and over the last 14 or 15 years I’ve been doing ethnographic work practice studies for internal products and services and solutions.

INTERVIEWER

Great. We’ll talk about ethnography, specifically, a bit later on but to start off with a really general question, why is innovation important to businesses at the moment? Why would people be investing in innovation research?

MARY ANN

Well, there are a lot of products that are actually being introduced into the markets and if you don’t find a product that identifies with your specific needs as a user then you’re not gonna be inclined to buy that kind of product. So, a lot of times we need to identify what the users need and start to focus on those particular needs so that we actually create something that they want.

INTERVIEWER

Because there are lot of ways into innovation and you’re specifically involved with user-centric design and user-centric innovation, which is the theme of this podcast series. What is it about user-centric design that differentiates it from other kinds of research?

MARY ANN

One of the things is it takes a more holistic view of looking at the user and how they interact with technology and find ways to make their solutions fit into the way that they want to work. Instead of saying, “Here’s a technology, you have to do it my way.”

MARY ANN

Usually someone will come and say, “We want to either improve a product or we want to answer this question.” So, we will go out and find people that are actually doing that type of work and we will find out what they’re doing and use that information to inform potential products and solutions.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of methods do you use to do that?

MARY ANN

Usually we will use open-ended interviews and observation. Those are our primary skills. We like to go and watch what the workers are doing, in the context of the work that they’re actually doing it. So, in the office or whether it’s in the car. Wherever they are, watch what they’re doing and maybe ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing, and get them to maybe talk about their process. Usually what we’ve learned is that what they say they do is usually one thing, but what they actually do is a little bit different than what they say they do. They usually forget some of those little details that they’ve become accustomed to. So, it’s usually a little bit of a deeper picture when you actually go and watch them.You can always ask somebody a yes/no question and you’re, kind of, confirming your own beliefs. If you say, “What would you do to do that?” Or how you do something, then you get them to talk about their process, and then they start to think more about what they’re doing and they start to reflect back on their process. You learn more information about what’s going on instead of just confirming a pre-disposed theory.

INTERVIEWER

It would be great to hear just an example of this in practice. Is there an example that springs to mind?

MARY ANN

There is actually. A few years back we were working with iGen3, it’s a color digital product. They had received a number of comments that their operators were taking too long to actually match printed colors with a proof that they were given. So, they actually had a burning question. It’s like, “Why is it taking so long to do this?” As a team, well, we didn’t really know a lot about color science, so we actually engaged some of the engineers that are in our building and said, “Tell us more about this.” So, we actually had some classes on color science and how color profiles are used in the printing process. So, we actually had some background before we went out into the field. So, once we had a little bit of background then we were able to go out and go to different printers. We actually went to our internal test print site and we spent a week in there watching operators trying to print different things. We actually needed help with this so we actually took our subject matter expert with us for them to observe as well. It became, kind of, an a-ha moment for us because the color expert was like, “They’re not doing things the way I expect them to do.” We might not have noticed that but our color expert did. So, we were able to probe a little bit more deeply into what was going on. So, they were actually using the tools that were created in unconventional ways. So, once we understood that we were able to study the process a little bit more, and after we were done with our analysis we actually came up with some new improvements to their tools and found ways to present the information that it became more obvious to the operators to get what they wanted. So, it became a simpler process to get the color matches the way they wanted to.

INTERVIEWER

So, it’s half knowing how people use the tech so you can make the product differently but also knowing how you can educate people properly to use the tech that’s already been made.

MARY ANN

Correct, correct. The engineers assumed that there was a certain amount of knowledge about color science and color profiles that wasn’t necessarily true. So, they needed to make sure that they were addressing the common operator and providing the information in a way that they expected to see it.

INTERVIEWER

To get to something approaching a view of a “common operator”, how many print shops did you have to go to get that kind of insight? What sort of time frame did you have to conduct this study?

MARY ANN

Well, we did the study over the course of a year. There were three or four different sites that we went to and we watched a number of operators at each of these sites. We tend to spend a lot of time and really understand what’s going on, so we focus more on the depth and quality of the information as opposed to saying that we spanned a large number of people. So, we actually get a lot deeper into our data.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re in the environment you start off with a burning question, or a burning issue, but when you’re conducting the interviews do you come up with questions for the people using the product as you observe them? Or do you have an idea of what you need to find out first?

MARY ANN

From our burning question we usually come up with a list of topics, or questions, that we consider a discussion guide. We use that as our guiding force for what information we want to get from our sight. We use that as a guideline but we don’t ask those questions straight out. So, we won’t specifically go down a list. We’ll watch the conversation and see where it’s going, and if it goes into a new area it might be useful too. So, we will ask them to add more information, or explain what they’re talking about and then we’ll go back to our discussion guide and see if we’re actually on the right track. Or maybe we have to add more information, or more topics as things are revealed.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of the way you capture this information, you presumably come away with reams and reams of notes taken from the observation. How do you go about relaying what you found out to other people that weren’t there?

MARY ANN

Well, we don’t always use the reams and reams of note paper. If we’re walking around it’s a lot harder to take notes. What we’ve found is that we use video cameras and possibly audio cameras, or audio devices to record what’s going on, because we can capture the conversation but a lot of times the people are doing things that we need to see as well. If we can watch that video several times then we start to see different layers of information. So, we’ll back and we will watch that video tape and we will take notes on the actions as well as the conversation.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give us an example of the kind of thing you’d pick up from a video that you wouldn’t elsewhere?

MARY ANN

Well, if you’re in a print shop a lot of times there’s a lot of noise going on. It doesn’t matter what kind of device that you’re working with. If there’s an alert that happens, if you had a “beep” or something like that. With the amount of noise in a standard print shop, you’re not gonna hear that. What we did see was that there were a number of devices that were set up that had flashing lights that would go off when something was wrong, and that would draw the operator’s attention. In a conversation you might not have noticed something like that. You might have heard a beep, or you might not have depending on the amount of noise.

INTERVIEWER

When it comes to taking the research that you’ve found, so to use your previous example where you’ve done a year’s worth of research. How do you then take that to developers or the next stage where you’re working on products on an outcome, on something to be developed based on your findings?

MARY ANN

As I mentioned before, we’ll take subject matter experts with us, out into the field, and let them observe first-hand and that usually gets them pretty excited about things. Then what we will do is bring information back to the development team. We will give them a context of what’s going on, maybe we’ll pick a particular area or topic, and then we start brainstorming. So, “How could this be fixed?” Or, “How could we find a different solution for that?” We start to brainstorm ideas and putting them up on the board, maybe we’ll use post-it notes or other things to start capturing ideas. Then we use that as a mechanism to start whittling down to the correct idea.

INTERVIEWER

Is that a, sort of, challenge of feasibility then? So, you will come in with the problem as the user sees it and the developers will have an idea of what’s actually possible. Is that the point where those two things meet?

MARY ANN

Yeah, I believe it is because you can start to co-design what you’re interested in. Another thing that we can do is actually we co-develop. We will actually take our customers and bring them into that brainstorming arena and say, “This is what we’ve learned. How would you change it?” The people that are actually closest to the work actually have some new insights that the developers might not have thought of as well. So, getting the customers working with the developers and, kind of, helping them interact and maybe translating between the terminology, you start to bring in even better ideas. So, it’s a better nuance.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still have oversight on an idea that you’ve, sort of, provided the impetus for? Do you see that all the way through the process to the end to make sure it follows through what you found initially?

MARY ANN

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the product and where it’s been handed off to. Sometimes we’ve been able to go out and see it into the field and we will actually observe customers using a new product and bring suggestions back to the developers for iterations. Those have worked really well. We did that with an education tool that we were working on over the last few years. So, we actually watched teachers working with a tool, bought ideas back and they did interaction and new versions of that. Other times it gets handed off to the development team and they don’t always ask for observation out in the field unless it’s been deployed.

INTERVIEWER

With the education tool, are you able to speak a bit more about that? What it was and what the, kind of, iterations were along the way?

MARY ANN

Sure. Well, there was a study a few years back where we had some researchers actually sitting in the classrooms and interacting with teachers and noticing that they were struggling with keeping up with monitoring students and their progress. When you have 30 students in the classroom they’re all moving at different speeds and so they actually came up with a tool that would enable the pre-scoring of assessments, tests, if you will. To actually get that information into a computer in a quicker format that would allow the teacher to score the information and learn more about it instead of spending hours scoring a test, they could actually get the results in the matter of minutes. Then they could decide from that information how they were gonna do their teaching for the next day. Focusing on the areas where those students were the weakest. So, that was the tool that was done and we actually developed that tool and worked with several schools in our area where we were a pilot. So, we would go in and observe and see how this was being used in different classrooms throughout the lifetime of the product development.

INTERVIEWER

Print shops to education tools, that seems like quite a big leap in terms of the environments you’re working in. For you, what’s the kind of dream brief that you would get and how much control do you have over the kind of areas you’re going to be exploring?

MARY ANN

There are a lot of different areas. To be able to spend the time and understand the users and help them develop their own set of tools working with them, I think is probably the dream goal. Seeing that the customers are happy at the end of that is my biggest joy. Being able to go out and meet new people every time I start a new project, I learn something new with every project. Some new category or tool and I meet the most fabulous people. It’s amazing how many people who can come out and see but to be able to control that and be involved all the way through is probably the best thing.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of your own background, you’ve been at the company for 31 years, so pretty much your whole career. How did you get into ethnography as a discipline?

MARY ANN

Well, I started as a computer science and did product development, so I was actually working on different software. I found that I was happier when I was actually working on things that were related to the user interface. So, things that the users were actually going to be interacting with. I actually worked in some tools development for developing user interfaces, which was a lot of fun. I actually was working side-by-side in the same area as the ethnographic work practice group. So, I, kind of, saw what they were doing for a number of years and it came about that a few years later I was actually able to get into this group. That, kind of, opened up the doors to be able to see what uses were really doing and actually get more involved with the users and helping them get the tools that they really needed. That, for me, has been the best.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you so much