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Conduct Research

A policy project will typically involve desk research such as landscape scans, a review of academic literature, and an internet search for research, commentary, legislation, and other important information. Interviews are also common, but they are typically limited to other experts and high-level leaders, resulting in very limited perspectives on any one specific education policy.

Human-centered design focuses on field research methods for interviews and observation that seek to understand problems from the people closest to them. The methods below deepen and broaden traditional interview and observation techniques to reveal richer qualitative data.

Interviews

What is this?

This resource provides some tips for selecting subjects that represent a variety of perspectives on an issue to understand it fully. 

When should I use this?

When you’re putting together a list of interview subjects, use this to push beyond a list of usual subject matter experts to include people who deliver services, those who receive services, and “extreme users.”

What is this?

“Extreme users” are those on the margins of a challenge or solution who can provide unique insights because of their special needs, perspectives, or actions. This resource explains the value of interviewing extreme users and how to seek them out.

When should I use this?

When recruiting people to interview.

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What is this?

This is a list of factors to keep in mind as you conduct interviews. 

When should I use this?

Review this in advance of conducting interviews or put some reminders in the document that contains your interview questions.

What is this?

This is an interview technique designed to get to the root cause of behaviors. 

When should I use this?

When you’re interviewing users, try to understand the thoughts and beliefs that drive their behavior. 

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What is this?

This one-pager explains what the arc of an interview should look like and some guidelines for engaging with an interviewee to truly understand their perspective.

When should I use this?

Interviewing for empathy is a method that should be used when you want to understand the experiences of the people who come into direct contact with public services.

What is this?

This one-pager provides a framework for generating interview questions that elicit facts, objectives, emotions, and ideas from your interviewees. 

When should I use this?

Once you’ve built a fact base for your project and identified your interviewees, you can use this to determine what you need to learn from them and how to frame your questions.

What is this?

This resource provides guidance on how to curate groups for group interviews and facilitate the experience so it yields the information that your project needs.

When should I use this?

Group interviews are a great way to get multiple perspectives on a topic, issue, or challenge in a short period of time. You can also use them to identify people that you might want to involve in other stages of your project, as individual interviews, in a co-creation session, or as prototype testers.

Beyond Interviews

What is this?

A photojournal is a way for users to provide a firsthand account of their experience with the challenge you’re researching through pictures or videos.
 

When should I use this?

Use this method to understand a person’s thoughts, actions, context, and people that surround them as they navigate a situation. Photojournals can also help prime a subject for an interview and provide lots of prompts for discussion.
 

What is this?

Just what they sound like, conversation starters are meant to start conversations in a fun, low-stakes way. They can generate reactions, opinions, and openings for more direct lines of questioning.  
 

When should I use this?

Use conversation starters to build rapport with interview subjects and warm them up for an in-depth interview. You can also use conversation starters to jump-start a flagging interview.

What is this?

Provide people with supplies and ask them to make a collage in response to a prompt about your research topic. This method provides a way for people of all ages to share their thoughts. 
 

When should I use this?

Use the collage as a jumping-off point for a conversation about their ambitions, desires, constraints, or relationship to a problem.

What is this?

A card sort is a quick and easy way to have people express their priorities and preferences. It involves creating multiple cards with pictures and/or words on each and having the participants sort them based on specific prompts. The results are often surprising.

When should I use this?

Use this method when you want a conversation prompt that will help you understand what’s important to people.

What is this?

A guided tour is a method to “reveal not just the physical details of the person’s life, but the routines and habits that animate it.” It involves asking someone to provide a verbal description of their physical environment (classroom, office, school building, etc.) as they take you through it or to shadow someone as they go through their daily activities in their natural context. 

When should I use this?

Use a guided tour to understand the context in which students learn, teachers teach, and school staff do their various jobs. 

What is this?

Ask interview subjects to draw a concept, graph, journey, or timeline to communicate visually. 

When should I use this?

When you’re interviewing subjects, mix in drawing to provide them with an alternative way to organize or communicate their thoughts, especially those that can be represented graphically. You can also use it to break up a long conversation.

What is this?

A resource flow is a simple chart of how financial and material assets flow through a system.

When should I use this?

Create a resource flow on the fly during an interview or create one in advance as a conversation prompt or to test assumptions.

What is this?

A diary study asks participants to keep a diary over a period of time to record different aspects of a service or experience.

When should I use this?

Use a diary study when the challenge you’re investigating affects people over a long period of time and you have reliable and willing participants. 

Observation

What is this?

Getting out of the office and into the world of the people that you’re trying to understand is a central concept of human-centered design. Site visits get you to the place where policies turn into practices to see what’s working and what’s not.
 

When should I use this?

Site visits should occur during your research phase to gather firsthand observations of how a policy is being implemented or the context in which a policy will be implemented in the future. 
 

What is this?

Good observation requires more than simply watching and taking notes. This section of a longer document provides some guidance on what to look for when observing stakeholders and how to capture observations using photos, audio, video, and sketches. 
 

When should I use this?

Observe and shadow users to gather firsthand information about how a policy is being implemented or the context in which a policy will be implemented in the future.
 

What is this?

The Shadow a Student Challenge, a collaborative effort of various education organizations, describes this method as “seeing school through your student’s eyes, identifying meaningful opportunities to improve the school experience for your students, and then taking action to create change at your school site.”
 

When should I use this?

Consider shadowing students when the policy question you’re researching directly or indirectly affects students. Shadowing students is a time-intensive method that requires a lot of preparation.
 

What is this?

Riding the bus with students is a specific context in which to observe students that bridges their home environment and school world. This resource provides some thoughts on why and how to ride the bus with students. 
 

When should I use this?

Riding the bus with students would be a particularly effective way to learn about a new location, its families, and its schools. It would also serve as a positive way to build empathy with families and students that are unlike you.
 

What is this?

This is an interesting method that enlists the people you’re designing a policy for as fellow researchers, such as having a teacher interview fellow teachers. 

When should I use this?

Enlisting peers to observe peers is a method to consider when you have a reliable, capable, and willing group that you’re studying. Use this method to extend your research team and get candid responses that you might not be able to get as an “outsider” with this method.
 

What is this?

This is a simple hierarchy of questions to guide observational note-taking, starting with concrete observations and ending with educated interpretation. 
 

When should I use this?

Use this method when you are trying to make sense of people’s actions through observation, perhaps in a new or unfamiliar situation.