The warmth of an open ended question
Connecting with a stranger over buried truths
Pulling up to our house several weeks ago, I noticed someone standing in the thin strip of lawn across the street from us by the parked cars.
He wore the kind of ear muffs that block sound, and gazed at the ground where he held a metal detector. I knew I hadn't seen him before. I figured that, like the man who combs through the dumpsters in the alleys for scrap metal, he was a visitor to the neighborhood.
As I unloaded my car, I pondered the question that came to mind. "Should I ask him to find the nut from the lawn mower?" Although it had been years lost to our own tree lawn, the nut that had once secured half of our mower's collapsible handle still surfaced in my thoughts on occasion.
Full of optimism after a trip to the park on a lovely spring day, I decided to go for it, and crossed the street. Much to my delight, after a bit of explaining and negotiation, he agreed to take a look when he had a moment. Triumphant, I went into the house to putter in anticipation.
The more time it took, the less I thought about the mower nut, and the more I felt curious about why he was metal detecting. Did he find enough worth selling for it to be income, like the scrap metal forager? Or, was it a hobby, and if so, what kept him at it?
As I cleared lunch off our kitchen table, I thought about asking if it was his hobby. It seemed better than assuming it was his job, if it wasn't. But trying out, "So, is this your hobby?" in my head, I realized that if it was his job, assuming it was only a hobby was just as uncomfortable.
That's really what a question answered with a yes or a no is: an assumption. The conversations I've encountered in my lifetime in the Midwest and DC have shown it time and again; we ask questions that we think people will answer with yes.
And so, of course, I realized it was time to break out my non-leading question writing skills. These questions are the elemental component of UX research. Crafted well, they invite a person to share what is true for them, without ever implying that you meant for them to share anything other than their true experience.
"So, what brings you to metal detecting?" I asked the guest to my lawn.
He smiled, and began to tell me his story.