What backpacking can teach you about user research

Backpacking Turkey 2011 – hostels for sleeping, lokantas and street food for eating, dolmus and metro for getting around


A few months ago, I came across this article which is really an excerpt from Jan Chipchase’s book Hidden in Plain Sight.


He tells us by far the most fruitful way of conducting user research is extreme immersion. It is like backpacking, except you’re working. Instead of checking your research team into a corporate hotel, look for a rental in the middle of where people actually live, or even one with a host included. Instead of engaging a research agency, hit the streets, the barber shops, the coffee shops and talk to the man on the street. Instead of hiring a translator, look for students who are socially smart.

He says “wake up with the city” and in this rambling mess of sights, sounds, accidental conversations, longer conversations, you’ll have a higher chance of stumbling on your one unique idea (to change the world :D).


It’s really a concept that’s a no brainer once you see it but why do we in the corporate world persist in avoiding this sort of serendipitous discovery? After all, a lot of us now are closet intrepid travellers when we do catch a break from the 9-to-5 cycle.

It is a whole lot easier to do things the conventional way though. And if I’m honest with myself, there’s a real activation energy involved in connecting to people. Don’t get me wrong, I love photographing strangers and chatting them up. It fills me with a sense of how wide and wonderful the world is, and all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. But on an average day, I’d much rather hide behind the camera and you just go ahead and do your thing; ignore me, thank you very much.

Part of that is me scoring high on introversion – it’s tiring to start engaging. Also, there’s a whole lot of commitment that comes after e.g. how do you just part ways after you share an intimate moment with a stranger?

But everything in the research I do for work (UX, the day job) points back to this. I find myself returning again and again to this article to remind myself that going out there and connecting is worth every ounce of me I put in.

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