A few weeks ago I attended a keynote panel at legal industry conference that featured Malcolm Gladwell. If you aren’t familiar with Gladwell, he’s the author of several best-selling books in the U.S., including Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink. For me, Gladwell definitely lived up to his publicity.

If you haven’t read Blink I highly recommend it; the book is insightful and entertaining—as is Gladwell himself. In fact, while writing this blog on an airplane I happened to take out my copy of Blink. Immediately, the woman across the aisle leaned over to tell me this was the best book she had read in the last year; it caused her to change her life. And then the flight attendant passed by and asked us what the book is about since her husband is trying to get her to read it.

My reasons for reading Blink were different than theirs. Hearing Gladwell inspired me to buy it because the stories he tells support something I talk to people about all the time—doing observational user research in the field, why it matters, and how to convince management to let you do it. If you are fighting to justify going out to observe your customers in the field instead of doing traditional interviews—here’s some ammunition from a credible source not connected to the technology community. Better yet, he’s not one of us user experience or Contextual Design zealots. (P.S. Fighting with facts, figures, and metrics as ammunition is often not the best way to convince people—a simple, evocative story like this one may be far more persuasive).

One of the key stories from Blink involves Vic Braden, who is one of the world’s top tennis coaches. For years Braden spent a great deal of time talking with top professional players about how and why they play tennis the way they do. As quoted by Gladwell, here’s what Braden says he learned from all the talking: “We haven’t found a single player who is consistent in knowing or explaining exactly what he does. They give different answers…or they have answers that simply aren’t meaningful.”

Braden found that the tennis players said they did one thing, but when he videotaped them he discovered they did something quite different. But what do you think tennis coaches tell their students to do? You got it—what the pro players say they do, not what they actually do. The result is that tennis players are spending hundreds of dollars to be told the wrong thing by coaches.

This all resonated for me because Contextual Inquiry (CI) interviewing comes from the same underlying foundation. We know that we can’t ask our users what they do—or what they need—because they can’t really tell us. And the more expert the user is, the more “invisible” what they do is to them. They do work; they don’t self-analyze themselves to understand what they really do.

But wait, this story has the tennis players being videotaped. Does that mean that technology designers need to videotape our users? InContext gets asked that a lot. The answer is “almost never”. If the technology is supporting the use of the body or if fine-level body placement matters, then videotaping can be useful. When you are delivering a product or system, what’s going on in the user’s thought process is important and you can’t capture that by videotaping.

For example, I recently coached a customer team in doing CI interviewing; we were observing a physician perform surgery. How the surgeon used the equipment and his hand and body movements were only a manifestation of what did really matters for this team’s solution—the considerations surgeons weigh in their minds and what support they need for decision-making when performing the procedure.

So that’s your argument for why you have to go out to the users, as supported by Gladwell. We have to go to our customers—wherever they do the work or life activities we want to support—and observe them as they do their actual activities or re-create what they recently did. If only ask them what they do—even if we’re in their office or homes–they’ll be just like those tennis pros who inadvertently lied to Braden. And we’ll be like the tennis pros who have designed programs that don’t help their customers.