Week 11: Contextual Inquiring

After getting to see the inside of a truck cabin for the first time last week I finally got to spend a whole day with a truck driver.  Getting there was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Unfortunately only one person from our team would have the chance to go and I was really fortunate to be the one representing them that day. This was not going to be the first time I would be interviewing users in a domain I had little knowledge of, but it would be the first time to do it all day long in a foreign country. Of course I was worried about language and cultural barriers, but predominantly I was very excited.

The Scania truck and its trailer at 6 o'clock in the morning.

The Scania truck and its trailer at 6 o'clock in the morning.

When my alarm went at 5 a.m. that day, I packed my a voice recorder, my camera and the more than four sheets of open ended questions with prompts that we had prepared earlier and hopped in the cab. It was a very cold and clear morning and it would still be hours until I'd get to see the sun. When I arrived at Dåva kraftvärmeverk, a combined heat and power plant just outside of Umeå, I stumbled around the site until I found the small hut where all the Ume Assistance drivers meet before their shifts. About a dozen men of all ages sat hunched over their coffees, some silently and others engaged in banter. I got to meet my driver for the day and immediately he seemed friendly, if a little quiet. The smell of coffee hung in the air, but it would be four hours until I'd get my first taste of it that day.

Our plan was to bring three containers of food waste up to a biogas station in Skellefteå (please don't ever ask me to pronounce this place correctly). There we were to collect three containers of recycled paper and bring them to another kraftvärmeverk in Holmsund. Finally, we were to return the empty containers to Dåva and call it a day. The truck was even bigger than I had imagined it to be. It stood a ginormous 46 meter long, a beastly 50 tonnes of steel glistening in the early morning frost. Trucks like that are still illegal in many countries, including Switzerland; this thing was a sight to behold.

This was the interior of the truck cabin. There were two displays just outside of the frame that showed live video feeds from behind the truck and trailer.

This was the interior of the truck cabin. There were two displays just outside of the frame that showed live video feeds from behind the truck and trailer.

For the sake of brevity and privacy I won't and can't go into detail about everything that happened that day. The thing that impressed me the most was the level of driving skill on display. I had, perhaps naively, expected a truck drivers job to be rather uninspiring and dull. What else than driving the truck around could it entail, right?

Turns out I was fundamentally wrong.  To load the cargo onto the trailer required reversing skills with millimetre precision. Imagine this, the guy was reversing his 46 meter truck both swifter and preciser than I had ever parallel parked a teeny Hyundai Swift. And then the weight and size of each of the containers had to be considered, changing the heights of each of the trucks axles. No wonder was my driver incredibly proud of his skills. Generally speaking, I couldn't fail to notice the importance of getting a job done as efficiently, timely and environmentally friendly as possible. This is what differentiates truck drivers from real truck drivers.

Cruising along the E4 early in the morning. Temperatures fell to -12° that day.

Cruising along the E4 early in the morning. Temperatures fell to -12° that day.

Prior to the interview I couldn't fail but notice the oddity of truck simulation games (Scania Truck Simulator, Euro Truck Simulator, etc.). What was it about trucking that was so interesting that it inspired thousands of people to replay what seemed to be a working day for others. Or subject themselves to more virtual trucking after doing so in real life all day long. There had to be something aspirational about this profession that I just wasn't seeing.

This made me want to know what made a trucker want to be a trucker. It turns out this is something that my class mates also found. Truck drivers adore the freedom that their jobs give them. This seemed slightly paradoxical to me. Aren't truckers supposed to deliver goods from point A to point B and make sure that they do it in time? This is hardly my understanding of freedom. When pressing the issue I found that it was likely to be a combination of three things. Firstly, there is no boss that is breathing them down their necks every time they make a turn. Secondly, they have been trusted with equipment and cargo that is worth multiple millions of dollars. And finally, they get to see the long winding open road stretch before them every day. All of my class mates came to the same conclusion and neither of them was able to say what this freedom exactly entails.

This was taken in the afternoon in Holmsund. Seeing all the rubbish around me was a pretty striking experience.

This was taken in the afternoon in Holmsund. Seeing all the rubbish around me was a pretty striking experience.

During my entire interview I set myself up for a difficult situation. Apart from wanting to learn what truck drivers actually do and what they value as people, my team was also interested in knowing his stance towards automation. Not without reason, as our project deals with 'highly automated trucks of the future'. It goes without saying that this is a difficult topic to bring up, as it might conjure up ideas of technology making trucking obsolete. By tip toeing around the issue I slowly found out that my driver was very open towards technology in general. It was difficult to see how technology might endanger his job as it was pretty multifaceted and required a lot of decision making. Because of that he viewed technology as being more of an assistant to driving and was enthusiastic about the safety improvements that might be within reach. Obviously this finding is very specific to this case and cannot be generalised.

The waste recycling station in Holmsund offers a view of Sweden that we might not be too familiar with.

The waste recycling station in Holmsund offers a view of Sweden that we might not be too familiar with.

Finally, after a long and exhausting 11 hours of inquiring I dropped into my bed. It had been an unexpectedly tough endeavour. The need of trying to stay a step ahead of the conversation, being mindful of one's questions and considering areas for follow up question was tiring. It turns out contextual inquiries are really difficult. Not only are you observing what somebody is doing, you are also trying to involve them in an interview about what they are doing and why. Looking back I found myself slipping into "interview mode" more often than I wanted. I wish I had been able to have my driver talk more about the things he was actually doing at the time, rather than sharing his experiences on the subject. This is a valuable lesson for me and I hope to improve next time I get the chance. Otherwise I managed to get through the day without any major oversights. The only thing I am still kicking myself for is that I completely missed out on the chance to shoot some video footage from the drivers cabin for our final project video.

There are only three people working in this place, one of them looks like a teenager. But what exceptional skills she has with the heavy machinery.

There are only three people working in this place, one of them looks like a teenager. But what exceptional skills she has with the heavy machinery.

The next step will be to analyse all of my pages and pages of notes. Due to the fact that I was up to present my interview experiences the very next day I have already completed a first step towards that goal. Even if it was just reciting from memory, I feel like I was able to share the most important experiences with the other groups. This experience will give us valuable insights on how to build our persona and the scenarios around it.

And still there were so many more things that I have completely left out. Really interesting tidbits. For instance, I learned why the 'Mind the Moose' signs have to be bolted to their poles, or why they are sometimes riddled with bullet holes and experienced a real nordic lunch break first hand. Rather than sharing these experiences with you here, I shall leave them unanswered so that we'll have something to talk about during our next dinner party.

It's funny how you can be 400km from the arctic circle and still be reminded of home. Haven't seen any 'Zürcher' lightbulbs around, though.

It's funny how you can be 400km from the arctic circle and still be reminded of home. Haven't seen any 'Zürcher' lightbulbs around, though.