Why Do Some Students Live On Their Own?

For my latest assignment I had to interview some people I did not know in a productive, open style. I have been learning how to do this at recent seminars and from looking at the Service Design Tools website. My friend Rebecca introduced me to two of her friends who are studying at Dundee University, but not at DJCAD. It was important to the assignment that my interviewees did not know me and were not at Art School. This was simply just incase they tried to aim their answers towards me, i.e give me answers that relate to Graphic Design or creative culture. I just wanted honest, ordinary answers from ordinary people.

I took both of my interviewees’ to a cafe/bar just on the Perth Road so that the experience would be more relaxed. We were able to get comfortable and have a nice big table to sit around and use for drawing. It was also a very good excuse for a hot chocolate…

Before I started I briefly told Andrew, my first interviewee, what I was doing without giving too much away. I told him that I was just looking into how students live at home. I did not tell him until after the interview that the topic of my investigation was:

Why do some students live on their own?

(It was important not to tell him this because it might have affected his answers. For example he might have defended, or found fault with, living with a flat-mate more than he naturally would have).

I then let him read over my ‘participant information sheet’ and just explained to him about using his name and photograph. He was happy for me to do so and signed the little ‘informed consent form’ I had made up.

I also asked for his permission to record the interview but assured him that it was just for my personal use, to help me write up the results. Had Andrew not been happy about any of this I would simply have changed his name and just drawn some stick men sketches. I could also have mixed his results with another interviewee to ensure full anonymity. I learnt about this practice from reading Snoop by Psychologist Sam Gosling:

“When I describe the rooms and offices which I’ve snooped, I’ve changed some names and details to protect people’s anonymity and in a few cases have combined examples to improve the efficiency of exposition and the flow of the narrative”

In this case I did not need to do this but I will bear it in mind for the future. I do not ever want to invade anyones privacy or make them feel uncomfortable. I was aware that recording the interview might do this so I had a notepad and pen at the ready. I probably would not have used them though because I was using the “group sketch” tool that my lecturer introduced me to at my recent seminar. It involves getting the group, which consisted of Andrew, Rebecca and myself, to draw what they are talking about. In Andrews case he drew a floor-plan of his flat and, with encouragement, sketched in items such as couches and beds.

Funnily enough Victoria did the same even though she had not seen Andrews sketch as she arrived a while after his interview had finished. This got me thinking about how people think about their living space. When we were asked to draw our experience of Mecca Bingo my seminar group and I also drew a sort of floor plan. Yet when you think about it, this “birds eye view” of spaces is one we don’t actually see. I didn’t stand on the Mecca Bingo ceiling and look down on everything…? You would normally associate this kind of view with architects and builders who kind of do see this view when they put in the foundations of a house. I wonder why this angle view has spread from these discourses into ordinary peoples perceptions?

Anyway, back to the interviews. I went over the consent forms with Victoria as well and she was also happy for her name and photograph to be published on this blog.

Recording the interview was fine with her as well. I knew beforehand, from Rebecca, that Victoria lived at home with her parents. I let her mention this naturally of course and I also found out she has a brother. I deliberately interviewed these two people who lived in different set-ups – one at home with her family and the other in rented accommodation with a flat-mate. I wanted to get an insight into how people get on living with other people. I wanted to understand why they do so and therefore understand for myself why some people choose to live on their own. I hope to do another interview with someone who lives on their own to compare their answers with Andrew and Victoria. It will be nice to see the differences and well as the similarities in their answers.

For now though I will look at the results of these interviews and compare the set-up of a student living in their family home to one living with a flat-mate. Here is a reminder of my mind-map which shows the areas I wanted to look at.

It was too big to take with me and I would not have wanted my subjects to see what I was looking for. I did take some promp questions with me incase I got stuck during the interview:

Rather than go through each subjects interview I think I will go through the mind-map areas and compare the subjects that way. Whenever I think of this assignment now I think of my mind-map!

So…let’s start at the top right with MONEY.

Andrew has a weekend job where his flat-mate also works, most of his wages tend to be spent on food. He cannot cook very well though and tends to just buy lots of nice and cheap stuff, random things that catch his eye. He doesn’t ever buy things for the flat, furnishings etc, they just use what it came with. Quite often he has to be quite stingy about money so will not drink on nights out and not eat out. His flat-mate on the other hand eats out the majority of the time! When it comes to bills Andrew, “very nerdily”, keeps good track of them and saves up beforehand. I got them impression that having money for them takes first priority. Later on he mentioned that he keeps all of his important documents in a certain place in his bedroom. From this I would say that he is quite a mindful person and takes his responsibilities seriously.

Victoria works in her dads office during the holidays but not generally at term time. Most of her wages are spent on clothes and last year she went on three holidays! Her parents don’t make her contribute any digs or anything to the house. They also decorated her bedroom for her whilst she was on holiday. She does have to buy her bus ticket though, which is seventy pounds for three months. The bus takes her more or less straight from her door to uni so it’s really convenient. Because of this, she didn’t see the point in wasting money living in a flat. Her boyfriend lives in a student flat and she has seen just how much it costs, so that put her off. Dundee is also a really good university, more of less on her doorstep, so she wouldn’t have moved away to study anywhere else either.

As you can see their is a huge difference in the way Andrew and Victoria spend their money. Living at home means Victorias wages mostly become ‘disposable income’ which she can spend on herself. Andrew on the other hand has very little disposable income because of he has to consider his financial obligations. He also has a student loan which he will have to pay back one day. This is actually very interesting in terms of marketing. A travel agent for example would want to consider this discrepancy amongst students. Victoria was able to go on three holidays last year because she had the time – summer holidays – and the unspoken for wages.

Now let’s looks at ENVIRONMENT

Andrews flat is rented and the landlord did say that nothing was to be put on the walls. Apparently he has been quite lenient with them so they do have a lot of posters on the walls. The living room has “general posters we both like, films like Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill and any bands we both like”. His bedroom however has more specific ones of bands that he likes. Andrew mentioned tickets on his door which I asked a bit more about. Apparently whilst his brother was in New York he collected all of the tickets he used throughout the trip, eg. theatre, film and train. This inspired him to do the same because “it’s nice to remember the little details like where you sat at a gig or something”. He has been doing this for a couple of years now. This conversation lead us to music then neighbours. I found out that he doesn’t know his neighbors very well but the downstairs ones have been to his door a few times to complain about the loud music. This hasn’t stopped him or his flat-mate playing it loudly but they do turn it down when someone complains. Later on Andrew also mentioned that the flat was quite plain with big brown couches and a broken table. The furniture in his bedroom was also mentioned and what he uses it for but didn’t go into details about materials or colour except to say that his flat-mates room had a random red wall.

Victoria on the other hand mentioned colour and texture a lot more and she just generally described items with more detail. She told me how her parents decorated her room whilst she was away and that it actually use to be there room. The walls are cream and the bed has “a kind of tartany quilt which goes with the colour of the carpet”. She has fitted wardrobes down the bottom and the desk is next to her bed which has lots of cushions on it. She never mentioned posters or pictures too much however which surprised me. Her brother is in the room opposite her but he doesn’t make a lot of noise. Victoria took a lot more time to draw her house and she drew the dining room first which I found out is where she studies and her family eat together there also.

The difference in the way my subjects talked about their environment reminded me of an experiment at one of lectures. My tutor asked a boy and a girl who lived together to describe their living room, they each left the room whilst the other one did so. The difference in the descriptions was quite telling, the girl mentioned colours and fabrics where as the boy just said what was there. This would be something to bear in mind when shops and magazine describe furniture or clothes. But but are they actually the cause of this difference? Does the language in magazines aimed at woman contribute to the way they speak? This is something I’ve had on my to do list since that lecture: look into how true this is.

Anyway, onto CHORES

One of the first things Andrew told me was how his living room carpet was drenched in beer from the night before – “its not a very tidy flat”. This topic was where Rebecca chipped in some points which was good as it spurred Andrew on to tell me more. Apparently his flat-mate doesn’t clean it at all, this bothers Andrew a little bit in that he sometimes just won’t bother. Eventually though he will get fed up of the mess and tidy it up, “I do try”. They never argue about it though, I got the impression cleaning was too little a priority to cause an argument. I wrote this down on our group sketch paper  and it prompted Andrew to tell me that in actual fact his flat-mates towels bothered him. Apparently he leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor and they smell awful! Again though, they’ve never had a real dispute about it and he was laughing when he told me about it. Some of their friends do comment on the towel smell and the state of the flat which motivates Andrew to tidy it up.

Victoria said very little about cleaning, just that her mum generally does most of it. If someone in the family makes a mess they are expected to tidy it up. She mentioned that she keeps a lot of clothes piled on her desk chair and when they reach a certain level she will tidy them by. Her mum will occasionally complain about this to her but she “thinks she’s given up”.

Neither of them had any kind of routine or rota for cleaning up and it is defiantly not a priority for either of them. This subject in particular made me think about the app I am designing at the moment. It’s aimed at people who share a flat and lets them create shopping lists and put on notifications for appointments, say a plumber for example. One of the areas involves chores and originally the design was going to involve a rota. I have since changed it to more of a ‘log book’ that allows users to say what cleaning they did. Other users can then comment on it and hopefully it would inspire them to clean so they can log it. Whilst this change made it more fun I think it’s still a bit too serious, talking to my subjects I realized how cleaning up was quite a funny subject. I could have incorporated some fun, quirky bits to the design had I used a technique like these interviews beforehand. I will remember to consider them for future projects from now on!

Oh and Andrew also mentioned that his friends comment on the state of the place. My app could have been more interactive and allow flat-mates friends, (even parents) to log that they had cleaned or urge the flat-mates to clean!

Right, onto STUDYING before I get carried away

Andrew mentioned his desk and I asked him what sort of things he uses it for which led the conversation to studying. It was nice that it flowed in this way. He told me that it was “piled with junk that surrounding his pc which he uses for uni work and stuff like facebook” He likes to have really loud music on whilst he is studying to drown out the loud music coming from his flat-mates room. He added, “Its not a very quite flat…”.

Victoria on the other hand told me that even though she has a desk in her room she often studies in her dining room. This is because the computer there is the family one and has less distractions than her laptop. She needs complete quiet when she is studying so wont’ have the tv on or music playing. Her family, even her brother, are very quiet so they don’t make a lot of noise that would bother her when she is working. She did say she doesn’t really study that much however, “not as much as I should”.

With this topic you can again see the differences between my subjects. Andrew mentioned that he prefers working in his room to the point that he will leave Uni to work at home. Victoria avoids her room and prefers to work somewhere completely separate!

Last one now, “HERMIT(NESS)”

I was surprised to learn that Andrew doesn’t see his flat-mate an awful lot. The reason for this is that have very different schedules and eating patterns. They are both friends and have the same group of friends but he said they both very much like their alone time. They stay in their rooms a lot and don’t really talk that much although they do get on. I think they suit each other quite well in that respect. Andrew said he spends a lot of time on his own but doesn’t ever feel lonely. He could always text his friends who live down the road if he ever did. Friends also visit their flat too and of course he is always aware that his flat-mate is there.

Victoria also spends a lot of time in her room, on her laptop or watching tv as does her brother who she hardly see’s. Her family do always have meals together in the Dining room. (Andrew told me and indeed drew the broken table in his living room. He did say that nobody would eat together at it anyway, even if it were fixed) If she did ever feel lonely she would just go down and see her parents as she gets on well with them. She also mentioned her boyfriend and friends come over a lot as well. From this topic she went on to say that she sometimes wishes she lived in a flat. The people on her course seem to know each other and know more people through flat-mates – “they have kind of groups already so it can be a bit harder to make friends”. This point is something I guess someone living on their own would feel as well. In fact Andrew actually mentioned that it might be better to live with a few more people, that it might be more sociable.

It would seem that this area has quite a lot of similarities in that both subjects retreat to their rooms most of the time. I wonder how this compares with someone who lives on their own?

I would really like to find this out so I hope do find a willing subject soon and fully compare the results. For now though I can say that I found out an awful lot from these interviews, the open questions and group sketching really helped me get some stories out of my subjects. The semi-structured nature of the interviews allowed me to deviate whenever something interesting came up. So I found out lots of little extra things I might never have considered. I also, unintentionally, managed to see the difference between having a third party present. During Andrews interview Rebecca chipped in some times and this led him to expand on some things. These were more personal points that I would not have gotten out of him because I didn’t know him. I interviewed Victoria on her own however and noticed a slight difference. For future reference I would say that it might be a good idea to interview a few people at a time, if it suits the subject of course.

I defiantly will use this research technique in the future whenever I need this kind of qualitative information. Doing it without a voice recorder would, I think, be quite a challenge. Knowing that I had it allowed me to concentrate on making the interview more comfortable without worrying I was missing anything. I think the fact that it was my phone really helped as it blended in and the screen blanked over. A dictaphone would look quite alien and might put people off. I guess I owe Apple a big thank you for the voice-recorder – an example of good design. Listening back over the interviews I realize that not all my questions were as open as they could have been. I would also like to experiment with the service design tools. My interviewees were not just as enamored with the group sketching as my seminar group were. Maybe that’s the difference between art students? I think I will test out some more tools and then I can guage what works best for what kind of people. It’s basically all just practice, I have the basic formula and know-how, I just need to play about with it.

Here are some photographs of the ‘group sketches’ from the interviews…

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