Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories

User research war stories are personal accounts of the challenges researchers encounter out in the field, where mishaps are inevitable yet incredibly instructive. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a diverse compilation of war stories that range from comically bizarre to astonishingly tragic, tied together with valuable lessons from expert user researcher Steve Portigal.


  1. The Best Laid Plans
  2. Those Exasperating Participants
  3. Control is an Illusion (excerpt)
  4. Cracking The Code
  5. Gross, Yet Strangely Compelling
  6. Not Safe For Work
  7. To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest
  8. The Perils of Fieldwork
  9. People Taking Care of People
  10. Can’t Stop The Feeling
  11. The Myth of Objectivity



Praise for the Book

The stories Steve Portigal knits together here have an extraordinary and immediate intimacy, like listening in on 66 researchers’ bedtime prayers. Anne Lamott says there are essentially three kinds of prayers: help, thanks, and wow! Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries covers the whole range, with humor and wisdom.

Dan Klyn, information architect, co-founder of The Understanding Group (TUG)

Portigal’s collection of war stories illuminates the discipline and improvisation endemic to researching people. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a fitting companion to his landmark Interviewing Users.

Gregg Bernstein, Senior User Researcher, Vox Media

This book is ethnography verité. The novice ethnographer will learn how ethnography actually works, seasoned practitioners will be visited by the ghosts of studies past, and everyone will get a good laugh.

Sam Ladner, author of Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector

I didn’t mean to read this book. But I couldn’t help it. The stories of research in the field are compelling and relatable. So many moments of recognition, along with oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-glad-that-didn’t-happen-to-me moments. These episodes tell the stories of what user research is really like.

Dana Chisnell, co-author, Handbook of Usability Testing (2nd edition)

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a fascinating, sometimes hilarious, and very revealing peek behind the curtain of user research. Read this book to understand the lengths to which researchers go to get the critical insights that today’s businesses desperately need.

Denise Lee Yohn, author of What Great Brands Do

These behind-the-scene stories of researchers at work will enlighten and inspire you.

Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation