Listen to Steve on the Enterprise Product Leadership Podcast



Thanks to Daniel Elizalde for having me on the Enterprise Product Leadership podcast to talk about user research, especially in enterprise and industrial organizations. The audio (51 min) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

We discuss the complexities of doing user research in a B2B context, the challenges of getting access to users, the need to understand customers’ pain (as opposed to only focusing on usability), and how to influence your organization to conduct more research. Steve also shares his advice on how to build a practice that encourages ongoing user research.

Topics

  • Steve’s career background and the work he does today as an experienced user researcher
  • What a user researcher does and why it is important
  • Invaluable tips for user researchers
  • Why companies struggle to understand their customers’ challenges
  • How a company can become more user-centered
  • How to enable a culture that empowers everyone
  • Why you may want to bring on a user researcher or an external expert
  • The nuances of being a team player and contributing to the success of the company
  • How to challenge baseline assumptions to move forward and grow as a company
  • The differences between B2C and B2B user research
  • The challenges of user research (and how to overcome them)
  • Why user research is not only incredibly invaluable but needs to be figured out for your company
  • Why culture is critical to research
  • How to support leaders in helping transform the organization’s mindset into a customer-centric culture
  • Proactive vs. reactive research

Tips

  • Keep in mind user-research is a skill. You can read about it, take classes, listen to podcasts, but you also have to practice.
  • Practice can include: knowing when to do research, knowing what research to do, how to go about actually doing the research, learning how to leverage the research that you’ve done, and learning how to help others understand the research.
  • And be sure to give yourself the chance to get better. All of this takes time. Be compassionate and understand that research is not just binary; there are many, many facets of it.

Frederick Wiseman on observing natural behavior

This wonderful profile of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman confirms my own experience with this frequently-asked-question about user research.

“There’s a whole issue as to whether the camera changes behavior — the pretentious way of talking about it is, ‘Does the Heisenberg principle apply to documentary filmmaking?’ — but in my experience, 99.9 percent of the people don’t act for the camera,” he said. “My explanation for that is most people aren’t good enough actors to become somebody else. Not everybody’s Meryl Streep. And when people are uncomfortable or putting it on, so to speak, you instantly know it.”

How William Gibson keeps an eye out for possible futures

From an interview with William Gibson last year for the Mother Jones podcast.

You’ve always had an uncanny ability to write about technology that doesn’t exist or certainly isn’t widely known, but that then comes to the fore. Do you study cutting edge research or are you just a time traveler come to warn us like Wilf [Netherton, a character in The Peripheral and Agency]?

No, I’m lazier than that. I just walk around. And when I’m my normal human self, and not actually sitting at a computer writing fiction, I walk around with sort of an eye peeled and looking for little bits of new stuff, or sometimes old stuff that we’ve sort of forgotten about, but that could, if it got into sufficient circulation, really change things. I see that as often how technological change happens. It’s never the stuff that the people who invent the technology or develop the technology think is going to happen. That’s never the stuff that causes the big change. It’s stuff that nobody anticipates.

Check out Steve on the Brave UX podcast

Brave UX: An interview with Steve Portigal


I enjoyed the chance to speak with Brendan Jarvis for his Brave UX podcast. The 67-minute episode is embedded above, and is on YouTube.

In this episode…

  • How Steve’s adapted his practice in recent years, as a result of industry changes
  • Why should researchers stop focusing on problems and start focusing on people?
  • What’s important for user researchers to remember about bias (their bias)?
  • How can researchers overcome resistance and level-up their impact?
  • And why does Steve have a museum of foreign groceries in his home?

Steve interviewed for “People of Research”

Thanks to Research Loop for interviewing me as part of their People of Research series. The interview is here, and I’ve reposted it below.

Big thanks for accepting the invitation, Steve, a pleasure to have you on #PeopleOfResearch interview series! Let’s start!
You have more than 19 years’ of experience, how user research changed and evolved since the beginning of your career?

When I started out, user research was primarily being done in consultancies. If you wanted to do this work, you went to work at an agency. As I progressed and people would come to me for advice, I was always sending them to Adaptive Path, frogdesign, IDEO, Jump Associates, and so on. And as we’ve collectively raised awareness of the value of research, companies have invested in building their own teams. I can’t even guess at the numbers these days, I feel like Facebook had 700 user researchers at some point? How many hundreds of user researchers do we think Google has? So when you have that kind of scale, the job opportunities are in those organizations.

It means that you have leadership roles in user research, which maybe we take for granted now, but that wasn’t always the case. That was the inspiration for me to start my podcast, Dollars to Donuts, to shine a bit of a spotlight on a relatively new role in the field of user research.

To be honest, it’s so interesting to me to speak with people inside of an organization about research and hear them talk (as you’d expect) like corporate people, people who spend all of their time inside that culture. Back in my early days, as a researcher/consultant, our job was to bring that outside in, to surface the language of the real world, not the language (and mental model) of the producer of the tool for the world. So when the person whose job it is to bring the outside in is actually part of the inside, the producer culture, they’re going to do that very, very differently. Their own professional success, their financial incentive, is tied to the performance of the company, or the product. And yet the work is about telling truth-to-power. So how I practice that as a consultant is going to differ from how someone who leads an internal team and reports to the VP of Product will. I mean, we’ve long had consultants and internal people in the world of business, but in user research, it’s still a relatively recent change.

We are living in a high speed society, therefore startups and companies work in a very agile development environment, trying to deliver products or features as quickly as possible. How can user research fit in this fast paced context?

Agreed, we’re under pressure to work quickly. And so we respond with new methods that aren’t the “best” method but that work within the constraints that others are placing on research. Teams are understaffed so this means pressure to work more quickly. We even adopt the terminology, like “sprints” which is not an effective word choice if you want to be given time to work through your process. This willing compliance with unrealistic expectations doesn’t serve the practice and it doesn’t serve us individually that well.

I see this as an issue of leadership, though, and not something that an individual researcher can impact that easily. There needs to be someone with authority, responsibility, and credibility to help the organization best utilize research. Without a peer to the leaders in (say) design, product, engineering, then researchers are relegated to taking instructions from people who may be less conversant with the operations of user research. A research leader will work proactively to understand upcoming design and product activity in order to prioritize and allocate resources so that the research that gets done is research that will have the most impact at the right time.

There are a lot of ways to learn research and juniors often feel overwhelmed and discouraged because of that. What would you tell them to do?

Practice. Do as much research as you can. Create your own practice occasions: maybe it’s that chatty person you meet in public like an extroverted cashier – ask them a question and then ask them follow up questions! Also, reflect, just like a sports team coach who reviews game films; watch your videos, read your transcripts, and look at what worked well and what you might have improved.

Take the opportunity to be interviewed yourself – whether it’s for a survey or a usability study or a poll, find an opportunity to experience the interview from the other side of the lens. Keep reflecting by observing others at work — including both great and poor interviewers in your work context, and in the media (for example, what do you think works in a particular Terry Gross interview?)

Junior researchers need guidance at the beginning of their career, what advice do you have for them?

Take advantage of all the ways you can learn more about research (meetups, articles, conferences, mentorship, discussions) but look for adjacent ways to learn. Read widely. Go to museums. Travel. Watch documentaries. Or whatever it is for you that helps you encounter ways of living, being, creating, thinking outside your own as it can inform your own research practice in surprising and joyful ways.

What qualities do you think a researcher should have?

At a fundamental level, there’s an essential inherent curiosity about people (which may be more of a leaning than a skill). There’s the ability to deeply listen. We need patience. We need to think quickly on our feet, to be in the moment and creative in how we ask questions.

There’s also something very individualistic about research. My style as a researcher is connected to my way of thinking and speaking and listening in all of my interactions and in all of my relationships. We’re all unique that way. Of course, in research we are making choices about how to express or not some of our tendencies, but there’s no perfect choice, and over time researchers can develop an authentic style that will continue to evolve with them.

But the most important thing I’ve learned about research is about myself. Research is a person-to-person activity and every time I go talk to somebody I come in with my own experiences and my own biases – my own expectations about what I’m going to see based on (for example) what the research project is about and I have had to learn to hear my own judgment. It’s actually one of my favorite things about research – that feeling you get when you discover an assumption you have made. It could be about anything. It’s just so rewarding that I feel like I am learning about the world and learning about myself because I have dismantled a presumption that I didn’t know that I had. So that keeps happening – I keep discovering my own biases, prejudices, and assumptions and so it feels like I’m always growing as a person.

Thank you again, Steve, for sharing your story and your experience, very insightful!

About #PeopleOfResearch

#PeopleOfResearch is a series of mini-interviews for the Research Loop Community where researchers all over the globe share their vision, experience and advice.

Lee the Puppet teaches you about body language over video conference

User researchers are continuing to experiment with and be challenged by remote research, especially around rapport and building empathy. For help, check out this charming 9-minute video from puppeteer and sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal about body language and communicating meaning and intent between people over video conferencing.

Check out my articles on “Great User Research For Non-Researchers”


I was honored to be invited to be part of User Research Explained – A Charity Collection Of Essays For Pandemic Relief (To Benefit Doctors Without Borders).

My contribution is Great Research For Non-Researchers, presented in three parts

  1. Planning Research
  2. Doing Research
  3. Acting on Research

The demand for User Research exceeds the supply of researchers. And when, ultimately, our goal is “Learning from customers’’ and our user research community is a helping profession, we should be finding ways to empower everyone to do well. This is the first of three connected articles aiming to help overcome territorial and quality concerns within our community. In the first piece, I provide some of the essentials on planning user research for those “other people” wanting to go out and work with users…In the second essay, I provide some of the essentials on doing user research for those “other people” wanting to go out and work with users…In the final essay, I’ll provide some of the essentials about acting on user research.

Listen to Steve on the Why UX? Podcast



Thanks to Helena Levison (“Queen of UX”) for having me on the Why UX? podcast to talk about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. The audio (28 min) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

This was a particularly exciting conversation for me because over the past while Helena has been hosting a online book club where she reads from the book, and even features appearances from some of the authors of the stories themselves!

Steve contributed to “Remote User Research: 12 Tips from Experts”

There’s a really good range of ideas and best practices in Remote User Research: 12 Tips from Experts. Mine is below

2. Set expectations for your participants
If you’re carrying out remote research via video conferencing tools, it’s always a good idea to set expectations before the interview.

“It’s likely that a remote user research session, however you understand that term, is going to be something different for your participant,” explains experienced user researcher Steve Portigal. “It’s not a work meeting over Zoom, it’s not catching up with friends over Facetime. So begin your session by calling attention to anything that might be especially awkward for either of you.”

Steve suggests pointing out that you might not be making eye contact, for example. Let the participant know that you’re going to be taking notes while they talk and that—even though you won’t look at them directly—you’ll be listening to them and watching what they’re doing.

“Eye contact works at a human perceptual level,” Steve stresses. “So it’s not clear that you can simply explain away something about how the brain works. But, at worst, it serves to establish the rapport and frame this session as a collaborative endeavor.”

3. Consider not using video or only doing so sparingly
We’re currently seeing a lot of articles about “Zoom fatigue”, which argue that the slight glitching of video, and the expectations for posture and gaze, are not sustainable for our mental health. So while it may feel counter-intuitive, audio may actually be preferable for making a connection with another person.

“Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s talk show Fresh Air, for example, is famous for eschewing any visual context at all for her interviews,” Steve points out. “Similarly, the psychotherapist’s traditional couch serves to create intimacy specifically by avoiding looking at the other person.”

Steve therefore suggests beginning a remote session with video to greet each other, but then to keep it off for the conversational parts of the interview. Experiment and see what works for you—and for your participants.

Video of my Mind The Product AMA

I recently did a small Ask Me Anything session organized by Mind the Product. The video is now online.

It runs about an hour and includes discussion about balancing quantitative and qualitative research in an organization that leans heavily towards one or the other, doing research when you have an exceptionally small user population, what happens when the work you are performing is well outside your job description, and more!

Series

About Steve