Listen to Steve on The Universal Lens Channel

an overhead view of rapidly moving traffic and highway infrastructure with the title the Universal Lens Channel

Thanks to Chris Kovel for having me on inaugural episode of his “In Dialogue” series on the Universal Lens Channel. For about 75 minutes, we talked about the state of user research in 2023.

The episode is on YouTube but the interview is audio only. The YouTube and audio versions are embedded below, and also available on YouTube and libsyn.

E1: In Dialogue with Steve Portigal

There’s a transcript available on YouTube.

You don’t have visibility into everything and so I think [a company’s user research maturity] needs sometimes a dedicated examination and consideration in order to to improve it. I guess that’s how I would make the case or because you know at a profession level there are things that we can do but ultimately the implementation is taking place inside companies and what it really looks like is very localized. Company A and Company B can learn from each other in terms of what their best practices are, what their struggles are, but it’s hyper local — we have this way of doing product management, we have this market, we have this maturity in our marketing business, we have this kind of product, this vertical — all those things are going to really change what it takes to build a more mature practice, and if you don’t locally examine it, and you know, what more mature looks like for company A is not what more mature looks like for Company B. So I think there is sort of an investment needed of time and focus and ideally an external perspective to try to see where strides can be made to to to yeah to move things to move things along.

Second edition of Interviewing Users now available for pre-order

It’s been 10 years since I wrote Interviewing Users, and I’m thrilled to announce the second edition! It comes out October 17th and is available for pre-order, at a 15% discount.

In this new and updated edition of the acclaimed classic Interviewing Users, Steve Portigal quickly and effectively dispels the myth that interviewing is trivial. He shows how research studies and logistics can be used to determine concrete goals for a business and takes the reader on a detailed journey into the specifics of interviewing techniques, best practices, fieldwork, documentation, and how to make sense of uncovered data. Then Steve takes the process even further—showing the methods and details behind asking questions—from the words themselves to the interviewer’s actions and how they influence an interview. There is even a chapter on making sure that information gleaned from the research study is used by the business in such a way to make it impactful and worthwhile. Oh, and for good measure he throws in information about Research Operations.

Who Should Read This Book?

  • Anyone and everyone who is interested in finding out what makes their business tick, i.e., who their users are.
  • Anyone and everyone who wants to learn how to interview and listen to people.
  • Anyone and everyone, including CEOs, user researchers, designers, engineers, marketers, product managers, strategists, interviewers, and you.

Bonus: read Chapter 1 here.

A summary of Interviewing Users, in Portuguese

Aline Ferreira, a sociologist who is studying UX and UX research, read Interviewing Users and summarized it in Portuguese (Planejamento e boas práticas de entrevista: o que aprendi com “Interviewing Users”, de Steve Portigal or Planning and good interview practices: what I learned from “Interviewing Users”, by Steve Portigal).

Com uma linguagem simples e concisa, o livro de Portigal é excelente para o público iniciante em UX, assim como para os mais experientes.

O livro “Interviewing Users”, de Steve Portigal, conta com dicas práticas sobre como entrevistar usuários em profundidade. Ele é excelente especialmente para aqueles que não têm muita experiência. Contudo, eu não tenho nenhuma dúvida de que seja um livro que contribui também com profissionais mais experientes.

Read How To Talk To Strangers with Steve Portigal

A logo showing icons of two talk balloons, one has the three-dots indicating someone is typing. The title is How To Talk to Strangers, a conversation with Steve Portigal

Jennifer Rash interviewed me for DesignTalk, her blog.

I pulled out one part of our exchange, but there’s more and you should read the whole thing (it’s pretty short!):

What is your approach for discussing sensitive topics?
I can think of plenty of times where participants opened the door to an off-topic sensitive area (say, repeated, thinly-veiled references to being frustrated with a spouse) and I just left it alone, because it wasn’t germane to our focus. In general, It’s worth being clear with ourselves whether a topic might be uncomfortable for us or for our participants and not conflating the two. So I think there’s a combination of sensitivity for either party, and relevance that informs how if or how I proceed.

When we’re talking about sensitive topics, I’ll generally be neutral (maybe using body language to indicate I’m listening rather than an exclamation like “oh no!” that indicates I have my own emotions about what they’ve shared). My follow-ups may be neutral and direct (“What did you decide to do then?”) if I perceive my participant as comfortable, but if I’m going to be more cautious I can ask a projective question, where the question isn’t about them, but some other group of people.

Q: How have you seen other people in the community deal with that situation?
A: Well, when it happened to me, I decided to…

Making the question less direct sometimes prompts a response about them, but those cases, it was their choice to talk about themselves specifically rather than more broadly about other people.

Watch Steve speak about Boosting User Research Impact

Steve Portigal banner

I recently spoke about Boosting User Impact to the Product Makers community. The 47-minute video is embedded below, and on YouTube here.

Boosting User Research Impact | Featured Product Maker, Steve Portigal

Steve joined us to talk about how organizations can operate user research programs with greater maturity, engaging stakeholders to maximize influence and impact.

Event summary here (registration required).

Superficial, stereotyped user research bullshit.

Screenshot of the landing page for an online AI service that has the headline "user research. without the users."

If you’re at all online, you probably have seen the reactions to SyntheticUsers. I have enjoyed the snark and outrage about this ridiculous ‘service’ but we really benefit from Niloufar Salehi actually trying it and reporting back so the outrage can be founded in the facts. Ironically, this is something that SyntheticUsers doesn’t actually do

This short post, I tried out SyntheticUsers, so you don’t have to is summed up by the sub-head

Using AI as a replacement for interviewing actual users is a brilliant idea if you want to look like you made an effort, but are really looking to fill the page with superficial, stereotyped bullshit.

Further in, we see that this experiment compared the output of SynthesicUsers with the conclusions from some actual research. In the research itself

Our own in-depth interviews over months with real parents found that the dashboard was a misguided solution and that what was really meeting our participants’ information needs was through trusting relationships that met them where they were and went beyond information about schools.

but SyntheticUsers reports that

Participants said that the dashboard would be “very effective,” “very useful,” and “very helpful” in solving their problems (6/6) and rated it on average 3.4/5.

Again, there’s no surprises here, but there is delight in seeing an actual example. Send this to your bosses, clients, and colleagues who decide to suggest these sorts of tools instead of actually, you know, doing the work.

Watch/read The Evolution of User Research: past, present and future with Steve Portigal

Kritika Oberoi and Looppanel did a great job editing down a long and discursive exchange into a few key takeaways. The full article is here.

I offered my high-level take on the history of user research, especially in tech.

Phase 1 – Research Consultants (aka the Caveman era): The first cohort of User Researchers in the field were primarily consultants—think IDEO, a particularly successful example emerging at this time. But while research consultants could be hired, in-house researchers were still a rare sight.
Phase 2 – Individual Contributors: As organizations started to realize the power of research, the function began to emerge within companies. But although there were individual contributors running research, they weren’t empowered—no big titles, not a lot of access to senior management, and a limited ability to influence crucial decision-making.
Phase 3 – Empowered Research Practices: Today we’ve entered the third phase—a phase where Research leaders have titles like Head of Research and Director of Insights. These leaders are empowered to build practices—hiring their own teams and influencing their peers in senior leadership to make decisions based on actual user insights.
And while every organization may not be at the same level of maturity, Steve sees the field as a whole headed in the direction of greater empowerment and influence, driven by hunger from verticals like Design & Product.

A dramatic shift in the industry


I talked about the two major drivers that have fed research growth in recent years:

#1 Consistent evangelization by industry leaders: Over the last 20 years, industry leaders have been advocating for research, demonstrating the impact of the practice, and teaching others their trade along the way. This consistent advocacy—speaking, writing books, organizing conferences, and so on—has helped organizations understand the value of research and learn how to run it themselves. Of course, the work is far from complete, but it was definitely effective.
#2 The rise of Design: UX Design has grown rapidly over the last decade, and Design leaders understand the need for research. Design teams have opened the door for Research inside companies, hiring talent and building a practice to enable better decision-making.

What has driven the growth in User Research?


In the final clip I talk about the tension between confidence and crises of confidence that happen in many growing companies.

Gaps start to emerge between the company’s vision and what users actually want and need. At some point in the journey, the reliance on vision instead of insight leads to a major failure—maybe a feature release epically fails, or an unexpected competitor that starts to grab market share.

It’s when the inherent confidence of the organization transforms into a crisis of confidence that a tipping point is reached and research emerges to bridge the gap between the company and its customers.

Where's the tipping point for organizations to believe in research?

There’s more in the full article.

Watch Steve present Stop Solving Problems! at CEDIM

I recently presented Stop Solving Problems! as part of the CEDIM Innovation Talk series. The 40 minute video is embedded below, and on YouTube here.

Webinar: Stop Solving Problems! - Steve Portigal

The old maxim says we should “Find a need and fill it;” while at a one level that is certainly true, even in this era of fetishized disruption, organizations seem to easily fall in love with the idea of being in the problem-solving business.

In this webinar, Steve reviews a number of different mindsets for creating products and services, consider their benefits and risks, and challenge you to go beyond a fixing mentality.

Watch Steve on Good Morning UX

Thanks to Rafael Burity and Rodrigo Lemes for having me as a guest on Good Morning UX. The one-hour episode is embedded below and can also be found on the episode home page and YouTube.

Are we really doing research? With Steve Portigal - Good Morning UX

We usually have this life training to ask questions, but it doesn’t make us researchers, to be honest. Especially when we are talking about learning from users, customers, stakeholders, etc.

As designers and researchers, we have this kind of “power” to help companies to avoid mistakes, bad ideas, and guesses. It has been becoming a huge differential in the industry of digital products, but to really take advantage of this ability is important to have some points in perspective.

This show will pass through some questions like:

Are we doing research well with a real impact on the business?

How a designer can be prepared to do it in the real world, in a short time but with quality?

Is there a difference between leaders with research or design backgrounds?

For this, we invited Steve Portigal a researcher who has interviewed hundreds of people and with a huge experience working in telecommunications, banking, media, energy, and e-commerce industries. He is the author of some important books and host of the Dollars to Donuts podcast. He helps companies to think and act strategically when innovating with user insights.

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