Video of my Delta CX AMA

I recently did an Ask Me Anything session organized by Debbie Levitt of Delta CX. The video is now online.

23 Mar 2021: Office Hours/AMA, special guest Steve Portigal

We went for about 75 minutes and talked about learning to balance all different pressures when leading an interview, encouraging teams to support the need for research, helping teams to act on user research findings, and a lot more. Check it out!

What you asked/What they heard

In this video from 2016, basketball player Taurean Prince, in a post-game press conference, responds to a question about the team’s rebound performance with an explanation of how rebounds work.


I can’t tell from this clip if there’s an actual miscommunication or if Prince is being intentional, and for my purposes here, I don’t suppose it really matters.

It’s not uncommon to ask a question and get an answer to a different question, and while it can throw the conversation off, it can be a visceral reminder that we have different basic assumptions and that we need to work to overcome those, to bridge that gaps. Those miscommunications are awkward but they invite us to make the effort to realign.

The other day I met with a group over Zoom. As happens on video meetings, people adjust their video to communicate something about themselves, manage their privacy, etc. One person stood right in front of a heavily blurred background. Another was in front of a block of color with their company logo in the corner. Another person was clearly in a garage converted to a home office, and one person was in front of (what I assumed was) a painted scene, perhaps from some artwork. We each took turns introducing ourselves.

When we got to the person with the painted scene, I asked a followup question: “Can I ask about your background?”

They proceeded to describe a bit of their educational experience and how it led to the nickname that they go by nowadays.

My question should have been “Can I ask about your Zoom background?” but what they heard was “Can I ask about your personal background?” Given the nature of a video-platform-mediated conversation, I had forgotten that what they are showing of themselves doesn’t actually match how they see themselves (e.g, if they have turned off self-view, they aren’t even seeing that painted scene themselves).

I was mortified because the question they heard might have been too personal, perhaps asking them to explain or justify an unconventional nickname. I’m curious, of course, but I also have no right to start asking personal questions in the first few minutes of meeting someone! This is not how I want to start off our relationship!

I laughed in embarrassment, and tried to create a teaching moment, modeled by me and my own mistake, but even explaining that I asked the question poorly, the other person felt apologetic for misunderstanding me! Perhaps we established some rapport through this misunderstanding, if I’m idealistic I can imagine that we both worked together to find our shared space of understanding after this mistake (my mistake, for sure!).

The answer, by the way, is that what I assumed was “art” was an image from a video game. Of course video games can be art!

How Garfield Helped Me Make Peace With a Culture in Decline

I really enjoyed this thoughtful (and gentle) analysis (NYT, Archive.is) of Garfield, brands, culture, consistency, and nostalgia. Despite the proliferation of arch/snark Garfield remixes, the author considers them authentically.

Little did I know that iteration would become the dominant model of 21st-century entertainment: beloved intellectual property endlessly spun off, rebooted and crossed over; culture not as a series of works but as a constellation of reliable draws. It is true that I am getting older, but it is also true that culture can get worse: less surprising, more reliant on references and brands, familiar to the point of revulsion. I worry that I have witnessed these changes in my short lifetime, although I cannot really know. As a hedge against uncertainty, Garfield variants offer a course of conditioning.

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.

PLAYfest: Mary Robinette Kowal

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.

Series

About Steve