Listen to Steve on the One Knight In Product podcast

One Knight in Product, Episode 193
Making Sure You Make an Impact through User Research
Steve Portigal
User Research Consultant & Author
"Interviewing Users"

Thanks to Jason Knight for having me on the One Knight In Produc podcast.

You can listen to our 45-minute conversation (and see links to podcast services) on the episode page. The audio is also embedded below:

Episode highlights

1. Some people are still wary of user research, or think they don’t need it, but it remains as important as ever

It can be tempting for founders to think they know exactly what they need, rely on feedback from customer-facing teams, or not speak to anyone until they’ve already built the thing they want to build. Feedback from sales teams and founders is an incredibly important vector, but should only be the start of the discussion never the end.

2. Continuous discovery and point-in-time research both have a place in a researcher’s armoury

There are methodological constraints to continuous research, alongside the difficulty of finding the time and buy-in to do it but, on the other hand, it can be incredibly impactful to have rapid research tightly coupled to the product team. On the other hand, well-planned up-front research can still help you to find truly disruptive insights for your company. Do both!

3. We all have cognitive biases – we should accept that and be honest with ourselves about their effects

People look at the word “bias” and worry about the negative connotations, but “bias” just represents how our brains are wired. Cognitive biases will affect how we interview people, and we should do our best to counteract their effect and improve on getting better (even if we’re not perfect).

4. The best research has a tangible impact rather than being research for research’s sake

It can be a heavy burden to bear if all of your well-planned and well-executed research ends up having no effect on decision-making at all. It’s important not to get downhearted, and work out ways to build actionable, accessible repositories to enable your stakeholders to make the best decisions possible.

5. There are a lot of similarities between good user research and improv

We don’t need to be able to create 45 minute plays off the cuff, and knowing when to stick to our interview plans and when to deviate from the script, enables us to get to the real generative insights that we need from our users and find out what we don’t know we don’t know.


Sometimes we think that what we’re going to do in research is go ask people what features they want and then figure out somehow among these competing requests which ones to implement. And that’s not what interviewing users is about. It’s about actually finding a new interpretation, a new point of view, a new understanding, a larger framework that’s built up from all those things. And so, yeah, if people tell us what they want to tell us, they’re going to tell us what features they want. But we have other questions for them. How do you work? Why do you work that way? What are your tools you’re using? How has that changed? What has led to the definition of that as like a work process? How do you acquire new tools and technology? What’s been successful when you’ve rolled things out? What’s been a challenge when you’ve rolled things out?

A Zoom video still with Jason in a small corner giving a thumbs up while Steve is in the main window wearing headphones and a dark shirt holding up a copy of Interviewing Users

Listen to Steve on the UX Research Geeks podcast

I’m grateful to Tina Licková for hosting our great discussion on the UX Research Geeks podcast.

You can listen to our 40-minute conversation on the episode page, where you’ll also find a transcript.

The episode is on Spotify, Apple, and Google (and embedded below).

The trend of democratization in research implies more people will engage in it. My book aims to guide not just dedicated researchers but also those who incorporate research as part of their broader roles.

It’s a messy human activity. It’s something that you can plan for, it’s something that you can prepare for, but will always, especially if done well, will always be surprising and unexpected and force you, I think in a good way, to be improvisational, to be responsive…I think that might be a negative to some people, that might be scary, but for me, it’s very joyful and creative and challenging. It’s always challenging. And I think that’s where we get all the great value out of research. It’s not, “What do you want? Thank you. I’ve got it.” It is meeting somebody where they are and trying to figure out how are you going to be with them?

Listen to Steve’s “Tent Talk” with Russ Unger/Chicago Camps

It was wonderful to reconnect with my old friend Russ Unger to give a Tent Talk for his Chicago Camps series. I learned that (obviously, in retrospect) they are tent talks because the whole series of events is a camp!

You can check out our 30-minute conversation on the episode page. There you’ll find an audio-only widget, a transcribed video, the full transcript, and links to the episode on Spotify and Apple. The episode is also on Vimeo.

Session Notes

The session with Steve Portigal, discussing the second edition of his book “Interviewing Users,” delved into how the field of user research has evolved over the past decade. Steve highlighted significant shifts, including changes in societal norms, the rise of remote work due to the pandemic, and advancements in technology, particularly in user interview techniques. He also touched on ethical considerations in user research and the role of AI in shaping future dynamics. Throughout the session, Steve shared insights from his extensive experience, emphasizing the importance of context, adaptability, and the ever-changing nature of user research.

Evolution in User Research:

  • User research practices have shifted significantly, particularly in compensating participants. The trend moved from cash payments to more convenient, digital forms.
  • The rise of remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, has transformed user research methodologies, with a notable increase in remote interviews.
  • There’s a greater focus on data privacy and regulatory compliance in research, reflecting societal and legal shifts.
  • Adapting interview techniques for remote settings has become crucial, with adjustments needed for communication styles and technological limitations.

Impact of Remote User Interviews:

  • Remote interviews lack the personal connection and context-rich environment of in-person interactions, affecting the depth of insights.
  • Collaboration within research teams and post-interview synthesis have become more challenging in remote settings.
  • New norms of communication, like managing turn-taking and interpreting non-verbal cues, have emerged, necessitating adaptation by researchers.

Ethical Implications in Research:

  • The ethical landscape in user research is complex, with a growing emphasis on informed consent and transparent data practices.
  • Resources like Alba Villamil’s “Ethical Researcher’s Checklist” provide guidance on navigating these ethical considerations effectively.
  • The approach to consent has evolved, with more nuanced methods being developed to respect participants’ autonomy and privacy.

AI in User Research:

  • The role of AI in user research is evolving, with its potential impact still largely uncertain.
  • AI’s current strength lies in data summarization rather than synthesis, which remains a predominantly human-driven process.
  • As AI technology advances, its application in user research could extend to supporting creative thinking and problem-solving.

Most Profound Learning Experience:

  • Steve recounted an experience where he confronted and overcame his own age bias during an interview, highlighting the human nature of biases in research.
  • This experience underlined the importance of being aware of and challenging personal biases to gain true insights in user research.

Notable Quotes:

  • “We operate on biases, but research allows us to overcome and revisit our assumptions.”
  • “Remote research has changed our norms of communication and collaboration.”
  • “Ethical considerations are vital in user research, especially in the age of data privacy.”
  • “I had a conversation with someone that I respect the other day, and they said to me, a large language model, they can summarize, but it can’t synthesize because it can only be based on what is, so summarization is like a great use of that, but synthesis isn’t.”
  • “AI’s potential in user research lies more in aiding creativity than replacing human analysis.”

About the Author/Doggie Diner

A man in jeans and a black t-shirt, with his arms spread, sits on top of a blue platform which is shared with a large cartoonish sculpture of a reddish dog wearing a yellow bow tie and a chef hat and a blue checked shirt.

Thanks to Alisa Weinstein for taking this great photo of me. I used this for the About the Author page in Interviewing Users. Also thanks to Kim Goodwin for (earnestly? teasingly? does it matter?) suggesting on Instagram that I use this as my author photo. Inspiring!

The SF Chron provides some context

The three Doggie Diner dog heads that once loomed over outlets of the long-defunct Bay Area fast food chain. The 7-foot fiberglass doggie heads, each weighing 600 pounds and sporting a chef’s hat and a bowtie, are camped out on a stretch of car-free JFK between Conservatory Drive West and 6th Avenue. The dachshund heads with their long snouts, sit atop square podiums with a couple of Adirondack chairs in front…

“If you rub one of their noses, you get one week’s good luck,” said John Law, a San Franciscan who considers himself the steward of three cartoonish canine heads. The disembodied heads have been painstakingly restored and repainted thanks to a Kickstarter campaign seven years ago that raised thousands to save the doggie heads, said Law. He frequently hauls the heads around San Francisco and the Bay Area to charity events, street fairs and art events.

Listen to Steve on the CXChronicles podcast

I had a great time speaking with Adrian Brady-Cesana on the CXChronicles podcast.

You can listen to our 40-minute conversation on the episode page.

The episode is also on YouTube (and embedded below)

The Secret to Achieving Customer-Centric Excellence Revealed! 💥 Steve Portigal | CXC #215

We talked about:

  • Understanding the core of a user’s experience and how its originally designed
  • Investing in user research operations to help scale your business
  • Prioritizing what you need to learn about your users & how you can take action
  • Mapping the iceberg of your customer and user experience
  • Getting your team to prioritize the key CTAs that will drive innovation & growth


One thing I’ve seen that to be really successful is when you pair up someone who’s great at research, which is ‘OK, I don’t know about this, I want you to explain it to me’ and someone who is great at the domain, whose job isn’t to ask questions but is to hear what doesn’t make sense about the technology or about the deployment or about the process, and that collaboration is really really sharp and has a great effect when you’re talking to customers and users. I think sometimes we’re nervous because, we want to be seen as credible, especially if it’s an actual customer. We ask for their time, we want to go talk to them…it can be really a really great triangle between, a user or customer who has who’s a practitioner of something very complex, and a person from the producer or, maker side of it, the company side, who knows the domain, and someone who knows how to listen and ask questions and follow up and facilitate this. When I see researchers getting immersed into a domain, they do build up some competency. But some of these things are decades of specificity and really kind of elusive stuff. Where there’s bandwidth for collaboration and you can bring in people with different perspectives, different domain and process expertise to create a great interview for the customer that you’re talking to. It’s a good experience to talk to a researcher and a domain expert, you can watch who they make eye contact with. I’ve had people even tell me, ‘Oh okay, you’re the question asker and you’re the person that knows that you’re the engineer.’ People can figure that out. Nobody’s pretending to be anything that they aren’t and it really can be very harmonious, but you have to create the bandwidth to support that collaboration on the team so everybody can work together to get the insights that we wanna get from the people we’re building for.

Listen to Steve on the Content Strategy Insights podcast

Thanks to Larry Swanson for having me on his Content Strategy Insights podcast.

You can listen to our 30-minute conversation (and find the transcript and various links to podcast services) on the episode page. Also, the audio is embedded below

The episode is also on YouTube (and embedded below)

Steve Portigal: Interviewing Users | Episode 167

We talked about:

  • my work at my UX research consultancy
  • the elements of a good interviewing mindset
    1. checking your own world view at the door
    2. embracing how others see the world
    3. building rapport
    4. listening
  • the difference between chatting and interviewing
  • how to stay mindful as you transition from one mode of communication to another, and the need to consciously cultivate new rituals in the modern, non-stop Zoom world
  • how to keep the business intent of your interviewing activities in mind, in particular the relationship between the business opportunity at hand and the research-question planning that best aligns with it
  • how to kindly share with colleagues relevant new discoveries that emerge in your research work
  • how to balance the amount of domain knowledge you bring to an interviewing project
  • the importance of knowing and keeping in mind the scope and importance of documenting, analyzing, and synthesizing your interviews


Chatting is, it’s a crutch. And I don’t mean that in an unkind way. If people haven’t spent time learning this and practicing it and reflecting on it, I think people go pretty far by being friendly and open and conversational, and I think that’s a good start. But in chatting, for example, we share about ourselves, “Oh, you like cats? Well, I also like cats and I have two cats at home and one is named Binky and one is named Winky.” That’s seen as, it’s a chatty rapport building technique. And I think that’s one I see people relying on and I don’t think they should ultimately, that the interview is about the other person and so if you’re new, you tend to think, “Oh, I can build rapport with you by showing you how I am like you.” “I like that too. I hate that too. Oh, that happened to me. My cousin also has that problem with Facebook,” whatever the thing is, you try to share something about yourself, but actually that takes focus away from the other person. So that embracing how they see the world means you want to spend time on them. So when someone says, “I have two cats,” you can say, “What are your cats’ names? When did you get them? Are cats part of the content that you share on social media?” If that was our topic. You can keep talking about the thing that they shared and not bring yourself into it. And you have permission not to talk about yourself and you have power to be still interested in their thing. And it actually is much more effective.

Kirkus Reviews on Interviewing Users, second edition

Kirkus Reviews just published a review of Interviewing Users, second edition. [You can purchase the book here].

An extraordinarily thorough and thoughtful introduction to the art of the research interview.

Portigal presents a comprehensive guide to conducting and analyzing user research interviews.

Conducting a professional interview, the author astutely observes, is not the same as casually “chatting”; in fact, a well-structured interview can be “fundamentally different” from an ordinary conversation. “Interviewing users involves a special set of skills. It takes work to develop these skills. The fact that it looks like an everyday act can actually make it harder to learn how to conduct a good interview because it’s easy to take false refuge in existing conversational approaches.” Portigal, who has 25 of years of experience as a researcher and consultant, rigorously anatomizes the chief structural elements of an interview—the formation of a plan, the interviews themselves, and the consequent analysis of the data yielded. The text covers a remarkable expanse of intellectual territory very concisely—the book is less than 300 pages long—especially considering that it includes guest essays from industry experts. With great clarity (the author never indulges gratuitously inaccessible jargon), Portigal walks readers through every constituent part of the interview process, from finding the participants to interpreting their answers. This is more than a technical field guide—the author deftly analyzes the human element of the interview as well, this “shared, unnatural experience” that can produce “something profoundly new” but can also be unsafe, awkward, and hostile. He details how to build a quick rapport with a stranger and empathetically encounter the interviewee as a “real live person in all their glorious complexity.” An effective interview requires more than a “toolkit” for asking questions—it demands a “way of being” that cultivates an undogmatic openness to others. While the focus of the book is on user research interviews, this guide will be helpful to anyone in a position to extract information from others in a professional environment.

An extraordinarily thorough and thoughtful introduction to the art of the research interview.


About Steve