My talk “Great User Research (for Non-Researchers)” at Mind the Product

I recently spoke in front of a 1500+ person audience at Mind the Product. My 25-minute talk was Great User Research (for Non-Researchers). The video is embedded below and is available here. Also below is the write-up by Emily Tate (originally posted here) and some audience sketchnotes.


Researchers often have concerns about what will happen when “other people” go out and do work with users. But the demand for research far outweighs the supply of researchers, and everyone wins when more people are enabled to do research themselves. At #mtpcon San Francisco, Steve Portigal, Principal at Portigal Consulting, tells us how to quickly level up our research skills as product managers across the lifecycle of a research effort.

Steve tells us how to be more effective in the three main elements of research: planning research, conducting research, and acting on research.

Planning Research

Ultimately, our goal is to learn from interactions with our customers. However, we typically focus on researching only if our product is usable or if people like the thing we’re making. In research we should be looking at broader questions, and proper planning will help ensure we are getting the answers that we need.

What are we Trying to Accomplish?

Research planning should include three areas:

  • Business question: What challenge does the business face?
  • Research objective: What do we hope to learn to help us answer that business question?
  • Participant questions: What questions can we ask customers to help us achieve that research objective?

We often skip straight to writing participant questions without addressing the other two areas, and end up with unfocused interviews that don’t fully get us the answers we’re looking for.

How are we Going to Accomplish it?

Steve highlights a few considerations when planning how to go about research.

  • What method of research should I use? It is easy to conflate “research” with “testing” and only focus on validating what we already have. But there are many research methods we can use.
  • Who should I learn from? You don’t have to focus only on the people who are already using your product. Think about who else in the customer journey might have insights that could have an impact on your understanding of the customer’s needs.
  • How should I interact with them? Remote work is easier than ever, so it is tempting to think using collaboration tools like Zoom or Skype are enough. But you learn so much by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and interacting with people in their environment. Make sure you spend at least some portion of your research in the field.

Doing Research

Steve provides some tips for talking to your customers once you’ve planned your research.

  • Specific questions are better than general questions. The more specific you can be, the better a user will be able to answer.
  • Don’t ask users what they do. Ask them for an example of a time they have done something, and then ask if it was typical.
  • Ask follow up questions to get to specifics. If a user gives you general answers, asking for stories or examples will help you move beyond surface level and into deeper insights.

He also highlights some common mistakes we make in understanding our role as an interviewer.

  • Don’t provide the answer in the question. You may want to try to provide some examples to help guide the user, but this ends up tainting their response.
  • Don’t try to build rapport by telling the participant ways you are just like them. This removes the focus from the user and pulls it back to you. Hold off on sharing your experiences and just continue asking them questions.
  • Don’t become the expert. Users will often ask questions like: “Is this feature going to be in the next version?” Answering this, even if you know the answer, will change your role from researcher to expert and it is very difficult to get back into research mode. Ask: “Why is that important to you?” instead.
  • Don’t correct the user. You’ll have users mispronounce your product name, or ask for features you already have, or any number of things that you will want to correct them. Don’t do it. This, again, makes you the expert and harms the research.
  • Use the language they use. Don’t add acronyms they haven’t mentioned, or try to sound smart by using terminology they’re not using. Let them be the expert.

Your goal in interviewing is to make the user comfortable. Your aim should be to move from “Question-Answer” to “Question-Story”. Continuing to ask questions and follow ups will help you build that rapport.

Steve also recommends recording your interviews. We can’t take notes fast enough to capture everything, so our notes become filtered versions of what we heard. Having a recording to return to gives you the full context and allows you to revisit the interview with fresh eyes.

When interviewing, it is important to avoid bias and try to look to new situations as learning. We also need to have empathy for the people we’re interviewing. But we are all human, and our own feelings can creep into our interactions. When you feel yourself moving into a judgmental mode:

  • Hear your own judgement
  • Refute the assertion
  • Use new data to flesh out your new thinking

Stress also hinders empathy. So make sure you plan your research in a reasonable manner so you’re not trying to do too much in too short a timeframe.

Acting on Research

Once you talk to people and write up your key takeaways, you are not done. Truly getting to new insights is a combination of analysis and synthesis.

  • Analysis is breaking out larger pieces into smaller pieces, such as breaking out the insights you heard in interviews.
  • Synthesis is combining those smaller pieces into larger ones to gain new understanding, such as taking the insights from multiple interviews and bringing together common themes.

When doing synthesis, you should go back to your business problem and what your stakeholders were looking for in the beginning. This will make sure you’re pulling the insights that will help answer the questions you were trying to understand. You should also make sure you’re presenting the information in a way that your stakeholders can consume to avoid research being dismissed.

Research is very important, but also very difficult. Being intentional in how you plan, do, and act on research will help to ensure you are get value out of the time you spend on it, and help you truly to understand your customers, and build products that solve their problems.


Ty Hatch



Mateo Fern

Steve Portigal on Reusable Research, Interview War Stories, and Letting Go of Implicit Beliefs

I did a brief Q&A with Bloomfire. The original is here and I’ve reposted it below.


As just about any market research professional would be quick to tell you, their job isn’t just about conducting research: it’s about disseminating what they learn to the stakeholders who need that information to make informed decisions. As a result, successful market researchers spend a lot of time thinking about how to share their knowledge in the most impactful way possible.

It seems fitting then, that the second entry in our Future of Knowledge at Work series features Steve Portigal, a researcher (as well as an author and podcaster) who has built his career on helping businesses better understand the people who use their products or services.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a user researcher, and I’ve run my own consulting practice since 2001. I lead user research efforts for teams, and I also serve as a coach for teams doing their own research, and I also teach organizations how to improve their research skills. I live in a small, foggy coastal town just outside of San Francisco where there are lots of trails for walking my dog.

How did you get started in your career as a user researcher, and what led you to start your own consultancy?
After graduate school I ended up at a small consultancy that was experimenting with user research as a service that could bring value to their clients, and I was able to get on board in those early days. I have always liked consulting for the variety and how that provides continuous learning opportunities about almost everything I do. So when that agency failed to make it through the stock market crash, it seemed like the obvious next step to go out on my own.

What knowledge do you rely on most to do your job?
As a user researcher, I’m usually working with knowledge from two different groups— the team that makes something (or wants to make something), and the people that the team hopes will buy or use that thing. My job is to uncover and synthesize new knowledge about both parties (e.g, how is this artifact or service understood, how is it being used, and how might it be used?) and then work to resolve the gaps between them.

In your experience working on research projects for your clients, what do you think are the biggest knowledge management challenges (and how do you solve them)?
There’s often a certain amount of anxiety about the data (say, recordings and transcripts of user research sessions), but the knowledge is the key to having the research be impactful and lead to meaningful change. But that change can be painful, as it means letting go of previously held beliefs. It’s especially difficult with those that are implicit beliefs.

To have the most impact, I share anecdotes and examples along the way— not to present patterns and conclusions too early, but to introduce the rest of the team to the real people whose stories are the basis of the work that we’re doing, and then I work collaboratively with them to take apart and reassemble all that data into knowledge. Being part of that process— which is messy and divergent at points— really makes them the owners of the new knowledge that we’re creating. And then, we work to transform knowledge into (potential) actions.

Thoughts on how new technologies will impact the way researchers manage and share their results?
This is such a hot topic among growing research teams. The need is evolving from sharing results and archiving, to really building up a collection of data and knowledge that can be revisited. Siloed research and repetitive research are inefficient and hurt the cause of bringing research into every part of the organization, so the more the work of researchers (from data through results) can be made accessible and reusable, the more impact research can have inside the organization.

What best practices would you recommend for capturing and sharing knowledge?
When I work with people who are new to doing research, I urge them to record their user research interview sessions. People think that they’re pretty good note-takers, but for research, you need to capture exactly what people say, and you can’t take notes quickly enough to do that. In the moment is not the time to be editing and interpreting.

If you record the research, then you have a high-fidelity record that can be transcribed and then can be both analyzed (e.g, pulling out key quotes, examples, anecdotes) and synthesized (e.g., arranged into new themes, frameworks, opportunities). It’s crucial that people have a good model for how to treat the knowledge that they are building in this process and that they understand when and how to emphasize the customer’s point of view, and when and how to insert their own interpretive point of view.

Can you tell us a little about your book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries?

I wrote a book called Interviewing Users that is a pretty solid introduction to (go figure) interviewing users. I’ve long been interested in the fascinating experiences that researchers have going into people’s lives, physically going into homes and workplaces and other environments. Sometimes things go wrong in amazing ways. We have encounters that are hilarious, embarrassing, distressing, confounding, and more. These become stories that researchers share informally, but I hadn’t ever seen anyone collect these stories, let alone reflect on how these stories can be used to teach us about the practice of research.

As part of writing Interviewing Users, I set up an online channel for documenting these war stories. Now, as much as we create structure and rigor and tools around the work of research, there’s an element we can’t control—we’re meeting other people in their space. But that’s the beauty of research: these experiences teach us and change us. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries collects the stories of 65 researchers from around the world and unpacks the lessons they provide.

Can you tell us a bit about your podcast, Dollars to Donuts, and what inspired you to start it?
Dollars to Donuts features interviews with people who are leading in-house research teams. As companies have invested more in user research, there’s now more people in research-specific leadership roles. This is something that didn’t exist until recently. I wanted to discover and share their stories and best practices as an extension to the consulting work I do with many different teams.

Check out Steve on the Happy Market Research podcast


Excerpt




I had a great conversation with Jamin Brazil for the Happy Market Research podcast recently. The audio and video are embedded above, and available on YouTube, or on the episode page.

Steve interviewed by dscout for People Nerds

I was interviewed by dscout for their People Nerds blog. Check out Finding the ‘Aha!’ Moment!

Expert user researcher Steve Portigal breaks down why thinking about bias and mistakes is the key to joyful discovery.

Steve Portigal says being a researcher allows him to do things he would never do as his “civilian self.” A self-proclaimed introvert, Portigal recalls the kind of uncanny magic of going to dinner with a friend who’s particularly extroverted. “We joke about all of the service experiences and interactions it unlocks,” he says.

The structure of research work, Portigal says, allows him to have those kinds of interactions, the ones he’d normally feel locked out of in everyday life. It’s why he posits introverts are so common in the research field.

“Introversion’s not about shyness or dislike of people,” Portigal says. “It’s about energy. One of the coping mechanisms for introversion is to play a role. And in a research situation, there’s that kind of structure to talk to strangers and ask them questions and learn about them, and do all of the things you’d never be able to do as your civilian self.”

Join my ‘Fundamentals of Interviewing Users’ workshop in NYC

I’m teaching a full-day workshop on Fundamentals of Interviewing Users in New York City on May 20. Indi Young is teaching a workshop the next day. You can register for one or the other or both. It’s part of a series of workshops that also includes Dave Malouf, Kate Rutter, Nathan Curtis, Steve Krug. Spread the word!

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