Check out Steve on the Design Thinking 101 podcast



I really enjoyed my conversation with Dawan Stanford for his Design Thinking 101 podcast. The audio (57 min) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

We talk about Steve’s excitement for and interest in spending more time with stakeholders within a client’s organization. He has learned why a stakeholder’s perspective is essential in relation to the success of a project. He talks about creating “learning-ready” moments, how he helps people have these moments, and how learning and sharing the journey of learning affect learning retention.

Listen in to learn:

  • How Steve and others developed the design processes in the early stages of user experience and research
  • How Steve’s skills, interests, and the work he does for his clients has evolved over the years
  • When Steve knows he’s found a great client
  • Why he believes that learning together is when change can happen
  • Why understanding stakeholders gives better results with clients
  • Being able to embrace realistic expectations of what you can accomplish

Check out Steve on the SHIFT podcast


I had a really lovely conversation with Kavita Appachu and Mike Kendall for the SHIFT podcast. The 56-minute episode (available as either video or audio only) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

Steve Portigal, Author, Speaker, and Customer Research Expert, shares how to drive innovation using the power of strategic customer insights. He reminds us that learning from customers is “messy” because we are complex beings. In order to go deep while interviewing customers, you should have clarity about what is uncomfortable for you versus what is uncomfortable for customers and not conflate the two. His provocation, “No One Cares,” highlights the risk of magnifying the significance of our solutions in a customer’s life and missing the opportunity to focus on things that customers care about.

Sign up for either of my new Masterclasses, hosted by Business of Software

I’ll be teaching two Masterclasses in partnership with Business of Software. You can sign up for either one, or both!

The first is User Research – Uncovering compelling insights through interviews being held on Tuesday June 16th and Thursday June 18th (9-11am PT / 12pm-2pm ET / 5-7pm BST).

Following that is We’ve done all this user research, now what?, Tuesday June 23th and Thursday June 25th (9-11am PT / 12pm-2pm ET / 5-7pm BST).

Hope to see you at either of these masterclasses!

Here’s a whole pile of new episodes of Dollars To Donuts

Dollars to Donuts

In the past couple of months I’ve managed to post a raft of new episode of Dollars To Donuts, the podcast where I speak with people who lead user research in their organization.

Here are the latest episodes

You can also find the podcast on Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and Apple.

Ask Us Everything online series

If you follow me on LinkedIn, you may have noticed I’ve been doing an online series of open conversations called Ask Us Everything. Each hour-long meetup (on Zoom or Google Meet) is co-hosted with someone else, and we take questions from the people who show up. We might talk about mentorship, or leadership, or career transitions, or product management, or design, or collaboration, or user research, or…everything!

Past co-hosts have included Lauren Isaacson, Amy Santee, Tom Greever, Jason Ulaszek, and Rich Mironov.

Upcoming sessions will feature Justin Dauer, Noel Franus, David Holl, and Gabe Trionfi.

Steve’s talk “Stop Solving Problems!”


I’ve been giving a talk entitled “Stop Solving Problems!” over the past year or so. Last week I shared that talk remotely at a joint uxWaterloo/Product Tank meetup. They’ve published their writeup here.

Often UX designers are focused on the solution, he said, rather than a deeper consideration of the people they’re trying to help. That’s partly because designers only control part of the experience, said Portigal, who appeared via videoconferencing from California where he’s based. Because designers only control part of the experience, aftermarket fixes emerge when the original design fails, said Portigal, pointing to the selfie stick as an example.

Rather, UX researchers should shift their focus from problems to people — observing them and trying to understand them…By starting with people, UX researchers can better understand their lives, their contexts, and their values. Find out what those people have done and what they have tried, he said. Let people present themselves most broadly and then, listen deeply, Portigal added. Learn what you don’t know, then focus on what you need to understand better. “This isn’t just warm and fuzzy stuff,” he said.

I’ll be doing a similar talk next week at Remote Design Week.

Tamara’s War Story: Piercings, Power and Getting Older

Tamara Hale leads the research practice at Workday. She presented this story live at the Advancing Research conference. (This post will be updated with videos etc. as available)

As a researcher, I’m quite used to changing my appearance and my bodily practices to fit the circumstances. I’ve donned a headscarf when recruiting door-to-door at the Mosques of East London. I’ve traded my butch boots for kitten heels when interviewing scientists who adhere to biblical beliefs of Creationism. I’ve dyed my hair black and acquired a rural accent to better pass as a Peruvian when conducting research in Peru. From Managua to Caracas, I received instruction from my hosts about how to walk the Latin American city with purpose, and how to develop a second pair of eyes in the back of my head. That’s right, in my research experiences, I have literally relearned how to walk.

A few years ago I was about to embark on a research trip to Tokyo. I knew enough about Japanese business culture to consult the interpreter I had hired about appropriate dress for doing business in a large, traditional Japanese company. I wanted to know specifically should I remove the multitude of visible piercings I had acquired in the last few years? Earlier in my career I’d been a consultant, and had done a lot of work for conservative financial services firms and had been part of large sales pitches. But then I joined a California-casual tech company, in an arguably more casual Colorado office. Over the years, what my business suits accumulated in dust, my ears collected in precious metals. It was probably a good idea to remove the piercings, my interpreter confirmed.

Soon I arrived in Tokyo and in the tiny hotel room I proceeded to carefully remove my jewelry. After my sacrificial act of extraction, I made my way to dinner with the team. I’d only met the product manager a few times, mostly over video conferencing tools, and as soon as she walked in, with her gleaming nose stud, I realized that I’d neglected to share my knowledge about piercings and Japanese business attire with her. What to do now?

To some people (perhaps non-researchers especially?) the acts of bodily modification and change to my bodily practices that I have undergone for research may seem inauthentic, maybe even a betrayal of my unique “self”- that which has come to be called “identity”. The reality is more complex. Other people familiar with fieldwork that crosses cultural boundaries, will understand that at times such modification comes from a place of respect, and an attempt to lessen the distance between ourselves and our research participants. Further, women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and other minorities are deeply familiar with having to modify bodies and bodily practices as steps for protection and self-preservation, necessary acts to go about living in spaces that were not designed with us in mind or deliberately designed to exclude us. Yet other acts of bodily modification are ways to enact agency, to question and subvert the social and cultural constraints imposed on some, even while some bodies’ trespassings are scrutinized more heavily than others.

All of these thoughts went through my head over dinner and I was unsure of what to do with them. I chose not to mention anything to the product manager. The next day over coffee before our first customer visit, I fretted with my interpreter, “What should I do?! Should I ask my colleague to remove her beautiful nose stud?!”

He informed me matter of factly not to worry too much about it since it was going to be obvious to our customers that I was the “serious business lady” and that the PM was the “cool, young California kid”. My heart sank. What the f*&?! Clearly this guy didn’t understand – I’m the one working in the Design department! I’m hip! ‘I have an asymmetrical haircut!’ What’s more, how dare he refer to me as a “lady”? I’m a millennial! Just barely, but still!

But then he added that what was important was that in the eyes of the customer, I, an important, formidable, business leader had been sent to listen to their concerns and relay them back to executives in our company – and that I conveyed the part authentically. I was reminded in that moment, that whatever image I had attempted to craft for myself was at best tenuous and always subject to interpretations that I could not control. At the same time, I realized that many of the bodily adaptations I have undergone over the course of my career have allowed me to discover and come into alternate and new versions of myself. Through practicing research over more than a decade and a half, I’ve learned not to hold on too tightly to the ideas I’ve constructed about myself. And so, at once humbled, and feeling a little more powerful than usual (at least for the day) I stepped into the elevator to meet our customer.

Randy’s War Story: Don’t Fall Flat

Randolph Duke II is an Experience Strategist with Cantina. He is always open to connecting on Slack or LinkedIn. He presented this story live at the Advancing Research conference. (This post will be updated with videos etc. as available)

As a researcher, you come to expect the unexpected. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get surprised. I had received my first project as the lead researcher and designer for an internal IT group. The IT group hired me to help them learn about and fix some internal software tool. I agreed to a really tight deadline so the client provided an employee to support and shadow me. We’ll call her “Laura”. Laura was really bright and took well to instruction – the ideal apprentice, if you will. Although I shared some potential questions I might use during employee observations, I warned her that fieldwork could go any which way and that she should try to be ready for anything. I hadn’t realized we were both going to need that advice.

Two days into visiting offices across their different buildings, we were finally scheduled to meet “Carol”. Carol was important to my small data pool; she represented an important team within the company and previously shared unfiltered, critical feedback. Compared to her colleagues more nuanced responses, we knew time with Carol was going to be different. Upon introducing myself and thanking Carol for her time, she immediately responded with “I know who you are and I have opinions.” Before I could even come up with a response I just instinctively smiled and thought I am going to need to bring my A game. I planned to be approachable and responsible in guiding a fruitful conversation instead of just letting her complain. As therapeutic as it might’ve been for Carol, I needed to help Laura and myself understand why Carol felt the ways that she did so we could do something about it later. That’s what I planned, at least.

I first attempted to build rapport by asking Carol to describe how she works which immediately sent us down another path. One of the first things Carol brought up was a coworker she introduced to the company: Flat Carol. Flat Carol was a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of Carol. It was a 10-year old photo of her, smiling and holding a phone to her ear. It had a blank speech bubble encrusted with the remnants of old pieces of Scotch tape. I was caught completely off guard! Was this something that people just did here? I looked to Laura to gauge if something like this was somehow common and the look on her face confirmed that yes, Flat Carol was definitely out of the ordinary. I had warned Laura to be ready for nearly anything but here I was the one who needed to act. I thought to myself: do I find a way to make this conversation more about the software as scheduled or do I show Laura how to react to the unplanned?

In the few seconds I had to collect my thoughts I made my decision: I was going to be as present for Carol as possible. How could I hold onto a well-intended plan of talking about software when Laura and I had the chance to meet “someone” Carol was willing to share? I put down my question guide, and just focused on Carol. She told us how she put Flat Carol in her seat when she was away from her desk, whether she was going on vacation or as far as the restroom. How Flat Carol would have kind words or notes taped to the speech bubble for people passing her desk. We occasionally spoke about company processes connected to the software research, but that wasn’t my priority. Every so often I would look over at Laura to see what she was gaining from this experience and saw several approving nods, smiles, and fervent note taking. By the end, Carol shared that she was grateful for our conversation and Laura was relieved. Once we left Carol, Laura let out a sigh of relief and said “I don’t think I could ever recover the way you did.” That’s what research is about.

In mentoring Laura (who was, after all, still my client), I had spoken generally about being ready for anything, but when we were faced with a real surprise in the field, I had to live up to those words in a way that surely exceeded what either of us had in mind. We all walked away better for it.

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