Watch Steve on The Service Design Show

Thanks to Marc Fonteijn for having me back on The Service Design Show. The one-hour episode is embedded below and can also be found on YouTube.

User research - what to do when your company doesn't get it / Steve Portigal / Episode #127

Everything in service design starts with user research. But as you’ve probably experienced often it’s challenging to get the time and resources to do proper research.

And when research is already being done by an organisation it’s often not the type of research that we’d like to see.

It can be frustrating to see that user research isn’t making the difference you know it can.

So what does it take to push user research beyond it’s current limitations?

Author and industry icon, Steve Portigal has been thinking about this topic for some time now.

I invited Steve (back) on the Show to share his thinking and together explore what it takes to take user research to the next level.

And also ask the question: What is that next level in the first place?

Without proper user research you can’t do good service design. So it’s our job to make it more relevant and impactful.

This episode will show you how.

Listen to Steve on the Nodes of Design Podcast

Thanks to Ravi Tej for having me on the Nodes of Design podcast. The 35-minute episode is embedded below and can also be found on the podcast site.

In this episode, Steve shared wonderful insights on user interviews and why we do user interviews in design; we then discussed the framework of interviews using which we can gain great insights from users and few tips on actively listening and note-taking during interviews. In the latter part, Steve recommended five do’s and don’ts that designers/researchers must avoid while doing user interviews

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.

Listen to Steve on the Why UX? Podcast



Thanks to Helena Levison (“Queen of UX”) for having me on the Why UX? podcast to talk about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. The audio (28 min) is embedded above, and available on the episode page.

This was a particularly exciting conversation for me because over the past while Helena has been hosting a online book club where she reads from the book, and even features appearances from some of the authors of the stories themselves!

Steve contributed to “Remote User Research: 12 Tips from Experts”

There’s a really good range of ideas and best practices in Remote User Research: 12 Tips from Experts. Mine is below

2. Set expectations for your participants
If you’re carrying out remote research via video conferencing tools, it’s always a good idea to set expectations before the interview.

“It’s likely that a remote user research session, however you understand that term, is going to be something different for your participant,” explains experienced user researcher Steve Portigal. “It’s not a work meeting over Zoom, it’s not catching up with friends over Facetime. So begin your session by calling attention to anything that might be especially awkward for either of you.”

Steve suggests pointing out that you might not be making eye contact, for example. Let the participant know that you’re going to be taking notes while they talk and that—even though you won’t look at them directly—you’ll be listening to them and watching what they’re doing.

“Eye contact works at a human perceptual level,” Steve stresses. “So it’s not clear that you can simply explain away something about how the brain works. But, at worst, it serves to establish the rapport and frame this session as a collaborative endeavor.”

3. Consider not using video or only doing so sparingly
We’re currently seeing a lot of articles about “Zoom fatigue”, which argue that the slight glitching of video, and the expectations for posture and gaze, are not sustainable for our mental health. So while it may feel counter-intuitive, audio may actually be preferable for making a connection with another person.

“Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s talk show Fresh Air, for example, is famous for eschewing any visual context at all for her interviews,” Steve points out. “Similarly, the psychotherapist’s traditional couch serves to create intimacy specifically by avoiding looking at the other person.”

Steve therefore suggests beginning a remote session with video to greet each other, but then to keep it off for the conversational parts of the interview. Experiment and see what works for you—and for your participants.

Video of my Mind The Product AMA

I recently did a small Ask Me Anything session organized by Mind the Product. The video is now online.

User Research AMA with Steve Portigal

It runs about an hour and includes discussion about balancing quantitative and qualitative research in an organization that leans heavily towards one or the other, doing research when you have an exceptionally small user population, what happens when the work you are performing is well outside your job description, and more!

Read the recap of my Rosenfeld Media AMA

I recently did an “Ask Me Anything” session on the Rosenfeld Media Slack. We touched on subjects ranging from how to handle difficult clients, my favorite band, and recommended reading, to dealing with “heavy topics” in interviews and how to improve your skills. Here’s a recap of the session…

Q: What book except your own would you recommend to read for UX designer? -Natalia H.

A: There are so many things to learn about. For design, I think this recent book by Scott Berkun is a great examination of how design is everywhere and in everything. It’s a quick read, it’s fun, and it’s empowering for designers I think, telling us again about all that we do, we have done, we can do.


Q: I often deal with “heavy topics” such as life, disability, cancer etc in my line of work, so it is not unheard of that we have someone break down and cry in interviews. We try our best to mitigate and avoid unnecessary stress (participants health and safety is our primary concern and we tell them in advance about the topics that we will be discussing), but can you talk about some advice how to mitigate these situations or what to do when this happens? -Fabian B.

A: Of course the stress and the emotion is going to impact all the people involved, say the participant and the researcher. I think researchers need to keep in mind that they aren’t (in most cases) trained for this, and that they need to find ways to take care of themselves. Often we will emote less in the interview than we might want to, so we want to leave space for ourselves to have feelings, to have reactions, to have someone to talk to. Work out what that is going to be. Who are you going to be able to speak with? When will you be able to speak with them?

For the participant, I learned something new to me from Sarah Fathallah at the Advancing Research conference when she talked about referral paths, something that if you are doing academic research that has an IRB ethical review needs to be put in place (someone correct me if I have this wrong) – where you identify things that might come up, like if someone reveals they are being abused, or is going through addiction, or having suicidal thoughts, you already know what your action is going to be.

I don’t know that we need that level if we aren’t doing say specifically traumatic research, but it’s the idea of planning for that. I’m also not saying that we need to DO anything; I think well-intentioned but under-informed do-gooderism is potentially worse than doing nothing in certain situations.

The complexity here is you can’t come up with every possible thing that might come up. But you can come up with SOME. I am also intrigued by sort of a generational shift in how we see our role; from “we need to observe, listen, empathize, not judge” to “all those, but we must also help.”


Q: I suspect a lot of us always did at least some of our research remotely, but now with covid, we’re seeing way more remote/virtual research. What are a couple of your top best practices for doing remote research well and getting high-quality information from respondents? -Amy B.

A: I think it’s worth co-opting that thing I see tweeted all the time “you aren’t working from home, you are working from home amidst a global pandemic.” Same for research, right? All the parties are living through an emergency. So yes, there may be dogs and kids, and construction noise, and someone may be in their garage so they can get some privacy. And as we’ve adapted our tolerance for informality in terms of focus, energy, duration, attention in work, we can apply those to these interactions with strangers. A guy I spoke with yesterday put us on pause as his daughter asked for the car keys, she just got her license the day before. It was fine. I didn’t get ruffled like I might have in another time (no that’s crazy I’m nothing if not entirely cool and rolling with the changes). I don’t have a good answer for how fully remote research locks us out of getting to certain people. I just had a brainstorm with a colleague who was thinking about how to understand how people were or will be using transit, given that we can’t go on transit right now, and that the people who he’d want to learn about are possibly not sitting at home with a room with a laptop and a webcam and a good internet connection that is available all the time for them to just get on a call with us over Zoom. So who are we excluding even more so now (as society is excluding people in those circumstances even now) ? I know people are trying hard to deal with this, but I don’t know?


Q: Which musical group has had an interesting impact on your life and how? -Corey B.

A: I’m going to say The Tragically Hip. Being an expat Canadian, when the Hip would come to town it was always an interesting gathering of the community, at least a bunch of fellow Canucks. You’d go to a show and see hockey jerseys and University leather jackets, and just stuff you don’t EVER see in the US. And as time passed, we all got older, the fans got older, the band got older, and how we expressed ourselves and our identity shifted, gradually. I haven’t really moved through an era of my life as clearly in common with other people, not close friends, just strangers, but to feel it so tangibly through ANOTHER experience has impacted me. And of course the ultimate end of aging is death and the loss of Gord Downie still impacts me every day pretty much. I listen to the band and my many bootlegs and think about them and him, constantly. Perpetually.


Q: Do you have any tested tips/tricks on working with difficult clients? I recently had a challenge of convincing the client to use our approach when they wanted to do something else. Curious to hear what you do in such situations. -Kama K.

A: I don’t know enough about the context, and the power dynamic, as I think it often comes down to that. Two big directions, though: Empathy/Walk away. For the first, and I don’t mean to tell you stuff you already probably know and do in all your relationships, but there is that weird power to detoxify some broken interactions when you just listen, when you ask more, when you acknowledge, etc. Probably this has some buzzword for leadership people, I don’t know what that is. It sets you up to say authentically “Yes, And, and not No, But.”

For the second, if someone is a client, then you aren’t in a full-time job with them. Of course as someone who also provides services to clients, I want to do a good job, I want to be appreciated, I want to bring value, I want to be employed, and brought back in, etc. So I don’t like that framing that design people in agencies sometimes like to espouse which is making the client the enemy. But we can walk away. And even if we just hold in our head that we have the OPTION of walking away can making a less desired choice perhaps more tolerable. I’m CHOOSING to do this which I don’t agree with and which distresses me but I could and may at some point choose NOT to do it.


Q: What are your most counter-intuitive insights about research as it propagates through the product development process? -Scott W.

A: I don’t know that I can claim counter intuitive as a goal, if you agree with me then it’s probably not THAT counter intuitive? I think there’s this desire to create models and visuals that say if you are here do this, if you are here do that. Whether that’s the double diamond model or (VERY HELPFUL) recommendations for methods based on a stage in a process like Christian Rohrer’s.

I just am not that organized, I am just not able to constrain myself to a discrete stage, maybe I’m trees and that’s the forest and I just can’t do the forest well enough. That all being said, I think there’s something about how these processes are a continuum, a gradient, and not stages. I know Software Development Lifecycle Methodologies are all about gates, and stages, and review cycles, and (ugh) sprints, but I think in terms of where we are in terms of certainty, of belief, of ideas, it’s a much more creative process, I can’t control what thoughts I have in the shower in that way we have of considering and being inspired about what it means, what to do, what the opportunity is. Some of that is always happening for creative people – and research is ABSOLUTELY a creative process of sense making and understanding.


Q: Are there any topic(s) or technique(s) you hope more places of instruction cover for individuals entering into research? -Randolph D.

A: As you know, I love storytelling, and I think it’s such a powerful tool, but it’s just kind of considered to be something that is maybe part of your personality, your own personal toolbox. But obviously it can be taught, practiced, developed. Research is about gathering stories and creating new stories, and “story” is of course an ENORMOUSLY broad construct so one can take it however one likes.

I mentioned ethics in another question, I think as a field we haven’t reckoned with it sufficiently. I’d like people coming into the field to have a perspective on it. I know a researcher who wrote up their own research philosophy, not even as a document to publish but as a way of working out what they were trying to do. I was extremely impressed with that.

Research as a practice to me is a constant consideration of who we are in the world, as people, how we relate to other people, how we judge and don’t judge, and just how we move around and exist and perhaps make and help. So, being intentional about what you believe and what you want, damn. It’s a brilliant activity. I haven’t ever done that and hadn’t ever thought of doing it. So philosophy isn’t ethics literally but is adjacent?

I’d like something in training – and I don’t know that the places people are learning about research are the right environments to be considering this aspect – about what the researcher’s role is relative to the rest of the people they work with. I do not like the idea of research as “support” – you hear “oh I support three teams” – I know research is a helping profession like say librarians, and I don’t mean to squelch that strength, but I think we are partners and leaders, and if we don’t believe in the value we can bring in the role we can play, no one else will. I think it’s a hard field to break into and there are a lot of entry level people and so if they are told they have to be subservient, that can set a long running pattern for their career and for the practice.


Q: Someone interested in working with us recently asked how we recommend she improve her interview skills. I recommended your books, but are there any classes or seminars you might recommend as well? -Amy B.

A: I’m going to pitch my upcoming workshop. Also very very good is the cycle of “do, observe, reflect.” (which probably has a smarter name than I’m giving it). Listen to Terry Gross – listen to her technique. Reflect on her technique. Print out a transcript and mark it up. What choices did she make? What other choices could she make?

Listen to your own interviews. Print them out. Listen to a colleague’s interviews. Same same. Have someone ELSE listen to your interviews. Have someone else mark up Terry Gross (or anyone who does a lot of interviews).

I think training will get you further than you are, but practice, man practice is the way. Do a lot of interviews. A LOT. Reflect and analyze!


Q: What are some tips for building rapport in remote interviews? (with camera and without camera) -Erika

A:
One avenue to explore is pointing to the medium, just acknowledging that you are doing what you are doing. And not pretending that you are as smooth as you are when you are in the same room. I did an interview yesterday where I had to share screen from Google Slides (not what I normally use for giving talks) and see speaker notes and it’s just a mess, and so I stopped and said what was going to happen, and then you heard the “unprofessional” sounds of me, saying, “Okay I’m going to hit share screen…yeah I think it’s shared now, okay, now I’m doing this, can you see this?” It just normalizes the interaction so you are both having a similar experience.

One thing I think needs to be explored is around shared sensory experiences. I saw Alice Waters talk recently and she described how she’d meet with people and she’d put a piece of fruit or something else down in between them and they’d just eat it beforehand and it created these interesting connections and well, rapport.

I don’t know how to operationalize this for remote research but I’m imagining having everyone pet their furry animal before starting and just sharing that moment that is about the senses, even though we are having our own experiences, we are having similar ones together. I think there’s probably some work to do to create that in a non-weird-sounding way.

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

Learning from Customers is "Messy", with Steve Portigal


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.

Tamara’s War Story: Sea Legs

Tamara Hale leads the research practice at Workday. This story is adapted from Hale, T. 2018 People Are Not Users. Journal of Business Anthropology. 7(2):163-183. She will be telling a completely new story at the Advancing Research conference.

A ferry boat is a place of questionable comfort for conducting research. A ferry boat in a storm is an altogether different matter, as I found out several years ago, when I was researching the experience of travelers sailing across the English channel between Dover and Calais, on one of Europe’s biggest ferry companies.

My objective was to inform a complete redesign of the newest fleet of ships, based on an understanding of the needs of ferry travelers: from queuing, to parking and wayfinding to the deck, to using the facilities on board and deboarding, all viewed through the perspective of service design. I spent a week observing and interviewing couples, families, traveling groups, truckers and staff on the ship. With time I felt I had become part of its very inventory: adapting to the ebb and flow of passengers for their three hour crossing. At each port, the ferry emptied itself of people, cars, buses and trucks and grew quiet, as if the ship sighed in relief and then braced in anticipation for the next wave of passengers. While the staff cleaned up from the last crossing and prepared for the next sailing, I would organize my fieldnotes and change the batteries on my audio recorder (yes, we had those back then). With multiple crossings a day I eventually forgot which port we were at, and it was only by locating a flag on the docks outside that I would know whether we were in Dover or Calais at any given time.

In my second week of fieldwork, just as I became accustomed to the daily routine of life aboard the ferry boat, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a formidable storm. As the waters grew rougher, and the ship floor started responding to the undulation of the tempestuous waves, I gave up on asking passengers to show me around the ship because none of us could walk or stand confidently. Instead I wobbled over onto the luxury travel deck, hoping for some relief amidst the red velvet lounge sofas, oak bar, and unobstructed ocean views. There I attempted to interview a retired couple on their vacation, my audio recorder sliding back and forth on the table between us. But I was soon forced to abort the interview, trying my best not to throw up on the red velvet, or worse, my research participants. The ferry staff, seeing my distress, tried to assure me that this weather did not pose a threat to our lives, while simultaneously scooping up the wine and champagne glasses off the bar into the safety of lockable wooden cabinets. At the end of the night, I stumbled off the ship to my hotel, wondering if I could ever set foot on another boat.

After a few nights of rest, I returned to the ship to complete my research over a span of a few much calmer days, this time focusing on truck drivers who regularly made the crossing with different concerns than my holiday travelers. I attempted to regale my research participants with the story of my storm of Titanic proportions days earlier, an endeavor which sparked pity and laughter rather than admiration. I wrapped up fieldwork as I always do, with a sense of deep humility and an expanded sense of different lifeworlds. This time, however, that humility was less intellectual in nature than corporeal.

The storm had added a new layer of complexity to my role in the project and to my personal and bodily relationship with the site of my research, the ship. Through the storm I became acutely aware that, despite my best intentions, I had treated the ship primarily as a backdrop for my interviews instead of considering it as a space and material object that seemingly possessed its own agency. The affordances of the ship when activated by the storm had challenged my sense of safety, comfort, and routine and replaced it with fear, confusion and malaise. Through my own body I learned of the ship’s potential to make its passengers feel a range of emotions and physical sensations. This attuned me more fully to the ship’s design shortcomings, to travelers’ and staff needs, and ultimately enhanced my ability to shape the decisions in the design and funding of the new fleet. While I never did fully find my sea legs on that research trip, I had reached a turning point in my appreciation of the spaces and environments in which research takes place.

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


Ep. 228 – Steve Portigal – How Trends in User Experience & Market Research are Driving Success



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.

Check out Steve on the “Nie tylko design” podcast

Nie Tylko Design #025 - Interview with Steve Portigal



While I was in Poland last year I was interviewed by Tomasz Skórski about the state of UX and user research.

The audio and video from our conversation is embedded above, available on YouTube here, 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!

Listen to Steve on Tech for Good Live

While I was in Manchester last year I had a very enjoyable and friendly conversation with Bex and Jonny, the hosts of Tech for Good Live. We talked about the role of the user researcher, the increasingly blurry line between design and research, design ethics, and my favorite stories from user researchers out in the field.

The conversation is posted at Tech for Good Live and embedded below.


Listen to Steve on This is HCD

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Chirryl-Lee Ryan about user research and more – we got into outcomes versus deliverables, tipping points for the tech industry, and a few other fun areas. The conversation is now live on This is HCD (including a transcript), and embedded below.


Chi shared her own user research war story

We didn’t have a car. We should have hired a car or we should have had a driver because we had no idea what the traffic was like in Manila. One of the team members went to catch their flight back to Australia and the taxi driver kind of kidnapped them because they didn’t have cash – all the things that you don’t think about when you’re going to do research – they happened to us on that on that particular research trip. And so you know, we got great insights and the client was just amazed but at the same time we sort of went through this wild adventure of our own on the back side of what was actually happening on the trip.

Steve on the Service Design Show

Thanks to Marc Fonteijn for having me as a guest on The Service Design Show. The episode, entitled How To Unlock The True Power Of User Research, is online now (Soundcloud, YouTube) and embedded below.

By now we all know that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in the service design toolbox. But can we also use storytelling to actually improve our own practice? Steve Portigal thinks so and he explains why in this episode.

And how well aware are you of your own biases, beliefs and assumptions when you go into a project? Learning to better listen to ourselves might be a key to get more meaningful work done.

Finally we discuss why the value of deep research is still often not aligned with the value we put on designing solutions. For this we dig into some economic fallacies that might have to do with this.

The big question of this episode is: When has storytelling worked for you (and when did it fail)?

How To Unlock The True Power Of User Research / Steve Portigal / Episode #52

Watch Steve on Like/Unlike

Here’s a twenty-minute conversation with me, for the show Like/Unlike for, in anticipation of Product Camp Poland, coming right up! I talk about three things – something I recently experienced that I liked (our Punk Rock walking tour of the East Village); something that I did not like (an app required to get filtered drinking water), and a perspective on user research that others may not be thinking about.

Like/Unlike #6: Steve Portigal

sorry about the occasionally blurry video

Video from User Research London keynote: Learning From User Research War Stories

Last summer I went to London to give the opening keynote at User Research London, User Research War Stories. The video is now available and I’ve embedded it below.

Steve Portigal, War Stories - User Research London 2017

The talk features bonus war stories from Kristina Lustig (27:24) and Elizabeth Chesters (31:20)

Much Better Than The Original

Comedian Laurie Kilmartin tweeted

Hey aspiring comedy writers, when my brain is foggy or I just need multiple punchlines for the same setup, sometime I consult my transitions list! It’s dumb but it helps

It’s sort of a low-fidelity methods card approach, where a phrase suggests a particular structure, or triggers the writer to generate a certain type of response. As a comedy consumer, I am amazed at how familiar so many of these phrases are. While I do some amount of deconstructing the form as a fan, it is very cool to see how fully she reverse-engineered standup tropes for her own benefit

Listen to Steve on the Conversation Factory Podcast

It was great fun to speak with Daniel Stillman about research, collaboration, communication and facilitation. now live on the Conversation Factory site, and embedded below


Here’s part of how Daniel framed the conversation in his writeup

Steve is a User Researcher, heart and soul. And he talks and writes about it, fluently. Facilitation is something that he *has to do* in order to bring people together. He’s an extremely reflective practitioner about research, but about facilitation, less so. For me, it’s fascinating to see that divide. I think there are a lot of people where facilitation is a means to an end.

Steve illustrates something I coach people on often – you have to be your own kind of facilitator. I can be theatrical and energetic. Steve is more introverted and centered. My way of solving for group work isn’t Steve’s: he’s adapted his own approach that feels natural and gets the job done.

Tad Friend: Interviewing Master

I love this bit from Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Donald Glover

Noting that he often spoke about how life would be different if he were White Donald, I asked Glover how our conversations would be different if I were black. He gave me a considering look. “We’d have a language we both understood, and you’d know me better,” he said. “But as Black Tad you’d only be in a position of talking to me because you were good at placating a white audience. As a black person, you have to sell the black culture to succeed. So I’d try to trust Black Tad, but it’s really up to him whether he’d sell us out.”

Glover is an elusive interview, dismissing many expected norms around career, goals, success, creativity. Here, Friend takes a framework that Glover has presented (if Glover were white rather than black) and twists that into a new question (if Friend were black rather than white). He’s extending and adapting what Glover has already told him in order to probe more deeply on that model, by asking Glover to consider a hypothetical. And in doing so, Friend points back to the actual instrument of inquiry – the interview conducted by an interviewer, and asks Glover to examine that relationship.

That is masterful interviewing: hewing to the world view the interviewee is articulating; building a hypothetical evolution of that framework in order to examine the assumptions of that framework more closely; and acknowledging the context of the interview itself in order to probe even more deeply.

Since we are reading an article, and not an interview transcript, we only know about this because Friend put it in his article; in order to make his point he had to reveal the questions as well as the answers. And it’s a delightful reveal.

Listen to Steve on the User Defenders Podcast


Artwork by Eli Jorgensen

I had a wide-ranging and personal conversation with Jason Ogle for the User Defenders podcast. We talked about my professional trajectory, my disdain for Forrest Gump, rapport-building, listening, disgust, and war stories from fieldwork. Our conversation is now live on the User Defenders site, and embedded below



And yeah, that’s me in a black-and-purple cape, but you’ll need to listen to the episode to understand what’s about.

How to Grow and Thrive as A User Researcher

Check out an interview with me in How to Grow and Thrive as A User Researcher on the Adobe blog. An excerpt is below

What are the benefits of sharing career failures and mishaps rather than just successes?

We need to share both! Thinking about the field of user research, it’s important for practitioners to continue our development. Examining what went wrong (or what was different from what we expected) can highlight practices that might have avoided any particular mishap. But user research is so much about people and all their quirks, personalities, strengths, flaws, emotions, and so on — it’s what the work is about! There are inevitably surprises, and failures, and so another way to think about improving our skills is in accepting the lack of control, and even embracing it.

Researchers are often ‘selling’ the benefits of the practice to colleagues and stakeholders, and while I’m probably not going to lead with failure stories, it’s helpful to have a framework for considering them. ‘Failures’ are inevitable and while we work hard to prevent them, they are still coming for us, and reframing them as part of the messy people experience that we’re out there to embrace can help us discuss more realistically with our collaborators. There’s no reason any of us should feel alone with these experiences; as Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries illustrates, they are part of this work.

Some well-known and very successful designers don’t do any user research. What do you think about that approach?

Let’s assume that’s true. It’s foolish to declare that the only way to innovate is through research. Even when we do research, there are many other factors at play that determine success. What does concern me is that approaches championed by ‘well-known and very successful’ individuals won’t succeed for everyone. It’s real swell that Steve Jobs (or substitute your favorite successful innovator) did it this way. But you’re not Steve Jobs!

Special thanks to Oliver Lindberg for the interview!

Snark about Bark

I’m rolling my eyes at this article about successful dog toy company, Bark. Specifically:

Bark’s design process begins with research. Packed in every BarkBox sent to 600,000 subscribers is a survey questioning dog parents about their beloved canine’s playing styles. The design team also gets anecdotal data from their Ohio-based customer service team who chat with with BarkBox loyalists about how toys were received. Based on user insights, Jensen and his team creates goofy toys that heighten a dog’s natural play style—chewing, fetching, or even destruction play.

“We know what a golden retriever in Kansas will like compared to a chihuahua in Seattle,” claims Jensen.

Some of what is grating is simply due to sloppy writing, but I am bothered by the hollow virtue-signalling around user research. Their methods are surveys – sent only to people who have purchased their product, and customer service reps – who are probably doing more troubleshooting than chatting with loyalists. The quote, then, implies a Big Data-style sense of insight across geography and breed, which is just untrue. They haven’t met any pet owners and they haven’t met with any pets!

I realize it’s expedient for PR to anchor your genius in customer-centricity, and I guess that’s a win. The founders are industrial designers and there would once have been a day when their innate brilliance would have been sufficient. But really, don’t cloak yourself in shallow methodologies and then claim you are doing everything based on research!

Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button


Image from HappyOrNot.com homepage

The New Yorker profiles HappyOrNot, the company that makes those kiosks to measure “satisfaction” (you may have seen them in airports or malls, they have a few colored buttons with different happy/unhappy faces). The article explains the history of the company and gives examples of organizations who are using the technology, what kind of data they are getting, and how they are acting on it.

On a large monitor on a wall of Javaid’s office, Jochym showed us several ways she’d devised to represent HappyOrNot data graphically, for presentation to other members of the organization. One was a stadium seating map on which the HappyOrNot terminals were identified by numbered, colored circles. “You can see all the terminals here, and you can move through the data hour by hour. The colors change as the ratings do.” The most consistently high-rated performer—even during the two most problematic periods for customer service, halftime and the fourth quarter—was a new vender, which, unlike most other venders, used the same, experienced work crew at every game.

How Louis Theroux asks questions

From 2016, here’s a great video by Ryan Hollinger analyzing how documentary filmmaker asks questions, builds rapport, uncovers information. This video doesn’t get into one of my personal favorites of Louis’s superpowers – that he ignores negative energy – discomfort, anger, superiority – from his interviewees. Rather than fleeing, he stays calm and continues to engage.

(update: video link corrected)

How Louis Theroux Asks A Question | Ryan's Theory

Listen to Steve on Helping Sells Radio

I had a really enjoyable conversation with Sarah E. Brown and Bill Cushard for their Helping Sells Radio podcast.

The episode is posted here and embedded below

Research is sometimes about not doing anything at all

“Sometimes the best thing you can do in user research is to sit on your hands,” Portigal said. For example when talking to someone and they use a product feature in a different way than you intended or mispronounce the name of your product. “Just let them talk, don’t correct them,” he advised.

By sitting back and letting the interview subject take control of the language they use and how they explain things, you’re giving them the power in the session. The power in any interview tends to lie with the interviewer, so by sitting back and letting them speak however they like, you’re giving it back to them.

The bonus lesson here is that interviewers are getting a first-hand look at the customer perspective and they can use that information to shift their own mindset. It can be hard figuring out what customers are thinking about or what they’re looking to get out of your products, so any interview you do with them helps with that. You are so invested in your product and so focused on it that it can be hard to step away and look at it from another view point. User research interview sessions give you that opportunity.

Highlights from my Ask Me Anything with What Users Do

I did an Ask Ask Me Anything with What Users Do recently. Here’s the recap they put together.

Any tips for interviewing users who work with highly confidential information? Any strategies for incentivising such an audience to be open about which problems they struggle with and how they use our software, when almost everything they do is supposed to be a secret? [Timi Olotu]

I think it’s always good to set expectations clearly when arranging for interviews; perhaps in that situation there might be concern – before even agreeing – about risk. I worked with a bank and they had a standard set of text they used in recruiting bank customers, along the lines of “We won’t ever ask for your bank balance or any information about accounts.” Perhaps that was required for regulatory compliance anyway but it served to be very clear about what we were NOT going to be asking about.

I think managing expectations is more important than incentive; but gaining access is also about understanding their dynamic or their relationship to you. Like, if they use your software, then they have a chance to give input and feedback.

I’d also add, I wonder what kind of anonymized experiences you can create, and I don’t mean that to be so fancy sounding, but how much of the interview could you do on paper, with wireframes.

I don’t mean give them a usability test, but can you give them a set of high-level scenarios and have them pick some and choose which to walk through using a sort of simulated or high level version of your experience.

You wouldn’t want to do that for the whole thing, but it could be a component of an interview.

When generating questions for interviews, how do you reduce bias from pre-existing hypotheses? [Amy]

I think bias is obviously a concern but it comes up so often as the main thing people are concerned about. This is totally biased work! We are humans who are the product of our experiences and meeting other people and exchanging the slipperiest of substances: words! How can we not have bias?

I think that having hypotheses is a great thing when going into research. I mean, you put it exactly right – hypothesis. That’s not a closely-held belief, or an aspiration, it’s an idea of what you think might be happening. That sounds like what we’re supposed to be doing.

If there is a belief or a hope or an expectation – be it implicit or explicit – that seems like something we want to get to in research.

Of course there’s a ludicrous way to do that. “Don’t you agree that it’s better now that we have this feature located in this part of the UI?”

That’s a biased form of inquiry, that’s almost abusive of your power. But trying to understand someone’s framework, expectations, preferences, experiences, mental model, etc. from an open and curious point of view, and having that curiosity informed by what you have been already considering about the problem space, sounds like good research to me.

You writings and talks have been a big influence on many folks working in the area of UX – but who are your influences and inspiration, and why? [Rob Whiting]

Our field is packed solid with great people. I keep thinking about some of the over achievers I get to meet and how accomplished they are.

I love Jess McMullin, he is one of the first people to start doing civic design, like YEARS ago, before it became such a big thing in so many parts of the world.

I am a big fan of Allan Chochinov (he wrote the foreword to Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries). He started a graduate program in design at SVA in NYC, called Products of Design that kind of takes a big picture look at what design can do. Mentor, friend, inspires me.

I think Kevin Hoffman is really inspiring. Funny, passionate about pop culture and knows everything, cares about people. His book about meetings is going to come out soon (I can say I saw the cover and it looks really cool).

It’s horrible to try and pick people as I’m using recency to come up with a list.

I’m trying to get user testing ingrained into my company’s process but it’s a struggle. It always seem to be the first element dropped when budgets are tight. Any advice on keeping it a part of the process? [Mike Mellor]

I think you’ve got the #1 FAQ about research… that it isn’t supported. I don’t think there’s a stock answer though. But you might wonder – or seek to understand – why is it being dropped? And why was it even being proposed or considered in the first place?

I mean, it’s one thing to say there’s no budget or time… but if someone chose to put it in to begin with, there was a narrative about its value.

If one could understand that better, one could propose an alternative or advocate, with a bit more information. I’m sure there’s some Rhetorical Studies model here I’m not expressing well, but understanding your adversary’s objections seems like one possible persuasive technique.

I’ve long said don’t advocate for the process “we have to do research” but for the outcomes “we have to make sure we understand this issue or this consequence will happen.”

IU059: Figure 9.4

IU060: Figure 9.5

If you want to get into a discussion of timing, you can use the above diagrams as inspiration – lets say the top one is sort of my gold standard, here’s what it takes to do it “all” – but if you want to do it more quickly, here’s how it’s going to look – it may be more or less appropriate but that way you can have a discussion about tradeoffs.

If we only have a day to find participants, for example, then we can’t be too picky, we can’t go beyond who we know right now at this moment. Maybe that’s sufficient.

So even though your question was about doing it – or not doing it – I think looking at ranges of commitments – where zero is in that range – and encouraging reflection on trade-offs – could be good. It’s not about what YOU need, it’s about what the work requires. So don’t take it on yourself. “I’m not allowed” “they won’t let me” – it’s about us, about our shared goal and your expert advice about how to reach that goal.

I’m wondering what strategies and methods you use to analyse data from your interviews. Would you recap after each interview and write down your observations when they are still fresh and then wait for all of them to be over to listen to transcripts? [Edyta Niemyjska]

You describe my preference pretty well. I separate the “processing the experience” and “processing the data.”

After an interview, I might do a debrief worksheet – but typically not. But at the end of each day, I write up a VERY quick paragraph or two about the interviews we’ve done.

It’s meant to be a storytelling exercise, it’s a forced analysis (take a large thing and pull out some smaller bits) – and it shares the fieldwork with the rest of the team. Here is a PERSON, they have a NAME, they own a THING, they told us an EXPERIENCE. So it helps me make a first pass at distilling and it gets people to think about these real actual people really quickly.

It’s not field notes.

I try to do it in just a few minutes, and do it stream of consciousness.

When we’re done with fieldwork, I like to sort of collate, very quickly pull together a topline – here’s what we think we’re hearing., what did you all think, what did you all hear. We started with questions and we have some thoughts, we have some weak signals, we have some things we’re excited about. Nothing about what to DO with this info, just where we’re at, at the moment.

And then, finally, let’s dig into the transcripts and see what actually happened.

What is the most effective way to ask simple questions to better understand where our users are coming from? Often, the users are ill at ease and want to “help” or are simply biased so they muddle the actual answer. [Karunakar Rayker]

Part of your question is about building rapport. People are often ill at ease at the beginning of a session. They want to do a good job and they don’t really understand what is going on, I mean not to be patronizing, they understand, but they don’t “get” what this exchange is meant to cover.

It’s one reason why super short interviews are challenging because it’s hard to get to a point in the relationship where you have established a smooth dialogue, where the person is not only comfortable but excited, reflective. That takes time, sometimes a huge amount of time – and people are unique, and the way we find a connection is unique to the combination of them and us.

The ways we have to contact with people ahead of time – before the interview – can be rapport builders. Maybe we have a quick phone call and let them ask any questions. Maybe we give them an exercise so we can see something about them. Exercises also prime people – it engages them in thinking about the topic so when we meet they aren’t coming up to it raw and fresh and new, it gets them involved.

Sometimes we make sure in our recruiting process that we screen out people who aren’t already meeting a certain comfort level – “the articulation screen” – if the person can’t answer a question from the recruiter (tell us about a recent experience you had going to the movies) for a few sentences, then they may not be the best participant for the study.

But assuming they are “articulate” – they may not be comfortable. So our job is to keep listening, to keep affirming. I do NOT mean “okay great! Cool! Wow!” etc. I mean listening, I mean, asking follow up questions, expressing interest, validating that their point of view is important because you give it time – that’s a harder way to validate the person because you want to do MORE, but when you do that enthusiastic thing you are actually pushing them to perform for you.

Finally, when you have an uncomfortable person YOU feel uncomfortable, you are sensitive to the cues that this person is feeling weird and I should probably do something different or leave. What if you could ignore those cues – which are about YOUR feelings? And just keep listening and focusing on them?

Can you share examples of what type of exercises you have the user complete when connecting with them prior to an interview? [Anne Jackson]

Come up with something that seems relevant, and so many different ways to go about it. But an approach can be ask them to take a picture of two different things, and send the pictures along with an explanation. Two, because it’s about examples of contrast.

Send us a picture of something in your neighbourhood that you think adds value to the experience people who live there have. And explain why. And send us a picture of something that detracts from the experience.

Send us something you’ve organized well. Send us something you wish was more organized.

These are kind of digging into the theme you suspect the session will get into.

The interview kicks off by getting them to tell you that story again!

It could be fill out a form and give a couple of examples, but the photo stuff can be fun. A screen shot, even.

I am currently in the process of introducing a lot of PMs and Engineers to customer interviews. We are also training a few younger designers to talk to their target users.

What are some basic strategies and tips to keep in mind when introducing non UX researchers to UX research? [Nachi Ramanujam]

I write – well, scribble – on the paper. I might draw a big circle around the quote that is interesting and then write my own thoughts, “Why does she do this” or “they don’t have alignment between their goals and their choices” etc.

This formative UX study is a bit more tactical but might be really helpful – it’s so well explained (not specifically transcripts but at least about analysis in general – I think less about synthesis – where we take small bits and put them into new ideas and frameworks – which is what I think we do with the big mess of annotations I’m producing).

My consulting guide to fieldwork is a one or two pager that is meant to help people do well when they are joining in (NOT LEADING) user research interviews. It is the most boiled down set of points I have. I think it’s like anything, the more you put in, the more you get out.

Here’s a 40 minute presentation that is about doing research. Do they have 40 minutes? http://portigal.com/speaking/ has a bunch of links to past talks so you can see where there are videos and slide decks.

I also do a workshop where I ask people to interview each other and then reflect on what worked and what did not work. Practice – in a safe place – not on a work problem but on a practice problem.

Listen to Steve on the Aurelius podcast

I had a great chat with Zack Naylor about user research for the Aurelius podcast. We talked about

  • Why you should be doing [more] user research
  • How to convince your stakeholders that user research is important
  • 3 approaches to building brilliant products and features (and which one is best)
  • Convincing your stakeholders and leaders to do (more) user research
  • What is a user research process to make sure you’re learning the right things
  • The difference between research analysis and research synthesis

It’s posted here and embedded below

Alexandra’s War Story: When One Door Closes

Alexandra Wills is an ethnographer working at Fuse by Cardinal Health, an innovation center in Columbus, Ohio. She told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

I’ll never forget when I did ethnographic research for a project aimed at helping a car manufacturer learn what Millennials with small children really needed.

The project was hard. Taking on a project at the height of the Great Recession meant navigating a radical change in client engagement from what I had experienced since starting the work two years prior. “It’s Friday at 5 p.m. in Ohio and you want me in Los Angeles on Monday?” Okay. “We’re doing video diaries and in-home interviews and a post-interview ideation session with participants in two cities, all in two months?” Okay.

Added to all that, I had a nine-month-old and simply didn’t want to leave her for days at a time. Over the past few months of work, I had already breast pumped on an airplane and in dirty airport bathrooms. I had already begged flight attendants and fast food workers for ice to put in the cooler carrying pouches of my “liquid gold.” Did I mention it was my birthday?

At one point in the project, I was hanging out with a family in Austin who had a toddler. I knew nothing about toddlers. After all, I had a nine-month-old. Did I mention I am not a ‘kid person’?

We had just returned from running errands in their car. As we got out of the car, they were showing me some specific details about the vehicle. They had a Honda Element – the car with the interesting doors that open and close like a book. I was paying close, close attention to the parents and I had no idea that the little kid was right near me. So I closed the door. Suddenly, we all heard the kid screaming! His parents rushed to his side and looked him over, examining his hands. All I could do was yell impulsively, “I didn’t do it!” I was horrified. I thought, “I hurt a child! This child! A participant’s child! Oh noooooo this is bad. How am I going to fix this? What am I going to tell Melinda (my boss)?” To this day I don’t know if his finger got caught in the door, or if me closing the door just scared him.

There was no blood, no broken fingers. But inside, I wanted to die. I already felt plagued by my own mommy guilt and that feeling spread throughout my body like lava. So, not only did I feel like a horrible mom for leaving my kid, but here I was in Austin, making someone else’s kid cry. What a moment. Needless to say, any rapport I had developed in my time with the family evaporated in that instant.

I stopped recording, stepped back, apologized to the mom and waited for the parents to finish calming down their kid. I waited for them to say, “This is over.” They didn’t. Miraculously, they continued the interview, even if I could feel all their judgment the entire time as we wrapped things up. “Maybe I didn’t traumatize this family,” I thought insecurely.

The icing on the cake was that we used video to capture all our data, so not only did this happen, but my boss got to see the whole thing when she reviewed the video. Later in the project I mentioned the incident and she said, “Yeah I saw that.”

Joel’s War Story: From Moscow with Love

Joel Kashuba has practiced design for nearly two decades, with a career spanning the practices of architecture, industrial design, branding, UX, and innovation consulting. He currently leads the Innovation & Design functions for Fifth Third Bank located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

While working for a major CPG company I was placed with a cross-functional innovation team assigned to write and vet concepts that would take a well-known women’s shaving brand into several other personal care categories. The focus was on serving the needs of young women in several BRIC countries. The theme we had been asked to unlock was “A Day at the Spa” – a theme the company had uncovered in earlier research within the United States and projected as a fruitful area to mine for opportunities and frame our expansion.

Before going out into the field – specifically, to Moscow – the project team undertook countless hours of concept writing sessions, often with heavily resourced vendor partners. We created roughly 25 concepts, each taking unique inspiration from the theme “A Day at the Spa”. Armed with our concepts we set off to Russia and began collaborating with consumers in the field to vet each concept.

By the noon on the first day, none of our concepts were resonating and we recognized our first challenge. The translator we had been assigned by a local agency was an older Russian gentleman who sounded much like a James Bond villain. As he readied each of our painstakingly word-smithed concepts, they each ended up sounding like the dastardly ideas of a dour old man who may like to cross-dress. To fix this, we recruited a spritely young woman who worked as an assistant concierge at our hotel to read the concepts. She was great! Several of our consumers even mentioned that she had the perfect voice for commercials in this category.

Despite this change, our concepts still weren’t hitting the mark we were aiming for and we couldn’t figure out why. These concepts had been exceptionally well received in our early test back in the States – what was going on here in Moscow that made them such tankers?

Finally, near the morning of day three, one of our consumers asked us plainly, “Why are you trying to make me feel old?”

“Old?” we asked her with sincere confusion, “Can you say more? Is there something in the concepts that makes you feel old?”

“Yes,” she quickly retorted, “you keep talking to me about spending a day at the spa.”

“And what does that mean to you?” we had our translator ask her.

She looked surprised and a little pissed off. She explained, “It means the place we send our grandmothers when they are too old to take care of in their homes. It’s the place people go before they die.”

It hit us like a ton of bricks. In Russian culture, a “spa” is what we’d call a retirement home. As we had been pulling out concept after concept trying to get these young women to fall in love with our theme, all they saw was of tone-deaf Americans shoving the idea of products for a retirement home down their throats.

We were horrified. We called off the rest of the day’s consumers and stayed up all night re-writing the concepts. The young concierge we had hired to translate became an adjunct team member. Constrained by time, we changed our strategy and turned consumer research into consumer co-creation. We had consumers work in teams to read and re-write the concepts, which were passed along to other teams of consumers to be refined. By the time we finished we had three great concepts that all resonated well.

Coming back to our home base, we reflected on the experience as a team. What we had set out to do was valid, but how we remained nimble in the field is what made the clear difference in how we would found success.

Nadav’s War Story: Baptism by Tears

Nadav Zohar is a UX researcher at AEP in Columbus, OH.

My first ever user research project was for a healthcare app. Our users were nurses who work with poor and high-risk patients, often called “the under-served.” My supervisor and I had a reserved conference room at the client’s site, and our pre-scheduled users rotated in about one per hour. It was a grueling two days of nonstop interviews. For the first day I took notes while my supervisor moderated.

On the second day, after he moderated the first couple of interviews, my supervisor turned to me and asked if I thought I was ready to take the lead on the next one. I said “Sure” so he handed me the discussion guide. In came our next user, a middle-aged nurse who was very sweet and eager to help us in any way she could. This was my very first user interview and I was ready for a clean, uneventful affair.

As the questions on my discussion guide turned to the technological hurdles she encounters when helping her patients, her frustration mounted. At one point, while discussing how her technology failed to help her manage the stress of the enormous workload placed on her and her colleagues, she mentioned having lost a patient. I watched her relive that pain – she broke down and started sobbing. None of the other users we’d talked to had even come close to that kind of emotional response, even though some of them had lost patients too.

Right then and there I learned there’s an awkward balance between not wanting to seem clinical and cold at that crucial moment, but still wanting to preserve an interviewee’s dignity: I figured weeping in front of strangers at work must be somewhat embarrassing. So I bowed my head and looked down at my notes, or my lap, or at nothing in particular, to give the crying nurse a bit of privacy. I waited a few sobs so it didn’t seem like I was trying to shut her up, and then I warmly and gracefully offered her a box of tissues. I let her know I empathized with her pain (although looking back on it I don’t see how I really could have…but my empathy felt genuine anyway) and she eventually calmed down and we finished out the interview. After that, back at the office I was jokingly known as the guy to call in to make people cry.

I think I deal fairly well with very emotional user research situations and over my career I’ve learned they are not uncommon, but it was interesting to have one right off the bat.

Emily’s War Story: Getting To The Point

Emily Mayfield (Twitter, LinkedIn) is a User Experience Researcher at The Kroger Co. in Cincinnati, OH.

Before my current job, I spent six months in Bangalore, India, doing research for a lab that was part of a design school in the northern part of the city. I did not drive while I was in India – I took public transportation and little “autos,” which resemble a golf cart in terms of size and a lawnmower in terms of sound. At that time Uber was barred from India. The driving style in Bangalore struck me as very different from the States: sometimes the traffic lights/stop signs are ignored, sometimes drivers go well beyond oncoming traffic lanes, sometimes when a freeway exit is missed drivers throw their cars into reverse on the freeway. I saw enough daily to get my heart pumping.

I was doing research to understand what the notion of “smart city” might mean in India? As part of the research, I made cold calls to different innovation centers and companies, setting up expert interviews that would inform the research. I learned a lot about how companies had explored the concept of “smartness” in cities. In retrospect, the interview part was easy. Finding the location of the interviews was the challenge.

I had a smart phone. I had a camera. I took photos of the locations on Google maps on my computer or on my phone in case the connection on my phone was lost or hiccuping. One time, I got on the bus headed south and rode it two hours deep into the city to a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with. I hopped off when it seemed like I was close to where I needed to be. There was a queue of auto drivers at the bus stop. I showed my phone and camera screens, with their neat pin-point of my destination on the digital map, to the first driver in the queue. I showed him the address: a building number and street name. The driver waved me in. “No problem!” I thought to myself. I smiled and held on tight to my bag and the rail of the auto. We were off! Turning and bending through little streets and big ones, weaving in between cars and buses. We flew past people crossing the street, animals doing the same, and carts selling food and tea. We drove and drove and drove some more. Minutes led to double-digits. The driver was flying…in what felt like circles. Checking the time, I thought “Oh boy…”

Eventually the driver pulled over to ask other auto drivers for help finding the location. Local folks came to help. A cop or some kind of military person joined in the effort. The mass of people tried to help, pointing around like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz guessing all directions to try next. They discussed, pointed, checked and double-checked the address and the maps. At last I got a solid idea: I called my interviewee and he chatted with the driver. We met in a place that the driver could find and then I walked with the interviewee to the building together.

Afterwards, a colleague let me know that the European conventions of maps as we know them don’t make sense to some people in India who have never seen a map in that form. Also, Bangalore is constantly changing, adding streets and changing names of streets. Later on I learned that landmarks are the way to go, as well as calling people sooner rather than later. Still, the worst case scenario was handing my phone to friendly-looking strangers to communicate with a driver when I’m really lost and it worked. A quick shout out to the kind and patient people of Bangalore: Thank you for your constant help getting me to and fro!

Side note: It’s possible my geographical difficulty is just a me thing. More than once I’ve gone to conduct research at the wrong Kroger store on the same street here in Cincinnati!

Krispian’s War Story: If Texas and England Had a Baby

Krispian Emert has over 12 years experience working in UX. She has worked all over the world: for startups, agencies, and companies like Microsoft, The NFL, Thompson Reuters, ING, etc. Currently, she is lead UX Researcher at TELUS digital. She told this story live at Radical Research Summit.

It was my first field study at my new job in Sydney, Australia. I had just uprooted my family and flown to the other side of the world to work for Australia’s largest user experience consultancy. Did I want to do a good job? You bet. Was I nervous? Hell, yes!

I had had a couple of weeks to settle in and explore the city, and to get to know my colleagues. My impression of Australian culture was that it was surprisingly similar to Canadian culture: We both have the Queen on our money, we both drink copious amounts of beer, and we both say “no worries” a lot. The only glaring difference I was able discern up to that point was that for a casual greeting Canadians asked “How’s it going?” and Australians asked, “How’re you going?” So I had experienced little culture shock thus far.

The assignment was for one of the big banks. We were to conduct contextual field studies in the moment while people used the bank’s ATMs. The only problem was that due to privacy constraints we had to recruit people just as they were about to use the ATM. This was made more challenging because the bank gave us very little in the way of official ID.

This meant that I, an extra polite Canadian, was nervously approaching busy Australians and anxiously stammering the first few sentences of my recruitment spiel. To say that I got turned down by my prospective interviewees is an understatement. The fact that I didn’t look “official” or in any way affiliated with the bank made me seem suspect at best, and criminal at worst. ATM users glared at me as though I were panhandling, and time after time, I was told to “Fuck off!”. I was worried that I wouldn’t complete the assignment. I needed 10 participants and after two hours I had exactly none.

As I stood in the street in Sydney, miles from home, failing to secure participants and on the receiving end of some choice language, I had a “Dorothy moment.” I was not in Canada anymore. Despite my initial impression that our countries were similar, I was in whole new culture – one where people were not afraid to say the F-word to a complete stranger. I realized I had to stop assuming people would stop and politely listen to my lengthy recruitment pitch, and that I had to just accept Australians for what they were – blunt and direct. I changed my approach, and went up to prospective participants boldly, waving my gift cards at them. I shortened my pitch to state only the benefits of participating in the research. This produced much better results.

They say that if Texas and England had a baby, it would be Australia. After this experience, I grew to appreciate the unique Australian culture of “wild west gunslinger meets cricket games and meat pies.”

And despite our differences, I guess we’re pretty similar after all.

Billy Eichner on Interviewing

In this interview with Billy Eichner he articulates a beautiful principle of successful interviewing (even though his show features “interviews” that are over-the-top aggro street-intercepts)

Q: What makes a good interview for you?
A: I might have jokes in my head, but the best interactions come when I listen to the person’s response. I let go of whatever my plan might have been, and I meet this person where they are, and I let them lead me wherever they want to go, to a certain extent. It always bothers me when I watch interviews — even serious ones on a news program — and there are no follow-up questions, and the journalist sticks to their plan, and they don’t let the conversation guide them.

Steve in conversation with What Users Do

What Users Do has published our conversation about user research and war stories. Below is a tiny excerpt but please read the whole thing here.

Your book ‘Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries’ is a collection of war stories from the world of user research, collected from real life researchers. Are there common themes between the stories?

That’s how the book is structured, actually. Each of the 11 chapters considers a particular theme, something that is of particular challenge to researchers. Some of these are obvious (such as participants we have problems with, or the potential to end up in a dangerous situation) and some are less obvious (encountering not-safe-for-work content in the field, or dealing with our own emotions as well as those of our participants). The chapters begin with an essay by me, include a handful of different stories about the theme, and then wrap up with takeaways that researchers can use to develop their own practice.

You say that improving research skills is about coming to grips with our own ‘flawed humanity’ – how so?

Pulling off a research program is an enormous logistics exercise. Coordinating materials, participants, times, locations, stakeholders, incentives, recording equipment, and on and on. When you work inside a commercial enterprise, there’s a desire to optimize processes, create spreadsheets, build checklists, summarize objectives, deliver key takeaways, etc. But the truth we may forget is that research is an activity that researchers perform with participants. People who make mistakes, people who come to the session with something else going on in their lives, people who have emotions, people who have different verbal abilities, people who have different expectations of the session, and on and on it goes.

While the optimizing efforts are important, these will always be person-to-person interactions. You can fight that and always be frustrated or stressed or disappointed, or you can embrace that as part of the joy of doing research and a source for richer learning. Learning to overcome the pull of frustration and to find a way to actually embrace it is where we can personally grow in our practices.

A user research reading (listening/watching) list

I’m in Chattanooga today, teaching the students at Center Centre today (and tomorrow) about ethnographic research.

In preparation for the class, they asked me to put together a list of readings, so I pulled together a bunch of links that I’d posted in the last few months, some of them on this blog but mostly on the Portigal LinkedIn page. I’m sharing the list below.

Listen to Steve on the Design Your Thinking podcast

I had a fantastic conversation with Karthik of the Design Your Thinking podcast, posted in two separate episodes.

The first episode is Problem Space vs. Solution Space

Listen at that link, or here, or embedded below

The second episode is Master The Art Of Listening

Listen at that link, or here, or embedded below

Joe’s War Story: Clean Break

Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!

Have A Nice Day

I’ve just published Have A Nice Day as part of The Human In The Machine, a series about productivity. Excerpted below, but check out the whole piece here.

I interviewed a young couple who were both working in corporate sales (for different companies) out of their shared home office. The goal of this research project was to understand how people worked, outside of traditional offices. I had my own assumptions about what we’d learn, expecting stories about people folding laundry while they were on the call with a colleague (In fact, we met one woman who described being on a web-based teleconference from her laptop while she drove her child to after-school activities). But this couple had a particular approach: they went into the home office at 9 am and focused only on their work, until 5 pm (with a break for lunch). They deliberately maintained a firewall between their work environment (and the associated tasks) and the rest of their lives. This took intentionality and focus.

In this interview, the husband explained to us that he begins every day by making a list of what he wants to accomplish. Beyond managing his productivity, having this list meant he could tell if he had a good day!

The Turnaround is a great new podcast that interviews interviewers

The Turnaround is a new podcast where interviewers are interviewed about interviewing. The episode with Audie Cornish is just fantastic. Anyone who is thinking about the interview (the mechanics, the preparation, the rapport, the search for the story, working against constraints) should listen at least to the first 50 minutes or so. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the series (but I’m also afraid that it can’t possibly live up to how great this interview is!).

A partial transcript – just the highlights – is here

Because I know the conversation will be edited down, I don’t necessarily have the luxury to go on a fishing expedition. So I often write my questions in advance wherever possible. I rewrite and noodle around with the language even though I know for fact I won’t necessarily read it word for word. And I always have more questions than I need. In fact my poor producers and editors always see me coming in with like a long script, and then I’ll say, “Let’s put a star next to the things that actually matter.” Like, even though I have 15 questions. Because I want to make sure I at least get the things we absolutely know we want to ask, even if they don’t yield great answers. It’s not that I run out of things to ask, you know what I mean? It’s more that I have occasionally, where you just like flip over the paper, and you’re just having a good conversation, and one thing leads to another and things can go very easily. When in doubt, I often say something, like, very straightforward, and this is directly from the Sound Reporting handbook. You know… “What haven’t I asked that I should have? What’s something you wish people would ask you that they never do?” Like, people oftentimes have an answer for that.

Elizabeth’s War Story: Nail Polish for Insights

Elizabeth Chesters is a UX consultant based in London, who volunteers for organizations like EmpowerHack and CodeFirst:Girls. She told this story live at User Research London. Update: the video is here.

I volunteer for EmpowerHack, an organisation dedicated to building technical solutions for refugees. When I joined in 2016, I was working on a project called HaBaby; a mobile app that stores medical records of pregnant refugees and offers symptom cards to help them communicate with doctors. Throughout my time volunteering, I noticed a lot of barriers. One of the biggest was that a lot of people in the organisation did not understand refugees! Many had never spoken to an actual refugee, which led to some wild assumptions (such as how some women had got pregnant or the age they would typically marry).

In April 2016 my team member and I planned a trip to the refugee camps in France. We did not feel comfortable turning up as researchers, as our digital skills didn’t directly help refugees or fit the environment. They needed houses, not interviews. Our plan was to spend as much time as possible observing, in order to better understand issues refugees faced. Our research would then be reported back to the organisation, validating our ideas about what it means to be a refugee and our technical solutions.

The first visit where we were able to talk with refugees was at the Dunkirk camp. Dunkirk was a much cleaner camp than one of the other camps we had been to, The Jungle in Calais. My team member and I met with a volunteer and a group of refugees who were working on an open-source map project. After introductions, we quickly gained the trust of a refugee, who I’ll call “Zach”. We went to his cabin, met the temporary family he had made in the camp and mentioned that we were in the camps to do research.

We walked around the camp, and came across a group of three mothers who were sitting outside with their babies. By the time we communicated to Zach what we were trying to do, so that he could translate for mothers, it was raining. The women looked at us and stood up, gripping their children. Zach explained that the women would not talk to us without trading for makeup. We were testing an app, so we had nothing physical to give them. In the end they went inside to get out of the rain, and we had to walk away… though not without a few marriage proposals from passing men.

On our last day volunteering we were invited to help at a spa day for female refugees in The Jungle. Here we could get close to the women and ask questions in their safe space. This time we also brought makeup to exchange! We turned the top of a donated double-decker bus (with no seats) into a beauty room. Everyone relaxed, leaving their shoes downstairs. We laid out carpet, lined the windows with bunting, and scattered cushions around the room. My friend and I set up our nail polishing stations and settled in for a long day of painting nails.

Throughout the day we were able to meet refugees and ask questions. The women were from all around the world, with the majority from Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Sadly conversations did not flow as well as expected, partly due to my inability to paint nails. Most seemed unamused at my efforts. So, I spent most of my time redoing the same nails and ensuring we still had enough polish for women who would come later.

Halfway through the day journalists from Grazia, a fashion magazine turned up to interview volunteers and refugees about the spa day. They made no effort to ask for help to translate questions. The more questions the journalists asked, the more you could see the women retreat into themselves.

By the end of the day we had no makeup left. I had a makeover done by a little girl and looked like I had two black eyes. My friend also had a bright red face, due to being sat on and having her eyebrows threaded by an Iranian beautician. I walked down to the bottom deck of the bus, to an empty box of shoes. After scanning the whole bottom deck, it became apparent that I no longer had shoes. The other volunteers helped me find something I could wear temporarily. We found a pair of silver slip-on shoes. They were slightly too small, so I had to stand on the back on them. Someone reassured me that I could go to the warehouse to pick a donated pair that fit me. But when I walked outside, the woman we had arrived with (and her car) were gone, our passports along with her. We were now stranded in The Jungle, late in the day, with the warehouse an hour’s walk away. All I could do was pace up and down, frantically phoning volunteers who I knew were at the warehouse. I prayed the woman got my message to stay at the warehouse after dropping off other volunteers, so we could retrieve our passports.

In the end we were rescued by a volunteer called “Superman John”. He drove us back to the warehouse which housed the donations, so we could get our passports back and I could pick out some shoes that fit. I have never been so happy to see that little red book!

Kristina’s War Story: Trampoline Spies

Kristina Lustig is a researcher at Stack Overflow, and is currently based in London. She told this story live at User Research London. Update: the video is here.

Last year, I was in Bangkok with eight members of my product team. For our research, we planned to speak with people who we saw taking videos with their smart phones. We split into a few groups, each with their own interpreters. My group tried – and failed – to find people at an open-air market or around a couple of malls before we got the idea to look for parents taking videos of their children. Our interpreter, Kay, in a flash of genius, suggested that we’d probably see a lot of this behavior at a trampoline park, so off we went.

After riding several long thin escalators far into the interior of an extremely large mall, we arrived at the trampoline park and bought our tickets. Before we went in, we put on the mandatory lime green sticky socks and neon pink wristbands.

Now, I’ve done a good bit of international research in questionable situations, but at this point, this was the strangest research situation I’d been in. Let me paint the picture for you: two white people in business casual with neon pink wristbands and lime green sticky socks, holding notebooks, accompanied by our Thai interpreter, all wandering through a trampoline park full of Thai parents and children. On the 700th floor of an upscale mall on a Wednesday morning.

But really, it was also a research goldmine! We found many mothers with their smart phones out, filming their children. We spent about 30 minutes chatting as casually as possible with a few different women. We learned a lot about how they shared videos on social media. Then we were approached by a trampoline park employee. She began speaking with Kay, and although we couldn’t understand a word, we watched as Kay moved from confident to concerned and finally to incredulous.

As Kay translated for us, the employee was concerned that we could be spies from a rival trampoline park, or that we were we attempting to sell these women passes to a rival trampoline park!

Kay explained to the trampoline park employee that we were from a big company in the US and that we weren’t selling anything, but she didn’t believe us. We gave her our business cards (with potentially impressive or reassuring titles like “UX Researcher” and “Product Designer”) but no dice. She started to kick us out of the trampoline park, but in a last ditch effort, we asked “Well, can we just… stay and jump?”

So, we didn’t get to do too much research, but we did spend a lot of time bouncing around under that employee’s watchful anti-research eye. We observed as much as we could, while bouncing. In retrospect, we probably should have cleared our research with the trampoline park beforehand…but any research endeavor that starts with intercepts and ends with extreme trampolining is a win in my book.

Wisdom from “The Americans”

On the season finale of The Americans, there’s a bit of a post-mortem (so to speak) on a mission, including this bit of dialog

The people back home who aren’t in the field, sometimes they get what we do and sometimes they don’t. But when you’re in the field you have to make split-second decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of thinking things through every time…it’s important to be honest about mistakes. But acknowledging them doesn’t always keep them from happening again.

Obviously they are referencing a different sort of fieldwork. But the lesson applies, nonetheless. For more on this theme, check out my new book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

Steve’s War Story: Details Disconnect

This story was originally published on behalf of The Field Study Handbook.

Last year I was working on a project for a financial technology client. Finding participants is often a challenge, but on this project, for small business owners, it was particularly difficult.

We had hoped to base this research on previous studies, but it proved difficult to glean details about how previous studies were done. There were rumors that another team, elsewhere in the country, had developed a segmentation algorithm, but voicemails and emails went unanswered. We heard about great participants from previous studies that we should revisit, but no one would get back to us. The schedule ticked by and the pressure mounted. In the end, we were left with no choice to work around these limitations. Finally, I began to approach recruiting agencies.

My go-to recruiting team refused to take the assignment on as they had, ironically, recruited for one of these previous studies and felt like they had tapped out the local market. Another company had gone out of business, and a third didn’t think they could accomplish the recruit.

I ended up with a recruiter I had never worked with. In the end, I think they did a good job, but a new relationship added stress to the increasingly complex recruiting process.

In our introductory call, one of our recruits expressed surprise and concern that there would two of us visiting his very small office. We eventually agreed that even though it might be cramped, it would be okay. The recruiting agency, when asked about this disconnect, reassured me that they made it clear, as per my instructions, that there would be two of us. I was confused, as the participant had insisted they had never told him anything about this.

Later that day I got an email from the participant, who sought reassurance about the purpose of the interview. He had clicked on my website (seen in my email signature) and was concerned that I was actually going to be pitching him my services. He had been involved in a focus group through this agency before, and presumed this would be something similar. I confirmed that this was not a sales pitch.

A few days later we met with him in his exceptionally cramped one-person workspace. As the interview unfolded, he abruptly stopped and directly, yet politely expressed confusion and discomfort about the interview itself. Why were we asking these questions? Who do we represent? How are we going to use this information?

It took a long, unhurried conversation about the process and our objectives to put him at ease. We resumed the interview and learned a great deal about his truly amazing businesses, past, present, and future.

I emphasize his politeness in stopping the interview, because now, when I go back to the transcript, that’s what I see. But at that time, sitting in that interview, it didn’t feel that way. It felt aggressive and angry and I spent the remainder of the interview feeling uncertain about our rapport. I overcompensated with excessive deference, people-pleasing, and probably flattery. That’s not a comfortable feeling and it’s not conducive to a good interview. I have empathy for someone feeling uncomfortable about something as odd as two strangers with a video camera coming into their office space to ask about their professional history. It’s easy to mischaracterize people that don’t “get it” as difficult. And I assume that I am pretty good at managing expectations at all the common points of failure in establishing rapport.

But boy it’d be nice if we had someone to blame. That guy was a jerkface! The recruiter didn’t do their job (and then lied and insisted they did!). Steve didn’t handle the first call or the interview kickoff properly! Yet it doesn’t seem like any of these are true.

While I felt sheepish at the end of the interview, I was surprised to get a LinkedIn request from the participant immediately afterwards. And, I guess, less surprised when I heard from him a few times weeks later about not receiving his incentive payment (This was one of the very few studies where I asked the agency to send checks after the interview was completed, rather than handing people the incentive directly myself. Mistake? I don’t know). When I followed up with the recruiter about the missing incentive, I heard in some detail how this participant had already called and yelled at the admin staff.

And so it goes.

Making an Impact with UX Research Insights

I wrote a short piece for UX Mastery about ensuring the results of user interviews have the most impact. I’ve included an excerpt below, but you should read the whole piece here.

In your analysis, how do you decide what’s important?

Take time at the beginning of the research to frame the problem. Where did this research initiate? What hypotheses – often implicit ones – do stakeholders have? What business decisions will be made as a result of this research?

What research reveals doesn’t always fit into the structure that is handed to you ahead of time, so knowing what those expectations are can help you with both analysis and communication. Some things are important to understand because they’re part of the brief. But other things are going to emerge as important because as you spend time with your conclusions you realise “Oh this is the thing!”

Why you should encourage bad ideas in your organization

In this article by Jon Strande, he riffs on my Power of Bad Ideas talk and then throws in a bunch of other frameworks and references around creativity and innovation. It’s a quick and inspiring read.

Why you should encourage bad ideas in your organization One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is idea generation, especially related to how large companies innovate. I bet more than half the articles I’ve saved in Pocket are in some way related to bringing great ideas to life in this world (the other half are about Ponies… just kidding… the other half are about really technical topics, I am still a geek at heart).

Museum of Failure

Opening next month in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Museum of Failure is a collection of interesting innovation failures. The majority of all innovation projects fail and the museum showcases these failures to provide visitors a fascinating learning experience.
The collection consists of over sixty failed products and services from around the world. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

Samuel West from the "Museum of Failure" showing some epic product fails

Devika’s War Story: The Young Men Of Najafgarh

Devika Ganapathy is a design researcher and the founder of Anagram Research, a design research and usability consultancy located in Bangalore, India.

Last year, I was in Delhi doing fieldwork about a smartphone news app. The primary users for this study were male college students in their early 20s, who regularly read English news on their smartphones.

One of the participants scheduled for an interview lived in Najafgarh, a place I did not know much about. I checked on Google and what I found was not encouraging: it was more than an hour away from my hotel, near the Delhi-Haryana border (possibly even longer with traffic); It was also home to the Indian capital’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain!

Meanwhile, the clients who were to have accompanied me on the interview dropped out at the last minute. I was apprehensive about travelling to Najafgarh and conducting the interview on my own. The state of Haryana is notorious for being lawless and is known to be particularly unsafe for women. Men from Haryana are stereotyped as aggressive and misogynistic. I wasn’t sure if they would be comfortable being interviewed by a lone woman. Moreover, the village of Dichaon where my participant lived is infamous for its ongoing gang wars.

Despite these initial concerns, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Realistically, how unsafe could a pre-arranged hour-long meeting be? At the worst, I thought that it might be a challenging interview to conduct, but felt I would be able to manage.

Driving into Najafgarh, we passed a dead cow lying on some rubbish on the side of the road. The city looked markedly different from urban Delhi – all the women I saw on the road were traditionally dressed, scooters and public transport prevailed rather than cars, and all vehicles on the roads were driven by men.

It was difficult to find the participant’s home, though I was on the phone with him, getting directions. There were hardly any significant landmarks to guide us. Eventually, my participant asked me to park near a huge open sewage drain – He would come and find me.

My heart sank as a particularly scruffy looking young man approached the car. He confirmed that I was the person he was looking for, and got into the front seat to direct the driver to his home. We meandered our way through narrow roads and a crowded marketplace and eventually reached our destination.

His home was a multi-story building in the midst of commercial establishments; So narrow that there was only about 1 room on each floor. The steep staircase was cemented but not tiled, it didn’t have any railings.

As I followed him up to the third floor I wondered if I was being foolhardy going into his house alone. Perhaps I should have asked my driver to accompany me? And even worse, I was skeptical that this guy read English news on his smartphone!

We finally reached the top, and the room did nothing to reassure me. There were a number of rough wooden benches (typical to Indian government schools) placed in rows. Sitting there waiting for us was a very snazzy young man, with a prominent pompadour and reflective sun glasses! He greeted me with a cheery “Hi Ma’am!”

I had to now quickly decide who to interview. The first young man was the one we had originally screened and recruited. He did not seem promising: he was very quiet, his English was sketchy and I doubted that he read English news on the phone.

On the other hand, the snazzy young man spoke good English and possibly read English news. But I wasn’t certain he was a primary user or even genuinely interested in the topic since we hadn’t screened him.

It turned out that they were cousins. When the snazzy one heard about the interview, it seemed that he decided his cousin was not cool enough to be interviewed. He said to me incredulously “Why would anyone want to talk to him when they could talk to me instead?”

I decided to stick with the guy I had originally recruited, but told the snazzy cousin he could sit in and speak up if he had something interesting to add.

This interview led to some of the richest insights for this study – Such as the aspirational aspects of reading English news, where reading local language news is seen as infra dig and can invite ridicule.

The time I spent getting to know these young men also put all stereotypical thoughts I had about them to shame. I eventually learned that the room we were in was a classroom and that they worked with other young men to tutor school kids in their area. Throughout our interview, the guy I had recruited looked after his sister’s toddler son while she was busy with chores around the house. When I was done with the interview, they insisted on waiting with me on the road till my driver came to pick me up, pointing out that it was “not a good area” for women to stand on the road unaccompanied.

This experience strongly reinforced the guidelines I always need to remind myself about, even after years of being a researcher: Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never be dismissive or judgmental. Openness can lead to the best insights.

David’s War Story: The Well-lit Redhead

David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

Standing in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages, I started to become anxious. I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

“Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.

From ProductTank, video of The Power of Bad Ideas 

A few months back, I spoke at ProductTank SF about The Power of Bad Ideas. They’ve put the video online and I’ve also embdded it below.

Steve Portigal challenges product managers to re-think the idea-generation process by inviting in bad ideas.

In brain-storming sessions, we frequently see two surges in ideas. The first is where the low hanging fruit is identified. The second surge is where more innovative ideas are frequently found. Welcoming bad ideas can be an effective strategy for fast tracking past the low hanging fruit and into innovation.

Steve’s interactive talk encourages product managers to come up with the worst product ideas possible. Not the ideas that are just not that good, but ones that are really, truly terrible. By starting with a bad idea, Steve opens a safe, creative space for ideas sharing. He helps product people to unpack what is good and bad, why and who gets to decide. He encourages us to step away from the binary of good and bad to move around the problem space in a different way. His bad ideas approach also breaks the idea-generation ice – by starting with something terrible, space is opened for all ideas, allowing creativity to flow.

DDD: Link Roundup


It’s been two months since Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries was released. Here’s links to presentations, podcasts and more stuff related to the book.

The Book

Reviews

Podcasts

Interviews

Presentations

Other

Noël’s War Story: Truck Stop

Noël Bankston is a UX Research Lead and Human Factors Engineer at Zebra Technologies, currently living in Queens, NY. She told this story live at the Interaction 17 conference.

“So Jim, what would you like to do for lunch? “My treat!” It was the moment I had been dreading all day, ironic since I am a lover of food. I was trying to sound chipper but I was worn through.

It was 2 pm and I was starving. I was sitting in the cab of a 48’ tractor trailer in Lowell, Arkansas. This was my first “ride along” research trip and I had not come prepared with snacks. I was doing in-depth generative research of the pick-up and delivery process for a freight company and hadn’t known that we don’t have lunch until all the deliveries were completed.

I was also not prepared for the weather as I am from up north and I thought the South would be hot in late May. It wasn’t – it was a constant drizzle and cold. So I was sitting in the cab feeling small and tired in the oversized loaner jacket that the dispatcher had given me. We had been on the road since 8:45 am but I had arrived at the trailer dispatch site even earlier to observe the set-up process. And that should have been fine, because on a normal day, Jim finishes around noon. But today we saw all the exceptions – an unprepared customer, incorrect paperwork, an obstructed delivery dock, and poor routing. As a researcher, it was a gold-mine as I observed where problems occurred and how Jim handled them. But as someone who is mildly hypoglycemic, it meant I was getting hangry. It had been a long morning of climbing into and out of that cab, learning which hand to place where to get the right leverage to pull yourself up as you step onto the step that is only wide enough for half your foot. And I don’t know how many of you have ridden inside of a tractor trailer but it is loud and you feel every bump.

In that moment as I asked about lunch, damp, tired, and hungry, I thought back on the the anxiety I had felt earlier in the day about lunch. A co-worker told me that on his previous ride-along they had eaten a burger from a gas station mini-mart. Even on a normal day that would make me uneasy, as gas stations aren’t known for freshness and hygiene. I knew that this type of research means being available for wherever the subject takes you, but I was really hoping that didn’t include food poisoning.

But at this point, 8 hours from my previous meal and having no idea what part of town we were in, who was I to be picky?

“So Jim, what would you like to do for lunch?”

“I just want a salad. I try to eat healthy.” I gave a huge sigh of relief, accompanied by a rumble of rejoicing from my stomach. It seemed that between the two of us, I would be eating the bigger meal. I found a nearby Mexican restaurant on Yelp. While enjoying the flavor combination of fresh cilantro and lime with nary a fryolator in sight, I realized how I had been making assumptions about “truckers” based on stereotypes rather than letting the research reveal the truth. And those assumptions were also judgments about health and lifestyle. Jim was aware of the health effects of his job and wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to have a healthful meal, especially when a researcher was paying! One of the reasons truckers eat unhealthy food is both cost and convenience. Truck stops get food fast and are less expensive. Unfortunately, our food system is set up in a way that fresh, whole food costs much more than highly processed, industrially produced food.

I won’t be able to eliminate all my biases or preconceived notions but I can grow in my awareness of them. I have been on many more ride-alongs and other types of research trips since then. You better believe I always have a granola bar with me.

Elizabeth’s War Story: Ramping Up

Elizabeth Allen is a UX Researcher at Shopify, an ecommerce platform based in Canada. She told this story live at the Interaction 17 conference.

A few years ago, I was working at Centralis, a UX research and design consulting firm in the Chicago area. One of our clients was a public transportation agency, and our project involved testing the maps and signage within and between transit stations by accompanying participants as they completed realistic wayfinding scenarios to try to get from station to station and find their correct train or bus.

As part of this testing, my research partner Kathi Kaiser and I included individuals with motor and visual disabilities to make sure they were able to navigate just as well as those who didn’t have these challenges. One participant, Susan, was in a motorized wheelchair, and we began our session with a scenario that had us traveling to a station and accessing an elevated platform where she would wait for a train.

Chicago summers can be very hot and humid, and this was one of the hottest of the year. We were all sweating by the time we got to the station even though it was just a short walk from the coffee shop where we met to start the session. Now, this station had no elevator; instead, outside the station was a very long ramp to reach the platform. This was probably the longest ramp I’d ever seen at a transit station — it had two or three switchbacks just to reach the top!

We started up the ramp, and when we were about halfway up, Susan’s wheelchair started slowing down. “Uh oh”, she said. “I think my battery is about to die. I totally forgot to charge it before I went out, and steep ramps like this always make it run out faster.” Sure enough, a few seconds later, the wheelchair slowed to a halt, completely dead.

At this point, we had to make a decision based on what was best for Susan and for the research: do we end the session early, push Susan’s chair back to our starting point, and explain to our client that we would miss out on gathering valuable accessibility insights, or do we see if we can find a power source and salvage what we can of the session? We explained to Susan that we could either end the session or try to keep going, and luckily, she was still excited about the session and was game to push on — literally.

After wheezing our way up the rest of the ramp, dripping with sweat, we got to the platform and found no electrical outlets in sight. The ticket counter was also closed, but after a lot of roaming around we were able to find the lone janitor. We were very fortunate, because he was extremely kind, and offered to let us plug Susan’s chair into an outlet in one of the back rooms.

This story ends happily. After a half hour or so, Susan’s chair was charged up, and during that time we were able to improvise some interview questions and short scenarios we could talk through with her while we waited. It really helped that we were able to think on our feet and that we had a participant who had a positive attitude and was interested in the session. Overall, we were able to salvage a research session that was difficult to recruit for, and our client was really happy with what we learned.

Why Stories Matter (to the practice of user research)

This post by Sasha Dichter articulates so well what drove me to write Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries – why forwarding a culture of storytelling in user research is essentially to continuing to develop the field.

Storytelling, then, is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the listener to position herself in the story, see its relevance to her current situation, and then play forward a narrative about her role in the story of now.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

This is why it our job to find our own stories, to explore the values that move us to act, and to practice uttering words that help others see and feel what we see and feel. This is the work of finding the language to describe the choices we have made and are making in service of our work, so that others can feel the hope that we feel, and so that they can learn to use this hope to deal with their fears, including fear of acting on our behalf.

Five Questions with Steve Portigal

Here’s “Five Questions” with me about war stories, user research, and the O’Reilly Design Conference. Click for the whole thing; Below is a short excerpt.

Why is user research so hard to do well?

I talked about this a bit in Interviewing Users—that the assumption we can just use our social defaults because it’s just “talking to people” holds us back from being better at user research. We have to unlearn a lot of patterns (e.g., sharing about yourself) in order to get to a very different outcome (a good session versus a good hangout). In looking at war stories, I’m digging further into the challenges we face in doing research, and hopefully not stating the obvious but research with other people will have massive elements of unpredictability in it. That means we learn what we didn’t know we didn’t know (and would never otherwise have thought to ask about), but it also means that our attempts to plan and control the process are somewhat foolish (and yet, someone who does research without planning is obviously a fool). There’s an element here of temperament, or worldview, that isn’t so natural for everyone. In some of the stories I’ve gathered, people do everything right, and yet things still go wrong. That’s not a welcome truth.

My 2017 UX Research “tips”

The LA User Experience meetup group asked me for three tips (more like thoughts than tips, I think) for 2017. You can see all the collected tips here.

  1. Research is everywhere. I continue to marvel at the growth of research. Back in the day, people would write to ask me if they knew of any research openings; now they write to ask me if I know of anyone who they could hire for their research position. We shouldn’t get cocky, as demand for research can lead to commodification, degrading research to a tactical, evaluative tool rather than the strategic powerhouse it is.
  2. Research is necessary but not sufficient for innovation. It’s just one of many parts in making business decisions. Research identifies unmet needs but design, technology, service, etc. all figure out how to address those needs. Research assesses solutions but only in certain contexts. Some things can’t be fully evaluated until after they exist (consider the invention of the Post-It, for example). This is an innovation problem, not a research problem.
  3. Harness storytelling for teaching and learning. Stories take us through a process of an experience, from the beginning, to the middle, through to the end. Crucially for learners, they can highlight mistakes and failures as much as successes. And stories can tell it like it is, providing a level of authenticity that more traditionally presented instructional material can’t convey. And finally, we respond emotionally to stories: drama, suspense, pathos, humor all facilitate engagement and end up sticking around in our memory
  4. .

Learning from the comic, tragic & astonishing moments in user research (transcript)


Last week I did an online chat with UX Mastery about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. See one snippet below, but please check out the entire transcript here.

crystal: Do you think that approaching the interview with some small vulnerability of your own allows them to be more vulnerable as well and open up and give more insight? And have you found that added insight to often add value to the research?

steveportigal: our own vulnerability – that’s fascinating and I don’t have a clear take on that. I think a shallow reading says being vulnerable means sharing about ourselves and I am mostly against doing that most of the time for most researchers but it makes me ponder what’s a richer more nuanced sense of what our own vulnerability is, if by being still, present, focused, listening, and not needing to make it about us, we might convey some vulnerability. I think it’s meeting people where they are, accepting them where they are and not putting ourself into it. Which – to your point – feels DAMN risky to a lot of people. Set aside your agenda and listen but do so in a productive effective you’re-on-the-job way, so you are balancing different forces and risks.

I dunno, is that ‘vulnerable?’

Stories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal

Gerry Gaffney interviewed me about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries (which he contributed to) – and user research in general – for his User Experience podcast.

Check out the podcast on iTunes. Or listen via Gerry’s site (which also features a transcript). Or, listen below.

The idea that some of these ideas are metaphors for life I think is absolutely true and, again, I can sound kind of highfalutin and pretentious here but I think the thinking that I went through in this book is looking at… some of these external factors, right? You know, make sure your camera is ready and you don’t break the cable and you know the sort of “equipmenty” type things that we have to think about. But so many of these are about what do we do when the unexpected happens and acknowledge the unexpected is going to happen and that those are definitely life skills. And I think one of the takeaways that I come back to several times, and I just alluded to it a minute ago, which is know when to walk away. You know and so when you’re in a situation do you keep trying to turn that situation from a failure into a success or do you say “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” and you leave.

15 Questions with Steve Portigal

Today, as part of the Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries roll-out, Rosenfeld Media has 15 Questions with Steve Portigal. Check ’em all out!

6. What’s the story behind how you got into user research? I was working at a design agency that was tentatively experimenting with a new service offering—insights that were “left of the idea” (yes, that was actually how they tried to market generative research work). My putative boss literally stopped speaking to me, and wasn’t putting me on projects (the sort of thing that generally requires talking), so the team doing this research work took me in. In the beginning, they had me watch videos and make notes. Then they let me go into the field and hold the video camera. Eventually I got to ask one or two questions, and as time wore on, I began to lead interviews and then plan and manage research. During that time period Don Norman (or was it Don Knotts?) appeared before me in a dream, clad in diaphanous robes. He marked me with the Sigil of Lamneth and bid me sternly to pursue this holiest of professions. That sealed the deal for me.

What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

doorbells-danger-dead-batteries-cover
My new book comes out today and Lou Rosenfeld has an enthusiastic appreciation and a bit of the back story about the book’s journey.
Read it all here

I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Steve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people.

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries available for pre-order

doorbells-danger-dead-batteries-cover
My new book comes out on December 6!

You can pre-order (with a discount) from Rosenfeld Media (or from Amazon). Also coming soon is an audiobook version! Remember, your review on Amazon really helps drive awareness.

————————————-
Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries
User Research War Stories

User research war stories are personal accounts of the challenges researchers encounter out in the field, where mishaps are inevitable yet incredibly instructive. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a diverse compilation of war stories that range from comically bizarre to astonishingly tragic, tied together with valuable lessons from expert user researcher Steve Portigal.

The stories Steve Portigal knits together here have an extraordinary and immediate intimacy, like listening in on 66 researchers’ bedtime prayers. Anne Lamott says there are essentially three kinds of prayers: help, thanks, and wow! Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries covers the whole range, with humor and wisdom.

Dan Klyn, information architect, co-founder of The Understanding Group (TUG)

See more testimonials

Jakob Nielsen said “Most people are stupid.”

Last night, Capital One hosted an event at their new San Francisco labs. It was a packed house, with food and drink, discussion, networking, and two presentations. Catherine Courage gave – as always – an exciting and encouraging talk on storytelling. Jakob Nielsen talked about, I guess, testing, though he used the phrase “user research” extensively.

Anyway, during the Q&A, Nielsen said “Most people are stupid.” He didn’t misspeak, he said this and he meant it. In his example, if you tested a product with someone who knew the product, they would have a certain performance. If you got someone in off the street “…he would be stupid. [pause, chuckle] Most people are stupid.”

I posted about this on Twitter and got reactions from surprise to an utter lack of surprise, given the source. I don’t know about that. I do think that if you think people are stupid, you shouldn’t be working in user experience and you shouldn’t be given a platform to hold forth. Please don’t invite Jakob Nielsen to speak at your event. This is toxicity we don’t need.

A User Research FAQ

In Patterns in design research, Nick Bowmast looks at one of my recent talks and realizes that the Q&A discussion deals with many of the standard questions he often faces. He wrote up a tersely-worded FAQ based on the discussion. Thanks, Nick!

Q: One on one’s or Groups? A = One on ones. (Don’t say the other F word).
Q: How do you know when you’ve done enough interviews? A = Depends, but 30 is a big number.
Q: How do you avoid bias from the client or in the sample? A = Accept and work with it.
Q: When should we do it ourselves vs have other people’s go out and do the interviews for us? A = Depends, and collaboration can work in many ways. [Also see this – SP]
Q: How do you prioritize all the questions to be able to answer all of them right? A = Work with the client to nail it down.
Q: What would be the right team size in the field? A = Two
Q: Can you use something like Skype or Google Hangouts to interview them? A = Yes, but there are significant tradeoffs.
Q: How to deal with users who just keep on talking in an interview? A = Be polite but firm. Cut your losses if necessary.
Q: How do you go about recruiting people / how do you convince strangers to do interviews? A = Use a recruiter. Respect and honour people’s time.

Improve your Soft Skills at UX Australia

I’ll be in Melbourne next month as part of UX Australia, leading my
Soft Skills Are Hard workshop. I’ve been iterating this workshop for the past 18 months and have been very impressed with the people who have come and worked hard to assess their own goals and to work together to design processes, tools and habits for themselves and each other in order to improve those soft skills. I see that people have found it to be a profound experience that has made a difference in how they think about their work and their careers.

We’ve looked at literally hundreds of soft skills, such as

  • Collaboration
  • Permission to fail
  • Communication
  • Pattern recognition
  • Thinking broadly
  • Critical thinking
  • Listening
  • Focus
  • Respect
  • Coping with ambiguity
  • Visual thinking
  • Managing stress

For the areas that people find most relevant, they’ve developed a set of best practices to help improve that skill. For example,
Be More Patient

  • Give another person benefit of the doubt
  • Practice being patient at home or with friends
  • Listening – give others a chance to speak regardless of if you think they’re right or wrong
  • Breathe, pause mentally before offering your own point of view
  • Acknowledge that there are many ways to do one thing
  • Remember that people need/want to be heard
  • Reference past experiences when having patience has worked in your favor

If you’re around Melbourne at the end of next month, please sign up for the workshop!

Bonus: here’s some more examples from past workshops
Be Patient

Time Management

Compassion

Networking

David Isay on selective memory

Krista Tippett interviewed David Isay for her show On Being. He talked about interviewing his father and his story highlights the gap between what we remember from an interview and what actually transpired in that interview.

DI: I remember that I asked him when we were in the StoryCorps interview, “What are you proudest of in life?” And my memory of that was that he said “the books I’ve written.” And I always teased him. I said, “Dad, we’ve done, whatever, 10,000, 20,000, as time went on, 50,000 interviews, and everybody says their kids. And you, the one person, you said, ‘my books.’” And I just endlessly went after him, and the night he died, I listened to the interview, and I said, “What are you proudest of?” And he said “My kids.”

KT: Really?

DI: Yep.

KT: Was that exchange even in there? What you remember? You just didn’t remember it?

DI. ISAY: Yes, and then he said, “I’m also proud of my books.”

Takeaway: Record your interviews and go back to those recordings — don’t rely on your memory!

Keegan-Michael Key on Improv

When I speak about improv, I point out that despite what you may think, improv is not about chaotically doing WHATEVER BLAH WHOO but rather working with highly-constrained problems, with both axes of freedom and axes of constraint. In this video Keegan-Michael Key talks about this concept in a lovely and evocative way, describing a metaphorical notion of the camera pulling back and revealing more context, and as the performer, looking for (and incorporating) more information beyond what you are given.

Keegan-Michael Key Has the Perfect Metaphor for Improv

(Thanks, Ian Smile)

A “first interview” story

Jennifer Kim talks about her experience in preparing for (or not) conducting her first interviews. She is honest about her mistakes, and what she’s learned. I found myself feeling critical of her general neediness: when a participant doesn’t react well to her unprepared interviewing, she is hurt; when a participant gives her feedback and encourages her, she takes that to heart. It’s her job to make the participant feel good, not the other way around. But that lesson may come later, she’s the rawest of beginners and is revealing her own vulnerability in the experience, and I give her full credit for that strength of character.

RSA Interaction Design

(thanks to Christina Wodtke)

My talk about “How to Interview Users to Uncover Insights”

I recently spoke about How to Interview Users to Uncover Insights the Lean Product Meetup in Silicon Valley. They’ve just posted the video and I’ve embedded it and the slides below.

Steve Portigal on How to Interview Users to Uncover Insights at Lean Product Meetup

It’s a wrap for Dollars to Donuts, Season 2

I just wrapped up the second season of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I speak with people who lead user research. Check out all the great interviews this season. Links include transcripts and links for each episode.

An interview about The State of UX Research

I was interviewed by Jen Ignacz of Topp. We spoke about the history of user research (at least how I experienced) and some of my thoughts about the present – and future. Check out the audio and/or read the transcript here.

I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we’ve seen that we’ve done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn’t look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought “this is a real thing” – you know, companies – business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. Fortune, BusinessWeek and other magazines were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

Grant McCracken on his interview technique and mindset

Another fantastic Grant McCracken post. He conducts a short interview (embedded below) and offers a terrifically insightful reflection on his technique as well the meaning of the overall endeavor. A must-watch/read for interviewers.

Craig Young in the street in SF

Another thing I liked about the interview was the glimpse it gives of city life. In this case, of the invisible distinctions of space that are perfectly clear to Craig and a surprise to the rest of us (if and when discovered by the rest of us). The world is filled with this invisible distinctions. They surround us all the time. The secret of ethnography: keep an eye out. Ask everyone.

Sign up to get blog posts by email

Did you know that you can receive all blog posts by email? Go here to sign up.

Yeah, portigal.com has long had this capability, through Feedburner, eventually bought by Google. It’s still running but it seems that Google has abandoned it. Feedburner emails look something like this

2016-03-22_11-52-15

It’s not even possible to tell if it’s being supported or not; the webpages that support it seem to have been abandoned. So yeah, it runs every night, for now, and sends out postings, but it probably won’t stick around forever.

I would manually migrate Feedburner subscribers to the new Mailchimp list but it’s so broken that even though I can log in, I can’t find the actual mailing list. Support pages show many people with similar complaints.

If you’re receiving posts already, you can do nothing and probably for some time you’ll be fine. But you can also take 30 seconds to sign up here for the shiny new list!

How To Tell If Your Participant Is Faking It

Although How To Tell If Your Participant Is Faking It is mostly about usability testing and unfortunately chooses to frame the participant as “faking” (a nice word for lying) it’s nice to see this level of specific detail around the clues to look for in terms of how people express themselves.

Your participant reflects in the 3rd person. If a majority of the feedback your participant gives includes phrases such as “Some people might…” or “I have a friend who would love this…” or any other reference to someone other than themselves, then you’re probably not getting great data. They’re not exactly faking it or hiding anything, but they’re definitely not giving you relevant data about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Be sure to clarify whether they mean to really speak for themselves or not.

Listen to Steve on the Getting2Alpha podcast

I was interviewed by Amy Jo Kim for her Getting2Aplpha podcast.

Those transition rituals tell people when they are going to go into an interview, there’s a point at which you’re getting ready, you’re going over there. You’re going from an activity that’s not the interview to an activity that is the interview. Just to take a moment and say, “Okay, for the next thirty minutes, the next hundred twenty minutes, let’s just try to learn about how Joanne makes travel reservations. Let’s just make it about that.” The implicit part of that statement is that we’re not thinking about what meetings we have, what aspirations we have, what sales targets we have to make, what our burn rate for our coders is. We’re really thinking about just looking at this person and their behavior.I think that’s just a way to give yourself a break and just make it easier, not easy, but easier to really think about that experience with that person and learning about them as a complete thing. Afterwards, you can leave and you can go back and pick up your world view and make sense of this and start to triangulate and organize and learn. For those periods of time where you’re with someone to learn about them, just taking that weight of the world off your shoulders and just saying, “Okay, I’m just going to learn about them.” The transition ritual is to consciously articulate that.

Listen to the podcast here or below

Whose Job is User Research?

I was interviewed by Laura Klein and we discussed Whose Job is User Research?

Not every research study requires an expert at the helm. Quite a few products would benefit from having somebody on the main product team who could quickly get feedback or answers to simple questions. “Even a newbie researcher should be able to answer some factual questions about what people are doing or might want to do. They also have the opportunity to reflect on what assumptions they were holding onto that were incorrect,” Steve explains. “You’ll always get more questions to go with your answers, but hoo boy–it’s better than never talking to users and acting with confident ignorance.”There are some questions you’re better off bringing in an expert, though. “The more help you need in connecting the business problem with the research approach and connecting the observations to the business implications, the more expert help you need,” Steve explains.

Check out the whole article.

Make sure you’re still subscribed to Dollars to Donuts

When I launched the new portigal.com just over two weeks ago, there were some changes to Dollars to Donuts. Episodes don’t appear on the blog, instead they are all now on the dedicated podcast page. There are separate feeds for the blog and the podcast as well.

If you subscribe in iTunes ideally the transition was seamless. You should have the last two episodes (Kavita Appachu, Elizabeth Kell). If you don’t have them, please go to iTunes and resubscribe.

Welcome to the new Portigal website!

Today, after about 13 months of work, we launched a brand new website. As always happens, you don’t quite know what’s working until you get it on its feet. If you usually see posts via an RSS reader, will this post show up? I hope so. But what about podcasts? Well, we’ve moved those into a separate space and so they may or may not be showing up as part of your feeds.

And if you used to get posts by email? There is probably a few different ways to do that and we discovered that one of them had been broken for about 4 months — so badly broken that the list of subscribers is gone, etc. Whoosh. So, you’ll want to resubscribe if you like seeing posts every once in a while in your inbox. Does the current subscribe functionality work? Is it turned on?

Anyway, let us know if you find something that doesn’t work as we’re going to keep playing with the details until we get it fully working. Meanwhile, enjoy!

My talk about improv from UX New Zealand

Last year I gave a highly interactive talk at UX New Zealand about improv, creativity and design, entitled Yes, My Tuatara Loves to Cha-Cha. They’ve just posted the video and I’ve embedded it and the slides below.

Steve Portigal @ UX New Zealand 2015

Sketchnotes, from Matthew Magain
Matthew-Magain

and Kim Anderson
Kim-Anderson

Learning from kids interviewing bands

Kids Interview Bands is a series of videos of, obviously, kids interviewing bands. I propose these videos as a lightweight teaching tool for interviewing as it’s curious to see what goes well and what doesn’t.

The different kid interviewers are coming with a set of stock questions which they ask one after another, with practically no followup. So they never become an actual conversation and the amount of insightful revelation is low. But the kids are real, as little kids, and many of the band members respond to them in a real way.

I first came across this interview with Tom Araya of Slayer as an overall bad example, but I found it incredibly charming.

These people have very little in common, and perhaps limited skills in overcoming that gulf, but Araya never talks down to them, he never plays up his persona, he just does his best to connect with them, never forgetting they are children.

In a slightly different vein, I also liked this interview with Pustulus Maximus of GWAR who absolutely stays within the bounds of his horrific persona, but is kind and entertaining with the kids. He manages to work within his character and the context of the interview, and even though he plays a sort of monster, he doesn’t act like one.

In some ways, the limitations of these interviewers (they are just kids!) highlights other aspects that can contribute to a good interview – participants that take on some of the labor of establishing rapport and making that connection with the other person. And even if the kids don’t ask good follow-up questions (or any), their naturalness serves as an invitation to the musicians to meet them in that state.

Out and About: Steve in Brooklyn

I was in Brooklyn in October to teach a workshop at the Delve event. Here’s some of what I saw when I was in town.

wellness

sticky
Hotel housekeeping messages left on the headboard. Have we reached Peak Sticky?

fire
A tempting do-not-touch.

design

gay-storage

fdny
Branding.

A listening bootcamp

ListenUp_logo

Listen Up! is an online program from WNYC to help improve listening skills.

It’s not easy to improve our hearing. But everyone has the ability to become a better listener. Only Human invites you to participate in a listening bootcamp, with guidance from a memory champion, a world-class mediator, actors and improv comics, we’ve got five challenges designed to help you sharpen your listening skills.

Animal Dissonance

giraffe-legroom

United is promoting their copious legroom by suggesting they can accommodate a giraffe. But of course, giraffes (as show in their image) are known for their long necks, not legs. Sure, they have long legs, too, but that’s the primary association. They have big toes, don’t they? Dr. Scholl’s us not going to use them in advertising (unless they come out with a new NECK powder). Giraffe :: Neck.

An opportunity for a clear message but instead it’s an obscure message.

The Designer is Present keynote at Interact 15

I recently presented The Designer is Present as the closing keynote for Interact 15. I adapted a workshop I had given at Fluxible, UX Australia and World IA Day into a shorter interactive talk. Below is the video, slides and a short interview.

Video

Slides

Interview with James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom for the User Experience podcast

in memoriam: Steve Sato

I was stunned and saddened the other day to learn that Steve Sato had passed away. I had known him as a friend and colleague for many many years. In 2014, Steve contributed a War Story and then got up at my CHIFOO presentation and told his story to the group. It’s a lovely story that I think captures Steve’s humanity as he reveals how life at home grounded him creatively and intellectually no matter how far away, geographically, he was.

Thanks to CHIFOO, we’ve got a short video of Steve’s talk (embedded below) and I’m reposting his story below that.



Finding Mojo In The Moment

We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

Coming in 2016, a new book about War Stories

warstories-logo

I’m working on another book! It’s Epic Fail: Design Research War Stories, and is based on the War Stories that I’ve been gathering since 2012.

As design researchers, we love stories. At its simplest, our job is to gather stories and to retell them. War stories are accounts of contextual user research (research out in the field) and the inevitable mishaps that ensue. These stories are in turn bizarre, comic, tragic, and generally astonishing. This book will share some of the best stories, examine the patterns revealed by the stories, and articulate the valuable lessons they reveal.

Support the War Stories for SXSW and more!

Watch this space for a big announcement about the War Stories coming up after Labor Day. In the meantime, I’ve applied to speak about War Stories in design research at SXSW. You can help here (whether or not you are planning to attend SXSW) by creating an account, voting thumbs up for the proposed talk and even adding a comment.

We’ve got three recent stories, all from the Kitchener-Waterloo area: Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas, Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe and Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh. And coming up next month at Fluxible in Kitchener-Waterloo, I’ll be presenting Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories Project.

This Week @ Portigal

Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas

Jennifer Pretti is the Manager of the User Experience Design Team at Christie Digital in Kitchener, Canada.

At Christie Digital, we have a very niche population of users. Opportunities to observe them using our projectors are highly coveted by my UX team. In February 2014, we were invited by a good customer of ours, Staging Techniques, to observe their setup for the keynote address at Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference. The event was taking place at the Venetian Hotel, in Las Vegas, and the keynote speaker was going to be Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton!

Three of us from Christie made the trip: me, Chris (my lead industrial designer), and a software developer, Eric. Although I had conducted many user sessions for Christie before, this was the first time I was going on site to observe a live event setup and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My biggest worry was that, even though we made it clear we were there just to observe, I would be asked to answer a technical question or troubleshoot some problem and not have a clue what to say or do.

Setup was to begin at midnight the day we arrived. Working night shifts is very common for projectionists since it’s the best time to see and calibrate the light as other setup crews are already done and out of the way. The thought of staying up for a night shift wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to, especially given jet lag was going to make it feel 3 hours later. But I hoped a mix of adrenaline and caffeine would do the trick.

After landing in Vegas, we headed down to the Expo Hall to get our bearings. The scale of everything in Vegas is massive and oversized, and the hall was no exception. It was a gigantic space – at least two football fields long and one football field wide – and it was completely empty and bare. Whatever vision the event planners had for the space seemed hopelessly unattainable in the 5 days left before the show.

When we arrived, big transport trucks were pulling into the hall to start unloading the many tons of equipment that would be needed to run the show. It was clear that they were behind schedule already. Trusses and scaffolding needed for rigging the projectors hadn’t yet been built, so we decided to split up, with Chris covering the first night shift, and Eric and I heading to bed to get some much needed sleep.

Eric and I returned to the site early the next morning to relieve Chris. The first few hours of our observation time were slow and uneventful due to continued delays with the truss work, but eventually things picked up, and soon projectors were being powered on and rigged into position. Excitement peaked when one of the projectors failed to power on. I stood poised to capture an epic story of problem solving and error recovery, but the crew just shrugged, taped an ‘X’ on the top of the projector, and replaced it with a spare one. Even after I got in touch with tech support to help explain the error code (highlighting quite clearly that our error messages need a lot of work), it didn’t change their approach. Time is money and using a functional projector was simply the most efficient option. Whatever the problem was, it could wait until they were back in the office to sort out.

It became clear by the end of the second night that the most interesting portions of the setup would be delayed past our planned departure date. The senior projectionist, Pete, pleaded for one of us to stay a bit longer. I think there was mix of professional pride in his insistence, but (happily for us) a realization of the mutual benefit of our presence, observing their workflows and listening to their wishlists. It was on account of his enthusiasm that I agreed to change my flight and stay an extra night. My fatigued body howled in despair. Another night shift? Are you crazy?!

There is no better place to change your sleeping patterns than Vegas. That city looks the same no matter what the hour: there are always people walking around, always a restaurant open, and enough indoor walkways that it could be any time of day. Hotel rooms come equipped with industrial-strength black-out curtains, whose existence I suddenly appreciated in a whole new light (pun intended), as I tried to convince my body that falling asleep at 10 AM was a totally legit plan.

The little sleep I got left me with major doubts that I could keep up a respectable and coherent state of mind for my last night. However, early into the shift, Pete insisted I help him colour match the displays. Colour matching 26 projectors is a very laborious activity that had us whizzing around on a golf cart, playing with light meters, and debating whether one projector was a fraction more magenta than the other. Shifting from observer to honorary crew member made the night fly by and gave me a more rich perspective of how our products are used.

I didn’t sleep until I was on the airplane later that afternoon. I welcomed the rest, but felt a pang of regret for not extending my trip long enough to see Bill Clinton speak. As social media began to light up with pictures of the event, I cheered for Staging Techniques and Christie for a job well done. And smiled knowing that Bill Clinton was walking on the same stage where I had been, just 24 hours ago.

This Week @ Portigal

I know it’s Thursday, but I’ve been on vacation all week, so here’s what’s going on for the remainder of this week

Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe

Julia Thompson is a Design Research & Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, Canada.

It all started with a simple question from the dispatcher: “Do you want a call when your taxi arrives?” My nonchalant answer: “No thanks, I should be okay.” was the nail in my coffin. This was my first error in a series of cascading mistakes.

The next morning I was heading out-of-country for in-home interviews. That night, in an effort to be as prepared as possible, I called to arrange a taxi for an early morning pickup. I hung up the phone and proceeded to pack my bags. I considered carefully what to pack. I visualised my next few days: what would the weather be like? What would be my mode of transportation? What clothing would be appropriate for the work – casual enough to fit into a home environment and dressy enough to fit into an office environment? I was sure that I had considered all the details. Unfortunately, the most important detail, my alarm, was what I missed.

Satisfied with my preparation, I went to bed, and slept well. The next morning I awoke feeling refreshed. With birds chirping outside, sunlight filled the room. Yet something felt terribly wrong. What time was it? Why was it so light out? I picked up my phone, checked my alarm, and then checked the time. My stomach fell to the floor. My flight was leaving now. Sheer panic overtook me. I couldn’t think straight. I had never missed a flight before. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was paralyzed, I had no idea what to do. I grabbed my phone and called our corporate travel agent. It felt like hours as I waited on hold to ask my pressing questions: Could I still make my interview? When was the next flight? Could I fly out of a different airport instead? The sound of my heartbeat drowned out every noise as I sat there waiting, palms sweating, phone clutched. The agent came back on the line and said there was a flight leaving from another airport in 2 hours. Could I make it there in time? It’s almost rush hour. It’s an hour’s drive with no traffic. What about parking? Customs? Security? If I took the car, how would my husband get to work? On top of all that the agent still wasn’t sure whether there was room on the flight. We decided, together, that I should start driving and I should stay on the line while she called the airline to confirm availability. I jumped in the car, with my phone on the passenger seat and that awful music taunting me as I continued to wait, on hold. I got about 10 minutes down the road when the agent told me to pull over and go home. That flight wouldn’t be mine. I would settle for another flight, hours later, and hours after my scheduled interview.

Later that day, as my plane came in for its landing, I just felt low. I was tired from the emotional rollercoaster of missing my flight, I was anxious knowing I’d have to tell the people I was working with what had happened and I was sad that I had missed out on an interview and the opportunity to see, first-hand, into the life of one of our customers. The only thing saving me was the fact that I was the client and so, even though I missed the interview, it still went ahead as scheduled.

The following day I awoke, in the right place and at the right time, with a better perspective on life. Our local research partner was gracious enough to include me in an interview that day. I was thankful. I was relieved. But now, that meant there would be four of us attending this interview. Two consultants and two clients; two too many. The consultant had called ahead and confirmed with our interviewee that it would be okay if an additional person (me!) attended the interview. Our interviewee was very accommodating and agreed to have all four of us into her home. I was so preoccupied with resolving my own error that I didn’t consider, until later, how the dynamic of the interview would now be affected.

We all got to the interview, we all walked in, we all sat down in the chairs offered to us by our interviewee. As everyone was setting up I started to look around and take note of the environment. I noticed several pairs of shoes neatly arranged by the front door. I looked over at our host, I looked down: bare feet. My eyes darted around the room, I looked down at all our feet. All four of us had our shoes on, laces tied. Bah! We were the worst guests ever. Weren’t we all, as researchers, supposed to notice something so simple but so important?

I spent the next five minutes cursing myself, my missed flight, the totally wrong and overpowering dynamic of four researchers to one customer, and the miss on basic shoe etiquette. I had to shake it off – all the feelings of shame, all the feelings of doubt – and I had to focus. I had to be in the moment, I had to get the most I could out of the interview and I had to show the interviewee the respect she deserved.

It ended up being a great discussion. It was, by no means, a textbook in-context interview, but we had a nice dynamic emerge nonetheless. My story is not one of a single epic fail, but instead of a series of errors with a cascading effect. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” Here, we had not a want for a shoe, we had too many.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy August!

  • I’m in Denver doing fieldwork. We’ve already done half of the interviews (fascinating, as always!) and will be finishing up over the next two days. Then I’m back home, doing as much post-fieldwork wrap-up as I can before heading out on vacation, after which I’ll be doing the second phase of fieldwork in DC. Phew!
  • Meanwhile, I’m incubating a number of interesting prospective engagements to follow this, from training and workshops to few different versions of advising to collaborating with another agency on fieldwork in Asia.
  • I’ll be teaching my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard at two upcoming events: in San Francisco at the end of August for UX Week and in London in October for Interact 15.
  • Ten years gone: From August 2005 – Stories about fruit, Herbeau Creations Dagobert Throne Toilet, Wired Glamor
  • What we’re consuming: KD, LaMar’s Donuts, What is Jazz?, Uncle, Doggie DNA testing, MetalCaptcha,

This Week @ Portigal

Howdy, all….

  • The travel is booked. The incentive envelopes are stuffed. The field guide is revised. Now we’re just waiting for the recruiter to fill the slots this weekend and next week. I know it always works out but it’s nerve-wracking having everything but participants.
  • While I wait for fieldwork to kick off, I’m doing the usual mix of prepping for upcoming talks and chatting with clients about future engagements.
  • I’ll be teaching my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard at two upcoming events: in San Francisco at the end of August for UX Week and in London in October for Interact 15.
  • Ten years gone: From July 2005 – Library rhetoric, my rant against the anti-flipchart rant, a visit to Adobe, ABC Stores.
  • What we’re consuming: Jurassic World, Boiling Beijing, Rolling Pin Donuts.

The Insight at Scale track from Enterprise UX

A couple of months ago I moderated the “Insight at Scale” track at the Enterprise UX conference, which featured three presentations and discussion. The videos for each presentation (and our discussion) are linked to below as well as links to the slide decks. There’s also sketch notes for the whole session.

Video
Insight Types That Influence Enterprise Decision Makers – Christian Rohrer, Vice President and Chief Design Officer, Intel Security (slides)

Video
Data Science and Design: A Tale of Two Tribes – Chris Chapo, Operations at ENJOY (slides)

Video
Emotion Economy: Ethnography as Corporate Strategy – Kelly Goto, author of Web Redesign 2.0 (slides)

Video
Discussion

This Week @ Portigal

Welcome to the week!

This Week @ Portigal

A hearty welcome to the week!

  • We’re finalizing a few reports this weeks: discussions with client stakeholders, a review of our client’s existing research and secondary reports, and finally our own secondary reserach. In addition to giving us a lot of big questions to chew on, it’s also informing who we want to talk to for this study and we’ve got a screener almost finalized and ready to share with recruiters for fieldwork in DC and Denver next month.
  • I’ve been waiting for about 3 months for a contract to make it’s way through the corporate purchasing process; we got one document signed last week and any day now we hope to get the next one signed and then schedule a kickoff meeting. Every week I think that that maybe it’ll happen next week, and then…we wait. Still, we’re all astonished at how long it’s taking!
  • We got a new War Story last week from Susan Simon Daniels. Check it out!
  • In London this October, I’ll be at Interact 15 to teach a workshop, Soft Skills Are Hard.
  • Ten years gone: From July 2005 – Facehugger plushie, the end of free pretzels, squid spam.
  • What we’re consuming: Jersey, PACHI, architectural lattice, bamboo.

Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh

Susan Simon Daniels is a Senior Design Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, ON.

In September 2012, I was interviewing people who had recently purchased and set up a smartphone. During the interview, I asked the participants to unbox and set up another, new smartphone to see if any usability problems emerged.

One of the interviews was with a male in his late 40s who worked as a translator for people whose first language was not English (I’ll call him “Rick.”) As he unpacked the box that contained the new smartphone, Rick frowned and sighed. I watched silently and noted that a few moments later Rick sighed again.

At this point, the researcher inside my brain was shouting, “Red alert! There’s a problem! There’s a problem!” After a few more moments, I turned to him and said, “Rick, I noticed you’re frowning a bit and you’ve sighed a couple of times. Can you tell me why?”

I waited, fingers poised to capture the fatal flaw that the participant had discovered in the product set up – something so egregious that it evoked a heavy sigh!

Rick turned to me and instead shared a personal story. Both he and his spouse had recently lost their parents. These major life events, complicated by delays in traveling to another continent for funerals and family arrangements, left a lingering sadness that crept up on Rick during quiet moments.

His sigh was just a sigh – not a signal of a defect or usability issue to solve, but a personal moment I happened to witness. We talked for a few minutes about his loss and how he was feeling and then Rick returned to the task at hand and continued to unbox and set up the phone.

We had passed through an awkward moment. I felt I had rudely probed into an open wound. But I had to ask the question. I couldn’t assume the frown and sighs were caused by the product or process. My job was to get to the why. At the same time, by taking a few minutes to let the person share how he was feeling, I was able to give Rick the time he needed to gather himself together and continue with the task at hand.

In the end, Rick contributed by uncovering a couple of areas of improvement for the product. And I found that taking a moment to pause, to just be human beings who shared a bit of sympathy, allowed us to resume the interview with dignity and purpose.

I’m reminded of a verse from the song “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) from the classic war-romance movie Casablanca.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And the fundamental things do apply: never assume and always ask “why?”

This Week @ Portigal

Ugh. The Monday after a long weekend is dislocating. The fact that I stayed up until 2:00 am restoring an errant PC is probably not helping.

This Week @ Portigal

It’s officially summer!

This Week @ Portigal

Monday, Monday, Monday.

This Week @ Portigal

Well, a good day to all!

A new article about what I learned while doodling

I’ve just published What I Learned From 100 Doodles in 100 Days, my first article in a long time. Here’s an excerpt, but check out the whole thing on Medium.

Last November I sat in the audience at the HOW Interactive Design Conference as Jim Krause spoke about “Habitual Creativity.” He talked about breaking out of unconscious habits (e.g., driving to work the same way each day and never really “seeing” what was around you) and creating new habits by taking on new behaviors. At some point during his talk, I made a note that read simply “100 doodles in 100 days project.”

The idea of taking something new and doing it deliberately and repeatedly appealed to me. I was even reminded of other efforts like Rachel Hinman’s 2008 project “90 mobiles in 90 days.”

After making the note, I set the idea aside, eventually deciding to kick the project off in the New Year. I framed the task in a way that was safe for me. No, don’t worry, I’m not drawing, I’m not even sketching. I’m just doodling! Doodles aren’t of consequence, they’re little visuals you do mindlessly in the margin of your notebook to keep your hands busy while talking on the telephone. They aren’t intended to be “good” (whatever that means).

thanks

This Week @ Portigal

Howdy to a sunny Monday to begin the week.

  • I’m back to Boston on Wednesday for one last quick trip. We’re running a day of brainstorming workshops with our client, helping them to think divergently about the different products and services they could create to support their users better. We’re all very excited about it. I’m especially pleased that even though I was supposed to have completed my work a few weeks ago, they extended my contract so that I could be part of these workshops.
  • We just got a greenlight for another project and I expec this week will see a small flurry of contract and schedule activity. Probably right at the same time as another project – one that has been moving very slowly through the approval process – will blossom. It’ll work out, somehow!
  • Tomorrow I’ll be publishing an article about the 100 Doodles in 100 Days project. This is the first piece I’ve written in a very long time; I can’t think of anything that I’ve written in the two years since Interviewing Users came out. I’m looking forward to your reactions.
  • My hosts at RGD recorded last week’s Interviewing Users webinar; as soon as I have the link I’ll post the video.
  • I’ll be returning to Fluxible in September, speaking about War Stories.
  • I’ll be doing the closing keynote at Interact 15 in London this October. Details about a workshop coming soon.
  • A lot of people are asking when Dollars to Donuts is coming back. I’m looking for sponsors who can help defray the costs to produce another season. If your organization can help, please get in touch.
  • Ten years gone: From June 2005 – Campbell’s Soup seed cans, captive airline advertising, John Doe around the world.
  • What we’re consuming: Tetro, Momiji.

Out and About: Steve in San Antonio

A couple of weeks ago I was in San Antonio, where I was one of the presenters and workshop leaders at the Enterprise UX conference. Here are some of my pictures.

sa1
Out the hotel window, before the sun comes up.

sa2
Welcome to the party.

sa3
This toilet was flirting with me.

sa4
sa6
Roasted? Iced? Local language norms or just really fancy catering?

sa5
sa7
Conference breakfasts.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy June!

  • I’m in town this week for the first time in a while. I’ll be working on planning another set of workshops for our Boston folks next week. Yep, I thought I was rolling off that project, but they very graciously invited me to continue so I’ll be back next week.
  • I’ll look for some more info this week on the other projects that are gently and slowly incubating, so that I can make some resource scheduling/planning/etc. for the next few months. It’s an uncertain feeling, teetering on the edge between structure and plans, just trying to roll with it.
  • Meanwhile, I’m networking, including lunch with some Hungarian visitors, and doing some writing, rewriting, and plotting to write!
  • I’ll be doing a webinar about Interviewing Users this week; hope to “see” you there!
  • Ten years gone: From June 2005 – Wet Pain, Pete’s Tofu2Go desserts, R.I.P. Scott Young.
  • What we’re consuming: Let’s Start a Riot, Udupi Palace, Children’s Letters to Frankenstein, Kids in the Hall.

An inflection point for user research: scandal

A user researcher is front and center in a Silicon Valley competitor-workers legal snarl.

One now-former employee, Ana Rosario, was hired by Fitbit as a user experience researcher around April 16 but did not disclose that she planned to leave Jawbone until April 22, the complaint said. On April 20, according to the complaint, Ms. Rosario held a meeting with Jawbone’s senior director of product management to discuss the company’s future plans and then downloaded what the company said was a “playbook” outlining its future products.During her exit interviews, Ms. Rosario initially denied taking confidential information, but she later acknowledged downloading its “Market Trends & Opportunities” presentation, the complaint said.

I don’t know Ana (although LinkedIn shows me I know many people who do know her); I do know people at Jawbone (and probably people at Fitbit). I’m not sharing this to comment on any of the players or the details of the situation itself, but to note at a meta-level that in the trajectory of user research as a business function, it’s grown in prominence to the point where you can pick up the New York Times one morning and see a story like this.

This Week @ Portigal

It’s a holiday Monday!

  • For most in the US, anyway. Me, I’m back on a plane again. Today I’m flying to Boston, returning to the client from a few weeks back. Over the next couple of days we’ll be sharing our initial themes about their different users, and running a workshop with different parts of their organization.
  • On Wednesday, I’ll be part of a session on listening as part of the People Skills for UX virtual event. You can still sign up!
  • I’m playing the waiting game with a number of projects; with one we’ve been trying to schedule a kickoff for maybe 10 weeks. With another, we’re working slowly through the corporate procurement process. With yet another, we’ve submitted a proposal and will hope to get some feedback this week.
  • I was pleased to see this review of Interviewing Users on UX Book Reviews.
  • Ten years gone: From May 2005 – The Original Whizzinator – Pass Your Drug Test!, You pick the best Earthlink employee.
  • What we’re consuming: Mad Max: Fury Road, Schmidt’s, The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described.

This Week @ Portigal

Hello, Monday!

This Week @ Portigal

Greetings to all.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy May!

Interviewing Users: Link Roundup (Second Anniversary Edition)

interviewing-users

Wow. It’s been two years since my first book Interviewing Users was released. Here’s a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. If you haven’t already, you should buy a copy here! It would be fantastic if you wrote a quick review on Amazon here.

The Book

Reviews

Interviews

Presentations

Other

This Week @ Portigal

And a welcome back to the work week to all.

  • I’m onsite with a client all day today, running a workshop with ten leaders from around the world to dig into how they can better leverage their UX capability in product development. I’ve been interviewing these folks over the past few weeks and I’ll be starting this workshop with what I’ve heard from them, but then structuring the day so they are prioritizing the issues and creating possible solutions together. I’m expecting an intense and rewarding day.
  • Soft Skills is coming up in San Antonio in mid-May, as part of Enterprise UX. I’m pretty excited about this expanded version of the workshop. Read more here and sign up, using PORTIGAL15 for a discount.
  • Next week I’m in Houston to lead a two-day training workshop on user research. I can confirm that I’ve found donut, taco and BBQ options near where I’m staying, too!
  • I am in pre-pre-production on another series of Dollars to Donuts. Right now I’m working on lining up a couple of additional sponsors.
  • This Wednesday I will be answering questions about insights and innovation in Ask the UXpert.
  • Ten years gone: From April 2005 – Bumblebee Entree-Style Tuna, SF cabs get touch-screens for some reason, Design without Reach.
  • What we’re consuming: Top Five, Le Samouraï, Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, House of Lies

This Week @ Portigal

It sure is starting to feel like spring!

  • I’m back from an exhausting and exhilarating week of interviews in Boston. 21 people in 4 days is a more intense schedule than I’d normally plan for but it’s just how things worked out. Back a few days and already the transcripts are pouring in!
  • This week I’m wrapping up conversations with stakeholders and digging into the final details for next week’s workshop (with another organization).
  • The soft skills workshop sold out at Interaction 15 and I’m getting inquiries about running the workshop again in a few different locations. Meanwhile, it’s coming up soon as part of Enterprise UX. Use discount PORTIGAL15 to save when you register for my workshop about Soft Skills coming up in San Antonio in mid-May.
  • I’m finalizing logistics and starting to dig into the detailed content for a two-day training workshop I’m leading for a big corporation in Houston in early May.
  • I’m also planning a program to a really exciting research and strategy project and trying to outline a new article!
  • I will be answering questions about insights and innovation in Ask the UXpert on April 29.
  • Ten years gone: From April 2005 – Budweiser patriotism, Snapple-a-day, portion control packaging.
  • What we’re consuming: We Put a Chip In It!, The Dutch Goose, Silicon Valley, Veep.

This Week @ Portigal

Well, happy Monday to all!

This Week @ Portigal

It’s April, everyone.

This Week @ Portigal

Howdy Monday!

This Week @ Portigal

Happy Spring!

  • It’s one of those weeks where we wrap up a project. I’m not taking the lead on this, but am dipping into the process constantly to see where the presentation is at, giving feedback and other edits, and checking in with the client to see if we’re tracking on their goals. Phew!
  • It’s a short week I take an extra long weekend in wine country this weekend.
  • One project kicked off last week and we’re now setting up interviews on their campus in April and figuring out what we need to be talking about. At the same time, the team is looking for industry experts and doing some secondary research in the space. It’s shaping up to be a great collaboration.
  • Only a few tickets remain for for Moments of Influence, an interactive talk I’m doing with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee.
  • I’ve already had a good conversation today about my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard, part of the Enterprise UX conference this May in San Antonio. Please join me and also spread the word!
  • Check out these video highlights from my World IA Day workshop The Designer is Present.
  • I’ve just posted the latest 10 doodles.
  • On Thursday I’ll be listening to Josh Seiden’s webinar Beyond Brainstorming: Create Breakthrough Ideas for Innovation.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – vivid colors for your pet.
  • What we’re consuming: Birdman, Cookie Monster, Life Coach, Enter Sandman, Cowboy Fishing Co..

This Week @ Portigal

  • My agency client is working diligently to get a draft presentation together. I’m helping to shape the insights and implications and to ensure they are well-articulated. We’re in the home stretch.
  • I’m kicking off two projects this week. In one I’ll be guiding a client team as they plan for, conduct, and analyze ethnographic research. In another, I’ll be partnering with a couple of other small consultancies in a project that follows on some work I did with this same client last year. It looks like travel to Boston and Las Vegas will be coming up in the next little while!
  • I’ll also be in Houston in May to lead a two-day user research workshop onsite for a client.
  • Also in Texas in May, I’ll be part of the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio. I’ll be leading an extended version of my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard. You should join us!
  • Coming up in a few weeks in San Francisco, I’ll be presenting Moments of Influence, in collaboration with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee. We’re starting to plot our topics and some exercises as well.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – creaky neighbor car, no sugar – no difference, apple tasting notes.
  • What we’re consuming: Hapa ramen, Chuck Klosterman, Steve’s ice cream.

Steve’s War Story: Giggling and Grunting

I originally posted this in 2006, and revised it slightly for Interviewing Users. I thought it was time to add it to the War Stories archive and so here’s the original version.

As we rang the doorbell, my colleague and I unconsciously straightened, preparing ourselves for that all-important first impression, that moment when our research participant would come to the door and size us up. We waited for a moment, looking at each other as we heard footsteps, mustering a smile as the inside door opened.
“Hello,” I offered, “Are you Brian?”

As I began to state the obvious, that we were here for the interview, he grunted, opened the screen door, and as we took hold, he turned around and walked back into the house. We glanced at each other, and stepped into the foyer. What did we know about Brian? Our recruiting screener told us he was 22, lived with his parents, and his brother, and was employed part-time. The rest would be up to us to discover.

It was 7:30 in the morning and we were taking our shoes off in a strange house. Eventually someone beckoned from the kitchen, and we came in. But already we were out of sync. The kitchen was small, with an L-shaped counter, and a small table for dining. The mother was at the end of the L, working with bowls and dishes and burners on the stove. The father was perched against the counter, while Brian, and his younger brother sat at the table. The father was a small man, while the other three were quite large. The room wasn’t intended for the six of us, so we managed to set ourselves up for our interview in the only place we could; at the far end of the counter, at the far end of the table. We wedged ourselves (one behind the other) on small chairs, pulling our knees in, our paraphernalia of notepads, documents, video cameras, tapes, batteries etc. clutched in close. It wasn’t ideal, but we hoped we could make it work.

But then the real challenge became clear – although Brian had agreed for us to meet and do this interview, he was actively disinterested. We were positioned 45 degrees behind him, in his blind spot. With his physical bulk, he managed to loom over his food in a way that eliminated even any peripheral eye contact; somehow this was something a smaller person couldn’t have done. His brother sat across from him, echoing his posture.

We had recruited Brian specifically, but of course, here we were with the entire family. We pressed ahead, explaining our study, and starting in with our planned questions. Since Brian was the person with whom we had the arrangement, we focused our attention on him. He would not respond, beyond one word answers (which sounded more like grunts), and the occasional glance up to his brother, causing them both to giggle.

My colleague and I avoided looking at each other (it may have not been physically possible, given the tight quarters) for fear of displaying our despair at the situation. Sure, we had arranged this interview, but the cues we were receiving were making it clear the arrangement wasn’t worth much. At this point, we had already woke up quite early to do this interview, so there was no point in giving up. If they changed their mind explicitly, they’d let us know, and we’d leave. Meanwhile, what else was there to do but press on? I asked questions, with very little response. I tried the brother, at which point Brian bolted out of the room for a few minutes, without a word. The brother was only slightly more amenable than Brian, mostly interested in making critical comments about his parents (to Brian’s great grunting enjoyment) as much as provide any actual information.

Indeed, the mother and father seemed not to have been warned that we would be coming; although I directed some of the questioning towards the mom, she reacted with pretty serious hostility, informing us (in the context of an answer to a question) that they did not welcome strangers into their house, and (while she was preparing food) highlighted the intimate nature of food preparation as a symbol, and that was even less open to strangers. The message was very clear.

But again, what could we do? Pressing on, until asked to leave, under the explicit agreement we had made, seemed the best approach. We asked our questions, following up on the information they had shared, listening closely, looking for clarification, offering up as much space as we could for them to talk, all in trying to build some flow and dialog. Even though the message was negative, at least the parents were willing to talk to us. And so, the young men faded out of the conversation, and the interview eventually switched over to the parents. Two hours later it turned out that we had completed an excellent interview with them; they each had great stories about our topic area, and revealed a lot of background about their family, about growing up, about their activities, and even their perspectives on what made the United States the country it had become.

Before we left the house, the mother insisted on cooking up some fried bread fresh and hot for us; admonishing us that “no one comes here and doesn’t get food” – reiterating the intimate nature of food she had mentioned at the beginning, but this time as a compliment rather than a shield.

As soon as we left the house, my colleague turned to me and said “I don’t know how you pulled that off; I thought we were done for and would have to leave.” I was very pleased with how the interview turned out, especially because it began at such a low point, but there was little magic to it. I didn’t try to solve the big problem of the complex dynamic we had walked into; I focused (especially at first) on just the next problem; the immediate challenge of what to say next. I was certainly keeping the larger goals in mind of how to cover all the areas we were interested in, but I was focusing my energy as an interviewer on the next thing. And by working at it in small pieces, bit by bit, the dynamic shifted. As interviewers, we had to compartmentalize the social experience of the event – the extreme discomfort and awkwardness of the early part of the interview, and just stick to our jobs. We didn’t handle the situation that differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up (and showing that we were listening by the way we followed up), building rapport and trust, bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information.

Years later, it’s obvious that there are better ways to communicate with the participants ahead of time to screen out unwilling participants. For example, the person who is going to be in the field should always speak live to the person they will be visiting before they day of the interview just to get that person-to-person communication started early, so both parties can get a sense of each other and start to feel comfortable (or agree that it’s not a good fit and move on to someone else). But, given the diversity of people, we will always end up interviewing people who are more or less comfortable with the process, and it’s our job to make them comfortable in order to get the information we are interested in. Doing so may make us uncomfortable ourselves, but with practice we must learn to set aside the social dynamics and focus on the question asking and listening that will make the interview a success.

This Week @ Portigal

  • I’m sitting in on a handful of remote interviews today and tomorrow, following up on some diary studies and getting in our last questions as the data collection phase of this project wraps up. I’m advising the team as they work through an outline of what we’ll be delivering; looking for that shift from an amalgamation of findings to a narrative that points the way forward for our client.
  • Coming up in a few weeks in San Francisco, I’ll be presenting Moments of Influence, in collaboration with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee
  • As part of the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio in May, I’ll be leading an extended version of my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard. Hope to see you there!
  • Out on the town: On Thursday evening I’ll be at an sneak-preview event for IDEO U.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – Lord of the Rings, the musical, A Few Tips to Cope With Life’s Annoyances scented bowling balls, Grapple – grape-infused apples.
  • What we’re consuming: Ai Wewei @Large, Suppenküche, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.
  • An update on 100 doodles in 100 days

    Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been working on 100 doodles in 100 days. I’ll probably wait for the project to complete before I reflect in more detail but I thought for the last half I’d do a few posts to share the output. Here are the 50s.

    50

    51

    52

    53

    54

    55

    56

    57

    58

    59

    Facilitation and exercises for creativity and presence

    I run different types of workshops with clients and at events and have built up a number of different activities that invite the participants to have a novel moment and then reflect on it to reveal something potentially profound. I’ve written my current favorites, but welcome suggestions, additions, requests for clarification, and so on.

    1. The Superpower Intro

    • When starting out a group session, everyone introduces themselves in turn, with their name and their super-power.
    • It’s best not to over-constrain what constitutes a super-power. Some will speak about the thing that brings the group together (e.g., work), some will talk about their personal lives, and so on.

    I nicked this exercise from Marissa Louie who used it as a way to kick-off a talk. But you can use this to go in a number of different directions. In my workshops on soft skills, I’ve adopted this warm-up because it often happens that the kinds of things people share as their super-powers are indeed soft skills. It can be a positive way to see all the things that people are good at (actually great at!). Christina Wodtke does a variation where people, in pairs, ask each other for stories about an experience or accomplishment they are proud of, and then tell that person what they think their super-power is.

    2. Doodling

    There are many ways to doodle, but here’s what I’ve been doing as part of my 100 doodles in 100 days project

    • Get a pen and piece of paper.
    • Close your eyes – or look away – and move the pen. Make a scrawl or a squiggle. Don’t try to make anything happen, just get some marks down.
    • Now look at what you’ve got and try to create something out of it. It can be abstract. Or it might look like something. For fun, you might want to draw eyes and a mouth, animal parts (see Dave Gray’s amazing Squiggle Birds exercise).
    • Don’t take too long, but try to think about when the doodle is done.

    This isn’t about producing something good, artistic, or even visually pleasing. It’s about taking an activity that usually is very deliberate, where we are focused on the outcome and trying to do it differently. You can reflect on how it felt to “draw” this way and how you feel about your output.

    3. Storytelling Circle

    This is an improv game played with 6 – 8 people.

    • Get in a circle. If you are doing the game in a larger group, you can make a semi-circle so that the everyone is facing out to the rest of the group.
    • As with many improv games, get three suggestions from the audience. You might ask for a proper name, the name of a place, a household object, something you might find in a purse, etc.
    • The people in the circle are to tell a story (incorporating those elements) one word a time. Go around and around until you are done!
    • Move quickly and aim to have the sentences the group creates come out almost as quickly as if one person was speaking.
    • One trick is for everyone to be ready to start a new sentence. The almost-default of a run-on sentence isn’t much fun to do or to watch.
    • Don’t throw all your story elements in at once, and try to look for the ending to the story.

    I like to do a couple of rounds of this until everyone has gone and then debrief about the experience. What was it like to do this? What were you thinking when you were playing? What did you observe when you were watching?

    There are some common responses when I debrief this activity, but I also hear something new every time.

    I teach an entire workshop about improv (slides). And just for fun, you can see some hilarious improv anti-patterns in this clip.

    4. It’s going to be okay

    • Working with a partner, share something you are worried about. It can be something big or something small.
    • The partner says, as authentically as possible “It’s going to be okay.
    • The first person acknowledges that yes, it is.
    • Then switch roles and repeat the exercise.
    • As a group, talk about what happened.

    This simple exercise uncovers a lot of complex individual stuff. My objective is to just give people a chance to play with the notion of “it’s going to be okay” which is maybe not that comfortable for everyone. But worry takes you away from the present moment, into the future when some unwanted consequence may occur. And I hope that by playing with it, and seeing how it does or doesn’t work for the individual, people may have some power to try this themselves.

    When I’ve led a group through this exercise, some people made it a silly activity (“I’m worried about vampires”), others felt that the response wasn’t sufficient to mollify the concerns they had just given voice to and reported feeling worse, others felt that just expressing the worry gave them some relief, others felt like the exchange was calming. I have been challenged by being asked “Well, what if it’s not going to be okay, like what if it’s cancer?” Of course, the process of coming to grips with death does indeed include acceptance. Oliver Sacks wrote a terrific and touching essay about his own impending death from cancer.

    5. Designer is Present

    • People get into pairs and move so that they are sitting directly across from each other. Their knees shouldn’t be touching but they should be close.
    • Without staring, each pair looks quietly at each other for 60 seconds.
    • Without debriefing or discussing, everyone stands up and moves around for a moment to “shake it off” and then sits down to resume for an additional 60 seconds.
    • As a group, debrief the experience.

    This activity comes from the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a show at MoMA where as part of a retrospective of her career she performed a new piece where she sat silently facing individual museum-goers, all day, day after day, for several months. An excellent documentary about the show is reviewed here.

    I have since learned that you can find versions of this exercise in dance and in couples therapy.

    You can also read more about presence in an article I co-wrote about noticing. For more on this workshop, watch the video and check out the slides.

    6. Reframing Bad ideas

    • Each person is given two sticky notes.
    • On the first sticky note, write or draw the worst idea for a product or service. Something that is dangerous, immoral, bad for business. I often give the example of “candy for breakfast.”
    • Pass the sticky note to someone else. It doesn’t have to be a direct swap, as long as everyone has someone else’s bad idea.
    • On the second sticky note, design the circumstances whereby the bad idea you’ve received becomes a good idea. I’ll offer the scenario where colony collapse disorder has disrupted the food supply enough that children aren’t getting enough sugar through regular sources and breakfast candy is the result.
    • Have people share the idea they were given and the way they successfully reframed it.

    I stole this exercise from Mathew Lincez. I use it in combination with “It’s going to be okay” to illustrate our capacity for reframing and as part of a workshop on creativity called the Power of Bad Ideas (article, slides, video).

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy March, everyone!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Five Questions with Steve Portigal

    This Friday I’ll be speaking at 18F in DC about The Power of Bad Ideas. The talk will be streamed here.

    In advance of the talk, I answered a few questions about working with clients and planning research projects. Here’s a snippet; more at the 18F site.

    SP: I’m intrigued by the user-centered theater — that is to say, people who have a design goal or a strategic need or a hunger for some insights, but who aren’t open to collaborating on how to accomplish that.

    You often see this with projects where a client wants to understand something enormously complex and nuanced, and they don’t have any budget or time to do so. This is a big red flag. Sometimes, it’s worthwhile having a conversation to see if they [potential client] are open to feedback on their situation and on alternative ways to work.

    In some cases, I’m pleasantly surprised; in many cases, though, I’m usually happy to pass on these projects. The kicker is that many of these folks have often already defined the method they want to use to reach their stated goal. It’s foolhardy to try to help people who have set you up to fail.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a holiday in the U.S., but I’m using this as a work day to try and get caught up. Last week, with the Interaction conference (and my Soft Skills workshop) and my talk at the Design Writing summit, put me behind.
    • I’m headed to DC this Thursday. On Friday I’ll be speaking about The Power of Bad Ideas at 18F, and on Saturday I’ll be leading The Designer is Present at World IA Day DC which will also be streamed.
    • The agency I’m collaborating with is leading a bunch of remote interviews this week; we started last week (in a moment reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the participant took delivery of a pizza during the interview). I’ll be sitting in on a few more this week.
    • Last week on Dollars to Donuts my guest was Kerry McAleer-Forte of Sears. This week we’ll have our final episode of the first series, so stay tuned! If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, you should review it on iTunes.
    • Out on the town: We’ll be at the first Design Museum San Francisco event on Tuesday night.
    • Ten years gone: From February 2005 – My days as a Ticketmaster niterun operator, Forbes on customer input into product development.
    • What we’re consuming: Dungeness crab deviled eggs, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths Of Robert Durst.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I’m staying up in San Francisco for the next few days. It’s the Interaction 15 conference and in addition to my workshop on soft skills today, there’s a ton of interesting talks and a plethora of people to catch up with.
    • I’m speaking about Beating the Blank Page at The Design Writing Summit this Thursday. It promises to be a unique event and I understand there’s still a few spots left.
    • I was the guest for an AMA (“ask me anything”) in the UX Community on Slack. It was a fun conversation; you can check out a gently edited transcript is here.
    • Maxime Fortelle has a nice writeup (in French) of Why read Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal.
    • Last week we had two new War Stories! One from Jenn and another from Jen!
    • Coming up in May is Enterprise UX in San Antonio. I’m doing an extended version of the soft skills workshop and I’m also a “theme leader” for the Insight at Scale track. I’m enjoying the collaboration with the speakers and expect a really stellar experience.
    • Dollars to Donuts was dark was last week; we’ve had to reset some of the production but we’ll have a new episode on Wednesday. If you’ve been enjoying them, it would help if you give the podcast a rating/review on iTunes.
    • Check out the latest 100 doodles in 100 day.
    • Ten years gone: From February 2005 – Tiger Power cereal unboxing, unfortunate design for USB drive, Crayola food.
    • What we’re consuming: 20,000 Days on Earth, Samovar, Veep.

    Jenn’s War Story: Burns, Bandages, and BBQ

    Jenn Downs is a UX Designer at ShootProof in Atlanta, GA.

    I was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit. While getting ready for the day I burned my thumb pretty badly on my hair straightening iron. It was the kind of burn you can soothe for about two seconds before it makes you roll your eyes back and cry out in pain. We’d planned ahead and given ourselves plenty of time that morning, so we had a few minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the hotel front desk to see if they had a first aid kit, but they did not. One of the staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, perhaps some kind of southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I let the front desk guy apply the mustard to my thumb.

    Two seconds later I was again whimpering in pain, so I just filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. We sped out to a drugstore. We were staying on the outskirts of a college town and there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did finally find the one grocery store that was open before 8 am. I bought everything: burn cream, aloe, bandages, you name it. But nothing worked. Nothing but the cup of ice water could stop me from visibly wincing. We were running out of time and had to head to our meeting, hoping for some kind of miracle.

    We found our way to our customers’ office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately the front desk person was keenly observant and before I could even say anything she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time for the interview. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in the cup of water. We worked for a really creative and weird company and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional southern company, so we were feeling a little out of our element; I thought for a moment that my thumb-on-ice was going to be a disaster, but it was actually a nice ice-breaker (pun not intended).

    Then I spilled the cup of ice water all over their conference room table.

    In that moment all I could do was laugh at myself and let everyone laugh with me and just continue the conversation as I was cleaning up the mess, calmly and confidently.

    It turned out to be a great interview and gave our customers something to joke about with us as we shared a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped up in gauze and burn cream! My confidence through the awkwardness ended up helping them feel comfortable with having strangers in their office all day and we got great information we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

    Jen’s War Story: Bad news turns to couples therapy


    Jen Ignacz is the UX Research Lead at TOPP, a design consultancy focused on helping clients shape future products and services.

    I was conducting in-home contextual interviews about home safety and security behaviours. In the recruitment screener, I had found out that a particular participant had experienced a break-in to her home about a year earlier.

    When I arrived at her home for the interview, her fiancé was also there and ended up participating extensively in the conversation.

    My research partner and I had been with the couple for about 90 minutes and they were obviously feeling quite comfortable; they offered up lots of intimate details about their routines and behaviours and were willing to show us everything and anything. I was pleased that they felt so comfortable with sharing (the woman more than the man).

    Part of my protocol was to understand what happened when people find out about bad news about their home, like a fire alarm going off, a break-in, a water leak, etc. So, after 90 minutes of talking about home safety and security routines, I posed the question: “Now I want to talk about what you do when you get bad news. You mentioned that you had a break-in last year. Can you tell me about what happened?”

    As I was asking, the couple looked at each other and an awkward silence fell over the room as I finished the question. They held each other’s gaze for longer than was comfortable (for us). Their sudden change in behaviour told me I had hit on a sore spot.

    The woman broke the silence, still holding her partner’s gaze, saying “That’s not what I consider bad news. Your child dying is bad news.” Then a whispered “Do you not want to talk about this?” to her fiancé.

    My research partner and I froze as if hoping that by not moving, time could stand still for us while they dealt with this incredibly intense personal moment.

    The couple started to talk about the experience of losing a pregnancy in the second trimester about a year earlier. (I made the realisation when reviewing the recordings that the break-in happened around the same time as the miscarriage, so asking the question the way I did allowed for a connection between events I could not have anticipated). They spoke quietly and mostly to each other, but engaged me more and more in their conversation as they went along.

    As a researcher, this felt way off-topic and I was trying to think of ways to get the interview back on track. But as a human being, I felt the need to let them deal with this issue that seemed difficult for them to talk about. From their conversation, it was quite clear they each were still working through their emotions and likely didn’t speak about it to each other often enough. I wasn’t going to shut down an opportunity for them to make emotional progress just because it didn’t fit anywhere close to my research goals.

    So, I let them talk. And I even guided them to share some feelings with each other. I took on a counseling role; a total deviation from the research plan.

    After about ten minutes, they turned to me and said “That’s probably not what you meant.”

    I was honest with them. I told them it wasn’t the type of bad news event I was thinking about, but the conversation helped me learn more about who they are; their values, morals, and perspectives on life. Getting a better sense of who they are ultimately helps me understand their motives for their behaviours better.

    My response allowed us to carefully ramp back up to the interview protocol. I was very cautious with that transition. I had to ensure that the trust and openness we had established in the first 90 minutes wasn’t harmed by the unexpectedly exposed vulnerability. It didn’t seem to be. I was able to complete the remaining hour of the visit with just as much openness (and gaining just as much insight) as we had before.

    This Week @ Portigal

    ChittahChattah Quickies

    It’s been a while since I posted short snippets around links I’ve found fascinating, and while that means these stories don’t come out of this week’s news, I think they are all are provocative and worth being aware of.

    Marketers change pronunciation in ads to attract shoppers [CBC] – The value of the Z as a cultural indicator when selling products in Canada. Canadian companies remind of their status by highlighting the “zed” while some American companies will create a Canadian-specific ad, replacing “zee: with “zed” (depending on the product and it’s meaning – and cost)

    Because cars are so closely tied to image and identity, it’s very important to get that identity correct when speaking to Canadian car buyers. But in the end, it all comes down to dollars and cents. If the product is low-end and utilitarian, marketers will go cheap and run the U.S. product name, commercial and pronunciation in both countries.

    But when there’s a risk of offending the identity of Canadian buyers of big ticket items, marketers will spend the extra loonies to do a custom version for Canada.

    Threat of Death Makes People Go Shopping [Inkfish] – Here’s a finding that we really don’t want to see in the wrong hands!

    Nothing says “Let’s hit the outlet mall” like nearly being wiped out by a rocket. A study of both Americans and terrorized Israelis suggests that certain people respond to the threat of death by going shopping. Because if it’s your time to go, you may as well be wearing the latest from Forever 21 Michigan State University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio and her colleagues performed two studies of potential shoppers. The first took place in Israel. Questionnaires were handed out at a community center in a town just one kilometer from the Gaza Strip, during six months of daily rocket attacks there in 2007. The same surveys were distributed in a second town farther from the fighting, where residents were aware of the violence but not in direct danger. The questionnaires were meant to ferret out a few different answers about people. Did they experience post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares or memory loss? Did they cope with negative feelings by buying things? How often did they return from a shopping trip with items they hadn’t meant to purchase? Other questions assessed how materialistic the subjects were-did they place a lot of value on owning nice things? Israelis who were experiencing daily rocket attacks, unsurprisingly, reported more post-traumatic stress. People who felt more stress admitted to more compulsive or impulsive shopping behaviors. And both these effects (feeling stress and going shopping) were stronger in more materialistic people. For their second study, the researchers used a group of 855 American subjects, meant to be demographically representative of the U.S. population overall. Subjects filled out an online survey that measured their materialism, shopping habits, and how much they thought about their own death, as well as other factors. Once again, for people who were more materialistic, there was a relationship between fear of death and impulse buying.

    Because the more materialistic Israelis experienced more stress, the researchers think “materialism makes bad events even worse.” And when materialistic people feel threatened, they buy things they don’t really want (or maybe can’t afford). The findings don’t only apply to people living in the Middle East. Events that make people fear for their lives can include car accidents, assaults, and natural disasters. Yet Ruvio puts a positive spin on the ubiquity of trauma. “This presents an opportunity for both manufacturers of impulse items and the retailers that sell these products,” she writes. When a severe storm or a military crisis is brewing, she suggests stores put their high-profit-margin items up front where impulse shoppers will see them.

    While retailers may be able to benefit from people’s crises, shoppers themselves won’t. Previous research, Ruvio writes, shows that “most materialistic individuals derive little satisfaction from their consumption activities.” So much for retail therapy.

    Weird T-Shirts Designed To Confuse Facebook’s Auto-Tagging [Wired Design] – The space where conceptual art meets technology can be interesting, where working solutions can be produced to comment on the problem without fully solving it, and yet point the way to a possible future where those problems are addressed this way.

    How to fight back? Just buy one of Simone C. Niquille’s “REALFACE Glamoflage” T-shirts, a series of bizarre, visage-covered garments designed specifically to give Facebook’s facial recognition software the runaround.

    Niquille dreamed up the shirts as part of her master’s thesis in graphic design at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. FaceValue, as the thesis is titled, imagines new design solutions for the near-future, mining the ripe intersection of privacy, pattern recognition and biometrics. The shirts, custom-printed for around $65, are one of three such imaginings–a tongue-halfway-in-cheek tool for pushing back against the emerging trends of ubiquitous, computer-aided recognition. Covered in distorted faces of celebrity impersonators, they’re designed to keep Facebook’s algorithms guessing about what–or more accurately who–they’re looking at.

    “I was interested in the T-shirt as a mundane commodity,” Niquille explains. “An article of clothing that in most cases does not need much consideration in the morning in front of the closet…I was interested in creating a tool for privacy protection that wouldn’t require much time to think in the morning, an accessory that would seamlessly fit in your existing everyday. No adaption period needed.”

    Promoting Health With Enticing Photos of Fruits and Vegetables [NYT] – Bolthouse Farms created a fanciful website that visualizes food-related social media content.

    “It’s not that I don’t have an Oreo every once in a while,” Mr. Putman said. “We just want folks to understand that beautiful carrots have badge value the same way peanut butter, chocolate pie does.” Having badge value means something is interesting enough to deserve a hashtag.

    Bitcoin Beauties promotes use of currency by women [SFGate] – If this provides empowerment to someone, then that’s great. But I don’t understand this at all. It seems like Trending Topic + Nekkid Ladies = something.

    The company’s slogan is “Beauty, Brains, Bitcoin.” Its logo is a sketch of two voluptuous, nude women, posing pin-up style beside the stylized bitcoin “B.” The company website, yet to be completed, is now a photo collage of women, some topless, silhouetted against a beach sunset. Blincoe refers to members as “our beauties.” For Blincoe, there is urgency in staking a claim for women in the highly lucrative world of bitcoin, a crypto currency that by many accounts has the potential to shape the future of how transactions take place and currency flows online. For now, the main function of Bitcoin Beauties is hosting a small-but-growing weekly gathering where women talk bitcoin.

    The Anti-Digit Dialing League [Orange Crate Art] – A mostly-forgotten (and mostly unsuccessful) rebellion against a technological advance. Also see the followup here.

    The Anti-Digit Dialing League was a short-lived movement that arose in 1962 and faded, it would seem, in 1964. Founded in San Francisco, the ADDL opposed “creeping numeralism” and fought a losing battle to preserve the use of telephone exchange names.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Dollars to Donuts: Behind The Music

    My new Dollars to Donuts podcast features a nifty bit of intro and outro music. In the podcast you just hear snippets of the song, written expressly for the podcast by my brother-in-law, Bruce Todd. I’ve long been an admirer of Bruce’s songwriting and playing and overall musical thang, and it was an absolute thrill to have him create a piece of music for me.

    Now you can hear the whole piece!

    Since we’re all about digging into creative processes, here’s Bruce’s explanation of how he developed this music.

    This song came to light through questions and (heaven forbid) assumptions about what Steve was looking for or better yet – listening for. Based on some email conversations and musical examples, I had a rough idea that the music had to be relatively fast-paced, rocking and attention=grabbing. Since Steve had some alternatives there was no pressure for me to actually produce anything and this allowed me to experiment and take a few small sound risks. Most of this recording was completed through digital amplification or direct line inputs which allowed me to work quietly and at my leisure (everything except vocals). Often when recording instruments with microphones you need a quiet peaceful environment which I don’t always have access to in my (non-soundproofed) home studio.

    I began by finding a drum track: a simple upbeat 4/4 rock drum track which I had used on a previous recording (having exported the tracks from a master file and imported to my Tascam DP 32 Portastudio). Then the fun began. Knowing that the end result would be used as a short clip, I laid down about 2 minutes of drums and then pulled out my Fender Telecaster and began to experiment with a riff. This came pretty quickly as it is quite a simple progression in the key of F-sharp. Next, I plugged in my Vox DA5 (5-watt digital amplifier) and located an overdrive sound I liked and added a small amount of delay. I recorded two tracks with the same guitar sound and panned the tracks left and right, which results in creating a thicker overall sound by doubling the part. After the rhythm guitar tracks were completed I worked on the bass part. I ran the bass also through the little digital Vox and added compression which brought out a punchy bass track (this is a discovery I have been using on my other recordings ever since). Once drums, guitar and bass were complete I left the recording for a few days so I could revisit the idea when I was ready.

    Coming back, I wasn’t too sure I liked what I had. If this was a more serious venture I would have probably scrapped the idea. Given that I wasn’t overly convinced that the song idea had much merit I thought I would have my young daughters (Talia 8, Arianna, 4) join me and be exposed to the recording process. Regardless of what the end result was I was sure Uncle Steve would get a kick out of his nieces being involved. Talia has a small electronic keyboard which I plugged into the Portastudio, and I gave her some headphones and had her play along with the guitar, bass and drums. Her first track was a keeper as she found a funny sound and played a part that complimented the space that the guitar riff left. Then Arianna played a part with a toy instrument of hers (in the end this track did not make it on the recording). The girls also helped me do a little vocal improvisation which also didn’t make the master mix but helped me get to the next part of the recording.

    recording-1
    recording-2

    Several days again went by until I felt ready to listen to the song and see what was there and what else I could add. I went back to my guitar and found another overdrive tone which I overlaid with the auto-wah pedal sound setting on the Vox DA5. This was a lucky choice as I think it is what gets the attention of the listener at the beginning of the song. The track is pretty much one big lead guitar riff which from time to time stops and echoes the rhythm guitar tracks. This was a fun part for me as was the final vocal tracks. For the vocal tracks I ran a Shure 57 through the Vox DA 5 flanger setting with a lot of flange and overdrive and experimented by saying “Talk it Out” and by making other weird sounds. I mixed the song and sent it digitally via email to Steve – and to my surprise received a very nice response.

    And that is how Dollars to Donuts found its music.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a holiday today (MLK day) for some folks in the US. But we’re working today.
    • Last week on Dollars to Donuts, my new podcast with people who lead user research in their organization, I had a great conversation with Alex Wright of Etsy. Another episode drops on Wednesday; you can find them all on iTunes.
    • Video from my talk on Interviewing Users from the HOW Interactive Design conference is now on YouTube and Vimeo.
    • My agency collaboration is going well; their client is doing some interesting work and the research is going to help unpack expectations around a few similar-seeming value propositions. This week they’re planning to start screening for participants across the country who will fill out diaries over several weeks.
    • I’ve got the green light (at least the green light that means let’s begin the paperwork) from a client team to advise them through some in-home fieldwork. I’ll be doing some interviews with experts at the same time, and we’ll all come together and synthesize the results into…something! It’s a really nice group and we’ve been looking for a chance to work together for a few months now.
    • Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15 has filled up! Looking forward to the whole conference and to the workshop. I’ll be doing a shorter version for a bigger crowd at World IA Day in DC on February 21.
    • Tomorrow is my rescheduled workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity at GreatSchools in Oakland.
    • Next week I’m doing a lunch-hour session with the UX students at General Assembly. We’re going to talk about the Power of Bad Ideas.
    • Also next week, I’ll be New York to attend the Pro/Design conference.
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – Dubious pancake mix FAQ, Titan Probe Drops Into ‘Creme Brulee’-Like Surface.
    • What we’re consuming: Keep on Keepin’ On, Brenda’s Meat & Three, 100 Doodles in 100 Days, Boyhood.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I’ve just launched a new podcast, called Dollars to Donuts, where I speak with people who lead user research in their organization. You can find it on the Portigal Consulting site, on iTunes, and on Twitter. Our first episode, an interview with Gregg Bernstein of MailChimp, is getting a great response so far.
    • Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15 is filling up. If you’d like to be part of it, register for the conference and then sign up for the workshop here.
    • We’ve rescheduled my workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity for the folks at GreatSchools in Oakland to next week, after we realized that the last week was not good for people’s schedules.
    • I’m kicking off a new project this week, working with an agency in more of a creative director role. Well, that’s probably not the right term, but I don’t think we know what it is. Their staff will be doing the heavy lifting but I’ll be around as a sounding board and general guide on fieldwork, analysis and ensuring we’re meeting the client’s goals. Should be an novel and promising way for me to collaborate with some enthusiastic people.
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – Ghoulish spam, The Google Pause.
    • What we’re consuming: cheese, Episodes, Len Deighton.

    Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories project

    Since 2012, I’ve been collecting War Stories, where researchers share the stuff that happens during fieldwork. There are more than 70 stories (start your reading here) and they’ve proven to be a valuable resource for the practice. I’ve been giving a talk over the past few months about the stories and what I’ve learned from the process of curating the stories as well as from the stories themselves. From UX Australia, here’s the audio, the (minimal) slides, and a few sketchnotes.

    If you have a story about an experience you had doing contextual research, please get in touch! We want more stories!


    To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)


    Matthew Magain, UX Mastery


    Guillaume Hammadi


    Suj

    Join me for Soft Skills Are Hard at Interaction 15

    On February 9 I’ll be teaching a new workshop at Interaction 15 in San Francisco. Entitled Soft Skills Are Hard, it’s a deeper-dive that build the interactive talks I’ve done recently that focus on developing the interpersonal, creative, and cognitive skill sets that are essential in innovative work cultures.

    If you are registered for Interaction 15, you can sign up here.

    Below are the slides and video from an earlier talks. The workshop will focus on identifying individually relevant skills and creating an action plan to strengthen them.



    Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream
    Note: the talk itself starts around 30:00

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup

    interviewing-users

    Welcome to 2016! The New Year seems a good time to post my occasionally updated roundup of links to various bits connected with Interviewing Users. Of course, if you haven’t already, you should buy a copy here! It would be fantastic if you wrote a quick review on Amazon here.

    The Book

    Reviews

    Interviews

    Presentations

    Other

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy New Year! It’s been 2015 for a few days, but this is back-to-work day here and for many of you as well, so I think the greeting still stands. Here’s what’s up as we get things back into gear.

    • The semi-stealth project I’ve been working on will launch this week. More to come but here’s a big hint.
    • Please sign up for Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15. It’s in San Francisco on February 9 and you can register here.
    • Tomorrow I am teaching a workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity at GreatSchools in Oakland. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and having a chance to play together.
    • Also this week is circling back with various projects, nailing down schedules for meetings, sorting out invoices and reimbursements, lunch with colleagues, figuring out travel details and generally trying to move forward all the bits and pieces which have been up in the air especially through the holiday.
    • From December, there is now a video for Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (also slides and audio).
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – We don’t remember new products, dress up your vacuum cleaner as a bear, bunny, cat or (ironically) maid.
    • What we’re consuming: Lucky Peach, crab rolls, Modern Family, Little Yangon

    The Advantages of Remote Interviewing

    This NYT Magazine profile of author Laura Hillenbrand explores her writing process and considers the ways it has been impacted by her illness. One section of this excellent article had resonance for me around conducting remote interviews, something I’m frequently asked about.

    One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation. But Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote. Gross told me that she began this habit, as Hillenbrand did, by necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Over time, she said, she has come to believe that there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.” Gross also said the remote interview makes it easier to steer the conversation. “I can look at my notes without fear that the interviewee will assume that I’m not paying attention to what they’re saying,” she said. Finally, the distance eliminates nonverbal cues, which can interfere with good quotes. “A hand gesture might be helpful to communicate something to me. It communicates nothing to my listeners.” Hillenbrand, who recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Zamperini, experienced a similar effect. “I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering.

    Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14 (now with video)

    I gave a (remote) presentation, Designing the Problem, at Interaction South America a few weeks ago.

    Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

    As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

    We’ve got video, slides, audio and sketch-notes. Enjoy!

    The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).


    To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

    Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)

    Kat-Davis-B3KkgEsCcAE2Jjo

    Sketchnote by Thiago Esser
    10802698_389325447886104_12

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I got back yesterday from a fantastic client workshop in Austin and am looking ahead to this holiday week. I’m going to try and gear down over the next few days (which paradoxically means I feel like I have a lot to get done) and hopefully take a step back for the end of the week and some time next week as well. We’ll see.
    • There’s now video for Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (also slides and audio).
    • Just announced: Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15. It’s in San Francisco on February 9 and you can register here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Bob Dylan Q&A.
    • What we’re consuming: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, The Problem Is Not The Problem, Torchy’s Tacos, Frank, latkes, Whip In.

    Building Rapport With Users Is Building Rapport With People

    We use specific techniques to build rapport in user research, but of course those techniques work to build rapport in other situations. Here’s two great examples of rapport in relationships that map quite closely to rapport in fieldwork.

    Caution: Stuffed Shirts Ahead [NYT]

    Instead, miss no opportunity to chat congenially with your new colleagues — lunch, coffee, the proverbial water cooler, whatever. But remember, these conversations aren’t about you. Though you don’t want to seem evasive, avoid leaping into a happy reminiscence about foosball tournaments with your delightful former colleagues.

    Think of the process as the workplace equivalent of politicians’ “listening tours” during the run-up to election season. Don’t ask, “So what’s it like to work here?” or “Do you like it here?” or anything else that requires a point-blank value judgment. Ask neutral questions like, “So how long have you worked here?” Then keep quiet.

    People love to talk about themselves, and if you can signal that you’re actually interested in what they’re saying — and not merely waiting for your turn to talk — most will do it all day long. (One of the oldest interview tricks that reporters use is silence: There’s a human tendency to fill a conversational void, so let the other person do it.) In addition to signaling that you’re going to fit in, you’ll likely pick up useful clues to help you do precisely that.

    It may take a little patience, but you’ll gradually be able to piece together what you need to know about how this new environment works — and who among your new colleagues has the same kind of sensibility as yours. Remember that even if the company is formal and bureaucratic, chances are that at least some of the people who work there are, in fact, agreeable human beings — the kind who like doughnuts.

    5 ways to build a good relationship with anyone [The Week]

    I picked up a copy of an underground indie best-seller called It’s Not All about Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone. The author, Robin Dreeke, is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. Robin combines hard science and years of work in the field to offer practical tips to build rapport and establish trust.

    1. Ask them questions.
    2. Don’t be a conversation dictator.
    3. Allow them to talk.
    4. Genuinely try to understand their thoughts and opinions.
    5. Leave your ego at the door.

    Keeping the Humanity in our Technology Work

    A few articles about the practice of medicine echo each other in significant ways, but I share them here as a reminder that all of our work that increasingly relies on technology (e.g., developing digital products) will suffer terribly if we fail to engage the human who thinks, talks, listens and tells stories.

    With Electronic Medical Records, Doctors Read When They Should Talk

    Even if all the redundant clinical information sitting on hospital servers everywhere were error-free, and even if excellent software made it all reasonably accessible, doctors and nurses still shouldn’t be spending their time reading. The first thing medical students learn is the value of a full history taken directly from the patient. The process takes them hours. Experience whittles that time down by a bit, but it always remains a substantial chunk that some feel is best devoted to more lucrative activities.

    Enter various efficiency-promoting endeavors. One of the most durable has been the multipage health questionnaire for patients to complete on a clipboard before most outpatient visits. Why should the doctor expensively scribble down information when the patient can do a little free secretarial work instead? Alas, beware the doctor who does not review that questionnaire with you very carefully, taking an active interest in every little check mark. It turns out that the pathway into the medical brain, like most brains, is far more reliable when it runs from the hand than from the eye. Force the doctor to take notes, and the doctor will usually remember. Ask the doctor to read, and the doctor will scan, skip, elide, omit and often forget.

    Like good police work, good medicine depends on deliberate, inefficient, plodding, expensive repetition. No system of data management will ever replace it.

    Why Doctors Need Stories

    I have long felt isolated in this position, embracing stories, which is why I warm to the possibility that the vignette is making a comeback. This summer, Oxford University Press began publishing a journal devoted to case reports. And this month, in an unusual move, the New England Journal of Medicine opened an issue with a case history involving a troubled mother, daughter and grandson. The contributors write: “Data are important, of course, but numbers sometimes imply an order to what is happening that can be misleading. Stories are better at capturing a different type of ‘big picture.’ ”

    Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence. Thoughtful doctors consider data, accompanying narrative, plausibility and, yes, clinical anecdote in their decision making. To put the same matter differently, evidence-based medicine, properly enacted, is judgment-based medicine in which randomized trials, carefully assessed, are given their due.

    I don’t think that psychiatry — or, again, medicine in general — need be apologetic about this state of affairs. Our substantial formal findings require integration. The danger is in pretending otherwise. It would be unfortunate if psychiatry moved fully — prematurely — to squeeze the art out of its science. And it would be unfortunate if we marginalized the case vignette. We need storytelling, to set us in the clinical moment, remind us of the variety of human experience and enrich our judgment.

    From October 2003, Diagnosis Goes Low Tech

    “This technology has become a religion within the medical community,” said Dr. Jerry Vannatta, former dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that still, in the 21st century, it is believed that 80 to 85 percent of the diagnosis is in the patient’s story.”

    Yet medical educators say that doctors are insufficiently trained to listen to those stories. After all, there is no reimbursement category on insurance forms for it. It is this lost art of listening to the patient that has been the inspiration behind a burgeoning movement in medical schools throughout the country: narrative medicine.

    The idea that medical students need an academic discipline to teach them how to listen may strike some as farfetched. After all, what should be more natural — or uncomplicated — than having a conversation?

    But the narrative medicine movement is part of an ongoing trend in exposing medical students to the humanities. It is needed, educators say, to teach aspiring doctors to pay close attention to what their patients are saying and to understand the way their own emotions affect their perceptions, and ultimately their clinical practice.

    The basic teaching method is to have medical students read literary texts and then write about themselves and their patients in ordinary language, rather than in the technological lexicon of the traditional patient chart.

    Venerable medical journals like The Journal of the American Medical Association and Annals of Internal Medicine are increasingly publishing reflective writing by doctors, their editors say. And now some medical schools even have their own literary journals. At Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, there is Reflexions; Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine publishes Wild Onions; at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center, there is The Medical Muse.

    Columbia also publishes a semiannual scholarly journal devoted solely to narrative medicine, titled Literature and Medicine, which is edited by Maura Spiegel, a literary scholar, and Dr. Rita Charon, a professor at the medical school and a founder of the narrative medicine movement.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • Over the weekend we tried to make some sense out of the office space chaos, figuring out what the new layout will be and what furniture we need to get rid of. There’s a long way to go but there’s definitely a sense of progress.
    • I’m working with a client to do a bit of retail observation today, looking at how their products – and those of their competitors – are merchandised.
    • I’m flying to Austin on Thursday to do lead a full-day in-house workshop on interviewing users on Friday. And catching up with a few folks over the weekend as well.
    • From recent talks: Designing for Unmet Needs from Warm Gun (slides and audio), Interviewing Users from HOW Interactive Design (slides, video, Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (slides and audio).
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Company makes clothes for women who prefer masculine style.
    • What we’re consuming: Hobbit Office, TREATS!, Werner Herzog Inspirationals, Baby Sloth Me.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It may be the time of year, but it sure feels like a busy Monday, right out the gate. So many phone calls and planning meetings to try to get scheduled.
    • I’ve been enjoying my collaboration with a new team in downtown San Francisco, as we help assemble a point of view about design directions to prepare for an internal workshop next week.
    • We’re looking good to wrap up the year with a training session in Austin. People are doing paperwork, I’m hovering over the flight-and-hotel reservation buttons. Also, barbecue.
    • Last week, I spoke about Designing for Unmet Needs at Warm Gun. You can find slides, audio and a sketchnote here.
    • More from recent talks: The HOW Interactive Design slides are here and you can find the video (among several) here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Leisurama!, Nike dropping the ‘Goddess’ moniker.
    • What we’re consuming: latkes, Jiminy Glick, dumplings.

    Designing for Unmet Needs, my presentation from Warm Gun

    Last week I spoke at the Warm Gun conference, giving a short talk about Designing for Unmet Needs

    Don’t be surprised if Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users, invites himself to your family breakfast or follows hotel maintenance staff to the boiler room. For more than 15 years, he’s led hundreds of interviews that help clients understand customers and turn insights into design opportunities.

    Steve knows that our success depends on letting the unmet needs of our audience shape our designs. Okay—but how do we hit a target we can’t see? How do we design for people who aren’t us? How do we solve for the complexity of those people?

    Dig into the details, ditch the guesswork, and join Steve to engage deliberately with the people we’re designing for. Look at ways to acknowledge the complexity of your users. Offer solutions rooted in the connections you make with people. Get unstuck and discover opportunities for design that adds value.

    Below you’ll find slides, audio and a sketchnote.

    The talk is 25 minutes long.

    To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

    Sketchnote by Lexi H (click for full size)

    LEXI-H-B4Crtn5CcAA51R3

    This Week @ Portigal

    • Happy December! I turned over the keys to our second office space. It was a lovely space with good meeting areas and lots of light, but it was just not being used. I feel like it should have been a sad moment, but it was really just a small moment of transition. Meanwhile, our main office space remains overloaded with furniture and boxes. I’ve got a group coming in on Friday and I’m not sure what state it will be in by then, probably the same.
    • I had a great meeting with a new team last week and we put together a plan to help prepare for an internal workshop in the next few weeks. I’m waiting on paperwork to see how and when we’ll move forward.
    • I’m expecting to hear this week if I’ll be doing a training workshop in Austin in a couple of weeks. A new collaboration in a favorite city? I’m hopeful it’ll work out.
    • I’ve been working on both visual and sonic identities for this stealth project I’ve been teasing here. I’ll be working on the content as well this week, but oh, man….I had to buy a bunch of donuts over the weekend and photograph them. This was terrible terrible brutal awful work.
    • I’ll be speaking about Designing for Unmet Needs at Warm Gun this week. Please come say Hi!
    • In case you missed it, from two very recent talks: the slides about Interviewing Users at HOW Interactive Design are here and my new talk, Designing the Problem, from Interaction South America with the slides, audio and sketchnotes are here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Val Kilmer Street Meme, Things magazine.
    • What we’re consuming: names of football players, Pixie Donuts, Seiya Sushi, Ewoks are real.

    Today we are thirteen

    13

    Today is the thirteen anniversary of All This ChittahChattah. And since it just about overlaps with Thanksgiving, I’ll once again give thanks for all the enthusiasm and engagement from readers and friends over the years.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a short week this week, getting as much done as I can before Thanksgiving. If we can work out the paperwork today, I’ll be spending tomorrow working with a new client to explore their very immediate design and business challenges and seeing what we can get done before the year wraps up.
    • Last week I spoke at HOW Interactive Design about interviewing users. I’ve heard great things about how helpful the talk was and the slides are online here.
    • Over the weekend, I delivered a new talk as a keynote at Interaction South America. It’s called Designing the Problem, and the slides, audio and sketchnotes are here.
    • Coming up this week is the 13th anniversary of All This ChittahChattah. That’s a lot of blogging!
    • Ten years gone: From November 2004 – Grotesque consumerism, Nissan Lets You Tell Better Stories, Kreskin Offers Services to N.J. Governor.
    • What we’re consuming: Dungeness crab, Olive Kitteredge, Fog City, exuberant Goldens.

    Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14

    Although we couldn’t make it down to Buenos Aires for Interaction South America, thanks to the magic of Skype I was able to present Designing the Problem at over the weekend.

    Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

    As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

    Below you’ll find slides, audio and sketchnotes. I’ll repost when the video go up. Update: it’s here.

    The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).


    To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

    Here is my huge head during the Q&A segment (image via Juan Marcos Ortiz)

    juan marcos ortiz B3EU_zyIYAAXKue_425

    Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)

    Kat-Davis-B3KkgEsCcAE2Jjo

    Sketchnote by Thiago Esser

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    • We’ve decided to consolidate our office space and so I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks going through the accumulated tech gear, paperwork, books, furniture and office supplies, getting rid of what we don’t need any more and moving stuff around to create a more streamlined and comfortable workspace. It’s overwhelming but necessary.
    • Sign up for my Interaction South American workshop on Interviewing Users.
    • In early December I’ll be speaking at Warm Gun. Use the code SPKWARM to save $150.
    • My Brussels photos are now all uploaded, here.
    • Out on the town this week, I’m hoping to go to this BayCHI event featuring Frank Yoo, the head of design at Lyft.
    • From the blog last week, When A Food Truck Is Not A Food Truck.
    • Ten years gone: From November 2004 – Maybe name is not destiny, then?, eBay tries to harness warm fuzzies, Elevator Pitch Essentials.
    • What we’re consuming: iPhone 6, The Roaring Twenties, roof sealant, Grilled octopus with bacon tempura, USB enclosures.

    When A Food Truck Is Not A Food Truck

    Now you can have all the positive attributes of a food truck (adventure, deliciousness, speed?) without the inconvenience of having to actual go to a food truck. Here’s some examples I’ve seen recently where an individual restaurant is named like a food truck but is definitely not a food truck.

    slicetruck
    Slicetruck explains themselves this way

    I like to try and remind people that we are actually a restaurant and not a food truck. We named it Slicetruck because we started with a pizza truck and just couldn’t think of a new name for the store. You should try naming a pizza place. Very difficult to find something no one is already using and real easy to fall into the lame trap of throwing some meaningless Italian name into it or a “papa” or “mama” into the name.

    taco-truck
    The Taco Truck tells us

    In 2009 we launched our very first truck in New Jersey…So far we’ve opened stores, kiosks, carts, and trucks in NY, MA, and NJ.

    At least they each have trucks in their history, although it makes for a confusing name, what with their not being trucks.

    This Week @ Portigal

    When your participant repels and scares you

    Embedded above is a fantastic and disturbing episode of Love + Radio. Nick van der Kolk and Noah Morrison visit Jay Thunderbolt, who upon beginning the interview, aggressively reiterates his demand for payment (not possible for public radio, which Jay knew). Noah ends up going on a liquor run instead, as Jay offers him a pistol or Kevlar vest. Jay never stops insulting the interviewers, and stories of violence abound; indeed at one point he points a gun at Nick’s head. Meanwhile, they are interviewing Jay about the strip club he runs out of his house.

    Yikes. This sounds like some of the War Stories, doesn’t it?

    I don’t know what is going through Nick’s head as he’s doing this interview, but as I listen I find myself strongly repelled by Jay. And while the interview here is edited, so we don’t know all that happened, but Nick never reveals discomfort or lets Jay’s obvious provocations get to him. His patience and tolerance create room for Jay’s story to come out, and while Jay is not an appealing individual, you begin to understand and accept him as he is. Well, I did. Your experience may vary.

    Nick finally responds to Jay’s taunting at the end, when he asks Jay “Do you think you understand the way I feel about you?” and Jay admits that he doesn’t. It’s a powerful moment in an intense interview.

    Interviewing Best Practices from Stephen Colbert

    The first episode of Working (a new podcast) features Stephen Colbert explaining in great detail the process of creating The Colbert Report. The entire episode (listen here) is really good process stuff (creativity, collaboration, finding the story, media firehose, working under pressure) but I want to call out the section about how he prepares and uses the questions for interviewing his guest, as it’s is quite consistent with what I wrote in Interviewing Users.

    And then I read the two sheets of questions that the writers have come up, what their ideas are. I usually pick 10 or 15 of those. But I don’t look at them. I don’t look at them until right before I go over [to the set], and then I read them over once again in front of my producers to get a sense of, oh, this is how my character feels about this person.

    Come show time…I take them out and I go, oh, yes, these are the questions I chose. And then I try to forget them and I try to never look at the cards. I just have a sense in my head of how I feel. And the cards are in front of me, but I try not to look at them at all. I’m pretty good. Maybe I look once a week at the cards. I put my hand on them, so I know I have them if something terrible happens, but as long as I know what my first question is for the guest I kind of know what every other question is, because I really want to react to what their reaction to my first question is.

    And I usually end up using four of the 15, and the rest of it is, what is the person just saying to me? Which makes that the most enjoyable part of the show for me. Because I started off as an improviser. I’m not a standup. I didn’t start off as a writer, I learned to write through improvisation, and so that’s the part of the show that can most surprise me. The written part of the show, I know I can get wrong. You can’t really get the interview “wrong.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I am actually doing okay after a week with Google’s Gmail and Calendar, and Evernote. I’ve dipped my toe in cleaning up more than a decade of digital detritus but that is a long road.
    • It’s a shortened week here as I host visiting family and take a long weekend.
    • This week I’ll be chatting about Interviewing Users with the Denver UX Book Club.
    • I’m one of the coaches for MVP Design Hacks and I’ll be taking questions in a session this week. I am very curious to hear what the participants are working on and where they have questions.
    • Here’s my pictures from Berlin.
    • I’ve alluded before to a stealth project; it’s still stealthy but I will tease by say I’m starting to set up interviews.
    • Coming up next month, I’ll be speaking about user research at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Pumpkins and pie.
    • What we’re consuming: Kale and Chard, Buzz Ballz, coconut mojitos, Transparent.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I decided to make some changes to my tools, some of which I’ve relied on for more than 10 years. I had been using Notes in Outlook to jot down whatever and syncing them to iOS Notes. I was also using Outlook for my calendar, synced of course to my iPhone calendar, via Google Calendar. I was asked why and I couldn’t answer. So I am using just Google Calendar on the computer, synched to my iPhone. And I shifted to Evernote on both the computer and the phone, although I haven’t done more than move the notes over. I haven’t tried living with it, adding, editing, finding. I also had to say goodbye to Eudora, a long-obsolete email client. I’m planning on living with Gmail (which is where Portigal email comes into anyway) and seeing if that will work for me. But meanwhile I had to figure out how to get my 13 years of email into Gmail. Far too boring to go into here but it’s been a few days and I’m still syncing – e.g., uploading all this email to Gmail. Most terrifying is the realization that between Notes, emails and files on my computer, I’ve got tons of thoughts, articles, sketches for blog posts and other mental detritus that I’d like to go through, extract the bits worth saving and organize them. What set of rabbit holes I’ll be disappearing into!
    • Check out our new War Story, The Hidden Persuader.
    • I’m one of twenty folks who shared a best practice or tip in 20 Tips for Selling UX to Clients.
    • I’ll be chatting about Interviewing Users with the Denver UX Book Club next week.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Restless Leg Syndrome.
    • What we’re consuming: Business Live-Action Role-Playing, Peasant’s War Panorama, cab sav, Temple of the Dog 8-bit, We Are The Best!, Ebba Grön.

    Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader

    Patricia Colley is an experience designer and the Principal of Creative Catalysts in Portland, OR.

    In 1984, I was 23, and working for a market & social research firm in San Antonio, Texas. They sent me down to McAllen to collect voter opinions on the upcoming national elections. McAllen is a sleepy little town near the bottom tip of the state, just a few miles from the Mexican border, mainly populated with low-to-moderate income Hispanic families.

    I was on my second day of door-to-door polling, asking voters their opinions on policy matters, and their thoughts on the state and presidential candidates. The work was progressing well. As usual, I was getting a high rate of interview completions, with lots of useful data. After four years of working in market and social research, I was quite confident in my neutral, non-threatening “aw shucks, I’m just one of you” act, and its ability to deliver great results.

    But my confidence was shaken when I met Maria, a shy housewife in her early 30’s.

    It was about 4 pm on a warm, dry Thursday afternoon when I knocked on the door of a modest, well-kept ranch house in a suburban section of McAllen. Maria opened the door part way. She was half-hiding behind it, sizing me up like a rabbit peering through tall grass at a coyote in the distance…curious, but poised to flee.

    Me: “Hello, my name is Patricia, and I’ve been sent here by (XYZ Research) to gather public opinions on the upcoming elections.”
    Maria: “Oh, hi.”
    Me (turning on the charm): “May I ask you some questions? Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything!”
    Maria: “Uhh, sure, I guess?”&
    Me: “Great, thanks! This won’t take long.”

    Wide-eyed, Maria flashes a shy smile before her jaw slacks again. This one’s cagey, I thought to myself, but I’ll get her talking.

    Me: “Now, thinking about (Candidate X), what comes to mind?”
    Maria: “Uhh, I don’t know? Is he a good guy?”
    Me (shrinking): “Well, I really don’t have any thoughts on (Candidate X). Besides, my bosses didn’t send me all this way to talk about my opinions. He wants to know your opinion.”
    Maria: “I don’t know. He seems okay?”

    Now, I don’t think Mary is incapable of forming opinions. I suspect she’s simply never been asked to share her thoughts about such important things, so far from home. And she may never be asked again. But on this day, I was determined to make her opinion count.

    Me: “Well, you’ve heard of him, maybe seen him on TV?”
    Maria: “Yes.”
    Me: “So, what did you think of him? Is he someone you would vote for?”
    Maria: “Um…(pause)”

    Her eyes darted across my face, scanning every crease and twitch, searching for clues. Those big rabbit eyes begged mutely for help. I stared back, apologetically. I took a few slow breaths, trying to ground us both, so she might relax into talking more naturally. Each time she hesitates, I carefully repeat the question, altering the wording and inflection to make them sound as simple and benign as possible.

    Me: “Really, we’re just interested in what you think. Whatever you think is fine. Do you think you’ll vote for him, or not?”
    Maria: “Uh…yes?” (seeing no reaction from me) “No?”
    Me: “Okay, that’s fine. Alright. Now, thinking about (Issue A), is that important to you? Do you think it’s good or bad?”
    Maria: “Uhh…I think it’s good?”

    The back and forth went on for several minutes. I’m trying to go completely neutral and void of any emotional expression, but my contortions only intensified the awkwardness. The interview was in free-fall. I was failing miserably to collect any genuine responses from Maria. A hot wave of panic washed over me. How can I get this back on track?

    In that moment, I just had to let go.

    I quit fighting it, and fell back on connecting with Maria as a person. As Maria answered my questions, I began riffing on her responses, affirming and adding detail to them. While trying not to reveal my personal opinions, I offered supportive words and gestures to elevate everything she said, so that she might open up and elaborate. Eventually, she did relax, and her answers flowed a bit more freely.

    Me: “So, what about the presidential candidates?”
    Maria: “I guess I’ll vote for (presidential candidate B).”
    Me: “Great! Is it because he is for (issue B)?”
    Maria: “Oh, that’s good. Yeah, (B) is good for us.”

    Although Maria was warming up to me, I felt I was way off book. It seemed impossible not to sway her answers. Whatever I wrote down, I feared it might be swept away by the slightest shift in body position, or an eyebrow lift. Well – at least she was talking, I told myself.

    Finally, we got to the end. Walking back to my car, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The hardest interview I’d ever done was over. I went out for a well-earned drink and a tragicomic debrief with my co-workers.

    Sometimes you just get a dud subject, and it is what it is. But something about that 15-minute exchange with Maria struck a deeper chord in me. As I drove out of town, troubling questions lingered. What is the value of a skewed interview? Was this the only time I’d failed to be impartial? Or, had this been happening all along, in more subtle ways? How can I ever know that the data I’m collecting is pure?

    Maria taught me two important things that day.

    1. People make stuff up as they go along. And, we can’t always see the flaws in self-reporting.
    2. The observer effect is unavoidable. Interviewers shade their work in unpredictable ways.

    I’m as diligent as ever about delivering valuable insights through my research. But ever since that incident in McAllen, I draw my conclusions with a fuzzy border, in humble deference to flawed inputs and shadow projections, on both sides of the clipboard.

    This American Life on selling your idea

    Alex Blumberg has a podcast about his journey to start a podcast-related business. A recent episode of This American Life included an excerpt from this podcast (called StartUp), in which Blumberg is half-heartedly pitching his idea to investor Chris Sacca.

    They talk for a while, and Alex is having difficulty in explaining his idea and what he’s asking for.

    Alex Blumberg: So it’ll take a million and a half dollars, I think. And–
    Chris Sacca: Take out the “I think.”
    AB: Yeah. It’ll take a million and a half– I’m looking for a million and a half to $2 million in seed-stage funding.
    CS: No, no, no, no, no.
    AB: Yeah.
    CS: You were looking for a very specific amount of money.
    AB: I’m looking for– [LAUGHS NERVOUSLY]

    Finally, Chris decides he’s just going to show Alex how to pitch his idea and he very masterfully riffs a confident and coherent bit of persuasion. It’s certainly worth listening to, but here’s the excerpt from the transcript.

    Hey, look, can I get two minutes from you? So here’s the thing. You probably know me, producer of This American Life, been doing it for 15 years. You know it’s the most successful radio show, top of the podcasts in iTunes, et cetera.

    So here’s the thing. I realize there’s a hunger for this kind of content out there and there’s none of this [BLEEP]. It’s just a bunch of jerk [BLEEP] podcasts. Nothing’s out there.

    Advertisers are dying for it. Users are dying for it. And if you look at the macro environment, we’re seeing more and more podcast integrations into cars. People want this content. It’s a whole new button in the latest version of iOS.

    So here’s the thing. Nobody else can make this [BLEEP]. I know how to make it better than anybody else in the world. And so I’ve already identified a few key areas where I know there’s hunger for the podcast. We’ve got the subject matter. We’re going to launch this [BLEEP]. I know there’s advertisers who want to get involved with it.

    But here’s the unfair advantage I have. Because of what I’ve done in my past careers with This American Life and with Planet Money, people are actually willing to just straight-up pay for this stuff. And I’m not just talking about traditional subscriptions. I’m talking– we did this T-shirt experiment at Planet Money where we got $600,000 coming in, where people actually gave us money to buy a t-shirt with our logo on it as part of the content. It was integrated directly. And I know we can replicate that across these other platforms.

    So here’s what we’re doing. We’re putting together a million and a half dollars. That’s going to buy us three, four guys who are going to launch these three podcasts in the next 12 months. We think very easily we could get to 300,000, 400,000 net subscribers across the whole thing.

    With CPMs where they are in this market right now, I know on advertising alone, we could get to break even. But as we do more of this integration, we get people texting in to donate to this stuff, buying some of this product, doing some of these integrated episodes, I know that we’re going to have on our hands here something that will ultimately scale to be a network of 12, 15 podcasts. The audience is there. They want it. Nobody else can do it like we can. Are you in?

    It’s so painful to hear Alex stumble and when Chris takes over, I felt a sense of relief and a certain excitement, to hear an idea presented in a way that was designed to engage and persuade. This is a valuable skill in many aspects of professional life, especially when we’re in the business of sharing ideas. The superlative example in this podcast is quite inspiring.

    The relevant section starts at 19:21 in the embedded widget below.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I’m mostly over my jet lag and back to work after a couple of weeks in Europe. This week is all about following up: active proposals for this year and next, inquiries from teams looking to work together, deferred networking meetings and more. I’m excited, but the to-do list is a long one.
    • I’ve got a War Story almost ready to post, with just a bit more info required before I post it. Look for it in the next day or two!
    • Just announced – I’ll be speaking at the Warm Gun conference, December 4 in San Francisco.
    • Just announced #2 – I’ll be doing a workshop and a keynote presentation at Interaction South America, this November in Buenos Aires.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Roomba precursor offers discount just for telling a friend.
    • What we’re consuming: Ramen Dojo, East Side Gallery, Walker Evans, Stadt Land Food Festival.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup

    interviewing-users

    It’s been well over a year since Interviewing Users came out. Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this occasionally with accumulated updates. If you haven’t already, get your copy here! And if you have, it would be great if you wrote a brief review on Amazon here.

    The Book

    Reviews

    Interviews

    Presentations

    Other

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    People Have The Power, Says Tech

    I saw this BitTorrent billboard in San Francisco last weekend.
    bittorrent
    Its specific message is opaque, telling us only that people are greater than servers. Hopefully we knew that already, but now we know that BitTorrent knows that too, via this techno-corporate version of a spray-painted cri de coeur. (Looking online for the image, I found the above on BitTorrent’s blog where it may refer to some peer-to-peer alternative to peer-to-cloud product, but that’s as far as I got).

    The New York Times carried this full-page ad for PayPal yesterday.
    paypal
    Beginning with the constitutional We The People , the copy culminates with their new slogan, a graffiti-rendered People Rule.

    Maybe there are humanists at both these organizations who are indeed passionate about the people they are trying to serve, but it’s hard not to be cynical about these corporations co-opting the language and aesthetics of rebellion and independence to persuade us to adopt their particular technology product versus some other. More than anything, it looks as if the tech industry is trying (yet again) to humanize its image.

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s fantastic to have this week and next week without any travel.
    • Beyond just a general gathering of wits, I’m focused on laying the groundwork for a new program, details to be revealed down the road. As well, I’m doing networking meetings and phone calls with colleagues and conversations with prospective clients, laying groundwork for the short- and medium-term.
    • Also coming up in a couple of weeks, I’m doing a workshop about synthesizing field data at EuroIA in Brussels (to be followed by a fun side trip to Berlin).
    • Ten years gone: From September 2004 – Cream puff heaven.
    • What we’re consuming: PizzaHacker, the life cycle of a catchphrase, Go For Sisters, Agony Wagon.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I’m sitting in the airport lounge, waiting for my flight from Sydney back to San Francisco. It’s Tuesday here, and a holiday Monday in the US. I left my AirBnB in Hobart at 4:00 am to get a flight to Melbourne and then to Sydney. I’ll be spending a good couple of days just trying t recover from a wonderful trip – a great conference with a successful workshop on mindfulness and a well-received talk about the War Stories. A recording is coming soon.
    • One last reminder/request for comments (and votes) here for my proposed War Stories talk at SXSW.
    • This weekend, I’m doing a full-day workshop on user research at UX-STRAT in Boulder.
    • Ten years gone: From September 2004 – Why not adopt a Wild Horse or Burro?.
    • What we’re consuming: Picklemouse Corner, Lincoln’s Rock, Little Rivers Dark Lager, Museum of Old and New Art, hot chocolate, Julius Popp’s Bit.fall.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I can see my house from here!

    • I’m en route to Sydney for UX Australia. I’m very excited to be speaking about presence and mindfulness in my workshop The Designer is Present, and War Stories in my talk Epic Fail. The country is lovely, the people are excellent and the breakfasts are superb. I’ll be taking a day trip to the gorgeous Blue Mountains and then visiting Hobart in Tasmania very briefly, before heading home early next week.
    • Last week was Seattle, with Dan Szuc, where we did a workshop and a talk with IxDA Seattle. I spoke about soft skills and my slides are here.
    • Please comment (and vote) here for my proposed War Stories talk at SXSW.
    • After Australia, I’m doing a full-day workshop on user research at UX-STRAT in Boulder and a half-day workshop about synthesizing field data at EuroIA in Brussels. Spread the word as there is still room in both workshops.
    • Ten years gone: From August 2004 – SF discovers Nanaimo Bars, Verizon adds fees to see your bill, Team America and Thunderbirds.
    • What we’re consuming: dim sum, a big-ass warm cookie, Park Chalet, Austin Powers.

    Steve on Tuesday #TechHour

    I was on Kitchener’s 570 News technology radio program yesterday, invited by the great folks from Fluxible to speak very briefly about user research. I’m on about 15 minutes in. It starts with a rousing discussion of UX’s role, where companies are doing some unpleasant things in the name of “improving the user experience.”

    To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac).

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m taking today off to hang with my family visiting from Vancouver. But here’s the story for this week

    • Tomorrow I’m flying up to Seattle. I go from the airport directly to co-host a workshop with Dan Szuc and then share the stage with him for a talk the next night. The workshop is waitlisted but there may still be room for the talk. Details here. I’ll also have the chance to meet up with other friends and colleagues in town, and maybe grab a donut or two.
    • I’ll be making my first appearance on AM radio in decades, as part of Tuesday #TechHour, along with the folks from Fluxible. I’ll be talking about UX and interviewing users.
    • I’ve proposed a talk at SXSW about the War Stories (a talk I’ve given at CHIFOO and coming up at UX Australia). It’d be great if you could VOTE for it! Please!
    • This weekend I’m leaving for Sydney for UX Australia, where I’ll be leading The Designer is Present workshop and as I mentioned above, doing a presentation about the War Stories.
    • Also coming up in a few weeks, I’m doing a full-day workshop on user research at UX-STRAT in Boulder and a half-day workshop about synthesizing field data at EuroIA in Brussels (to be followed by a side trip to Berlin, just for fun).
    • Ten years gone: From August 2004 – Exorcist: The Beginning, The Hairiest Man in All of China.
    • What we’re consuming: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Happy Taco, Klean Kanteen, Lemos Farm.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from Southern California

    Overcoming bias and developing empathy

    Here are two interesting articles that feed right into the themes of my workshop, The Designer is Present, happening at the end of this month at UX Australia.

    An Appeal to Our Inner Judge is about how biases – judgements we make quickly about others – are natural but can be overcome. The excerpt below comes at the end and is applicable to many things, not the least of which is becoming a better user researcher.

    Recognize and accept that you have biases. Develop the capacity to observe yourself in action and to notice when certain people or circumstances serve as triggers.

    Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.

    No Time to Think considers our always-on culture and the reluctance we have (as a result?) to be in the off position and (ulp!) alone with our thoughts. In the quoted part below, from the end of the article, it makes the case for what I’m aiming for with the workshop; that presence and mindfulness are essential for the work that many of us are doing.

    Studies suggest that [a lack of presence] impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind. Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    Just another manic Monday!

    Don’t put your garbage here! Please!

    sleep-study

    I encountered this box recently at my local medical office. It’s a squat white bin with a wide black opening near the top. It looks a lot like a trash bin. Obviously I’m not the only person that reacted that way, because they’ve tried desperately and ineffectively (with EXTRA SIGNS as they so love to do in healthcare) to communicate that. There are three signs (see the orange pointer) telling you what the box is for (dropping off sleep study equipment) and two signs (the purple pointer) telling you what it’s not for (it’s not for garbage).

    That’s five different signs, only two of which even vaguely cohere with each other (the red tape), all requiring English. The net effect is chaotic. There’s no empathy here; each message acts as if it’s the only one, without awareness of the others.

    And still – the thing looks like a garbage bin! That message is loud and clear and no amount of signage will get around that. But the staff who have to pick the garbage out of there have no control over the bin’s design and so they are left with their default tool: signage.

    I wonder if they could do better if they went further, such as painting the white surface and/or the black flap to more strongly shift the meaning. Or by having a sleep study device (which comes in a little carrying case) or at least a large icon near the opening. And a garbage bin nearby. The tactic would be to communicate more visually and directly what stuff (sleep study devices, trash) goes where and not rely on words. Until then, they can expect more trash.

    See previously Signs to Override Human Nature? as well as other writing about post-design.

    Contextual research from a bygone era

    While listening to This American Life I learned about Roger Barker, a psych professor who turned the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa into a laboratory in the late 1940s.

    Barker was one of the most extraordinary — and least known — figures in the history of psychology. Shortly after he became chair of the KU psychology department in the late 1940s, he relocated his family to Oskaloosa to observe and gather data about the residents who lived in the town, population 725.

    At that time, psychological research was primarily done in laboratories. “It was the era of running rats through mazes to understand human behavior,” he said. “Barker said you won’t learn about any real human behavior in a laboratory. If psychologists want to understand human behavior in the real world, they must enter the real world.”

    More from this article

    Among Barker’s more unusual efforts was a 1951 paper he co-wrote under the title “One Boy’s Day.”

    It chronicled 14 hours in the life of a local boy with the pseudonym Raymond Birch . He was 7 when Raymond’s parents allowed the Midwest Psychological Field Station to record his every movement, according to Sabar’s book:

    7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, ‘Raymond, wake up. …’
    7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tugging and pulling it on his left foot. …
    7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg for his dog.

    The notations, archived at KU, track Raymond on his walk to school. He finds a baseball bat in the grass and swings it, accidentally striking a flagpole.

    “This made a wonderful, hollow noise,” researchers wrote, “so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.”

    Barker eschewed academic prose and wanted his charges to record any telling, prosaic detail.

    Through the 1950s, Oskaloosans grew accustomed to the sight of a child being shadowed by a note-scribbling adult. In published papers, this was the town of “Midwest,” in keeping with the scientific practice of shielding the identity of the subjects being examined.

    Barker’s work differed from other scholarly studies of places such as Muncie, Ind., (Middletown) and Candor, N.Y., (Springdale) in at least two ways.

    First, it focused less on class and politics and more on the relationships that made kids feel comfortable.

    Second, Barker’s family settled into Oskaloosa as a permanent home. Roger and Louise continued to live there until their deaths, Roger’s in 1990 at age 87 and Louise’s in 2009 at 102.

    While Barker used many methods, the part that struck me was his belief that simply documenting in exhaustive detail the ordinary activities throughout the day would somehow provide some additional insight. What would Barker have made of today’s era of personal analytics, data smog, quantified self and beyond?

    Smart stuff that seems dumb

    Watch and laugh as Stephen Colbert takes on the Vessyl smart cup. While the company’s video patiently explains the features, their benefits and the design rationale, Colbert calls out the ridiculous jargon (e.g,. “real-time” is not something novel for people in their daily lives which of course take place in real time) and – most devastatingly – the lack of a compelling use case.

    This is the barrier all Internet-of-Things things will have to overcome – so what? Why does it matter to me that I can do this with that and with my iPhone? This recent review of Belkin’s Smartphone-Controlled Crock-Pot – a product that is currently shipping from a major manufacturer – says that it” feels more like a solution in search of a problem.” While the crock-pot isn’t as ridiculous (as it’s presented without the overblown ego), it shows just how immature today’s products are.

    I recommend these companies aim their products at the hobbyist/maker users who will figure out what they might actually be good for and otherwise keep them in the lab until they are compelling to regular people.

    [Disclosure: I bought a smart light bulb via Kickstarter a while back. I can change it to any color or brightness using my iPhone. I also have to use the smartphone to turn it off and on (properly) which takes about 35 seconds. I just put it back in our “light bulbs” box in the closet.]

    What we eat and what we trash

    There’s no end of photography projects documenting an ordinary aspect of life, across diverse individuals, with the hope of throwing some light on who we are and how we live now. Or how others live. It’s art with the frisson of anthropology. Here’s another two in the same vein, each looking at different elements of our consumption.

    Dinner in NY by Miho Aikawa looks at people having dinner, in New York (hence the clever title).


    couch
    mushroom

    Also see Dinner in Tokyo and read more at Slate.

    With no nod to naturalism, Gregg Sega shoots portraits of people surrounded by 7 Days of Garbage.

    one
    two
    three

    Also see the fascinating project frogdesign did back in 2007, where staff blogged about the trash they found themselves accumulating throughout a regular week, and read more about Gregg Saga’s project at Slate.

    This Week @ Portigal

    A top of the week to everyone.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello y’all!

    The veneer of empathy

    From this article about newsroom practices at USA Today

    For Social Media Tuesdays, the staff must act as if there is no other way to get their articles except through sites likes Facebook and Reddit. That means USA Today’s journalists diligently place each of their famously punchy, graphic-rich stories onto various social media platforms. The purpose is to get them thinking like their readers, who increasingly get news through their Twitter feeds instead of the paper’s front page or home page.

    “Think like your reader” is a generous framing as it highlights empathy, and who wouldn’t want their company, their products, their staff to be more empathetic? In fact, trying to get attention through social media is an exercise in manipulation (see Harry McCracken’s analysis/history of the “restore your faith in humanity” flavor of linkbait). That’s not empathy.

    I’m not sure if this distortion was introduced by the reporter directly or whether they simply took what they were given at face value. Either way, that’s poor journalism (which is ironic in an article about the challenges facing the newspaper industry).

    Now, the idea of taking what you know how to do and setting it aside, as a creative constraint, is a fabulous approach, like something from Oblique Strategies (See more about Brian Eno, one of the creators of Oblique Strategies, in this great article about his approach to art and creativity).

    This Week @ Portigal

    Good Monday morning to all!

    Ugly Yet Yummy

    From the New York Times comes this story about Fruta Feia, or Ugly Fruit, a cooperative in Lisbon that has found opportunity through a combination of economic pressure and reframing conventional norms for food appearance.

    There is a market for fruits and vegetables deemed too ugly by government bureaucrats, supermarkets and other retailers to sell to their customers. A third of Portugal’s farming produce goes to waste because of the quality standards set by supermarkets and their consumers. Fruta Feia buys the unwanted food at about half the price at which producers sell it to supermarkets. It has quietly subverted fixed notions of what is beautiful, or at least edible.

    Take pictures (of food that) lasts longer

    burrata

    Insanely delicious burrata small plate, from Alden and Harlow in Cambridge, MA

    On one hand this is just another article about the hype that social media more easily enables, but on the other hand, it draws the (perhaps spurious) conclusion that since so many diners are taking pictures of restaurant food (and posting the pictures online), that restaurants are designing food for photographic appeal first and for taste a noticeable second.

    Cameras that can capture and transmit images in an instant are being used to photograph food that is meant to hang out indefinitely in suspended animation. Parceled out on a slate tile and pitilessly accessorized with leaves, crumbles, froths and sauces (set with emulsifiers so they never break down), even a charcoal-grilled steak would be as cold as a bologna sandwich. And this is what now passes for great, or at least significant, cooking. But great food is rarely static. As soon as it leaves the kitchen, it’s changing. In general, it’s getting worse. The soufflé is sinking. The arugula is wilting. The color of the steak excites us because it’s deeply browned, and we know that toasted, roasted, seared and caramelized surfaces mean deep flavors. But cameras hate brown food.

    Again, I’ll suggest this is not necessarily true, but it serves to remind us of unintended consequences, and at the scale of social media, we are seeing more of this special type of unintended consequences, where we create with the consumption in mind. The media consumption used to be a consequence, but perhaps it’s becoming the primary design target. As consumers, we learn how to participate in experiences so that they can be documented and shared (and earn those addictive likes) and as producers, those that create those experiences, we are learning how to stage them so that they can be more easily shared and earn addictive likes (and valuable cash rewards as well). Public speaking in easily-tweetable soundbites or food-plating in easily-instagrammable bites; either way it all feeds the beast.

    Kayfabe and narrative frameworks

    deadman

    “Original Deadman” t-shirt, street market, Bangkok, 2006

    I just learned the word Kayfabe. It describes the artificial story elements in professional wrestling. Beyond any discussion of the fights themselves (long dismissed as fake), kayfabe refers to the everything else that is fake, such as the feuds and rivalries. The word is probably a Pig Latin-esque version of “fake” (where by avoiding saying “fake” outright, it’s now a codeword to keep the fakery discussion only among those in the know).

    Here’s more, from the above Wikipedia article

    Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the “relationship” between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).

    Whoah. Layers of meaning and truth and piled onto other layers of implication and lies. My brain feels like I’ve been pummeled with a roll of quarters. Layered conceptual devices are challenging enough, but there’s also interest in breaking kayfabe

    To have certain non-fictional elements weaved into a storyline. They might be staged to look real, meaning that a real truth is being spoken, but are part of the script to make the rivalry look authentic or personal, and to make the feud much more interesting.

    That’s some efficient use of a narrative framework. When you go outside the framework, you still have story (and meaning).

    If you find this difficult to parse, join the team. At least having some labels (kayfabe, breaking kayfabe) make it easier to discuss.

    Related: Canon, the defined world (characters, events, history, etc.) of a story. Especially notable in science fiction, with complicated story lines, detail-oriented fans, and franchises with sequels and prequels galore. Previously about Star Trek’s sprawling fan-driven post-TOS canon, and the person hired by Lucasfilm to maintain continuity as the Star Wars canon guru.

    Related: Retcon is the portmanteau word for retroactive continuity, where a new story element is introduced that changes our understanding of previous facts. I would include It Was All A Dream (e.g., Dallas) as the laziest version. It can also be ironic as well as convenient, such as having Klingons in Star Trek explain their differing physical appearance over the various series (obviously the result of new production designers as well as budget and makeup technology) as part of the race’s own history. Many more examples are here.

    David’s War Story: Let it Bleed

    David Hoard is an interaction designer and here he shares his second story.

    Years ago we were re-designing a device to cool a patient’s blood during open heart surgery. This protects the body during the procedure. The client arranged for us to witness a heart operation, and we were pretty excited about that. My only concern was that I would faint from seeing blood.

    Research day came and we headed to a nearby hospital, prepared to be serious, professional researchers. A nurse helped us gown up and get ready. I was expecting the operating room to be a sober technical environment, and I saw that was true. The equipment was stainless steel; the walls and floor were blue-green tile. I anticipated that this would be an orderly collection of findings.

    But as soon as the surgery team started to come in, the vibe changed. The nurses chatted. The anesthesiologist joked. The patient, a man in his late fifties, was casually whisked in on a gurney.

    The nurses chatted with the patient as they put on the anesthesia mask and he drifted off to sleep. They slathered him with a brown antiseptic wash. It made his skin look like a basted turkey, and I thought “He’s just another piece of meat to them.”

    Then things really got started. The surgeon came in and straight away had the nurse hit the music. The sound of the Rolling Stones filled the O.R. The jokes and banter increased. The technician operating the blood cooling machines set to work and we tried to stay focused on that. But it was futile.

    When the patient was sufficiently chilled, they set to work with a powered saw and cut open his sternum. They were ripping a person’s body open, and they did it while talking about sport scores.

    They pried the chest cavity open and prepared for a bypass procedure. They took a vein from the man’s leg that would be used as a new artery for the heart. “How you doing back there?” came the question from the surgeon. “Good!” we replied, and I realized I wasn’t woozy at all. It was all too fascinating.

    It was at that moment that the most surprising thing happened. The surgeon said “How do you like this?” as he put his hand down in the chest and lifted the beating heart up and out. The music thumped, the heart pumped and the surgeon gave us a wicked grin. He knew full well he was holding the patient’s life in his hands. But at the same time, it was all in a days work for him. No big deal.

    After completing the bypass, they finished their work and stapled the man up. The surgeon cleaned up and zoomed off to something else important. Before we knew it our research session was over.

    As for our actual goal of observing blood-cooling machine, we did gather information about that, but the bigger lesson was in understanding the true nature of our users. We expected one-dimensional experts and we saw three-dimensional humans.

    My work on projects like this has taught me that experts are simply regular humans with a specialized job to do. Help them be smarter, help them be more successful. But don’t forget the human underneath that needs ease of learning, ease of use and help preventing errors. Humans don’t want to devote 100% of their brainpower to your product. They need to reserve some for cracking jokes and singing with the music.

    When your research goes in an unexpected direction, go with the flow and let the Stones play. You might learn something more meaningful than your original plan.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello, summer!

    Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run

    Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

    My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).

    The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.

    I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu or gari. For one thing, it was spicy as hell…so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.

    I had spotted guinea fowl wondering around the village. I asked my host family about it and they just laughed and said they are wild animals.

    So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.

    The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slip knot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.

    The string was about 50 feet long and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.

    The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.

    As dusk fell the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings and I reeled in the string, and soon had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.

    I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep him secure. It was too late to cook them so I ate my mind-alteringly hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.

    I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.

    That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.

    The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.

    We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”

    So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused as he had earlier told me they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor and my daughter will cook it for you.”

    So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with him. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.

    I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side-effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.

    Note: A similar recipe is here.

    Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research

    intercept

    I’ve always found intercepts – where researchers stop people on the street and ask them to participate in a quick study – to be challenging. (I also prefer to have longer interactions with people and even have them prepare for those research conversations, but that is a bit outside the point here). In Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research Carolyn Chandler breaks that challenge down into many pieces and addresses each of them. It’s a wonderful article because it gets deeply into the specifics and considers the mindset we bring to the activity and how to reframe that, in many different ways.

    Rejection is people’s number one fear when approaching strangers. Hearing no has always been difficult, whether it’s a polite no or an angry no followed by a rant. Either way, it stings. Your response to that sting, though, is what matters. How do you explain the rejection to yourself, and does your explanation help or hurt you?

    Martin Seligman, one of the originators of positive psychology, conducted a study in the ’70s that gives insight into the types of mindsets that make people feel helpless. Seligman found that those who exhibit long-term “learned helplessness” tend to view negative events as being personal, pervasive and permanent. In other words, if a person is rejected, they might rationalize that the rejection is a result of their own failing, that everyone else is likely to reject them as well, and that they can do nothing to lessen the likelihood of rejection.

    When you prepare to approach someone, consider instead that, if they say no, they aren’t really rejecting you, but rather rejecting your request. It’s not personal. Maybe they’re in the middle of something, or maybe they’re just not in the mood to talk. The rejection is fleeting, and the next person might be perfectly happy to participate.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’ve been on the road for the last four weeks and am pretty happy to be around for the next few weeks.

    • Last week with the Grand Rapids IxDA was great. We had a really exciting workshop about developing soft skills. You can see the slides here and the video here (it starts around 30:00).
    • I’m wrapping up the first draft of a strategic plan for a client, looking at how they can incorporate insights into their next iteration of their offerings.
    • I’m looking for some spare cycles to go through a few War Stories that have come in recently. Keep your eyes open and let me know if you have your own story to share!
    • Ten years gone: From June 2004 – $300 toasters.
    • What we’re consuming: The Master, MadCap Coffee, Grand Rapids Brewing Company, onion-rings-on-a-stick.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from the road!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Well a good day to you all! I’ve been home for about a week and now it’s time to hit the road again!

    Carol’s War Story: Driving Force

    Carol Rossi is the senior director of user experience research at edmunds.com.

    Since Edmunds.com is an auto website we spend a lot of time hearing about how people shop for cars. A couple of years ago we ran a shop-along study where we conducted in-home interviews to both understand car shopping behavior and simultaneously screen people we may want to go with on test drives to dealerships. I always take someone else with me when running interviews – a designer, product manager, exec, etc. – so they get first-hand exposure to real car shoppers.

    This time I had the head of editorial with me. The Edmunds editorial team has a long-term fleet of cars so they can write about car ownership. My colleague tells me that he’ll drive and we’ll take one of the fleet cars. We meet in the lobby and he walks us over to a $100,000 red BMW. Not what I typically show up in to interview somebody who is probably shopping for a Honda.

    The interview is in Hollywood and although it’s only 10 miles from our office this is LA so we drive up Santa Monica Blvd for like an hour. We find the address and it’s not in the best part of Hollywood. There we are with this six-figure car. Eventually we find a parking spot that looks relatively safe and walk to the building.

    We use the callbox and are buzzed into the building. We look for the apartment and realize it’s in the basement. We’re greeted by our interviewee, a middle-aged guy who’s described on the screener as a self-employed writer (like much of the population of Hollywood). The apartment is the tiniest living space. It really looked more like a one-car garage. The air was stuffy, there was a unique odor that was somewhere between musty and dusty, there were no windows open and no A/C, with carpet that had maybe never been cleaned. I started to hope the allergy attack I was sure was coming happened after we were finished. The apartment was overstuffed with piles of papers (screenplays?), VHS tapes, and posters of independent movies (including one with a woman in bondage gear who we later discover is his wife). Although we’d normally want to capture anything descriptive of the scene, to avoid distracting the product team who would watch the video later we had to position the camera to keep the poster out of the shot.

    We’re chatting and after a few minutes our interviewee’s 35-year old wife comes out with a baby. The wife is some kind of Hungarian model (think of a European version of Gisele Bündchen). The guy turned out to be really nice, educated and articulate, but also clearly not at all someone likely to test drive a car at a dealership. Basically he hates cars, rides his bike everywhere, is trying to get off the grid but needs a car now that there’s a baby, and says he’ll buy some used car that’s parked on the street with a sign in the window.

    Was this interview all for naught? From the first moment through the end I wasn’t sure. You always learn something new, so even though this guy did not meet our criteria for people likely to buy a car at a dealership we certainly got exposure to a type of shopper we knew theoretically existed but hadn’t yet encountered (“the eccentric car hater”).

    I’ve seen homes like this (and worse) but after the interview we walked outside and my colleague couldn’t unload fast enough. He’d never seen a living situation like that. In rapid succession he declared (out of concern for our safety) “When we first walked in I thought it was a trap – I was looking for a way out” but then (out of concern for the child’s health) repeated several times “They have a baby in there!!” And then he began to express his concern for my safety “Do you go on these interviews alone?…You take a guy with you, right?”

    After this emotional decompression, we jumped back into the ostentatious Beemer and drove down Santa Monica Blvd., away from the unknown of the ethnographer’s life to the predictable comfort of our office…until the next interview.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy Monday from the road.

    • Today and tomorrow I’m in Cambridge meeting with stakeholders. I’ve really enjoyed my initial conversations with this group and imagine I’ll be learning a huge amount about their objectives and their cultural and technical barriers.
    • There are still tickets for our June 20th in Brooklyn. It’s going to be an interactive session about Soft Skills for Design and Innovation. Come on down!
    • June 24th in Grand Rapids, the IxDA chapter will be hosting me for a very similar session (with a slightly catchier title): Soft Skills are Hard. Looking forward to it!
    • Coming later this week is another War Story, now in near-final draft form. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please let me know!
    • Ten years gone: From June 2004 – The truth about toast, Yahoo’s storage error (also here).
    • What we’re consuming: Multnomah Falls, Cocodonuts, Tasty n Alder, Powell’s City of Books, The Americans.

    Young students do “fieldwork” to learn about others

    In For Lessons About Class, a Field Trip Takes Students Home very young children are exposed to the homes and possessions of others. The thrust seems to be about class, but to me it seems like establishing an early model for empathy as well. The notion that other people are different from you seems foundational and it’s exciting to see this being addressed experientially. Check out the slideshow for the worksheets and debrief sessions!

    Some of us have more toys and bigger homes than others. We all have a lot in common, but there are certain things that make us unique, too. Let’s talk about those things and celebrate them, even. This is not standard prekindergarten curricular fare, but it’s part of what the 4- and 5-year-olds at the Manhattan Country School learn by visiting one another’s homes during the school day. These are no mere play dates though; it’s more like Ethnography 101. Do classmates take the bus to school or walk? What neighborhood do they live in? What do they have in their homes? Over the last several weeks, I tagged along to find out. The progressive private school considers the visits to be one of the most radical things it does. “We knew we needed to talk about social class,” said Lois Gelernt, the teacher who came up with the idea. “It was opening up a can of worms, but if we were never going to talk about who we are and where we come from, the sense of community wasn’t going to be there.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s June! For me, June is travel month…

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello to a short week.

    Rachel’s War Story: Research, in Sickness and in Health

    Rachel Shadoan is co-founder of Akashic Labs, a research consultancy that leverages hybrid methodologies to create rich and accurate portraits of users.

    It was my first field assignment out of school. Okay, technically it wasn’t my assignment–a contractor would be conducting the interviews, and I would be along to observe and record. But I’d spent the previous two years and six months in a lab writing code, so I would take what I could get. To say that I was excited would be an understatement. I was stoked.

    Plus, I’d get to fly to California! I’d be on an honest-to-goodness business trip! It was going to be great.

    It certainly star