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

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

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

Session Notes

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

Evolution in User Research:

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

Impact of Remote User Interviews:

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

Ethical Implications in Research:

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

AI in User Research:

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

Most Profound Learning Experience:

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

Notable Quotes:

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


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