Posts tagged “interview”

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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