Posts tagged “interviewing users”

Learn interviewing techniques from Steve in New York in March

As part of the Advancing Research conference, I’ll be teaching a full-day workshop (registration info here) on March 27th.

Interviewing is undeniably one of the most valuable and commonly used user research tools. Yet it’s often not used well, because:

  • It’s based on skills we think we have (talking and even listening)
  • It’s not taught or reflected on, and
  • People tend to “wing it” rather than develop their skills.

Results may be inaccurate or reveal nothing new, suggesting the wrong design or business responses, or they may miss the crucial nuance that points to innovative breakthrough opportunities.

In this highly interactive workshop, Steve Portigal will teach you crucial techniques for successful user research, and give you an opportunity to practice and reflect in a supportive environment.

Target Audience
This workshop will be valuable to anyone who is using user research to inform the decisions their organizations make. This includes both people with “researcher” in their job description, as well as designers, engineers, and product managers (also known as “People Who Do Research.”) If you’re new to interviewing people, you’ll learn the fundamentals; if you’ve been doing research for a while you’ll benefit from the opportunity to reflect on and improve your own practice.

It’s been a few years since I’ve done an in-person workshop open the public on the east coast. Please pass this along to your friends and colleagues who might benefit!

Listen to Steve on the Product Manager podcast

As part of the ‘book tour’ for second edition of Interviewing Users, I was interviewed by Hannah Clark for the Product Manager podcast, for an episode titled “How To Master User Interviews To Build More Lovable Products.

You can find our 40-minute conversation (and a transcript) on the episode page and also embedded below.


I like Hannah’s preface:

Before we dive in, I just want to say that what you’re about to hear was the most meta conversation we’ve ever had on this show. I’m not talking about Meta the company. I’m talking like this was the Inception edition of the Product Manager Podcast. In this episode, I got to interview a user interview expert about how to interview better while simultaneously getting better at interviewing in real time.

Yes, I am still excited about it. And not because of how helpful it was for me, but because the next half hour or so is going to make a noticeable difference in how you conduct user interviews.

Highlights

Structuring Questions for Insightful Answers

  • The importance of structuring questions before silence is discussed, with an emphasis on the impact of question formulation on user feedback.
  • Steve suggests having various ways to ask a question in the interviewer’s toolkit, such as comparisons, specific examples, and projections into the future.
  • Examples of question structures are provided, including comparing across time, asking about colleagues or bosses, exploring exceptions, and delving into childhood influences.
  • The goal is to triangulate around the interviewee’s mental models, helping them articulate the underlying reasons behind their behaviors.
  • Interviewers should adapt their questioning techniques to uncover deeper insights, recognizing that individuals might not be consciously aware of the roots of their choices.

Addressing Bias in User Interviews

  • Steve encourages self-forgiveness, recognizing that cognitive biases are inherent in human thinking.
  • Confirmation bias, where interviewers hear what they expect, is highlighted as a challenge. Steve suggests pre-research discussions about assumptions to make biases explicit.
  • Steve shares a personal story of overcoming his own ageism bias during an interview with a small business founder. He realizes his preconceived judgments were incorrect, leading to self-reflection and redirecting questions.
  • Steve emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing biases during interviews, with the goal of understanding participants more deeply.

Listen to Steve on the One Knight In Product podcast

One Knight in Product, Episode 193
Making Sure You Make an Impact through User Research
Steve Portigal
User Research Consultant & Author
"Interviewing Users"

Thanks to Jason Knight for having me on the One Knight In Produc podcast.

You can listen to our 45-minute conversation (and see links to podcast services) on the episode page. The audio is also embedded below:


Episode highlights

1. Some people are still wary of user research, or think they don’t need it, but it remains as important as ever

It can be tempting for founders to think they know exactly what they need, rely on feedback from customer-facing teams, or not speak to anyone until they’ve already built the thing they want to build. Feedback from sales teams and founders is an incredibly important vector, but should only be the start of the discussion never the end.

2. Continuous discovery and point-in-time research both have a place in a researcher’s armoury

There are methodological constraints to continuous research, alongside the difficulty of finding the time and buy-in to do it but, on the other hand, it can be incredibly impactful to have rapid research tightly coupled to the product team. On the other hand, well-planned up-front research can still help you to find truly disruptive insights for your company. Do both!

3. We all have cognitive biases – we should accept that and be honest with ourselves about their effects

People look at the word “bias” and worry about the negative connotations, but “bias” just represents how our brains are wired. Cognitive biases will affect how we interview people, and we should do our best to counteract their effect and improve on getting better (even if we’re not perfect).

4. The best research has a tangible impact rather than being research for research’s sake

It can be a heavy burden to bear if all of your well-planned and well-executed research ends up having no effect on decision-making at all. It’s important not to get downhearted, and work out ways to build actionable, accessible repositories to enable your stakeholders to make the best decisions possible.

5. There are a lot of similarities between good user research and improv

We don’t need to be able to create 45 minute plays off the cuff, and knowing when to stick to our interview plans and when to deviate from the script, enables us to get to the real generative insights that we need from our users and find out what we don’t know we don’t know.

Excerpt:

Sometimes we think that what we’re going to do in research is go ask people what features they want and then figure out somehow among these competing requests which ones to implement. And that’s not what interviewing users is about. It’s about actually finding a new interpretation, a new point of view, a new understanding, a larger framework that’s built up from all those things. And so, yeah, if people tell us what they want to tell us, they’re going to tell us what features they want. But we have other questions for them. How do you work? Why do you work that way? What are your tools you’re using? How has that changed? What has led to the definition of that as like a work process? How do you acquire new tools and technology? What’s been successful when you’ve rolled things out? What’s been a challenge when you’ve rolled things out?

A Zoom video still with Jason in a small corner giving a thumbs up while Steve is in the main window wearing headphones and a dark shirt holding up a copy of Interviewing Users

Listen to Steve on the UX Research Geeks podcast

I’m grateful to Tina Licková for hosting our great discussion on the UX Research Geeks podcast.

You can listen to our 40-minute conversation on the episode page, where you’ll also find a transcript.

It’s also on Spotify, Apple, and Google (and embedded below locally and from Spotify).


The trend of democratization in research implies more people will engage in it. My book aims to guide not just dedicated researchers but also those who incorporate research as part of their broader roles.
Excerpt:

It’s a messy human activity. It’s something that you can plan for, it’s something that you can prepare for, but will always, especially if done well, will always be surprising and unexpected and force you, I think in a good way, to be improvisational, to be responsive…I think that might be a negative to some people, that might be scary, but for me, it’s very joyful and creative and challenging. It’s always challenging. And I think that’s where we get all the great value out of research. It’s not, “What do you want? Thank you. I’ve got it.” It is meeting somebody where they are and trying to figure out how are you going to be with them?

About the Author/Doggie Diner

A man in jeans and a black t-shirt, with his arms spread, sits on top of a blue platform which is shared with a large cartoonish sculpture of a reddish dog wearing a yellow bow tie and a chef hat and a blue checked shirt.

Thanks to Alisa Weinstein for taking this great photo of me. I used this for the About the Author page in Interviewing Users. Also thanks to Kim Goodwin for (earnestly? teasingly? does it matter?) suggesting on Instagram that I use this as my author photo. Inspiring!

The SF Chron provides some context

The three Doggie Diner dog heads that once loomed over outlets of the long-defunct Bay Area fast food chain. The 7-foot fiberglass doggie heads, each weighing 600 pounds and sporting a chef’s hat and a bowtie, are camped out on a stretch of car-free JFK between Conservatory Drive West and 6th Avenue. The dachshund heads with their long snouts, sit atop square podiums with a couple of Adirondack chairs in front…

“If you rub one of their noses, you get one week’s good luck,” said John Law, a San Franciscan who considers himself the steward of three cartoonish canine heads. The disembodied heads have been painstakingly restored and repainted thanks to a Kickstarter campaign seven years ago that raised thousands to save the doggie heads, said Law. He frequently hauls the heads around San Francisco and the Bay Area to charity events, street fairs and art events.

Listen to Steve on the CXChronicles podcast


I had a great time speaking with Adrian Brady-Cesana on the CXChronicles podcast.

You can listen to our 40-minute conversation on the episode page, on YouTube, or embedded below, both as local file and via YouTube.

The Secret to Achieving Customer-Centric Excellence Revealed! 💥 Steve Portigal | CXC #215


We talked about:

  • Understanding the core of a user’s experience and how its originally designed
  • Investing in user research operations to help scale your business
  • Prioritizing what you need to learn about your users & how you can take action
  • Mapping the iceberg of your customer and user experience
  • Getting your team to prioritize the key CTAs that will drive innovation & growth

Excerpt:

One thing I’ve seen that to be really successful is when you pair up someone who’s great at research, which is ‘OK, I don’t know about this, I want you to explain it to me’ and someone who is great at the domain, whose job isn’t to ask questions but is to hear what doesn’t make sense about the technology or about the deployment or about the process, and that collaboration is really really sharp and has a great effect when you’re talking to customers and users. I think sometimes we’re nervous because, we want to be seen as credible, especially if it’s an actual customer. We ask for their time, we want to go talk to them…it can be really a really great triangle between, a user or customer who has who’s a practitioner of something very complex, and a person from the producer or, maker side of it, the company side, who knows the domain, and someone who knows how to listen and ask questions and follow up and facilitate this. When I see researchers getting immersed into a domain, they do build up some competency. But some of these things are decades of specificity and really kind of elusive stuff. Where there’s bandwidth for collaboration and you can bring in people with different perspectives, different domain and process expertise to create a great interview for the customer that you’re talking to. It’s a good experience to talk to a researcher and a domain expert, you can watch who they make eye contact with. I’ve had people even tell me, ‘Oh okay, you’re the question asker and you’re the person that knows that you’re the engineer.’ People can figure that out. Nobody’s pretending to be anything that they aren’t and it really can be very harmonious, but you have to create the bandwidth to support that collaboration on the team so everybody can work together to get the insights that we wanna get from the people we’re building for.

Listen to Steve on the Content Strategy Insights podcast

Thanks to Larry Swanson for having me on his Content Strategy Insights podcast.

You can listen to our 30-minute conversation (and find the transcript and various links to podcast services) on the episode page. Also, the audio is embedded below


The episode is also on YouTube (and embedded below)

Steve Portigal: Interviewing Users | Episode 167


We talked about:

  • my work at my UX research consultancy
  • the elements of a good interviewing mindset
    1. checking your own world view at the door
    2. embracing how others see the world
    3. building rapport
    4. listening
  • the difference between chatting and interviewing
  • how to stay mindful as you transition from one mode of communication to another, and the need to consciously cultivate new rituals in the modern, non-stop Zoom world
  • how to keep the business intent of your interviewing activities in mind, in particular the relationship between the business opportunity at hand and the research-question planning that best aligns with it
  • how to kindly share with colleagues relevant new discoveries that emerge in your research work
  • how to balance the amount of domain knowledge you bring to an interviewing project
  • the importance of knowing and keeping in mind the scope and importance of documenting, analyzing, and synthesizing your interviews

Excerpt:

Chatting is, it’s a crutch. And I don’t mean that in an unkind way. If people haven’t spent time learning this and practicing it and reflecting on it, I think people go pretty far by being friendly and open and conversational, and I think that’s a good start. But in chatting, for example, we share about ourselves, “Oh, you like cats? Well, I also like cats and I have two cats at home and one is named Binky and one is named Winky.” That’s seen as, it’s a chatty rapport building technique. And I think that’s one I see people relying on and I don’t think they should ultimately, that the interview is about the other person and so if you’re new, you tend to think, “Oh, I can build rapport with you by showing you how I am like you.” “I like that too. I hate that too. Oh, that happened to me. My cousin also has that problem with Facebook,” whatever the thing is, you try to share something about yourself, but actually that takes focus away from the other person. So that embracing how they see the world means you want to spend time on them. So when someone says, “I have two cats,” you can say, “What are your cats’ names? When did you get them? Are cats part of the content that you share on social media?” If that was our topic. You can keep talking about the thing that they shared and not bring yourself into it. And you have permission not to talk about yourself and you have power to be still interested in their thing. And it actually is much more effective.

Kirkus Reviews on Interviewing Users, second edition


Kirkus Reviews just published a review of Interviewing Users, second edition. [You can purchase the book here].

An extraordinarily thorough and thoughtful introduction to the art of the research interview.

Portigal presents a comprehensive guide to conducting and analyzing user research interviews.

Conducting a professional interview, the author astutely observes, is not the same as casually “chatting”; in fact, a well-structured interview can be “fundamentally different” from an ordinary conversation. “Interviewing users involves a special set of skills. It takes work to develop these skills. The fact that it looks like an everyday act can actually make it harder to learn how to conduct a good interview because it’s easy to take false refuge in existing conversational approaches.” Portigal, who has 25 of years of experience as a researcher and consultant, rigorously anatomizes the chief structural elements of an interview—the formation of a plan, the interviews themselves, and the consequent analysis of the data yielded. The text covers a remarkable expanse of intellectual territory very concisely—the book is less than 300 pages long—especially considering that it includes guest essays from industry experts. With great clarity (the author never indulges gratuitously inaccessible jargon), Portigal walks readers through every constituent part of the interview process, from finding the participants to interpreting their answers. This is more than a technical field guide—the author deftly analyzes the human element of the interview as well, this “shared, unnatural experience” that can produce “something profoundly new” but can also be unsafe, awkward, and hostile. He details how to build a quick rapport with a stranger and empathetically encounter the interviewee as a “real live person in all their glorious complexity.” An effective interview requires more than a “toolkit” for asking questions—it demands a “way of being” that cultivates an undogmatic openness to others. While the focus of the book is on user research interviews, this guide will be helpful to anyone in a position to extract information from others in a professional environment.

An extraordinarily thorough and thoughtful introduction to the art of the research interview.

Second edition of Interviewing Users now available for pre-order

It’s been 10 years since I wrote Interviewing Users, and I’m thrilled to announce the second edition! It comes out October 17th and is available for pre-order, at a 15% discount.

In this new and updated edition of the acclaimed classic Interviewing Users, Steve Portigal quickly and effectively dispels the myth that interviewing is trivial. He shows how research studies and logistics can be used to determine concrete goals for a business and takes the reader on a detailed journey into the specifics of interviewing techniques, best practices, fieldwork, documentation, and how to make sense of uncovered data. Then Steve takes the process even further—showing the methods and details behind asking questions—from the words themselves to the interviewer’s actions and how they influence an interview. There is even a chapter on making sure that information gleaned from the research study is used by the business in such a way to make it impactful and worthwhile. Oh, and for good measure he throws in information about Research Operations.

Who Should Read This Book?

  • Anyone and everyone who is interested in finding out what makes their business tick, i.e., who their users are.
  • Anyone and everyone who wants to learn how to interview and listen to people.
  • Anyone and everyone, including CEOs, user researchers, designers, engineers, marketers, product managers, strategists, interviewers, and you.

Bonus: read Chapter 1 here.

A summary of Interviewing Users, in Portuguese

Aline Ferreira, a sociologist who is studying UX and UX research, read Interviewing Users and summarized it in Portuguese (Planejamento e boas práticas de entrevista: o que aprendi com “Interviewing Users”, de Steve Portigal or Planning and good interview practices: what I learned from “Interviewing Users”, by Steve Portigal).

Com uma linguagem simples e concisa, o livro de Portigal é excelente para o público iniciante em UX, assim como para os mais experientes.

O livro “Interviewing Users”, de Steve Portigal, conta com dicas práticas sobre como entrevistar usuários em profundidade. Ele é excelente especialmente para aqueles que não têm muita experiência. Contudo, eu não tenho nenhuma dúvida de que seja um livro que contribui também com profissionais mais experientes.

Read How To Talk To Strangers with Steve Portigal

A logo showing icons of two talk balloons, one has the three-dots indicating someone is typing. The title is How To Talk to Strangers, a conversation with Steve Portigal

Jennifer Rash interviewed me for DesignTalk, her blog.

I pulled out one part of our exchange, but there’s more and you should read the whole thing (it’s pretty short!):

What is your approach for discussing sensitive topics?
I can think of plenty of times where participants opened the door to an off-topic sensitive area (say, repeated, thinly-veiled references to being frustrated with a spouse) and I just left it alone, because it wasn’t germane to our focus. In general, It’s worth being clear with ourselves whether a topic might be uncomfortable for us or for our participants and not conflating the two. So I think there’s a combination of sensitivity for either party, and relevance that informs how if or how I proceed.

When we’re talking about sensitive topics, I’ll generally be neutral (maybe using body language to indicate I’m listening rather than an exclamation like “oh no!” that indicates I have my own emotions about what they’ve shared). My follow-ups may be neutral and direct (“What did you decide to do then?”) if I perceive my participant as comfortable, but if I’m going to be more cautious I can ask a projective question, where the question isn’t about them, but some other group of people.

Q: How have you seen other people in the community deal with that situation?
A: Well, when it happened to me, I decided to…

Making the question less direct sometimes prompts a response about them, but those cases, it was their choice to talk about themselves specifically rather than more broadly about other people.

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