Those familiar with Steve Portigal‘s work know him as a widely-regarded expert in user research. Steve has spent over 15 years interviewing hundreds of people, from families eating breakfast, to rock musicians and radiologists. His latest book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries gathers 65 stories about research gone wrong. Because when you research real people, life is often unpredictable (and enlightening).
We felt it fitting to turn the interview tables around and ask Steve a series of 15 questions to learn more about what makes his brain tick. Enjoy.
1. Where were you born?
Winnipeg, Manitoba. Best bagels in Canada. So suck it, Montreal! Well, I probably prefer Montreal now.
2. Where did you grow up?
Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Although it was a small town back then (I remember when we got our first McDonald’s), now it’s basically a suburb of Toronto.
3. Three words that describe your childhood?
Kenobi. Simmons. Cheech.
4. Three things you never leave home without?
Wallet, keys, and an appetite (for destruction, of course).
5. What’s the best designed product you’ve ever used?
Timbits®—Bite-sized morsels of traditional donuts.
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.
7. What other profession would you like to try if you could?
I’m fascinated by the television writer’s room. I haven’t come across any depictions of it that make it sound pleasant, but the collaborative creativity is fairly seductive. Otherwise, something about tending to the emotional needs of bugs.
8. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you in the field?
Once I was in the home of people who were relatives of Mayim Bialik, the girl who’d played “Blossom” on the TV show “Blossom.” I learned this because I saw her photo on the fridge. During the interview, I referred to her as “Blossom” and one of the family members pointedly corrected me, saying that her name is Mayim, and that Blossom was a character she played. The woman was right and I was being a bit insensitive. I think I was trying to be clever. Although this was after the show was off the air (Mayim was a college student at the time), that name and the essence of that character were strong cultural ideas. I mean, check out the show’s opening credits.
Okay, I’ve got one more. I was interviewing an African-American woman about music. She was really into artists and genres that are heavily African-American. As she told me about what she listens to, I kept looking over at this cool poster of Mick Jagger above her cabinet. When the interview was wrapping up, I tried too hard to find some common ground, musically, so I asked her, “Tell me about that poster of Mick Jagger?” She looked confused. It was Bob Marley. I DO know the difference between the two, but from where I was sitting, I swear he looked like Mick Jagger. I was embarrassed that my need to connect with her about “my” stuff looked like an inept and even-needier attempt to connect with her.
Takeway: Don’t mention pop culture figures by name?
9. What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you in the field?
Surprises are mostly internal moments, where I uncover a stub of my own judgment. As an example, I interviewed a man who was the head of an agency that shared his name. He was in his mid-60s with a head of white hair. I was steering the interview towards his past accomplishments, but he was so much more focused on his current goals. I realized I’d created my own narrative for this guy based on his age and that was completely inaccurate. So the surprise wasn’t about the fact that he was engaged and forward-looking. It was about the gap between my unspoken assumptions and the truth that unspooled before me. Honestly, the revealing of and subsequent dismantling of my assumptions is the most pleasurable part of doing fieldwork.
10. What’s the most heartwarming thing that’s happened to you in the field?
I tell this story in detail in my previous book, Interviewing Users. It involves a home interview where the participants were two young men still living at home, who hadn’t told their parents we were showing up for breakfast. But they wouldn’t speak in words and unwilling to talk with us. The parents were unsurprisingly hostile about our presence. Sitting in their kitchen, the mother (who we eventually pivoted to for the interview) told us that few people are welcomed into their house and that food is a carrier of meaning for their family and is not for strangers. We managed to have an incredible interview with her and her husband, after navigating extreme awkwardness and ambiguous permissions. When wrapping up, she told us, “No one comes here and doesn’t get food,” and made us some fried bread, fresh and hot. Given the horrible start, success was likely going to be not failing, at best. But instead, we ended up receiving her kindness and appreciation.
11. Tell us something people don’t know about the making of this book.
“Steve Portigal” is the pseudonym for an anonymous collective of heartists, Burning Man exonerees, and professional home stagers.
12. Which stories in the book did you personally learn the most from?
Oh, come on. I love all my children equally! The value of any story is most revealed when it’s considered in the aggregate. I learned from the process of analyzing and synthesizing the stories in order to create the book.
13. If someone is feeling burnt out on research, what story would you recommend they read from your book as a pick-me-up?
If you’re really burnt out on research, maybe go read about someone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? If you aren’t quite at that stage, then maybe Susan Simon Daniels’ story “A Sigh Is Just a Sigh” which is touching as hell, or Jenn Downs’ hilarious (and slightly Bombeckian) “Burns, Bandages, and BBQ.”
14. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger researcher self?
Don’t worry…someday there will be more researchers than you can imagine…and the demand for researchers will be more than that community can provide.
15. When you’re 90 and look back on your life, what would you like to be able to say to yourself?
“I still remember eating the last panda. Gosh, that was tasty!”
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research: Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.
The Product Management + User Experience virtual conference program is live! Thanks to the 150+ people who sent in feedback to help inform the final program content. Our six speakers will tackle your most top of mind questions. Register yourself or your whole team so you can better tap product management to design successful products.
The Program Lineup
Good to Great
The market competition is fierce these days. Users can choose from thousands of apps and products. So what questions do you need to ask to make well-designed products that are widely adopted in the world? Marty Cagan will share insights on how to smartly use design and product management to make and launch successful products.
Balancing Continuous Discovery and Delivery
Many product design teams struggle to balance research and discovery with production. How do you cross this imaginary line? Jeff Patton will help you identify a clear set of measures to improve this balance. By incorporating discovery in ways that are lean and meaningful, you can take advantage of missed opportunities and improve product performance.
Whose Job Is It?
When designers and managers are too constrained by title, talented people get underutilized. And in turn, the product suffers. Laura Klein knows a better way. By organizing work around people’s strengths, everybody can deliver value to the customer. Laura shares this exciting line of thinking that you can use to transform your own team’s work.
There is No Such Thing As UX Strategy. There is Only Product Strategy.
Most companies have yet to realize that UX strategy and product strategy are the same thing. By focusing too much on differences, you create silos and impede collaboration. And ultimately, miss important opportunities in the market. Jeff Gothelf will share new ways designers and product managers can rethink this relationship. And tap the best thinking from each approach.
UX <3 PM: 6 Ways To Learn Better Together
Designers and managers can work at cross-purposes because each can so easily lose sight of the other’s unique value. Tomer Sharon will elaborate on how to tap the rare gifts designers and product managers offer each other. And how to articulate an agenda that brings them together after all.
Get to Radical Focus with OKRs
Few things rally an organization to life like a monumental goal. But it has to be well considered and clearly delineated. Christina Wodtke will share the advantages of using objectives and key results (OKRs) to create a high level of zeal and discipline for your entire organization.
Taking the Next Step
If you’re ready to improve collaboration between your designers and product managers, join us on February 3! Hear from these six thought leaders from anywhere in the world. You can use this day as an opportunity for your teams to break silos and learn together. Both individual and meeting rooms ticket give you access to unlimited replays and surprise perks. Register now.
It’s one thing to announce you’ll start conducting lean user research and another thing to do it. How do you start when you’re a tiny four-person team juggling three unique lines of business?
We poured our energy into drafting a research roadmap. It was ambitious and read like a thick, spiral-bound menu from the Cheesecake Factory. A buffet of enticing research techniques. Mental models, ethnographic studies, journey maps, interviews, surveys and Big Data. But face it: small businesses like ours don’t have the resources to apply them all. So Lou and Elaine suggested we tap our deep bench of consultants for advice. Cut out the cheesecake, go straight to the meat.
We asked our experts a question: how can we glean insights without investing a lot of time or money? Here are quick takeaways I gained from the six who answered the call.
1. Know the research question before you start.
Curb the temptation to tackle everything at once. Choose the one burning question you most want to answer then plan a short sprint no longer than 2-3 weeks long. By keeping your sprints short and focused, you obtain quick, actionable insights. You avoid burnout and enable repeatable research.
– From Caroline Jarrett, form design and survey guru
2. Don’t fish with a hammer.
Tools can be shiny and sexy but choose the one(s) that will help you answer the research question. For example, mental models are most useful when you plan to pivot strategies or have a known blind spot.
3. Tap asynchronous tools. Or a few volunteers.
Asynchronous tools. Small teams can extend their capacity by using asynchronous tools to gather customer input. Be sure to pick the right tool for the job. For example, a service like Usertesting.com can help you validate usability of task-based actions.
Volunteers. Find interns or volunteers within your organization (or even your customer base) who are passionate about the topic to add brains and elbow grease to your research project.
– From Leah Buley, author of UX Team of One
4. Develop an efficient and effective interview plan.
Interviews. You don’t necessarily need to interview a lot of people. Once you start to hear a pattern in people’s answers, you can stop.
Synthesis. Immediately after each interview, jot down your top 5 takeaways. Iterate your hypothesis as you go. When it’s time to synthesize listen to recordings or pay a transcription service.
– From Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users
5. Make a quick and dirty customer story with what you know.
Traditional personas can take weeks or months to research and develop. Meanwhile a customer story, like a Buyer Legend, takes a few hours. It’s written from what you already know about your users and revised as you collect insights. This post shows you how to write your own.
– From Jeff Eisenberg, co-author of Buyer Legends: The Executive’s Storytelling Guide
6. Segment around behavior, not demographics.
Indi Young and Jeff Eisenberg took issue with our audience segments because they focused on demographics. Forget job titles, years of UX experience, gender, they said. Instead, try building segments around a commonly shared behavior or intention.
7. Tell an insights story.
After you gather insights, consider crafting a compelling story, rather than a report about what you learned from your audience. Stories build a foundation of insight that is easier to remember than a report. It also helps build connections with users as people, not numbers.
– From Boon Sheridan, content strategist and IA provocateur
With plenty of food for thought, it’s time to adjust our approach. Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll reveal the burning question we chose, and cover the highs and lows of conducting our first People Project sprint.
What lean methods have worked well for you? What are we missing?
What does it take to build incredible products? Many UXers have experienced the highs and lows of working hard on a product fueled by a great idea only to watch it fall short of users’ expectations at launch. This all-too-common story has sent UX people delving into the world of product management, and vice versa.
That’s why we’ve signed Laura Klein, author of O’Reilly’s UX for Lean Startups, to write Build Better Products (due out in 2016). Laura will take you step-by-step through the process of building products that people truly love to use.
Why we’re excited about this book:
- This might be the first product management handbook that pulls it all together for UXers and product managers alike.
- Laura will share expertise that comes from helping many Silicon Valley startups fine tune their product development processes.
- Laura is crazy funny and insightful—you’ll laugh while you learn practical methods for building products that live up to what users need and want.
- Not every company can afford to hire a coach like Laura. So we figured we’d bring Laura to you.
She’s pretty driven to write this book. Read why.
What do you most want to know about building better products? Let Laura know by commenting below…
Are people getting in the way of the work you want to get done? No matter how talented a designer you are, if you can’t communicate or collaborate effectively with others, people can’t see the brilliance of your ideas.
Many of us (secretly) feel unprepared to deal with difficult bosses, colleagues and clients. And school didn’t teach us the skills we needed to influence people, lead teams, or resolve conflict. It turns out that “soft” skills are more important than we thought.
We’re thrilled to bring you a one-day virtual conference People Skills for UX this May 27 to take the stress out of working with people. Come boost your “soft” skills in four critical areas: leadership, listening, negotiation, and facilitation.
4 Reasons to Sign Up for People Skills for UX
- Gain strategies to help you be more influential at work
- Learn from a unique lineup of experts including: a Hollywood insider, several TED speakers, and design leaders you know and respect
- Ask the experts the burning questions that are keeping you up at night
- No travel required—learn from the comfort of your desk—and get unlimited replays
The Expert Lineup
- Leadership: Kim Goodwin (VP of UX, PatientsLikeMe) & Jennifer Pahlka (Founder, Code for America)
- Listening: Steve Portigal (Portigal Consulting) & Julian Treasure (Founder, The Sound Agency)
- Negotiation: Harry Max (VP of Product, All Clear ID) & Michelle Katz (Former VP, Legal Universal Studios)
- Facilitation: Kevin Hoffman (Founder, Seven Heads Design) & David Sibbet (Founder, The Grove Consultants)
Reserve A Seat
See you there!