Author Archives: Steve Portigal

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

  • Ramping Up: A User Research War Story by Noël Bankston

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    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.


    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.

    Truck Stop: A User Research War Story by Elizabeth Allen

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    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.


    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.

    User Research War Story: Burns, Bandaids, and BBQ

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    The following story is featured in Steve Portigal’s book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries:  User Research War Stories. The book is a collection of 65 true stories about user research gone wrong and how researchers handle unexpected mishaps in the moment.


    Burns, Bandaids, and BBQ by Jenn Downs

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesI was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit, and 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 to get ready that morning, so we had a few extra minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the front desk of our hotel to see if they had a first aid kit. They did not. However, one of the hotel staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, some kind of Southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in old Southern food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I slathered the burn in mustard, hoping for the best. This remedy was not the best.

    Two seconds later, I was again whimpering in pain. I filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. This provided a tremendous amount of relief, while being completely impractical. So we sped out to find a drugstore. Being on the outskirts of a college town, there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did find a grocery store open before 8 a.m. I bought everything—burn cream, aloe, bandages, anything that looked like it might work, just in case. But nothing I purchased 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. My colleague and I found our way to our customer’s office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately, the front desk person at the office was keenly observant. Before I could even say a word, she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in this cup of water.

    I should mention that we worked for a really creative and weird company, and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional Southern company. We were feeling more than a little out of our element. I thought for a moment that the interview was going to be a disaster, but my thumb on ice was actually a nice icebreaker (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. We continued the interview as I was cleaning up the mess—calmly and confidently.

    In the end, it turned out to be a great interview and gave the guys at the company something to joke with us about over a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped in gauze and burn cream. My confidence through all the awkwardness ended up making 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.


    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.

    User Research War Story: A Sigh is Just a Sigh

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    The following story is featured in Steve Portigal’s book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries:  User Research War Stories. The book is a collection of 65 true stories about user research gone wrong – and how researchers handle unexpected mishaps in the moment.


    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesA Sigh is Just a Sigh by Susan Simon Daniels

    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 setup—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?”


    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.

    Empathy for the Fieldworker

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    Steve Baty asks us to consider the experience of the design researcher and the associated demands/challenges/joys

    As you sit in your office on Monday, I want you to take a moment to look around at the people next to you. Take a good look. Those people are going to need your support this week. You see, this week they’re going to go out into the world and spend hours listening to people. They’ll listen to people who were turned down for a loan; people who had an insurance claim rejected; people who didn’t receive a visa due to an administrative issue. There’ll be people frustrated by a supermarket self-checkout; people who bought something online and can’t figure out how to return it; people who won’t submit an expense claim at work because it’s just not worth the effort.

    It won’t be all gloom, of course. There’ll be people who are thrilled with the purchase of a new car and how well the whole process went. People who’ve just submitted an application to university, full of hope and excitement. People buying their new home, moving smoothly through the mortgage process.

    Your neighbour will listen attentively and with sensitivity. They’ll listen to try and understand. They’ll listen because they want to make things better. And that’s going to be exhausting for them. Whether the stories are good ones or not, it takes energy to listen. And because they’re who they are, they can’t help but open their hearts a little in the process. And some of that frustration, and some of that anger, and some of that excitement will seep in. It’s part of what we’re after, though, after all – some empathy to go with our new-found understanding…

    in memoriam: Steve Sato

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    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.

    Fire up the willing engine!

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    inspected by Lou

    I’m very excited to be working again with Rosenfeld Media (regrettably, I’m only including here a visual tribute to Lou, but the whole team is ace).

    I’ve been learning from other design researchers for my whole career, with a focus over the last few years in collecting war stories that bring to light the hilarious, upsetting, frustrating, disappointing, tragic, ugly, ironic but without exception the real and the human. That human-ness is what makes design research such a profound activity. You can’t escape the humanity (and why would you want to?) and it affects us and the work deeply.

    I relish the journey of further curating, examining, reflecting on and presenting those stories. I hope you’ll ride alongside, and maybe take the thing out for a spin yourself once we’re ready.

    Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14

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    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.

    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).
    [audio:Steve Portigal – ISA14 – Designing the Problem.mp3]

    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 (click for full size)
    10802698_389325447886104_12

    When your participant repels and scares you

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    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.