Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries Blog

User Research War Stories

Posts written by Steve Portigal

  • Video and slides from my O’Reilly Design war stories talk

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    Last month I spoke at the O’Reilly Design Conference about user research war stories. The video is now online and I’ve also embedded it below.

    Here are the slides

    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 Young Men Of Najafgarh: A User Research War Story by Devika Ganapathy

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    Devika Ganapathy is a design researcher and the founder of Anagram Research, a design research and usability consultancy located in Bangalore, India.

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

    Last year, I was in Delhi doing fieldwork about a smartphone news app. The primary users for this study were male college students in their early 20s, who regularly read English news on their smartphones.

    One of the participants scheduled for an interview lived in Najafgarh, a place I did not know much about. I checked on Google and what I found was not encouraging: it was more than an hour away from my hotel, near the Delhi-Haryana border (possibly even longer with traffic); It was also home to the Indian capital’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain!

    Meanwhile, the clients who were to have accompanied me on the interview dropped out at the last minute. I was apprehensive about travelling to Najafgarh and conducting the interview on my own. The state of Haryana is notorious for being lawless and is known to be particularly unsafe for women. Men from Haryana are stereotyped as aggressive and misogynistic. I wasn’t sure if they would be comfortable being interviewed by a lone woman. Moreover, the village of Dichaon where my participant lived is infamous for its ongoing gang wars.

    Despite these initial concerns, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Realistically, how unsafe could a pre-arranged hour-long meeting be? At the worst, I thought that it might be a challenging interview to conduct, but felt I would be able to manage.

    Driving into Najafgarh, we passed a dead cow lying on some rubbish on the side of the road. The city looked markedly different from urban Delhi – all the women I saw on the road were traditionally dressed, scooters and public transport prevailed rather than cars, and all vehicles on the roads were driven by men.

    It was difficult to find the participant’s home, though I was on the phone with him, getting directions. There were hardly any significant landmarks to guide us. Eventually, my participant asked me to park near a huge open sewage drain – He would come and find me.

    My heart sank as a particularly scruffy looking young man approached the car. He confirmed that I was the person he was looking for, and got into the front seat to direct the driver to his home. We meandered our way through narrow roads and a crowded marketplace and eventually reached our destination.

    His home was a multi-story building in the midst of commercial establishments; So narrow that there was only about 1 room on each floor. The steep staircase was cemented but not tiled, it didn’t have any railings.

    As I followed him up to the third floor I wondered if I was being foolhardy going into his house alone. Perhaps I should have asked my driver to accompany me? And even worse, I was skeptical that this guy read English news on his smartphone!

    We finally reached the top, and the room did nothing to reassure me. There were a number of rough wooden benches (typical to Indian government schools) placed in rows. Sitting there waiting for us was a very snazzy young man, with a prominent pompadour and reflective sun glasses! He greeted me with a cheery “Hi Ma’am!”

    I had to now quickly decide who to interview. The first young man was the one we had originally screened and recruited. He did not seem promising: he was very quiet, his English was sketchy and I doubted that he read English news on the phone.

    On the other hand, the snazzy young man spoke good English and possibly read English news. But I wasn’t certain he was a primary user or even genuinely interested in the topic since we hadn’t screened him.

    It turned out that they were cousins. When the snazzy one heard about the interview, it seemed that he decided his cousin was not cool enough to be interviewed. He said to me incredulously “Why would anyone want to talk to him when they could talk to me instead?”

    I decided to stick with the guy I had originally recruited, but told the snazzy cousin he could sit in and speak up if he had something interesting to add.

    This interview led to some of the richest insights for this study – Such as the aspirational aspects of reading English news, where reading local language news is seen as infra dig and can invite ridicule.

    The time I spent getting to know these young men also put all stereotypical thoughts I had about them to shame. I eventually learned that the room we were in was a classroom and that they worked with other young men to tutor school kids in their area. Throughout our interview, the guy I had recruited looked after his sister’s toddler son while she was busy with chores around the house. When I was done with the interview, they insisted on waiting with me on the road till my driver came to pick me up, pointing out that it was “not a good area” for women to stand on the road unaccompanied.

    This experience strongly reinforced the guidelines I always need to remind myself about, even after years of being a researcher: Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never be dismissive or judgmental. Openness can lead to the best insights.


    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.

    Video and slides from Interaction 17

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    Last month I spoke at Interaction 17 about user research war stories. They’ve put the video online and I’ve also embedded it below.

    Here are the slides

    and a sketchnote by Chris Noessel

    The talk features special guests Elizabeth Allen and Noël Bankston.


    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 Well-lit Redhead: A User Research War Story by David Bacon

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    David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesStanding in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

    Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

    Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages. I started to become anxious, I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

    I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

    After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

    As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

    I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

    “Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

    When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

    I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.


    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.

    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.

    15 Questions with Steve Portigal – Rosenfeld Media

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    Author Steve Portigal posing with his book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

    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.

    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.