Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries Blog

User Research War Stories

Posts written by Steve Portigal

  • 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.

    What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

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    The other day I hopped the subway to the Soho Apple Store’s Genius Bar to get my dead iPhone fixed. Being suddenly phoneless is quite disorienting. Rather than folding myself over my little master as I normally would, I looked up and suddenly noticed… people! The sea of diversity you’d expect to see on a New York City subway. And as an old UXer, I was drawn to observe them, exercising dormant field research muscles.

    photo of subway riders
    photo by Susan Sermoneta: http://bit.ly/2g2hWJL

    That’s when I realized that I had a book with me: an advance copy of Steve Portigal’s new book, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

    I couldn’t have had a better companion for the rest of that ride. I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.

    But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. Let me explain why with a bit of my own publishing war story.

    When Steve came to me with the idea for his new book a year or so ago, he was concerned that I wouldn’t want to publish it. After he explained the idea, I wasn’t sure either. I generally hate compilations, as they tend to drown out the main author or editor’s voice. And how useful could a book of user research war stories really be?

    Then I thought some more. And I realized that some people have a knack for combing through ideas to arrive at a greater truth. Steve is one of those master synthesizers. I began to believe that if he dedicated the time to really digging into these stories, his sum would be greater than the parts.

    In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesSteve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people. Eleven chapters deliver eleven principles that you must know if you’re doing any kind of research:

    • Chapter 1: The Best Laid Plans
      Expect your plan to never to go according to plan.
    • Chapter 2: Those Exasperating Participants
      Be prepared for people to surprise (and sometimes frustrate) you.
    • Chapter 3: Control is an Illusion
      Be prepared for research contexts to surprise (and sometimes frustrate) you.
    • Chapter 4: Cracking The Code
      Be prepared to be challenged by differences in language and culture.
    • Chapter 5: Gross, Yet Strangely Compelling
      If you feel disgust when observing people, counter it with empathy.
    • Chapter 6: Not Safe For Work
      Be prepared for research contexts that are unpleasant and occasionally morally challenging.
    • Chapter 7: To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest
      Know your ethics and your obligations before you begin.
    • Chapter 8: The Perils of Fieldwork
      Be prepared for the discomfort and even danger you may face in the field.
    • Chapter 9: People Taking Care of People
      Be prepared for people’s lives and situations to pull you from observation to participation.
    • Chapter 10: Can’t Stop The Feeling
      Like it or not, your emotions will impact your research.
    • Chapter 11: The Myth of Objectivity
      And, like it or not, observing and learning from people will inevitably change you.

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesSo I’m glad to have my assumptions questioned about what books merit publication. Thanks for that, Steve—and, more importantly, for writing Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries and opening up a greater truth about field research.

    Enjoy!

    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.