Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries Blog

User Research War Stories

Posts written by Steve Portigal

  • When One Door Closes: A User Research War Story by Alexandra Wills

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    Alexandra Wills is an ethnographer working at Fuse by Cardinal Health, an innovation center in Columbus, Ohio. She told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

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    I’ll never forget when I did ethnographic research for a project aimed at helping a car manufacturer learn what Millennials with small children really needed.

    The project was hard. Taking on a project at the height of the Great Recession meant navigating a radical change in client engagement from what I had experienced since starting the work two years prior. “It’s Friday at 5 p.m. in Ohio and you want me in Los Angeles on Monday?” Okay. “We’re doing video diaries and in-home interviews and a post-interview ideation session with participants in two cities, all in two months?” Okay.

    Added to all that, I had a nine-month-old and simply didn’t want to leave her for days at a time. Over the past few months of work, I had already breast pumped on an airplane and in dirty airport bathrooms. I had already begged flight attendants and fast food workers for ice to put in the cooler carrying pouches of my “liquid gold.” Did I mention it was my birthday?

    At one point in the project, I was hanging out with a family in Austin who had a toddler. I knew nothing about toddlers. After all, I had a nine-month-old. Did I mention I am not a ‘kid person’?

    We had just returned from running errands in their car. As we got out of the car, they were showing me some specific details about the vehicle. They had a Honda Element – the car with the interesting doors that open and close like a book. I was paying close, close attention to the parents and I had no idea that the little kid was right near me. So I closed the door. Suddenly, we all heard the kid screaming! His parents rushed to his side and looked him over, examining his hands. All I could do was yell impulsively, “I didn’t do it!” I was horrified. I thought, “I hurt a child! This child! A participant’s child! Oh noooooo this is bad. How am I going to fix this? What am I going to tell Melinda (my boss)?” To this day I don’t know if his finger got caught in the door, or if me closing the door just scared him.

    There was no blood, no broken fingers. But inside, I wanted to die. I already felt plagued by my own mommy guilt and that feeling spread throughout my body like lava. So, not only did I feel like a horrible mom for leaving my kid, but here I was in Austin, making someone else’s kid cry. What a moment. Needless to say, any rapport I had developed in my time with the family evaporated in that instant.

    I stopped recording, stepped back, apologized to the mom and waited for the parents to finish calming down their kid. I waited for them to say, “This is over.” They didn’t. Miraculously, they continued the interview, even if I could feel all their judgment the entire time as we wrapped things up. “Maybe I didn’t traumatize this family,” I thought insecurely.

    The icing on the cake was that we used video to capture all our data, so not only did this happen, but my boss got to see the whole thing when she reviewed the video. Later in the project I mentioned the incident and she said, “Yeah I saw that.”


    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.

    From Moscow with Love: A User Research War Story by Joel Kashuba

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    Joel Kashuba has practiced design for nearly two decades, with a career spanning the practices of architecture, industrial design, branding, UX, and innovation consulting. He currently leads the Innovation & Design functions for Fifth Third Bank located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

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    While working for a major CPG company I was placed with a cross-functional innovation team assigned to write and vet concepts that would take a well-known women’s shaving brand into several other personal care categories. The focus was on serving the needs of young women in several BRIC countries. The theme we had been asked to unlock was “A Day at the Spa” – a theme the company had uncovered in earlier research within the United States and projected as a fruitful area to mine for opportunities and frame our expansion.

    Before going out into the field – specifically, to Moscow – the project team undertook countless hours of concept writing sessions, often with heavily resourced vendor partners. We created roughly 25 concepts, each taking unique inspiration from the theme “A Day at the Spa”. Armed with our concepts we set off to Russia and began collaborating with consumers in the field to vet each concept.

    By the noon on the first day, none of our concepts were resonating and we recognized our first challenge. The translator we had been assigned by a local agency was an older Russian gentleman who sounded much like a James Bond villain. As he readied each of our painstakingly word-smithed concepts, they each ended up sounding like the dastardly ideas of a dour old man who may like to cross-dress. To fix this, we recruited a spritely young woman who worked as an assistant concierge at our hotel to read the concepts. She was great! Several of our consumers even mentioned that she had the perfect voice for commercials in this category.

    Despite this change, our concepts still weren’t hitting the mark we were aiming for and we couldn’t figure out why. These concepts had been exceptionally well received in our early test back in the States – what was going on here in Moscow that made them such tankers?

    Finally, near the morning of day three, one of our consumers asked us plainly, “Why are you trying to make me feel old?”

    “Old?” we asked her with sincere confusion, “Can you say more? Is there something in the concepts that makes you feel old?”

    “Yes,” she quickly retorted, “you keep talking to me about spending a day at the spa.”

    “And what does that mean to you?” we had our translator ask her.

    She looked surprised and a little pissed off. She explained, “It means the place we send our grandmothers when they are too old to take care of in their homes. It’s the place people go before they die.”

    It hit us like a ton of bricks. In Russian culture, a “spa” is what we’d call a retirement home. As we had been pulling out concept after concept trying to get these young women to fall in love with our theme, all they saw was of tone-deaf Americans shoving the idea of products for a retirement home down their throats.

    We were horrified. We called off the rest of the day’s consumers and stayed up all night re-writing the concepts. The young concierge we had hired to translate became an adjunct team member. Constrained by time, we changed our strategy and turned consumer research into consumer co-creation. We had consumers work in teams to read and re-write the concepts, which were passed along to other teams of consumers to be refined. By the time we finished we had three great concepts that all resonated well.

    Coming back to our home base, we reflected on the experience as a team. What we had set out to do was valid, but how we remained nimble in the field is what made the clear difference in how we would found success.


    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.

    Baptism by Fire: A User Research War Story by Nadav Zohar

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    Nadav Zohar is a UX researcher at AEP in Columbus, OH.

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    My first ever user research project was for a healthcare app. Our users were nurses who work with poor and high-risk patients, often called “the under-served.” My supervisor and I had a reserved conference room at the client’s site, and our pre-scheduled users rotated in about one per hour. It was a grueling two days of nonstop interviews. For the first day I took notes while my supervisor moderated.

    On the second day, after he moderated the first couple of interviews, my supervisor turned to me and asked if I thought I was ready to take the lead on the next one. I said “Sure” so he handed me the discussion guide. In came our next user, a middle-aged nurse who was very sweet and eager to help us in any way she could. This was my very first user interview and I was ready for a clean, uneventful affair.

    As the questions on my discussion guide turned to the technological hurdles she encounters when helping her patients, her frustration mounted. At one point, while discussing how her technology failed to help her manage the stress of the enormous workload placed on her and her colleagues, she mentioned having lost a patient. I watched her relive that pain – she broke down and started sobbing. None of the other users we’d talked to had even come close to that kind of emotional response, even though some of them had lost patients too.

    Right then and there I learned there’s an awkward balance between not wanting to seem clinical and cold at that crucial moment, but still wanting to preserve an interviewee’s dignity: I figured weeping in front of strangers at work must be somewhat embarrassing. So I bowed my head and looked down at my notes, or my lap, or at nothing in particular, to give the crying nurse a bit of privacy. I waited a few sobs so it didn’t seem like I was trying to shut her up, and then I warmly and gracefully offered her a box of tissues. I let her know I empathized with her pain (although looking back on it I don’t see how I really could have…but my empathy felt genuine anyway) and she eventually calmed down and we finished out the interview. After that, back at the office I was jokingly known as the guy to call in to make people cry.

    I think I deal fairly well with very emotional user research situations and over my career I’ve learned they are not uncommon, but it was interesting to have one right off the bat.


    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.

    Getting To The Point: A User Research War Story by Emily Mayfield

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    Emily Mayfield (Twitter, LinkedIn) is a User Experience Researcher at The Kroger Co. in Cincinnati, OH.

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    Before my current job, I spent six months in Bangalore, India, doing research for a lab that was part of a design school in the northern part of the city. I did not drive while I was in India – I took public transportation and little “autos,” which resemble a golf cart in terms of size and a lawnmower in terms of sound. At that time Uber was barred from India. The driving style in Bangalore struck me as very different from the States: sometimes the traffic lights/stop signs are ignored, sometimes drivers go well beyond oncoming traffic lanes, sometimes when a freeway exit is missed drivers throw their cars into reverse on the freeway. I saw enough daily to get my heart pumping.

    I was doing research to understand what the notion of “smart city” might mean in India? As part of the research, I made cold calls to different innovation centers and companies, setting up expert interviews that would inform the research. I learned a lot about how companies had explored the concept of “smartness” in cities. In retrospect, the interview part was easy. Finding the location of the interviews was the challenge.

    I had a smart phone. I had a camera. I took photos of the locations on Google maps on my computer or on my phone in case the connection on my phone was lost or hiccuping. One time, I got on the bus headed south and rode it two hours deep into the city to a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with. I hopped off when it seemed like I was close to where I needed to be. There was a queue of auto drivers at the bus stop. I showed my phone and camera screens, with their neat pin-point of my destination on the digital map, to the first driver in the queue. I showed him the address: a building number and street name. The driver waved me in. “No problem!” I thought to myself. I smiled and held on tight to my bag and the rail of the auto. We were off! Turning and bending through little streets and big ones, weaving in between cars and buses. We flew past people crossing the street, animals doing the same, and carts selling food and tea. We drove and drove and drove some more. Minutes led to double-digits. The driver was flying…in what felt like circles. Checking the time, I thought “Oh boy…”

    Eventually the driver pulled over to ask other auto drivers for help finding the location. Local folks came to help. A cop or some kind of military person joined in the effort. The mass of people tried to help, pointing around like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz guessing all directions to try next. They discussed, pointed, checked and double-checked the address and the maps. At last I got a solid idea: I called my interviewee and he chatted with the driver. We met in a place that the driver could find and then I walked with the interviewee to the building together.

    Afterwards, a colleague let me know that the European conventions of maps as we know them don’t make sense to some people in India who have never seen a map in that form. Also, Bangalore is constantly changing, adding streets and changing names of streets. Later on I learned that landmarks are the way to go, as well as calling people sooner rather than later. Still, the worst case scenario was handing my phone to friendly-looking strangers to communicate with a driver when I’m really lost and it worked. A quick shout out to the kind and patient people of Bangalore: Thank you for your constant help getting me to and fro!

    Side note: It’s possible my geographical difficulty is just a me thing. More than once I’ve gone to conduct research at the wrong Kroger store on the same street here in Cincinnati!


    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.

    If Texas and England Had a Baby: A User Research War Story by Krispian Emert

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    Krispian Emert has over 12 years experience working in UX. She has worked all over the world: for startups, agencies, and companies like Microsoft, The NFL, Thompson Reuters, ING, etc. Currently, she is lead UX Researcher at TELUS digital. She told this story live at Radical Research Summit.

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    It was my first field study at my new job in Sydney, Australia. I had just uprooted my family and flown to the other side of the world to work for Australia’s largest user experience consultancy. Did I want to do a good job? You bet. Was I nervous? Hell, yes!

    I had had a couple of weeks to settle in and explore the city, and to get to know my colleagues. My impression of Australian culture was that it was surprisingly similar to Canadian culture: We both have the Queen on our money, we both drink copious amounts of beer, and we both say “no worries” a lot. The only glaring difference I was able discern up to that point was that for a casual greeting Canadians asked “How’s it going?” and Australians asked, “How’re you going?” So I had experienced little culture shock thus far.

    The assignment was for one of the big banks. We were to conduct contextual field studies in the moment while people used the bank’s ATMs. The only problem was that due to privacy constraints we had to recruit people just as they were about to use the ATM. This was made more challenging because the bank gave us very little in the way of official ID.

    This meant that I, an extra polite Canadian, was nervously approaching busy Australians and anxiously stammering the first few sentences of my recruitment spiel. To say that I got turned down by my prospective interviewees is an understatement. The fact that I didn’t look “official” or in any way affiliated with the bank made me seem suspect at best, and criminal at worst. ATM users glared at me as though I were panhandling, and time after time, I was told to “Fuck off!”. I was worried that I wouldn’t complete the assignment. I needed 10 participants and after two hours I had exactly none.

    As I stood in the street in Sydney, miles from home, failing to secure participants and on the receiving end of some choice language, I had a “Dorothy moment.” I was not in Canada anymore. Despite my initial impression that our countries were similar, I was in whole new culture – one where people were not afraid to say the F-word to a complete stranger. I realized I had to stop assuming people would stop and politely listen to my lengthy recruitment pitch, and that I had to just accept Australians for what they were – blunt and direct. I changed my approach, and went up to prospective participants boldly, waving my gift cards at them. I shortened my pitch to state only the benefits of participating in the research. This produced much better results.

    They say that if Texas and England had a baby, it would be Australia. After this experience, I grew to appreciate the unique Australian culture of “wild west gunslinger meets cricket games and meat pies.”

    And despite our differences, I guess we’re pretty similar after all.


    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.

    Clean Break: A User Research War Story by Joe Moran

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    Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

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    Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

    I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

    I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

    At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

    I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

    But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

    I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!


    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.

    Nail Polish for Insights: A User Research War Story by Elizabeth Chesters

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    Elizabeth Chesters is a UX consultant based in London, who volunteers for organizations like EmpowerHack and CodeFirst:Girls. She told this story live at User Research London.

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    I volunteer for EmpowerHack, an organisation dedicated to building technical solutions for refugees. When I joined in 2016, I was working on a project called HaBaby; a mobile app that stores medical records of pregnant refugees and offers symptom cards to help them communicate with doctors. Throughout my time volunteering, I noticed a lot of barriers. One of the biggest was that a lot of people in the organisation did not understand refugees! Many had never spoken to an actual refugee, which led to some wild assumptions (such as how some women had got pregnant or the age they would typically marry).

    In April 2016 my team member and I planned a trip to the refugee camps in France. We did not feel comfortable turning up as researchers, as our digital skills didn’t directly help refugees or fit the environment. They needed houses, not interviews. Our plan was to spend as much time as possible observing, in order to better understand issues refugees faced. Our research would then be reported back to the organisation, validating our ideas about what it means to be a refugee and our technical solutions.

    The first visit where we were able to talk with refugees was at the Dunkirk camp. Dunkirk was a much cleaner camp than one of the other camps we had been to, The Jungle in Calais. My team member and I met with a volunteer and a group of refugees who were working on an open-source map project. After introductions, we quickly gained the trust of a refugee, who I’ll call “Zach”. We went to his cabin, met the temporary family he had made in the camp and mentioned that we were in the camps to do research.

    We walked around the camp, and came across a group of three mothers who were sitting outside with their babies. By the time we communicated to Zach what we were trying to do, so that he could translate for mothers, it was raining. The women looked at us and stood up, gripping their children. Zach explained that the women would not talk to us without trading for makeup. We were testing an app, so we had nothing physical to give them. In the end they went inside to get out of the rain, and we had to walk away… though not without a few marriage proposals from passing men.

    On our last day volunteering we were invited to help at a spa day for female refugees in The Jungle. Here we could get close to the women and ask questions in their safe space. This time we also brought makeup to exchange! We turned the top of a donated double-decker bus (with no seats) into a beauty room. Everyone relaxed, leaving their shoes downstairs. We laid out carpet, lined the windows with bunting, and scattered cushions around the room. My friend and I set up our nail polishing stations and settled in for a long day of painting nails.

    Throughout the day we were able to meet refugees and ask questions. The women were from all around the world, with the majority from Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Sadly conversations did not flow as well as expected, partly due to my inability to paint nails. Most seemed unamused at my efforts. So, I spent most of my time redoing the same nails and ensuring we still had enough polish for women who would come later.

    Halfway through the day journalists from Grazia, a fashion magazine turned up to interview volunteers and refugees about the spa day. They made no effort to ask for help to translate questions. The more questions the journalists asked, the more you could see the women retreat into themselves.

    By the end of the day we had no makeup left. I had a makeover done by a little girl and looked like I had two black eyes. My friend also had a bright red face, due to being sat on and having her eyebrows threaded by an Iranian beautician. I walked down to the bottom deck of the bus, to an empty box of shoes. After scanning the whole bottom deck, it became apparent that I no longer had shoes. The other volunteers helped me find something I could wear temporarily. We found a pair of silver slip-on shoes. They were slightly too small, so I had to stand on the back on them. Someone reassured me that I could go to the warehouse to pick a donated pair that fit me. But when I walked outside, the woman we had arrived with (and her car) were gone, our passports along with her. We were now stranded in The Jungle, late in the day, with the warehouse an hour’s walk away. All I could do was pace up and down, frantically phoning volunteers who I knew were at the warehouse. I prayed the woman got my message to stay at the warehouse after dropping off other volunteers, so we could retrieve our passports.

    In the end we were rescued by a volunteer called “Superman John”. He drove us back to the warehouse which housed the donations, so we could get our passports back and I could pick out some shoes that fit. I have never been so happy to see that little red book!


    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.

    Trampoline Spies: A User Research War Story by Kristina Lustig

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    Kristina Lustig is a researcher at Stack Overflow, and is currently based in London. She told this story live at User Research London.

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    Last year, I was in Bangkok with eight members of my product team. For our research, we planned to speak with people who we saw taking videos with their smart phones. We split into a few groups, each with their own interpreters. My group tried – and failed – to find people at an open-air market or around a couple of malls before we got the idea to look for parents taking videos of their children. Our interpreter, Kay, in a flash of genius, suggested that we’d probably see a lot of this behavior at a trampoline park, so off we went.

    After riding several long thin escalators far into the interior of an extremely large mall, we arrived at the trampoline park and bought our tickets. Before we went in, we put on the mandatory lime green sticky socks and neon pink wristbands.

    Now, I’ve done a good bit of international research in questionable situations, but at this point, this was the strangest research situation I’d been in. Let me paint the picture for you: two white people in business casual with neon pink wristbands and lime green sticky socks, holding notebooks, accompanied by our Thai interpreter, all wandering through a trampoline park full of Thai parents and children. On the 700th floor of an upscale mall on a Wednesday morning.

    But really, it was also a research goldmine! We found many mothers with their smart phones out, filming their children. We spent about 30 minutes chatting as casually as possible with a few different women. We learned a lot about how they shared videos on social media. Then we were approached by a trampoline park employee. She began speaking with Kay, and although we couldn’t understand a word, we watched as Kay moved from confident to concerned and finally to incredulous.

    As Kay translated for us, the employee was concerned that we could be spies from a rival trampoline park, or that we were we attempting to sell these women passes to a rival trampoline park!

    Kay explained to the trampoline park employee that we were from a big company in the US and that we weren’t selling anything, but she didn’t believe us. We gave her our business cards (with potentially impressive or reassuring titles like “UX Researcher” and “Product Designer”) but no dice. She started to kick us out of the trampoline park, but in a last ditch effort, we asked “Well, can we just… stay and jump?”

    So, we didn’t get to do too much research, but we did spend a lot of time bouncing around under that employee’s watchful anti-research eye. We observed as much as we could, while bouncing. In retrospect, we probably should have cleared our research with the trampoline park beforehand…but any research endeavor that starts with intercepts and ends with extreme trampolining is a win in my book.


    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.

    Details Disconnect: A User Research War Story by Steve Portigal

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    This story was originally published on behalf of The Field Study Handbook.

    Last year I was working on a project for a financial technology client. Finding participants is often a challenge, but on this project, for small business owners, it was particularly difficult.

    We had hoped to base this research on previous studies, but it proved difficult to glean details about how previous studies were done. There were rumors that another team, elsewhere in the country, had developed a segmentation algorithm, but voicemails and emails went unanswered. We heard about great participants from previous studies that we should revisit, but no one would get back to us. The schedule ticked by and the pressure mounted. In the end, we were left with no choice to work around these limitations. Finally, I began to approach recruiting agencies.

    My go-to recruiting team refused to take the assignment on as they had, ironically, recruited for one of these previous studies and felt like they had tapped out the local market. Another company had gone out of business, and a third didn’t think they could accomplish the recruit.

    I ended up with a recruiter I had never worked with. In the end, I think they did a good job, but a new relationship added stress to the increasingly complex recruiting process.

    In our introductory call, one of our recruits expressed surprise and concern that there would two of us visiting his very small office. We eventually agreed that even though it might be cramped, it would be okay. The recruiting agency, when asked about this disconnect, reassured me that they made it clear, as per my instructions, that there would be two of us. I was confused, as the participant had insisted they had never told him anything about this.

    Later that day I got an email from the participant, who sought reassurance about the purpose of the interview. He had clicked on my website (seen in my email signature) and was concerned that I was actually going to be pitching him my services. He had been involved in a focus group through this agency before, and presumed this would be something similar. I confirmed that this was not a sales pitch.

    A few days later we met with him in his exceptionally cramped one-person workspace. As the interview unfolded, he abruptly stopped and directly, yet politely expressed confusion and discomfort about the interview itself. Why were we asking these questions? Who do we represent? How are we going to use this information?

    It took a long, unhurried conversation about the process and our objectives to put him at ease. We resumed the interview and learned a great deal about his truly amazing businesses, past, present, and future.

    I emphasize his politeness in stopping the interview, because now, when I go back to the transcript, that’s what I see. But at that time, sitting in that interview, it didn’t feel that way. It felt aggressive and angry and I spent the remainder of the interview feeling uncertain about our rapport. I overcompensated with excessive deference, people-pleasing, and probably flattery. That’s not a comfortable feeling and it’s not conducive to a good interview. I have empathy for someone feeling uncomfortable about something as odd as two strangers with a video camera coming into their office space to ask about their professional history. It’s easy to mischaracterize people that don’t “get it” as difficult. And I assume that I am pretty good at managing expectations at all the common points of failure in establishing rapport.

    But boy it’d be nice if we had someone to blame. That guy was a jerkface! The recruiter didn’t do their job (and then lied and insisted they did!). Steve didn’t handle the first call or the interview kickoff properly! Yet it doesn’t seem like any of these are true.

    While I felt sheepish at the end of the interview, I was surprised to get a LinkedIn request from the participant immediately afterwards. And, I guess, less surprised when I heard from him a few times weeks later about not receiving his incentive payment (This was one of the very few studies where I asked the agency to send checks after the interview was completed, rather than handing people the incentive directly myself. Mistake? I don’t know). When I followed up with the recruiter about the missing incentive, I heard in some detail how this participant had already called and yelled at the admin staff.

    And so it goes.


    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 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.