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.

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