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.