Interviewing Users Cover

Interviewing Users

How to Uncover Compelling Insights

By Steve Portigal

Published: May 2013
Paperback: 176 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-11-8
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-81-1

Interviewing is a foundational user research tool that people assume they already possess. Everyone can ask questions, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Interviewing Users provides invaluable interviewing techniques and tools that enable you to conduct informative interviews with anyone. You’ll move from simply gathering data to uncovering powerful insights about people.


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Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about Interviewing Users


Interviewing is central to much design research. Good interview-based projects can be hard to pull off. Steve Portigal’s book is packed with useful tips, illustrative examples, cautionary tales, and how-to advice for planning and conducting interviews, as well as analyzing and presenting data gathered. Grounded in real research examples, this book is a must-read for both novice and experienced interviewers.

Elizabeth F. Churchill, Director of Human Computer Interaction, eBay Research Labs

A great how-to handbook for anyone engaged in user interviews, conducted in a design context. The book is packed with ideas, guidelines, and tricks on how to surface relevant insights for new products and services. This book is a fantastic compilation of insights and methodological tricks!

Nicolas Nova, Principal, The Near Future Laboratory

Steve’s book is based on his extensive expertise with qualitative ethnography, and is a must-read for students of design research.

Jon Kolko VP, Design, MyEdu & Director, Austin Center for Design

Steve Portigal’s fast-paced, ultra-readable primer provides a common-sense approach to interviewing users that’s as inspiring as it is instructive.

Allan Chochinov Editor in Chief, Core77

Portigal’s common-sense guide to interviewing is an excellent primer on methods and techniques. The sidebars, case studies, photos, and illustrations bring the information to life.

Brenda Laurel, PhD, designer, researcher

Steve knocks one out of the ballpark with the detail and insights he’s captured in this fabulous book. This is one of those books you’ll go back to, again and again.

Jared Spool, Principal at User Interface Engineering

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: The Importance of Interviewing in Design
  • Chapter 2: A Framework for Interviewing
  • Chapter 3: Getting Ready to Conduct Your Interviews
  • Chapter 4: More Than Just Asking Questions
  • Chapter 5: Key Stages of the Interview
  • Chapter 6: How to Ask Questions
  • Chapter 7: Documenting the Interview
  • Chapter 8: Optimizing the Interview
  • Chapter 9: Making an Impact with Your Research


These common questions about interviewing users and their short answers are taken from Steve Portigal’s book Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. Why is this even a book? Isn’t this really just talking to people? I already know how to do that!
    To learn something new requires interviewing, not just chatting. Poor interviews produce inaccurate information that can take your business in the wrong direction. Interviewing is a skill that at times can be fundamentally different than what you do normally in conversation. Great interviewers leverage their natural style of interacting with people but make deliberate, specific choices about what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and when to say nothing. Doing this well is hard and takes years of practice.
    Chapter 6 is devoted entirely to techniques for asking questions.
  2. Why would we bother to talk to our users? We use our products every single day and know exactly what we need to build.
    People who make a product think and talk about it fundamentally differently than people who don’t. While both groups may use the same product, their context—understanding, language, expectations, and so on—is completely different. From a user’s point of view, a Big Mac eaten in Moscow is hardly the same product as a Big Mac eaten in San Jose, CA. And neither one is very much like a Big Mac eaten at McDonald’s Hamburger University in Oak Grove, IL. A strong product vision is important, but understanding what that vision means when it leaves your bubble is make-or-break stuff.
    In Chapter 1, I examine the impact that interviewing has on project teams.
  3. We don’t have time in our development process to interview our users, so what should we do?
    Developing insights about users doesn’t always have to be a milestone in a product development process. Insights can be an organizational asset that is assembled quarterly (or whenever) to feed into all aspects of product development, marketing, and so on. Once a baseline is established, subsequent research can enhance and expand that body of knowledge. Within time constraints, I’m constantly impressed by people I meet who are so hungry to bring user information into their work that they find ways to do whatever they can.
    In Chapter 9, I discuss the trade-offs when time is the constraining resource.
  4. Which team members should interview users?
    While more design organizations are staffing a research role, the designated researchers aren’t the only ones who go out and meet customers. I’ve seen many times that as companies buy in to the value of research insights, the researchers shift from struggling for acceptance to being overwhelmed by demand. It’s not unusual to see them scaling up their own teams, working with outside partners, and training their colleagues to be better researchers themselves. Ultimately, who shouldn’t be interviewing users? There will always be a range of strengths in interviewing skills; leading research is a specialized function, but user research is something that everyone can and should participate in. In most cases, this will exclude functions unrelated to key aspects of the business, but given the cultural value of understanding the customer, everyone could be involved in consuming the results of interviewing users, even if they aren’t directly speaking to those users themselves.
    In Chapter 5, I look at how to manage a team composed of seasoned interviewers and less-savvy colleagues.
  5. We interviewed users and didn’t learn anything new. How does that happen? 
    Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to validate hypotheses or to confirm the findings from previous research. But often when stakeholders report they didn’t hear anything new, that’s a symptom of something else. Were stakeholders fully involved in planning the research? Did the researchers develop a rich understanding of what these stakeholders already believed and what burning questions they had? Not hearing anything new may be a result of not digging into the research data enough to pull out more nuanced insights. Finally, if customers are still expressing the same needs they’ve expressed before, it begs the question, “Why haven’t you done something about that?”
    In Chapter 3, I discuss working with stakeholders to establish project objectives.


  • Chapter 3 (PDF)
  • Chapter 2: Published in Core77 (May 6, 2013)



  • Interviewing Users (O’Reilly 2013) (webinar recording)
  • Interviewing Users (IxDA Los Angeles/LA UX Meetup 2013) (slidesvideoalternate videotweetstream)
  • We’ve Done All This Research, Now What (Mozilla UX 2012) (video)
  • Discover and Act on Insights about People (Lift 2011) (slides and video)
  • Culture, User Research & Design (Unfinished Business 2011) (slides and audio)
  • Best Practices for Interviewing Users (SXSW 2011) (slides and audio)
  • Skill Building for Design Innovators (CHIFOO 2010) – (slides and audio)
  • Ethnography as a Cultural Practice (PARC Forum 2010) (video)
  • Design and Research: Ships in the Night? (User Research Friday 2008) (slidesvideo)
  • Cross-Cultural Research (UX Week 2006) – (slides here, audio here)

Templates and Samples



Columns from Interactions


I was just looking at YouTube in a brave attempt to keep in touch with popular music, and I found the musician Macklemore doing a hip-hop celebration of the thrift store. (“Passing up on those moccasins someone else been walking in.”) Google results indicate that Macklemore is a product of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. And this is interesting because Evergreen produces a lot of ferociously creative kids—wild things who care nothing for our orthodoxy, and still less for our sanctimony.

Now, our curiosity roused, we might well decide to go visit Evergreen College, because as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Evergreen would be an excellent place to look for our futures. But it wouldn’t be easy or pleasant. We would struggle to get a fix on the sheer volcanic invention taking place here. Our sensibilities would be scandalized. We would feel ourselves at sea.

And that’s where ethnography comes in. It is, hands down, the best method for making our way through data that is multiple, shifting, and mysterious. It works brilliantly to help us see how other people see themselves and the world. Before ethnography, Evergreen is a bewildering place. After ethnography, it’s a place we “get.” (Not perfectly. Not comprehensively. But the basics are there, and the bridge is built.)

And that’s where Steve Portigal comes in. Armed with his method of interviewing, years of experience, a sustained devotion to the hard problems that our culture throws off (not just at Evergreen State College), and a penetrating intelligence, Steve could capture much of what we need to know about Evergreen, and he could do it in a week. And that’s saying something. Steve is like a Mars Rover. You can fire him into just about any environment, and he will come back with the fundamentals anatomized and insights that illuminate the terrain like flares in a night sky. Using his gift and ethnography, Steve Portigal can capture virtually any world from the inside out. Now we can recognize, enter, and participate in it. Now we can innovate for it, speak to it, serve it.

And if this is all Steve and ethnography can do, well, that would be enough. But Steve and the method can do something still more miraculous. He can report not just on exotic worlds like Evergreen, but the worlds we know—the living room, the boardroom, the not-for-profit, and the design firm. This is noble work because we think we grasp the world we occupy. How would we manage otherwise? But, in fact, we negotiate these worlds thanks to a series of powerful, intricate assumptions. The thing about these assumptions is that, well, we assume them. This means they are concealed from view.

We can’t see them. We don’t know they are active. We don’t know they’re there. Ethnography and Steve come in here, too. They are uniquely qualified to unearth these assumptions, to discover, in the immortal words of Macklemore, those moccasins we all go walking in.

This is a wonderful book. Steve can teach us how to improve our ability to penetrate other worlds and examine our assumptions. Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Let’s seize this book as an opportunity to start again. Let Steve Portigal be our inspired guide.

Grant McCracken
Chief Culture Officer, Basic Books
Culturematic, Harvard Business Review Press


The ne plus ultra of thanks is due to my family, for believing in the best of me and for their happiness for every bit of good stuff that comes my way. Such support is the sine qua non for my success. Thank you, Anne, Sharna, Cheryl, Bruce, Talia, Ari and Brody!

Going back decades, Tom Williams was there with me as we both began to figger out this whole user research thing. While we were initially focused on learning and doing, we eventually began teaching others (discendo discimus!) and many of my frameworks today emerged from that formative period. Even earlier, folks like Susan Wolfe and Marilyn Tremaine saw potential and pushed me to reach it.

For the genesis of this (and precursors), thanks are due to Deborah Rodgers, Dan Szuc and Peter March. Ultimately, the biggest cheerleader for this project was Lou Rosenfeld, someone who transmutes cacoethes scribendi into fun and profit. During the writing Lou’s guidance and mentorship were invaluable and my editor Marta Justak was a tireless and savvy source of advice, encouragement, compliments and reassurance. Karen Corbett was there to make things happen when they needed to happen!

Right out of the gate I found support from Elizabeth Goodman, Andrea Moed, Stefanie Norvaisas and Marc Rettig who happily agreed to serve as advisers, a role that neither they nor I fully grasped, and one I probably failed to sufficiently utilize. Still, coniunctis viribus!

David Hoard, Veronica Stuart and Andrew Harder graciously served as technical reviewers. They read an early draft and each contributed a colossal cornucopia of comments, calls for clarification, challenges and compliments.

A whole heap of folks helped out with information, answers to questions, referrals, permission, content or other succor. No doubt I’m forgetting quite a few (mea culpa!) but at least I know to thank Jennifer Ackerman, Kavita Appachu, Genevieve Bell, Jerry Birenz, Lena Blackstock, Harry Boadwee, Nate Bolt, Carla Borsoi, Al Bredenberg, Jan Chipchase, Tamara Christensen, Allan Chochinov, Elizabeth Churchill, Yohan Creemers, Anke de Jong, Arjen de Klerk, Richard Douglass, Donna Driscoll, Sheryl Ehrlich, Martin Elliott, Marc Fonteijn, Dave Franchino, Ted Frank, Nancy Frishberg, Jorge Gordon, R. Reade Harpham, Cyd Harrell, Todd Hausman, Rachel Hinman, Eric Hixon, Miriam Home, Adrian Howard, Caroline James, Frances Karandy, Katie Koch, Jon Kolko, Livia Labate, Brenda Laurel, Douglas Look, Anna Lorenzetto, BJ Markel, Marc Maron, Christopher Mascis, Grant McCracken, Jess McMullin, Kirsten Medhurst, Adam Menter, Lorri Meyers, Lindsey Miller, Steve Mulder, Michelle Nero, Julie Norvaisas, Nicolas Nova, Gary Paranzino, Julie Peggar, Jeff Pollard, Taciana Pontual, Cheryl Portigal-Todd, John Provost, Sarah A. Rice, Aviva Rosenstein, Kate Rutter, Dan Saffer, Liz Sanders, Lynn Shade, John Shortridge, Kristian Simsarian, Chad Singer, Carol Smith, Dan Soltzberg, Donna Spencer, Jared Spool, David St. John, Dörte Töllner, Mark Trammell, Timothy Tynyk, Dmitri von Klein, Jo Ann Wall, Pamela Walshe, Karen Ward, Russ Ward, Anne Williams, Tom Williams, Jeremy Yuille, Boris Zilberman, and Lindsey Zouein.

Finally, thanks to the hundreds of amazing, messy, complex, human people I’ve interviewed in the course of my career. I can only say nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur.