Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries Cover

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

User Research War Stories

By Steve Portigal

Published: December 2016
Paperback: 248 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-34-7
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-50-7

User research war stories are personal accounts of the challenges researchers encounter out in the field, where mishaps are inevitable, yet incredibly instructive. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a diverse compilation of war stories that range from comically bizarre to astonishingly tragic, tied together with valuable lessons from expert user researcher Steve Portigal.

Hear author Steve Portigal on The Rosenfeld Review Podcast

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


More about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries


Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a fascinating, sometimes hilarious, and very revealing peek behind the curtain of user research. Read this book to understand the lengths to which researchers go to get the critical insights that today’s businesses desperately need

Denise Lee Yohn, author of What Great Brands Do

These behind-the-scene stories of researchers at work will enlighten and inspire you.

Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation

The stories Steve Portigal knits together here have an extraordinary and immediate intimacy, like listening in on 66 researchers’ bedtime prayers. Anne Lamott says there are essentially three kinds of prayers: help, thanks, and wow! Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries covers the whole range, with humor and wisdom.

Dan Klyn, information architect, co-founder of The Understanding Group (TUG)

I didn’t mean to read this book. But I couldn’t help it. The stories of research in the field are compelling and relatable. So many moments of recognition, along with oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-glad-that-didn’t-happen-to-me moments. These episodes tell the stories of what user research is really like.

Dana Chisnell, co-author, Handbook of Usability Testing (2nd edition)

Portigal’s collection of war stories illuminates the discipline and improvisation endemic to researching people. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries is a fitting companion to his landmark Interviewing Users.

Gregg Bernstein, Senior User Researcher, Vox Media

This book is ethnography verité. The novice ethnographer will learn how ethnography actually works, seasoned practitioners will be visited by the ghosts of studies past, and everyone will get a good laugh.

Sam Ladner, author of Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Best Laid Plans
Chapter 2: Those Exasperating Participants
Chapter 3: Control is an Illusion
Chapter 4: Cracking The Code
Chapter 5: Gross, Yet Strangely Compelling
Chapter 6: Not Safe For Work
Chapter 7: To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest
Chapter 8: The Perils of Fieldwork
Chapter 9: People Taking Care of People
Chapter 10: Can’t Stop The Feeling
Chapter 11: The Myth of Objectivity


These common questions and their short answers are taken from Steve Portigal’s book Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What are war stories?
    War stories are personal accounts of the challenges researchers have out in the eld, where mishaps inevitably occur. The term originated around 1839 and is used broadly to describe the types of stories shared across many professions and communities, not just warriors and user researchers.
  2. Why is this book about user research that went wrong?
    There is a lot of material about the right way to do user research. But, in reality, sometimes things do go wrong (or to be precise, differently than intended). There’s a lot to be learned from what actually happens, warts-and-all. With this insight, you might be able to prevent something unwanted from happening in the future, or at least have a better way of dealing with it the next time it comes up.
  3. Should I read this book in one sitting?
    While there are a lot of stories here, they are mostly pretty short, so you could binge-read them if you chose, but it’s probably better to take it one chapter at a time. This gives you the opportunity to digest and reflect before diving in again.
  4. Are there more stories?
    Yes. The original archive is at, and it includes stories that aren’t in this book. As people contribute new stories, they’ll be posted at that link, and at this book’s companion website.
  5. Can I submit my own story?
    Yes, please! You can email story pitches to Remember, these are stories about fieldwork (not about focus groups or usability tests). These stories are not about your research findings, but rather the kind of experiences that you have. Stories don’t need to include company or client names.


Chapter 11: Published in UX Matters (January 23, 2017)

Chapter 3: Published in Core77 (December 8, 2016)


We all love war stories. We love their two axiomatic narrative arcs: the protagonist having it all, losing it all, and then getting some of it back, along with a pile of redemption. We love the protagonist who has nothing, quests for something, finds it, and then invariably realizes that she or he was better off at the beginning. In fiction, these plots are predictable, but in real life, much less so. In real life, the “tale” is a precipitate that forms over time … precisely through its retelling.

In this book, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories, Steve Portigal assembles an impressive platoon of these tales. But Steve is also an expert observer—indeed he does this for a living—so his gift in organizing and pulling out common threads throughout the book helps the reader make sense of these stories. Each section is bookended with an incredibly wise setup and useful takeaway, but he also provides permission for some dangling threads—acknowledging the temptation to slap a pretty bow on every anecdote. Rather, he provides permission to be okay with some lack of resolution.

War stories, as stories, contain all the usual tropes we see in good stories, but these stories are authentically unpredictable. And it’s only in hindsight that they earn their stripes—to keep the metaphor—to be recounted, reexamined, and retold.

There are other military metaphors to explore as well. I personally have a hard time reconciling the notion of “rules of engagement” in the actual war arena, but certainly in the world of design that forms the scaffolding for the stories in this book, there are very clear rules of “design” engagement. Design research, user research, ethnography—these are all pretty mature disciplines at this point, with prescribed methods, best practices, and a more-or-less-agreed-upon moral code for working with human subjects. When things go wrong in this arena, well, they can go very wrong indeed.

There’s also the “badge of honor” that people with war stories earn. They’d argue that you have to go through something to earn the medal (versus going around or over it), and they’d be right. Triumphing over adversity, or handling yourself gracefully when things go wrong, or just improvising in the moment can be hugely satisfying. In fact, it’s in the retelling of the war story where the ultimate satisfaction (and sometimes the revenge!) actually lies. Like any retelling of a story, it usually gets better with age: the pacing improves, the extraneous details get excised as the critical ones sharpen up, and the whole thing just gets polished until the war story itself becomes a kind of crafted object. And abstracted from the event that birthed it, the story itself becomes more powerful. And worthy of collecting.

So we are grateful to Steve Portigal for assembling such a rich breadth of tales in his book. Throughout, he talks about the power of these stories—to instruct, to serve as catharsis, to entertain, to inspire. This book certainly delivers on all of these. It’s hysterical, it’s heartbreaking, and in the end it’s, well, a triumph. And that’s how wars are supposed to end, right?

—Allan Chochinov
Founding Chair, SVA MFA Products of Design
Partner, Core77