Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries


The other day I hopped the subway to the Soho Apple Store’s Genius Bar to get my dead iPhone fixed. Being suddenly phoneless is quite disorienting. Rather than folding myself over my little master as I normally would, I looked up and suddenly noticed… people! The sea of diversity you’d expect to see on a New York City subway. And as an old UXer, I was drawn to observe them, exercising dormant field research muscles.

photo of subway riders
photo by Susan Sermoneta:

That’s when I realized that I had a book with me: an advance copy of Steve Portigal’s new book, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.

I couldn’t have had a better companion for the rest of that ride. I dipped into about a dozen of the 60+ field research war stories that make up the bulk of the book. The stories do what stories are supposed to do: engage. And the contributors have been through some experiences that will make you laugh, sweat with fear and discomfort, and—let’s face it—enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.

But it’s wrong to see Steve’s new book simply as a compilation of user research war stories. Let me explain why with a bit of my own publishing war story.

When Steve came to me with the idea for his new book a year or so ago, he was concerned that I wouldn’t want to publish it. After he explained the idea, I wasn’t sure either. I generally hate compilations, as they tend to drown out the main author or editor’s voice. And how useful could a book of user research war stories really be?

Then I thought some more. And I realized that some people have a knack for combing through ideas to arrive at a greater truth. Steve is one of those master synthesizers. I began to believe that if he dedicated the time to really digging into these stories, his sum would be greater than the parts.

In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesSteve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people. Eleven chapters deliver eleven principles that you must know if you’re doing any kind of research:

  • Chapter 1: The Best Laid Plans
    Expect your plan to never to go according to plan.
  • Chapter 2: Those Exasperating Participants
    Be prepared for people to surprise (and sometimes frustrate) you.
  • Chapter 3: Control is an Illusion
    Be prepared for research contexts to surprise (and sometimes frustrate) you.
  • Chapter 4: Cracking The Code
    Be prepared to be challenged by differences in language and culture.
  • Chapter 5: Gross, Yet Strangely Compelling
    If you feel disgust when observing people, counter it with empathy.
  • Chapter 6: Not Safe For Work
    Be prepared for research contexts that are unpleasant and occasionally morally challenging.
  • Chapter 7: To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest
    Know your ethics and your obligations before you begin.
  • Chapter 8: The Perils of Fieldwork
    Be prepared for the discomfort and even danger you may face in the field.
  • Chapter 9: People Taking Care of People
    Be prepared for people’s lives and situations to pull you from observation to participation.
  • Chapter 10: Can’t Stop The Feeling
    Like it or not, your emotions will impact your research.
  • Chapter 11: The Myth of Objectivity
    And, like it or not, observing and learning from people will inevitably change you.

cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesSo I’m glad to have my assumptions questioned about what books merit publication. Thanks for that, Steve—and, more importantly, for writing Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries and opening up a greater truth about field research.