A Chat with Steve Portigal by Rosenfeld Media
For the latest Rosenfeld Review podcast, I spoke with Lou Rosenfeld about my journey in collecting user research war stories and how that became Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. (trigger warning: I’m extremely enthusiastic for the first 15 seconds or so)
(embedded below, or go here)
Why Stories Matter (to the practice of user research)
This post by Sasha Dichter articulates so well what drove me to write Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries – why forwarding a culture of storytelling in user research is essentially to continuing to develop the field.
Storytelling, then, is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the listener to position herself in the story, see its relevance to her current situation, and then play forward a narrative about her role in the story of now.
How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.
This is why it our job to find our own stories, to explore the values that move us to act, and to practice uttering words that help others see and feel what we see and feel. This is the work of finding the language to describe the choices we have made and are making in service of our work, so that others can feel the hope that we feel, and so that they can learn to use this hope to deal with their fears, including fear of acting on our behalf.
Five Questions with Steve Portigal
Why is user research so hard to do well?
I talked about this a bit in Interviewing Users—that the assumption we can just use our social defaults because it’s just “talking to people” holds us back from being better at user research. We have to unlearn a lot of patterns (e.g., sharing about yourself) in order to get to a very different outcome (a good session versus a good hangout). In looking at war stories, I’m digging further into the challenges we face in doing research, and hopefully not stating the obvious but research with other people will have massive elements of unpredictability in it. That means we learn what we didn’t know we didn’t know (and would never otherwise have thought to ask about), but it also means that our attempts to plan and control the process are somewhat foolish (and yet, someone who does research without planning is obviously a fool). There’s an element here of temperament, or worldview, that isn’t so natural for everyone. In some of the stories I’ve gathered, people do everything right, and yet things still go wrong. That’s not a welcome truth.
My 2017 UX Research “tips”
- Research is everywhere. I continue to marvel at the growth of research. Back in the day, people would write to ask me if they knew of any research openings; now they write to ask me if I know of anyone who they could hire for their research position. We shouldn’t get cocky, as demand for research can lead to commodification, degrading research to a tactical, evaluative tool rather than the strategic powerhouse it is.
- Research is necessary but not sufficient for innovation. It’s just one of many parts in making business decisions. Research identifies unmet needs but design, technology, service, etc. all figure out how to address those needs. Research assesses solutions but only in certain contexts. Some things can’t be fully evaluated until after they exist (consider the invention of the Post-It, for example). This is an innovation problem, not a research problem.
- Harness storytelling for teaching and learning. Stories take us through a process of an experience, from the beginning, to the middle, through to the end. Crucially for learners, they can highlight mistakes and failures as much as successes. And stories can tell it like it is, providing a level of authenticity that more traditionally presented instructional material can’t convey. And finally, we respond emotionally to stories: drama, suspense, pathos, humor all facilitate engagement and end up sticking around in our memory
Learning from the comic, tragic & astonishing moments in user research (transcript)
Last week I did an online chat with UX Mastery about Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. See one snippet below, but please check out the entire transcript here.
crystal: Do you think that approaching the interview with some small vulnerability of your own allows them to be more vulnerable as well and open up and give more insight? And have you found that added insight to often add value to the research?
steveportigal: our own vulnerability – that’s fascinating and I don’t have a clear take on that. I think a shallow reading says being vulnerable means sharing about ourselves and I am mostly against doing that most of the time for most researchers but it makes me ponder what’s a richer more nuanced sense of what our own vulnerability is, if by being still, present, focused, listening, and not needing to make it about us, we might convey some vulnerability. I think it’s meeting people where they are, accepting them where they are and not putting ourself into it. Which – to your point – feels DAMN risky to a lot of people. Set aside your agenda and listen but do so in a productive effective you’re-on-the-job way, so you are balancing different forces and risks.
I dunno, is that ‘vulnerable?’
Stories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal
The idea that some of these ideas are metaphors for life I think is absolutely true and, again, I can sound kind of highfalutin and pretentious here but I think the thinking that I went through in this book is looking at… some of these external factors, right? You know, make sure your camera is ready and you don’t break the cable and you know the sort of “equipmenty” type things that we have to think about. But so many of these are about what do we do when the unexpected happens and acknowledge the unexpected is going to happen and that those are definitely life skills. And I think one of the takeaways that I come back to several times, and I just alluded to it a minute ago, which is know when to walk away. You know and so when you’re in a situation do you keep trying to turn that situation from a failure into a success or do you say “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” and you leave.
15 Questions with Steve Portigal
Today, as part of the Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries roll-out, Rosenfeld Media has 15 Questions with Steve Portigal. Check ’em all out!
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.
What’s New: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries
My new book comes out today and Lou Rosenfeld has an enthusiastic appreciation and a bit of the back story about the book’s journey.
Read it all here
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. In Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, Steve comes through: he delivers a broader framework that’s useful for making sense of user research—or, actually, situations with people.