Interviewing Best Practices from Stephen Colbert
By Steve Portigal at 12:47 pm, Wednesday October 22 2014

The first episode of Working (a new podcast) features Stephen Colbert explaining in great detail the process of creating The Colbert Report. The entire episode (embedded above) is really good process stuff (creativity, collaboration, finding the story, media firehose, working under pressure) but I want to call out the section about how he prepares and uses the questions for interviewing his guest, as it’s is quite consistent with what I wrote in Interviewing Users.

And then I read the two sheets of questions that the writers have come up, what their ideas are. I usually pick 10 or 15 of those. But I don’t look at them. I don’t look at them until right before I go over [to the set], and then I read them over once again in front of my producers to get a sense of, oh, this is how my character feels about this person.

Come show time…I take them out and I go, oh, yes, these are the questions I chose. And then I try to forget them and I try to never look at the cards. I just have a sense in my head of how I feel. And the cards are in front of me, but I try not to look at them at all. I’m pretty good. Maybe I look once a week at the cards. I put my hand on them, so I know I have them if something terrible happens, but as long as I know what my first question is for the guest I kind of know what every other question is, because I really want to react to what their reaction to my first question is.

And I usually end up using four of the 15, and the rest of it is, what is the person just saying to me? Which makes that the most enjoyable part of the show for me. Because I started off as an improviser. I’m not a standup. I didn’t start off as a writer, I learned to write through improvisation, and so that’s the part of the show that can most surprise me. The written part of the show, I know I can get wrong. You can’t really get the interview “wrong.”

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 10:21 am, Monday October 20 2014
  • I am actually doing okay after a week with Google’s Gmail and Calendar, and Evernote. I’ve dipped my toe in cleaning up more than a decade of digital detritus but that is a long road.
  • It’s a shortened week here as I host visiting family and take a long weekend.
  • This week I’ll be chatting about Interviewing Users with the Denver UX Book Club.
  • I’m one of the coaches for MVP Design Hacks and I’ll be taking questions in a session this week. I am very curious to hear what the participants are working on and where they have questions.
  • Here’s my pictures from Berlin.
  • I’ve alluded before to a stealth project; it’s still stealthy but I will tease by say I’m starting to set up interviews.
  • Coming up next month, I’ll be speaking about user research at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco.
  • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Pumpkins and pie.
  • What we’re consuming: Kale and Chard, Buzz Ballz, coconut mojitos, Transparent.
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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 8:06 am, Monday October 13 2014
  • I decided to make some changes to my tools, some of which I’ve relied on for more than 10 years. I had been using Notes in Outlook to jot down whatever and syncing them to iOS Notes. I was also using Outlook for my calendar, synced of course to my iPhone calendar, via Google Calendar. I was asked why and I couldn’t answer. So I am using just Google Calendar on the computer, synched to my iPhone. And I shifted to Evernote on both the computer and the phone, although I haven’t done more than move the notes over. I haven’t tried living with it, adding, editing, finding. I also had to say goodbye to Eudora, a long-obsolete email client. I’m planning on living with Gmail (which is where Portigal email comes into anyway) and seeing if that will work for me. But meanwhile I had to figure out how to get my 13 years of email into Gmail. Far too boring to go into here but it’s been a few days and I’m still syncing – e.g., uploading all this email to Gmail. Most terrifying is the realization that between Notes, emails and files on my computer, I’ve got tons of thoughts, articles, sketches for blog posts and other mental detritus that I’d like to go through, extract the bits worth saving and organize them. What set of rabbit holes I’ll be disappearing into!
  • Check out our new War Story, The Hidden Persuader.
  • I’m one of twenty folks who shared a best practice or tip in 20 Tips for Selling UX to Clients.
  • I’ll be chatting about Interviewing Users with the Denver UX Book Club next week.
  • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Restless Leg Syndrome.
  • What we’re consuming: Business Live-Action Role-Playing, Peasant’s War Panorama, cab sav, Temple of the Dog 8-bit, We Are The Best!, Ebba Grön.
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Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader
By Steve Portigal at 8:30 am, Friday October 10 2014
Part 69 of 69 in the series War Stories

Patricia Colley is an experience designer and the Principal of Creative Catalysts in Portland, OR.

In 1984, I was 23, and working for a market & social research firm in San Antonio, Texas. They sent me down to McAllen to collect voter opinions on the upcoming national elections. McAllen is a sleepy little town near the bottom tip of the state, just a few miles from the Mexican border, mainly populated with low-to-moderate income Hispanic families.

I was on my second day of door-to-door polling, asking voters their opinions on policy matters, and their thoughts on the state and presidential candidates. The work was progressing well. As usual, I was getting a high rate of interview completions, with lots of useful data. After four years of working in market and social research, I was quite confident in my neutral, non-threatening “aw shucks, I’m just one of you” act, and its ability to deliver great results.

But my confidence was shaken when I met Maria, a shy housewife in her early 30’s.

It was about 4 pm on a warm, dry Thursday afternoon when I knocked on the door of a modest, well-kept ranch house in a suburban section of McAllen. Maria opened the door part way. She was half-hiding behind it, sizing me up like a rabbit peering through tall grass at a coyote in the distance…curious, but poised to flee.

Me: “Hello, my name is Patricia, and I’ve been sent here by (XYZ Research) to gather public opinions on the upcoming elections.”
Maria: “Oh, hi.”
Me (turning on the charm): “May I ask you some questions? Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything!”
Maria: “Uhh, sure, I guess?”&
Me: “Great, thanks! This won’t take long.”

Wide-eyed, Maria flashes a shy smile before her jaw slacks again. This one’s cagey, I thought to myself, but I’ll get her talking.

Me: “Now, thinking about (Candidate X), what comes to mind?”
Maria: “Uhh, I don’t know? Is he a good guy?”
Me (shrinking): “Well, I really don’t have any thoughts on (Candidate X). Besides, my bosses didn’t send me all this way to talk about my opinions. He wants to know your opinion.”
Maria: “I don’t know. He seems okay?”

Now, I don’t think Mary is incapable of forming opinions. I suspect she’s simply never been asked to share her thoughts about such important things, so far from home. And she may never be asked again. But on this day, I was determined to make her opinion count.

Me: “Well, you’ve heard of him, maybe seen him on TV?”
Maria: “Yes.”
Me: “So, what did you think of him? Is he someone you would vote for?”
Maria: “Um…(pause)”

Her eyes darted across my face, scanning every crease and twitch, searching for clues. Those big rabbit eyes begged mutely for help. I stared back, apologetically. I took a few slow breaths, trying to ground us both, so she might relax into talking more naturally. Each time she hesitates, I carefully repeat the question, altering the wording and inflection to make them sound as simple and benign as possible.

Me: “Really, we’re just interested in what you think. Whatever you think is fine. Do you think you’ll vote for him, or not?”
Maria: “Uh…yes?” (seeing no reaction from me) “No?”
Me: “Okay, that’s fine. Alright. Now, thinking about (Issue A), is that important to you? Do you think it’s good or bad?”
Maria: “Uhh…I think it’s good?”

The back and forth went on for several minutes. I’m trying to go completely neutral and void of any emotional expression, but my contortions only intensified the awkwardness. The interview was in free-fall. I was failing miserably to collect any genuine responses from Maria. A hot wave of panic washed over me. How can I get this back on track?

In that moment, I just had to let go.

I quit fighting it, and fell back on connecting with Maria as a person. As Maria answered my questions, I began riffing on her responses, affirming and adding detail to them. While trying not to reveal my personal opinions, I offered supportive words and gestures to elevate everything she said, so that she might open up and elaborate. Eventually, she did relax, and her answers flowed a bit more freely.

Me: “So, what about the presidential candidates?”
Maria: “I guess I’ll vote for (presidential candidate B).”
Me: “Great! Is it because he is for (issue B)?”
Maria: “Oh, that’s good. Yeah, (B) is good for us.”

Although Maria was warming up to me, I felt I was way off book. It seemed impossible not to sway her answers. Whatever I wrote down, I feared it might be swept away by the slightest shift in body position, or an eyebrow lift. Well – at least she was talking, I told myself.

Finally, we got to the end. Walking back to my car, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The hardest interview I’d ever done was over. I went out for a well-earned drink and a tragicomic debrief with my co-workers.

Sometimes you just get a dud subject, and it is what it is. But something about that 15-minute exchange with Maria struck a deeper chord in me. As I drove out of town, troubling questions lingered. What is the value of a skewed interview? Was this the only time I’d failed to be impartial? Or, had this been happening all along, in more subtle ways? How can I ever know that the data I’m collecting is pure?

Maria taught me two important things that day.

1. People make stuff up as they go along. And, we can’t always see the flaws in self-reporting.
2. The observer effect is unavoidable. Interviewers shade their work in unpredictable ways.

I’m as diligent as ever about delivering valuable insights through my research. But ever since that incident in McAllen, I draw my conclusions with a fuzzy border, in humble deference to flawed inputs and shadow projections, on both sides of the clipboard.

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This American Life on selling your idea
By Steve Portigal at 4:48 pm, Tuesday October 07 2014

Alex Blumberg has a podcast about his journey to start a podcast-related business. A recent episode of This American Life included an excerpt from this podcast (called StartUp), in which Blumberg is half-heartedly pitching his idea to investor Chris Sacca.

They talk for a while, and Alex is having difficulty in explaining his idea and what he’s asking for.

Alex Blumberg: So it’ll take a million and a half dollars, I think. And–
Chris Sacca: Take out the “I think.”
AB: Yeah. It’ll take a million and a half– I’m looking for a million and a half to $2 million in seed-stage funding.
CS: No, no, no, no, no.
AB: Yeah.
CS: You were looking for a very specific amount of money.
AB: I’m looking for– [LAUGHS NERVOUSLY]

Finally, Chris decides he’s just going to show Alex how to pitch his idea and he very masterfully riffs a confident and coherent bit of persuasion. It’s certainly worth listening to, but here’s the excerpt from the transcript.

Hey, look, can I get two minutes from you? So here’s the thing. You probably know me, producer of This American Life, been doing it for 15 years. You know it’s the most successful radio show, top of the podcasts in iTunes, et cetera.

So here’s the thing. I realize there’s a hunger for this kind of content out there and there’s none of this [BLEEP]. It’s just a bunch of jerk [BLEEP] podcasts. Nothing’s out there.

Advertisers are dying for it. Users are dying for it. And if you look at the macro environment, we’re seeing more and more podcast integrations into cars. People want this content. It’s a whole new button in the latest version of iOS.

So here’s the thing. Nobody else can make this [BLEEP]. I know how to make it better than anybody else in the world. And so I’ve already identified a few key areas where I know there’s hunger for the podcast. We’ve got the subject matter. We’re going to launch this [BLEEP]. I know there’s advertisers who want to get involved with it.

But here’s the unfair advantage I have. Because of what I’ve done in my past careers with This American Life and with Planet Money, people are actually willing to just straight-up pay for this stuff. And I’m not just talking about traditional subscriptions. I’m talking– we did this T-shirt experiment at Planet Money where we got $600,000 coming in, where people actually gave us money to buy a t-shirt with our logo on it as part of the content. It was integrated directly. And I know we can replicate that across these other platforms.

So here’s what we’re doing. We’re putting together a million and a half dollars. That’s going to buy us three, four guys who are going to launch these three podcasts in the next 12 months. We think very easily we could get to 300,000, 400,000 net subscribers across the whole thing.

With CPMs where they are in this market right now, I know on advertising alone, we could get to break even. But as we do more of this integration, we get people texting in to donate to this stuff, buying some of this product, doing some of these integrated episodes, I know that we’re going to have on our hands here something that will ultimately scale to be a network of 12, 15 podcasts. The audience is there. They want it. Nobody else can do it like we can. Are you in?

It’s so painful to hear Alex stumble and when Chris takes over, I felt a sense of relief and a certain excitement, to hear an idea presented in a way that was designed to engage and persuade. This is a valuable skill in many aspects of professional life, especially when we’re in the business of sharing ideas. The superlative example in this podcast is quite inspiring.

The relevant section starts at 19:21 in the embedded widget below.

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 9:03 am, Monday October 06 2014
  • I’m mostly over my jet lag and back to work after a couple of weeks in Europe. This week is all about following up: active proposals for this year and next, inquiries from teams looking to work together, deferred networking meetings and more. I’m excited, but the to-do list is a long one.
  • I’ve got a War Story almost ready to post, with just a bit more info required before I post it. Look for it in the next day or two!
  • Just announced – I’ll be speaking at the Warm Gun conference, December 4 in San Francisco.
  • Just announced #2 – I’ll be doing a workshop and a keynote presentation at Interaction South America, this November in Buenos Aires.
  • Ten years gone: From October 2004 – Roomba precursor offers discount just for telling a friend.
  • What we’re consuming: Ramen Dojo, East Side Gallery, Walker Evans, Stadt Land Food Festival.
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Interviewing Users: Link Roundup
By Steve Portigal at 10:00 am, Thursday October 02 2014

interviewing-users

It’s been well over a year since Interviewing Users came out. Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this occasionally with accumulated updates. If you haven’t already, get your copy here! And if you have, it would be great if you wrote a brief review on Amazon here.

The Book

Reviews

Interviews

Presentations

Other

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 11:43 am, Monday September 29 2014
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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 8:52 am, Monday September 22 2014
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People Have The Power, Says Tech
By Steve Portigal at 8:29 am, Tuesday September 16 2014

I saw this BitTorrent billboard in San Francisco last weekend.
bittorrent
Its specific message is opaque, telling us only that people are greater than servers. Hopefully we knew that already, but now we know that BitTorrent knows that too, via this techno-corporate version of a spray-painted cri de coeur. (Looking online for the image, I found the above on BitTorrent’s blog where it may refer to some peer-to-peer alternative to peer-to-cloud product, but that’s as far as I got).

The New York Times carried this full-page ad for PayPal yesterday.
paypal
Beginning with the constitutional We The People , the copy culminates with their new slogan, a graffiti-rendered People Rule.

Maybe there are humanists at both these organizations who are indeed passionate about the people they are trying to serve, but it’s hard not to be cynical about these corporations co-opting the language and aesthetics of rebellion and independence to persuade us to adopt their particular technology product versus some other. More than anything, it looks as if the tech industry is trying (yet again) to humanize its image.

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 9:51 am, Monday September 15 2014
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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 9:23 am, Monday September 08 2014
  • It’s fantastic to have this week and next week without any travel.
  • Beyond just a general gathering of wits, I’m focused on laying the groundwork for a new program, details to be revealed down the road. As well, I’m doing networking meetings and phone calls with colleagues and conversations with prospective clients, laying groundwork for the short- and medium-term.
  • Also coming up in a couple of weeks, I’m doing a workshop about synthesizing field data at EuroIA in Brussels (to be followed by a fun side trip to Berlin).
  • Ten years gone: From September 2004 – Cream puff heaven.
  • What we’re consuming: PizzaHacker, the life cycle of a catchphrase, Go For Sisters, Agony Wagon.
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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 7:25 pm, Monday September 01 2014
  • I’m sitting in the airport lounge, waiting for my flight from Sydney back to San Francisco. It’s Tuesday here, and a holiday Monday in the US. I left my AirBnB in Hobart at 4:00 am to get a flight to Melbourne and then to Sydney. I’ll be spending a good couple of days just trying t recover from a wonderful trip – a great conference with a successful workshop on mindfulness and a well-received talk about the War Stories. A recording is coming soon.
  • One last reminder/request for comments (and votes) here for my proposed War Stories talk at SXSW.
  • This weekend, I’m doing a full-day workshop on user research at UX-STRAT in Boulder.
  • Ten years gone: From September 2004 – Why not adopt a Wild Horse or Burro?.
  • What we’re consuming: Picklemouse Corner, Lincoln’s Rock, Little Rivers Dark Lager, Museum of Old and New Art, hot chocolate, Julius Popp’s Bit.fall.
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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 8:45 am, Monday August 25 2014

I can see my house from here!

  • I’m en route to Sydney for UX Australia. I’m very excited to be speaking about presence and mindfulness in my workshop The Designer is Present, and War Stories in my talk Epic Fail. The country is lovely, the people are excellent and the breakfasts are superb. I’ll be taking a day trip to the gorgeous Blue Mountains and then visiting Hobart in Tasmania very briefly, before heading home early next week.
  • Last week was Seattle, with Dan Szuc, where we did a workshop and a talk with IxDA Seattle. I spoke about soft skills and my slides are here.
  • Please comment (and vote) here for my proposed War Stories talk at SXSW.
  • After Australia, I’m doing a full-day workshop on user research at UX-STRAT in Boulder and a half-day workshop about synthesizing field data at EuroIA in Brussels. Spread the word as there is still room in both workshops.
  • Ten years gone: From August 2004 – SF discovers Nanaimo Bars, Verizon adds fees to see your bill, Team America and Thunderbirds.
  • What we’re consuming: dim sum, a big-ass warm cookie, Park Chalet, Austin Powers.
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Steve on Tuesday #TechHour
By Steve Portigal at 10:50 am, Wednesday August 20 2014

I was on Kitchener’s 570 News technology radio program yesterday, invited by the great folks from Fluxible to speak very briefly about user research. I’m on about 15 minutes in. It starts with a rousing discussion of UX’s role, where companies are doing some unpleasant things in the name of “improving the user experience.”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac).

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