Keegan-Michael Key on Improv

When I speak about improv, I point out that despite what you may think, improv is not about chaotically doing WHATEVER BLAH WHOO but rather working with highly-constrained problems, with both axes of freedom and axes of constraint. In this video Keegan-Michael Key talks about this concept in a lovely and evocative way, describing a metaphorical notion of the camera pulling back and revealing more context, and as the performer, looking for (and incorporating) more information beyond what you are given.

(Thanks, Ian Smile)

A “first interview” story

Jennifer Kim talks about her experience in preparing for (or not) conducting her first interviews. She is honest about her mistakes, and what she’s learned. I found myself feeling critical of her general neediness: when a participant doesn’t react well to her unprepared interviewing, she is hurt; when a participant gives her feedback and encourages her, she takes that to heart. It’s her job to make the participant feel good, not the other way around. But that lesson may come later, she’s the rawest of beginners and is revealing her own vulnerability in the experience, and I give her full credit for that strength of character.

(thanks to Christina Wodtke)

It’s a wrap for Dollars to Donuts, Season 2

I just wrapped up the second season of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I speak with people who lead user research. Check out all the great interviews this season. Links include transcripts and links for each episode.

An interview about The State of UX Research

I was interviewed by Jen Ignacz of Topp. We spoke about the history of user research (at least how I experienced) and some of my thoughts about the present – and future. Check out the audio and/or read the transcript here.

I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we’ve seen that we’ve done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn’t look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought “this is a real thing” – you know, companies – business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. Fortune, BusinessWeek and other magazines were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

Grant McCracken on his interview technique and mindset

Another fantastic Grant McCracken post. He conducts a short interview (embedded below) and offers a terrifically insightful reflection on his technique as well the meaning of the overall endeavor. A must-watch/read for interviewers.

Another thing I liked about the interview was the glimpse it gives of city life. In this case, of the invisible distinctions of space that are perfectly clear to Craig and a surprise to the rest of us (if and when discovered by the rest of us). The world is filled with this invisible distinctions. They surround us all the time. The secret of ethnography: keep an eye out. Ask everyone.

Sign up to get blog posts by email

Did you know that you can receive all blog posts by email? Go here to sign up.

Yeah, has long had this capability, through Feedburner, eventually bought by Google. It’s still running but it seems that Google has abandoned it. Feedburner emails look something like this


It’s not even possible to tell if it’s being supported or not; the webpages that support it seem to have been abandoned. So yeah, it runs every night, for now, and sends out postings, but it probably won’t stick around forever.

I would manually migrate Feedburner subscribers to the new Mailchimp list but it’s so broken that even though I can log in, I can’t find the actual mailing list. Support pages show many people with similar complaints.

If you’re receiving posts already, you can do nothing and probably for some time you’ll be fine. But you can also take 30 seconds to sign up here for the shiny new list!

How To Tell If Your Participant Is Faking It

Although How To Tell If Your Participant Is Faking It is mostly about usability testing and unfortunately chooses to frame the participant as “faking” (a nice word for lying) it’s nice to see this level of specific detail around the clues to look for in terms of how people express themselves.

Your participant reflects in the 3rd person. If a majority of the feedback your participant gives includes phrases such as “Some people might…” or “I have a friend who would love this…” or any other reference to someone other than themselves, then you’re probably not getting great data. They’re not exactly faking it or hiding anything, but they’re definitely not giving you relevant data about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Be sure to clarify whether they mean to really speak for themselves or not.

Listen to Steve on the Getting2Alpha podcast

I was interviewed by Amy Jo Kim for her Getting2Aplpha podcast.

Those transition rituals tell people when they are going to go into an interview, there’s a point at which you’re getting ready, you’re going over there. You’re going from an activity that’s not the interview to an activity that is the interview. Just to take a moment and say, “Okay, for the next thirty minutes, the next hundred twenty minutes, let’s just try to learn about how Joanne makes travel reservations. Let’s just make it about that.” The implicit part of that statement is that we’re not thinking about what meetings we have, what aspirations we have, what sales targets we have to make, what our burn rate for our coders is. We’re really thinking about just looking at this person and their behavior.I think that’s just a way to give yourself a break and just make it easier, not easy, but easier to really think about that experience with that person and learning about them as a complete thing. Afterwards, you can leave and you can go back and pick up your world view and make sense of this and start to triangulate and organize and learn. For those periods of time where you’re with someone to learn about them, just taking that weight of the world off your shoulders and just saying, “Okay, I’m just going to learn about them.” The transition ritual is to consciously articulate that.

Listen to the podcast here or below

Whose Job is User Research?

I was interviewed by Laura Klein and we discussed Whose Job is User Research?

Not every research study requires an expert at the helm. Quite a few products would benefit from having somebody on the main product team who could quickly get feedback or answers to simple questions. “Even a newbie researcher should be able to answer some factual questions about what people are doing or might want to do. They also have the opportunity to reflect on what assumptions they were holding onto that were incorrect,” Steve explains. “You’ll always get more questions to go with your answers, but hoo boy–it’s better than never talking to users and acting with confident ignorance.”There are some questions you’re better off bringing in an expert, though. “The more help you need in connecting the business problem with the research approach and connecting the observations to the business implications, the more expert help you need,” Steve explains.

Check out the whole article.

Make sure you’re still subscribed to Dollars to Donuts

When I launched the new just over two weeks ago, there were some changes to Dollars to Donuts. Episodes don’t appear on the blog, instead they are all now on the dedicated podcast page. There are separate feeds for the blog and the podcast as well.

If you subscribe in iTunes ideally the transition was seamless. You should have the last two episodes (Kavita Appachu, Elizabeth Kell). If you don’t have them, please go to iTunes and resubscribe.

Welcome to the new Portigal website!

Today, after about 13 months of work, we launched a brand new website. As always happens, you don’t quite know what’s working until you get it on its feet. If you usually see posts via an RSS reader, will this post show up? I hope so. But what about podcasts? Well, we’ve moved those into a separate space and so they may or may not be showing up as part of your feeds.

And if you used to get posts by email? There is probably a few different ways to do that and we discovered that one of them had been broken for about 4 months — so badly broken that the list of subscribers is gone, etc. Whoosh. So, you’ll want to resubscribe if you like seeing posts every once in a while in your inbox. Does the current subscribe functionality work? Is it turned on?

Anyway, let us know if you find something that doesn’t work as we’re going to keep playing with the details until we get it fully working. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Learning from kids interviewing bands

Kids Interview Bands is a series of videos of, obviously, kids interviewing bands. I propose these videos as a lightweight teaching tool for interviewing as it’s curious to see what goes well and what doesn’t.

The different kid interviewers are coming with a set of stock questions which they ask one after another, with practically no followup. So they never become an actual conversation and the amount of insightful revelation is low. But the kids are real, as little kids, and many of the band members respond to them in a real way.

I first came across this interview with Tom Araya of Slayer as an overall bad example, but I found it incredibly charming.

These people have very little in common, and perhaps limited skills in overcoming that gulf, but Araya never talks down to them, he never plays up his persona, he just does his best to connect with them, never forgetting they are children.

In a slightly different vein, I also liked this interview with Pustulus Maximus of GWAR who absolutely stays within the bounds of his horrific persona, but is kind and entertaining with the kids. He manages to work within his character and the context of the interview, and even though he plays a sort of monster, he doesn’t act like one.

In some ways, the limitations of these interviewers (they are just kids!) highlights other aspects that can contribute to a good interview – participants that take on some of the labor of establishing rapport and making that connection with the other person. And even if the kids don’t ask good follow-up questions (or any), their naturalness serves as an invitation to the musicians to meet them in that state.

Out and About: Steve in Brooklyn

I was in Brooklyn in October to teach a workshop at the Delve event. Here’s some of what I saw when I was in town.


Hotel housekeeping messages left on the headboard. Have we reached Peak Sticky?

A tempting do-not-touch.




A listening bootcamp


Listen Up! is an online program from WNYC to help improve listening skills.

It’s not easy to improve our hearing. But everyone has the ability to become a better listener. Only Human invites you to participate in a listening bootcamp, with guidance from a memory champion, a world-class mediator, actors and improv comics, we’ve got five challenges designed to help you sharpen your listening skills.

Animal Dissonance


United is promoting their copious legroom by suggesting they can accommodate a giraffe. But of course, giraffes (as show in their image) are known for their long necks, not legs. Sure, they have long legs, too, but that’s the primary association. They have big toes, don’t they? Dr. Scholl’s us not going to use them in advertising (unless they come out with a new NECK powder). Giraffe :: Neck.

An opportunity for a clear message but instead it’s an obscure message.

The Designer is Present keynote at Interact 15

I recently presented The Designer is Present as the closing keynote for Interact 15. I adapted a workshop I had given at Fluxible, UX Australia and World IA Day into a shorter interactive talk. Below is the video, slides and a short interview.



Interview with James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom for the User Experience podcast

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Listen to Steve on the UX Podcast


I was interviewed by James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom for the User Experience podcast, in advance of today’s keynote The Designer is Present. You can listen to our short conversation below.

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).

in memoriam: Steve Sato

I was stunned and saddened the other day to learn that Steve Sato had passed away. I had known him as a friend and colleague for many many years. In 2014, Steve contributed a War Story and then got up at my CHIFOO presentation and told his story to the group. It’s a lovely story that I think captures Steve’s humanity as he reveals how life at home grounded him creatively and intellectually no matter how far away, geographically, he was.

Thanks to CHIFOO, we’ve got a short video of Steve’s talk (embedded below) and I’m reposting his story below that.

Finding Mojo In The Moment

We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

Coming in 2016, a new book about War Stories


I’m working on another book! It’s Epic Fail: Design Research War Stories, and is based on the War Stories that I’ve been gathering since 2012.

As design researchers, we love stories. At its simplest, our job is to gather stories and to retell them. War stories are accounts of contextual user research (research out in the field) and the inevitable mishaps that ensue. These stories are in turn bizarre, comic, tragic, and generally astonishing. This book will share some of the best stories, examine the patterns revealed by the stories, and articulate the valuable lessons they reveal.

Support the War Stories for SXSW and more!

Watch this space for a big announcement about the War Stories coming up after Labor Day. In the meantime, I’ve applied to speak about War Stories in design research at SXSW. You can help here (whether or not you are planning to attend SXSW) by creating an account, voting thumbs up for the proposed talk and even adding a comment.

We’ve got three recent stories, all from the Kitchener-Waterloo area: Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas, Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe and Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh. And coming up next month at Fluxible in Kitchener-Waterloo, I’ll be presenting Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories Project.

This Week @ Portigal

Jennifer’s War Story: Keeping the Lights on in Vegas

Jennifer Pretti is the Manager of the User Experience Design Team at Christie Digital in Kitchener, Canada.

At Christie Digital, we have a very niche population of users. Opportunities to observe them using our projectors are highly coveted by my UX team. In February 2014, we were invited by a good customer of ours, Staging Techniques, to observe their setup for the keynote address at Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference. The event was taking place at the Venetian Hotel, in Las Vegas, and the keynote speaker was going to be Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton!

Three of us from Christie made the trip: me, Chris (my lead industrial designer), and a software developer, Eric. Although I had conducted many user sessions for Christie before, this was the first time I was going on site to observe a live event setup and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My biggest worry was that, even though we made it clear we were there just to observe, I would be asked to answer a technical question or troubleshoot some problem and not have a clue what to say or do.

Setup was to begin at midnight the day we arrived. Working night shifts is very common for projectionists since it’s the best time to see and calibrate the light as other setup crews are already done and out of the way. The thought of staying up for a night shift wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to, especially given jet lag was going to make it feel 3 hours later. But I hoped a mix of adrenaline and caffeine would do the trick.

After landing in Vegas, we headed down to the Expo Hall to get our bearings. The scale of everything in Vegas is massive and oversized, and the hall was no exception. It was a gigantic space – at least two football fields long and one football field wide – and it was completely empty and bare. Whatever vision the event planners had for the space seemed hopelessly unattainable in the 5 days left before the show.

When we arrived, big transport trucks were pulling into the hall to start unloading the many tons of equipment that would be needed to run the show. It was clear that they were behind schedule already. Trusses and scaffolding needed for rigging the projectors hadn’t yet been built, so we decided to split up, with Chris covering the first night shift, and Eric and I heading to bed to get some much needed sleep.

Eric and I returned to the site early the next morning to relieve Chris. The first few hours of our observation time were slow and uneventful due to continued delays with the truss work, but eventually things picked up, and soon projectors were being powered on and rigged into position. Excitement peaked when one of the projectors failed to power on. I stood poised to capture an epic story of problem solving and error recovery, but the crew just shrugged, taped an ‘X’ on the top of the projector, and replaced it with a spare one. Even after I got in touch with tech support to help explain the error code (highlighting quite clearly that our error messages need a lot of work), it didn’t change their approach. Time is money and using a functional projector was simply the most efficient option. Whatever the problem was, it could wait until they were back in the office to sort out.

It became clear by the end of the second night that the most interesting portions of the setup would be delayed past our planned departure date. The senior projectionist, Pete, pleaded for one of us to stay a bit longer. I think there was mix of professional pride in his insistence, but (happily for us) a realization of the mutual benefit of our presence, observing their workflows and listening to their wishlists. It was on account of his enthusiasm that I agreed to change my flight and stay an extra night. My fatigued body howled in despair. Another night shift? Are you crazy?!

There is no better place to change your sleeping patterns than Vegas. That city looks the same no matter what the hour: there are always people walking around, always a restaurant open, and enough indoor walkways that it could be any time of day. Hotel rooms come equipped with industrial-strength black-out curtains, whose existence I suddenly appreciated in a whole new light (pun intended), as I tried to convince my body that falling asleep at 10 AM was a totally legit plan.

The little sleep I got left me with major doubts that I could keep up a respectable and coherent state of mind for my last night. However, early into the shift, Pete insisted I help him colour match the displays. Colour matching 26 projectors is a very laborious activity that had us whizzing around on a golf cart, playing with light meters, and debating whether one projector was a fraction more magenta than the other. Shifting from observer to honorary crew member made the night fly by and gave me a more rich perspective of how our products are used.

I didn’t sleep until I was on the airplane later that afternoon. I welcomed the rest, but felt a pang of regret for not extending my trip long enough to see Bill Clinton speak. As social media began to light up with pictures of the event, I cheered for Staging Techniques and Christie for a job well done. And smiled knowing that Bill Clinton was walking on the same stage where I had been, just 24 hours ago.

This Week @ Portigal

I know it’s Thursday, but I’ve been on vacation all week, so here’s what’s going on for the remainder of this week

Julia’s War Story: For Want Of A Shoe

Julia Thompson is a Design Research & Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, Canada.

It all started with a simple question from the dispatcher: “Do you want a call when your taxi arrives?” My nonchalant answer: “No thanks, I should be okay.” was the nail in my coffin. This was my first error in a series of cascading mistakes.

The next morning I was heading out-of-country for in-home interviews. That night, in an effort to be as prepared as possible, I called to arrange a taxi for an early morning pickup. I hung up the phone and proceeded to pack my bags. I considered carefully what to pack. I visualised my next few days: what would the weather be like? What would be my mode of transportation? What clothing would be appropriate for the work – casual enough to fit into a home environment and dressy enough to fit into an office environment? I was sure that I had considered all the details. Unfortunately, the most important detail, my alarm, was what I missed.

Satisfied with my preparation, I went to bed, and slept well. The next morning I awoke feeling refreshed. With birds chirping outside, sunlight filled the room. Yet something felt terribly wrong. What time was it? Why was it so light out? I picked up my phone, checked my alarm, and then checked the time. My stomach fell to the floor. My flight was leaving now. Sheer panic overtook me. I couldn’t think straight. I had never missed a flight before. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was paralyzed, I had no idea what to do. I grabbed my phone and called our corporate travel agent. It felt like hours as I waited on hold to ask my pressing questions: Could I still make my interview? When was the next flight? Could I fly out of a different airport instead? The sound of my heartbeat drowned out every noise as I sat there waiting, palms sweating, phone clutched. The agent came back on the line and said there was a flight leaving from another airport in 2 hours. Could I make it there in time? It’s almost rush hour. It’s an hour’s drive with no traffic. What about parking? Customs? Security? If I took the car, how would my husband get to work? On top of all that the agent still wasn’t sure whether there was room on the flight. We decided, together, that I should start driving and I should stay on the line while she called the airline to confirm availability. I jumped in the car, with my phone on the passenger seat and that awful music taunting me as I continued to wait, on hold. I got about 10 minutes down the road when the agent told me to pull over and go home. That flight wouldn’t be mine. I would settle for another flight, hours later, and hours after my scheduled interview.

Later that day, as my plane came in for its landing, I just felt low. I was tired from the emotional rollercoaster of missing my flight, I was anxious knowing I’d have to tell the people I was working with what had happened and I was sad that I had missed out on an interview and the opportunity to see, first-hand, into the life of one of our customers. The only thing saving me was the fact that I was the client and so, even though I missed the interview, it still went ahead as scheduled.

The following day I awoke, in the right place and at the right time, with a better perspective on life. Our local research partner was gracious enough to include me in an interview that day. I was thankful. I was relieved. But now, that meant there would be four of us attending this interview. Two consultants and two clients; two too many. The consultant had called ahead and confirmed with our interviewee that it would be okay if an additional person (me!) attended the interview. Our interviewee was very accommodating and agreed to have all four of us into her home. I was so preoccupied with resolving my own error that I didn’t consider, until later, how the dynamic of the interview would now be affected.

We all got to the interview, we all walked in, we all sat down in the chairs offered to us by our interviewee. As everyone was setting up I started to look around and take note of the environment. I noticed several pairs of shoes neatly arranged by the front door. I looked over at our host, I looked down: bare feet. My eyes darted around the room, I looked down at all our feet. All four of us had our shoes on, laces tied. Bah! We were the worst guests ever. Weren’t we all, as researchers, supposed to notice something so simple but so important?

I spent the next five minutes cursing myself, my missed flight, the totally wrong and overpowering dynamic of four researchers to one customer, and the miss on basic shoe etiquette. I had to shake it off – all the feelings of shame, all the feelings of doubt – and I had to focus. I had to be in the moment, I had to get the most I could out of the interview and I had to show the interviewee the respect she deserved.

It ended up being a great discussion. It was, by no means, a textbook in-context interview, but we had a nice dynamic emerge nonetheless. My story is not one of a single epic fail, but instead of a series of errors with a cascading effect. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” Here, we had not a want for a shoe, we had too many.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy August!

  • I’m in Denver doing fieldwork. We’ve already done half of the interviews (fascinating, as always!) and will be finishing up over the next two days. Then I’m back home, doing as much post-fieldwork wrap-up as I can before heading out on vacation, after which I’ll be doing the second phase of fieldwork in DC. Phew!
  • Meanwhile, I’m incubating a number of interesting prospective engagements to follow this, from training and workshops to few different versions of advising to collaborating with another agency on fieldwork in Asia.
  • I’ll be teaching my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard at two upcoming events: in San Francisco at the end of August for UX Week and in London in October for Interact 15.
  • Ten years gone: From August 2005 – Stories about fruit, Herbeau Creations Dagobert Throne Toilet, Wired Glamor
  • What we’re consuming: KD, LaMar’s Donuts, What is Jazz?, Uncle, Doggie DNA testing, MetalCaptcha,

This Week @ Portigal

Howdy, all….

  • The travel is booked. The incentive envelopes are stuffed. The field guide is revised. Now we’re just waiting for the recruiter to fill the slots this weekend and next week. I know it always works out but it’s nerve-wracking having everything but participants.
  • While I wait for fieldwork to kick off, I’m doing the usual mix of prepping for upcoming talks and chatting with clients about future engagements.
  • I’ll be teaching my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard at two upcoming events: in San Francisco at the end of August for UX Week and in London in October for Interact 15.
  • Ten years gone: From July 2005 – Library rhetoric, my rant against the anti-flipchart rant, a visit to Adobe, ABC Stores.
  • What we’re consuming: Jurassic World, Boiling Beijing, Rolling Pin Donuts.

The Insight at Scale track from Enterprise UX

A couple of months ago I moderated the “Insight at Scale” track at the Enterprise UX conference, which featured three presentations and discussion. The videos for each presentation (and our discussion) are below as well as links to the slide decks. There’s also sketch notes for the whole session.

Insight Types That Influence Enterprise Decision Makers – Christian Rohrer, Vice President and Chief Design Officer, Intel Security (slides)

Data Science and Design: A Tale of Two Tribes – Chris Chapo, Operations at ENJOY (slides)

Emotion Economy: Ethnography as Corporate Strategy – Kelly Goto, author of Web Redesign 2.0 (slides)


This Week @ Portigal

Welcome to the week!

This Week @ Portigal

A hearty welcome to the week!

  • We’re finalizing a few reports this weeks: discussions with client stakeholders, a review of our client’s existing research and secondary reports, and finally our own secondary reserach. In addition to giving us a lot of big questions to chew on, it’s also informing who we want to talk to for this study and we’ve got a screener almost finalized and ready to share with recruiters for fieldwork in DC and Denver next month.
  • I’ve been waiting for about 3 months for a contract to make it’s way through the corporate purchasing process; we got one document signed last week and any day now we hope to get the next one signed and then schedule a kickoff meeting. Every week I think that that maybe it’ll happen next week, and then…we wait. Still, we’re all astonished at how long it’s taking!
  • We got a new War Story last week from Susan Simon Daniels. Check it out!
  • In London this October, I’ll be at Interact 15 to teach a workshop, Soft Skills Are Hard.
  • Ten years gone: From July 2005 – Facehugger plushie, the end of free pretzels, squid spam.
  • What we’re consuming: Jersey, PACHI, architectural lattice, bamboo.

Susie’s War Story: A Sigh Is Just A Sigh

Susan Simon Daniels is a Senior Design Insights Analyst at BlackBerry in Waterloo, ON.

In September 2012, I was interviewing people who had recently purchased and set up a smartphone. During the interview, I asked the participants to unbox and set up another, new smartphone to see if any usability problems emerged.

One of the interviews was with a male in his late 40s who worked as a translator for people whose first language was not English (I’ll call him “Rick.”) As he unpacked the box that contained the new smartphone, Rick frowned and sighed. I watched silently and noted that a few moments later Rick sighed again.

At this point, the researcher inside my brain was shouting, “Red alert! There’s a problem! There’s a problem!” After a few more moments, I turned to him and said, “Rick, I noticed you’re frowning a bit and you’ve sighed a couple of times. Can you tell me why?”

I waited, fingers poised to capture the fatal flaw that the participant had discovered in the product set up – something so egregious that it evoked a heavy sigh!

Rick turned to me and instead shared a personal story. Both he and his spouse had recently lost their parents. These major life events, complicated by delays in traveling to another continent for funerals and family arrangements, left a lingering sadness that crept up on Rick during quiet moments.

His sigh was just a sigh – not a signal of a defect or usability issue to solve, but a personal moment I happened to witness. We talked for a few minutes about his loss and how he was feeling and then Rick returned to the task at hand and continued to unbox and set up the phone.

We had passed through an awkward moment. I felt I had rudely probed into an open wound. But I had to ask the question. I couldn’t assume the frown and sighs were caused by the product or process. My job was to get to the why. At the same time, by taking a few minutes to let the person share how he was feeling, I was able to give Rick the time he needed to gather himself together and continue with the task at hand.

In the end, Rick contributed by uncovering a couple of areas of improvement for the product. And I found that taking a moment to pause, to just be human beings who shared a bit of sympathy, allowed us to resume the interview with dignity and purpose.

I’m reminded of a verse from the song “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) from the classic war-romance movie Casablanca.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And the fundamental things do apply: never assume and always ask “why?”

This Week @ Portigal

Ugh. The Monday after a long weekend is dislocating. The fact that I stayed up until 2:00 am restoring an errant PC is probably not helping.

This Week @ Portigal

It’s officially summer!

This Week @ Portigal

Monday, Monday, Monday.

This Week @ Portigal

Well, a good day to all!

A new article about what I learned while doodling

I’ve just published What I Learned From 100 Doodles in 100 Days, my first article in a long time. Here’s an excerpt, but check out the whole thing on Medium.

Last November I sat in the audience at the HOW Interactive Design Conference as Jim Krause spoke about “Habitual Creativity.” He talked about breaking out of unconscious habits (e.g., driving to work the same way each day and never really “seeing” what was around you) and creating new habits by taking on new behaviors. At some point during his talk, I made a note that read simply “100 doodles in 100 days project.”

The idea of taking something new and doing it deliberately and repeatedly appealed to me. I was even reminded of other efforts like Rachel Hinman’s 2008 project “90 mobiles in 90 days.”

After making the note, I set the idea aside, eventually deciding to kick the project off in the New Year. I framed the task in a way that was safe for me. No, don’t worry, I’m not drawing, I’m not even sketching. I’m just doodling! Doodles aren’t of consequence, they’re little visuals you do mindlessly in the margin of your notebook to keep your hands busy while talking on the telephone. They aren’t intended to be “good” (whatever that means).


This Week @ Portigal

Howdy to a sunny Monday to begin the week.

  • I’m back to Boston on Wednesday for one last quick trip. We’re running a day of brainstorming workshops with our client, helping them to think divergently about the different products and services they could create to support their users better. We’re all very excited about it. I’m especially pleased that even though I was supposed to have completed my work a few weeks ago, they extended my contract so that I could be part of these workshops.
  • We just got a greenlight for another project and I expec this week will see a small flurry of contract and schedule activity. Probably right at the same time as another project – one that has been moving very slowly through the approval process – will blossom. It’ll work out, somehow!
  • Tomorrow I’ll be publishing an article about the 100 Doodles in 100 Days project. This is the first piece I’ve written in a very long time; I can’t think of anything that I’ve written in the two years since Interviewing Users came out. I’m looking forward to your reactions.
  • My hosts at RGD recorded last week’s Interviewing Users webinar; as soon as I have the link I’ll post the video.
  • I’ll be returning to Fluxible in September, speaking about War Stories.
  • I’ll be doing the closing keynote at Interact 15 in London this October. Details about a workshop coming soon.
  • A lot of people are asking when Dollars to Donuts is coming back. I’m looking for sponsors who can help defray the costs to produce another season. If your organization can help, please get in touch.
  • Ten years gone: From June 2005 – Campbell’s Soup seed cans, captive airline advertising, John Doe around the world.
  • What we’re consuming: Tetro, Momiji.

Out and About: Steve in San Antonio

A couple of weeks ago I was in San Antonio, where I was one of the presenters and workshop leaders at the Enterprise UX conference. Here are some of my pictures.

Out the hotel window, before the sun comes up.

Welcome to the party.

This toilet was flirting with me.

Roasted? Iced? Local language norms or just really fancy catering?

Conference breakfasts.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy June!

  • I’m in town this week for the first time in a while. I’ll be working on planning another set of workshops for our Boston folks next week. Yep, I thought I was rolling off that project, but they very graciously invited me to continue so I’ll be back next week.
  • I’ll look for some more info this week on the other projects that are gently and slowly incubating, so that I can make some resource scheduling/planning/etc. for the next few months. It’s an uncertain feeling, teetering on the edge between structure and plans, just trying to roll with it.
  • Meanwhile, I’m networking, including lunch with some Hungarian visitors, and doing some writing, rewriting, and plotting to write!
  • I’ll be doing a webinar about Interviewing Users this week; hope to “see” you there!
  • Ten years gone: From June 2005 – Wet Pain, Pete’s Tofu2Go desserts, R.I.P. Scott Young.
  • What we’re consuming: Let’s Start a Riot, Udupi Palace, Children’s Letters to Frankenstein, Kids in the Hall.

An inflection point for user research: scandal

A user researcher is front and center in a Silicon Valley competitor-workers legal snarl.

One now-former employee, Ana Rosario, was hired by Fitbit as a user experience researcher around April 16 but did not disclose that she planned to leave Jawbone until April 22, the complaint said. On April 20, according to the complaint, Ms. Rosario held a meeting with Jawbone’s senior director of product management to discuss the company’s future plans and then downloaded what the company said was a “playbook” outlining its future products.During her exit interviews, Ms. Rosario initially denied taking confidential information, but she later acknowledged downloading its “Market Trends & Opportunities” presentation, the complaint said.

I don’t know Ana (although LinkedIn shows me I know many people who do know her); I do know people at Jawbone (and probably people at Fitbit). I’m not sharing this to comment on any of the players or the details of the situation itself, but to note at a meta-level that in the trajectory of user research as a business function, it’s grown in prominence to the point where you can pick up the New York Times one morning and see a story like this.

This Week @ Portigal

It’s a holiday Monday!

This Week @ Portigal

Hello, Monday!

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Greetings to all.

This Week @ Portigal

Happy May!

Interviewing Users: Link Roundup (Second Anniversary Edition)


Wow. It’s been two years since my first book Interviewing Users was released. Here’s a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. If you haven’t already, you should buy a copy here! It would be fantastic if you wrote a quick review on Amazon here.

The Book





This Week @ Portigal

And a welcome back to the work week to all.

  • I’m onsite with a client all day today, running a workshop with ten leaders from around the world to dig into how they can better leverage their UX capability in product development. I’ve been interviewing these folks over the past few weeks and I’ll be starting this workshop with what I’ve heard from them, but then structuring the day so they are prioritizing the issues and creating possible solutions together. I’m expecting an intense and rewarding day.
  • Soft Skills is coming up in San Antonio in mid-May, as part of Enterprise UX. I’m pretty excited about this expanded version of the workshop. Read more here and sign up, using PORTIGAL15 for a discount.
  • Next week I’m in Houston to lead a two-day training workshop on user research. I can confirm that I’ve found donut, taco and BBQ options near where I’m staying, too!
  • I am in pre-pre-production on another series of Dollars to Donuts. Right now I’m working on lining up a couple of additional sponsors.
  • This Wednesday I will be answering questions about insights and innovation in Ask the UXpert.
  • Ten years gone: From April 2005 – Bumblebee Entree-Style Tuna, SF cabs get touch-screens for some reason, Design without Reach.
  • What we’re consuming: Top Five, Le Samouraï, Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, House of Lies

This Week @ Portigal

It sure is starting to feel like spring!

  • I’m back from an exhausting and exhilarating week of interviews in Boston. 21 people in 4 days is a more intense schedule than I’d normally plan for but it’s just how things worked out. Back a few days and already the transcripts are pouring in!
  • This week I’m wrapping up conversations with stakeholders and digging into the final details for next week’s workshop (with another organization).
  • The soft skills workshop sold out at Interaction 15 and I’m getting inquiries about running the workshop again in a few different locations. Meanwhile, it’s coming up soon as part of Enterprise UX. Use discount PORTIGAL15 to save when you register for my workshop about Soft Skills coming up in San Antonio in mid-May.
  • I’m finalizing logistics and starting to dig into the detailed content for a two-day training workshop I’m leading for a big corporation in Houston in early May.
  • I’m also planning a program to a really exciting research and strategy project and trying to outline a new article!
  • I will be answering questions about insights and innovation in Ask the UXpert on April 29.
  • Ten years gone: From April 2005 – Budweiser patriotism, Snapple-a-day, portion control packaging.
  • What we’re consuming: We Put a Chip In It!, The Dutch Goose, Silicon Valley, Veep.

This Week @ Portigal

Well, happy Monday to all!

This Week @ Portigal

It’s April, everyone.

This Week @ Portigal

Howdy Monday!

This Week @ Portigal

Happy Spring!

  • It’s one of those weeks where we wrap up a project. I’m not taking the lead on this, but am dipping into the process constantly to see where the presentation is at, giving feedback and other edits, and checking in with the client to see if we’re tracking on their goals. Phew!
  • It’s a short week I take an extra long weekend in wine country this weekend.
  • One project kicked off last week and we’re now setting up interviews on their campus in April and figuring out what we need to be talking about. At the same time, the team is looking for industry experts and doing some secondary research in the space. It’s shaping up to be a great collaboration.
  • Only a few tickets remain for for Moments of Influence, an interactive talk I’m doing with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee.
  • I’ve already had a good conversation today about my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard, part of the Enterprise UX conference this May in San Antonio. Please join me and also spread the word!
  • Check out these video highlights from my World IA Day workshop The Designer is Present.
  • I’ve just posted the latest 10 doodles.
  • On Thursday I’ll be listening to Josh Seiden’s webinar Beyond Brainstorming: Create Breakthrough Ideas for Innovation.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – vivid colors for your pet.
  • What we’re consuming: Birdman, Cookie Monster, Life Coach, Enter Sandman, Cowboy Fishing Co..

This Week @ Portigal

  • My agency client is working diligently to get a draft presentation together. I’m helping to shape the insights and implications and to ensure they are well-articulated. We’re in the home stretch.
  • I’m kicking off two projects this week. In one I’ll be guiding a client team as they plan for, conduct, and analyze ethnographic research. In another, I’ll be partnering with a couple of other small consultancies in a project that follows on some work I did with this same client last year. It looks like travel to Boston and Las Vegas will be coming up in the next little while!
  • I’ll also be in Houston in May to lead a two-day user research workshop onsite for a client.
  • Also in Texas in May, I’ll be part of the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio. I’ll be leading an extended version of my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard. You should join us!
  • Coming up in a few weeks in San Francisco, I’ll be presenting Moments of Influence, in collaboration with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee. We’re starting to plot our topics and some exercises as well.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – creaky neighbor car, no sugar – no difference, apple tasting notes.
  • What we’re consuming: Hapa ramen, Chuck Klosterman, Steve’s ice cream.

Steve’s War Story: Giggling and Grunting

I originally posted this in 2006, and revised it slightly for Interviewing Users. I thought it was time to add it to the War Stories archive and so here’s the original version.

As we rang the doorbell, my colleague and I unconsciously straightened, preparing ourselves for that all-important first impression, that moment when our research participant would come to the door and size us up. We waited for a moment, looking at each other as we heard footsteps, mustering a smile as the inside door opened.
“Hello,” I offered, “Are you Brian?”

As I began to state the obvious, that we were here for the interview, he grunted, opened the screen door, and as we took hold, he turned around and walked back into the house. We glanced at each other, and stepped into the foyer. What did we know about Brian? Our recruiting screener told us he was 22, lived with his parents, and his brother, and was employed part-time. The rest would be up to us to discover.

It was 7:30 in the morning and we were taking our shoes off in a strange house. Eventually someone beckoned from the kitchen, and we came in. But already we were out of sync. The kitchen was small, with an L-shaped counter, and a small table for dining. The mother was at the end of the L, working with bowls and dishes and burners on the stove. The father was perched against the counter, while Brian, and his younger brother sat at the table. The father was a small man, while the other three were quite large. The room wasn’t intended for the six of us, so we managed to set ourselves up for our interview in the only place we could; at the far end of the counter, at the far end of the table. We wedged ourselves (one behind the other) on small chairs, pulling our knees in, our paraphernalia of notepads, documents, video cameras, tapes, batteries etc. clutched in close. It wasn’t ideal, but we hoped we could make it work.

But then the real challenge became clear – although Brian had agreed for us to meet and do this interview, he was actively disinterested. We were positioned 45 degrees behind him, in his blind spot. With his physical bulk, he managed to loom over his food in a way that eliminated even any peripheral eye contact; somehow this was something a smaller person couldn’t have done. His brother sat across from him, echoing his posture.

We had recruited Brian specifically, but of course, here we were with the entire family. We pressed ahead, explaining our study, and starting in with our planned questions. Since Brian was the person with whom we had the arrangement, we focused our attention on him. He would not respond, beyond one word answers (which sounded more like grunts), and the occasional glance up to his brother, causing them both to giggle.

My colleague and I avoided looking at each other (it may have not been physically possible, given the tight quarters) for fear of displaying our despair at the situation. Sure, we had arranged this interview, but the cues we were receiving were making it clear the arrangement wasn’t worth much. At this point, we had already woke up quite early to do this interview, so there was no point in giving up. If they changed their mind explicitly, they’d let us know, and we’d leave. Meanwhile, what else was there to do but press on? I asked questions, with very little response. I tried the brother, at which point Brian bolted out of the room for a few minutes, without a word. The brother was only slightly more amenable than Brian, mostly interested in making critical comments about his parents (to Brian’s great grunting enjoyment) as much as provide any actual information.

Indeed, the mother and father seemed not to have been warned that we would be coming; although I directed some of the questioning towards the mom, she reacted with pretty serious hostility, informing us (in the context of an answer to a question) that they did not welcome strangers into their house, and (while she was preparing food) highlighted the intimate nature of food preparation as a symbol, and that was even less open to strangers. The message was very clear.

But again, what could we do? Pressing on, until asked to leave, under the explicit agreement we had made, seemed the best approach. We asked our questions, following up on the information they had shared, listening closely, looking for clarification, offering up as much space as we could for them to talk, all in trying to build some flow and dialog. Even though the message was negative, at least the parents were willing to talk to us. And so, the young men faded out of the conversation, and the interview eventually switched over to the parents. Two hours later it turned out that we had completed an excellent interview with them; they each had great stories about our topic area, and revealed a lot of background about their family, about growing up, about their activities, and even their perspectives on what made the United States the country it had become.

Before we left the house, the mother insisted on cooking up some fried bread fresh and hot for us; admonishing us that “no one comes here and doesn’t get food” – reiterating the intimate nature of food she had mentioned at the beginning, but this time as a compliment rather than a shield.

As soon as we left the house, my colleague turned to me and said “I don’t know how you pulled that off; I thought we were done for and would have to leave.” I was very pleased with how the interview turned out, especially because it began at such a low point, but there was little magic to it. I didn’t try to solve the big problem of the complex dynamic we had walked into; I focused (especially at first) on just the next problem; the immediate challenge of what to say next. I was certainly keeping the larger goals in mind of how to cover all the areas we were interested in, but I was focusing my energy as an interviewer on the next thing. And by working at it in small pieces, bit by bit, the dynamic shifted. As interviewers, we had to compartmentalize the social experience of the event – the extreme discomfort and awkwardness of the early part of the interview, and just stick to our jobs. We didn’t handle the situation that differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up (and showing that we were listening by the way we followed up), building rapport and trust, bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information.

Years later, it’s obvious that there are better ways to communicate with the participants ahead of time to screen out unwilling participants. For example, the person who is going to be in the field should always speak live to the person they will be visiting before they day of the interview just to get that person-to-person communication started early, so both parties can get a sense of each other and start to feel comfortable (or agree that it’s not a good fit and move on to someone else). But, given the diversity of people, we will always end up interviewing people who are more or less comfortable with the process, and it’s our job to make them comfortable in order to get the information we are interested in. Doing so may make us uncomfortable ourselves, but with practice we must learn to set aside the social dynamics and focus on the question asking and listening that will make the interview a success.

This Week @ Portigal

  • I’m sitting in on a handful of remote interviews today and tomorrow, following up on some diary studies and getting in our last questions as the data collection phase of this project wraps up. I’m advising the team as they work through an outline of what we’ll be delivering; looking for that shift from an amalgamation of findings to a narrative that points the way forward for our client.
  • Coming up in a few weeks in San Francisco, I’ll be presenting Moments of Influence, in collaboration with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee
  • As part of the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio in May, I’ll be leading an extended version of my workshop Soft Skills Are Hard. Hope to see you there!
  • Out on the town: On Thursday evening I’ll be at an sneak-preview event for IDEO U.
  • Ten years gone: From March 2005 – Lord of the Rings, the musical, A Few Tips to Cope With Life’s Annoyances scented bowling balls, Grapple – grape-infused apples.
  • What we’re consuming: Ai Wewei @Large, Suppenküche, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.
  • Facilitation and exercises for creativity and presence

    I run different types of workshops with clients and at events and have built up a number of different activities that invite the participants to have a novel moment and then reflect on it to reveal something potentially profound. I’ve written my current favorites, but welcome suggestions, additions, requests for clarification, and so on.

    1. The Superpower Intro

    • When starting out a group session, everyone introduces themselves in turn, with their name and their super-power.
    • It’s best not to over-constrain what constitutes a super-power. Some will speak about the thing that brings the group together (e.g., work), some will talk about their personal lives, and so on.

    I nicked this exercise from Marissa Louie who used it as a way to kick-off a talk. But you can use this to go in a number of different directions. In my workshops on soft skills, I’ve adopted this warm-up because it often happens that the kinds of things people share as their super-powers are indeed soft skills. It can be a positive way to see all the things that people are good at (actually great at!). Christina Wodtke does a variation where people, in pairs, ask each other for stories about an experience or accomplishment they are proud of, and then tell that person what they think their super-power is.

    2. Doodling

    There are many ways to doodle, but here’s what I’ve been doing as part of my 100 doodles in 100 days project

    • Get a pen and piece of paper.
    • Close your eyes – or look away – and move the pen. Make a scrawl or a squiggle. Don’t try to make anything happen, just get some marks down.
    • Now look at what you’ve got and try to create something out of it. It can be abstract. Or it might look like something. For fun, you might want to draw eyes and a mouth, animal parts (see Dave Gray’s amazing Squiggle Birds exercise).
    • Don’t take too long, but try to think about when the doodle is done.

    This isn’t about producing something good, artistic, or even visually pleasing. It’s about taking an activity that usually is very deliberate, where we are focused on the outcome and trying to do it differently. You can reflect on how it felt to “draw” this way and how you feel about your output.

    3. Storytelling Circle

    This is an improv game played with 6 – 8 people.

    • Get in a circle. If you are doing the game in a larger group, you can make a semi-circle so that the everyone is facing out to the rest of the group.
    • As with many improv games, get three suggestions from the audience. You might ask for a proper name, the name of a place, a household object, something you might find in a purse, etc.
    • The people in the circle are to tell a story (incorporating those elements) one word a time. Go around and around until you are done!
    • Move quickly and aim to have the sentences the group creates come out almost as quickly as if one person was speaking.
    • One trick is for everyone to be ready to start a new sentence. The almost-default of a run-on sentence isn’t much fun to do or to watch.
    • Don’t throw all your story elements in at once, and try to look for the ending to the story.

    I like to do a couple of rounds of this until everyone has gone and then debrief about the experience. What was it like to do this? What were you thinking when you were playing? What did you observe when you were watching?

    There are some common responses when I debrief this activity, but I also hear something new every time.

    I teach an entire workshop about improv (video, slides). And just for fun, you can see some hilarious improv anti-patterns in this clip.

    4. It’s going to be okay

    • Working with a partner, share something you are worried about. It can be something big or something small.
    • The partner says, as authentically as possible “It’s going to be okay.
    • The first person acknowledges that yes, it is.
    • Then switch roles and repeat the exercise.
    • As a group, talk about what happened.

    This simple exercise uncovers a lot of complex individual stuff. My objective is to just give people a chance to play with the notion of “it’s going to be okay” which is maybe not that comfortable for everyone. But worry takes you away from the present moment, into the future when some unwanted consequence may occur. And I hope that by playing with it, and seeing how it does or doesn’t work for the individual, people may have some power to try this themselves.

    When I’ve led a group through this exercise, some people made it a silly activity (“I’m worried about vampires”), others felt that the response wasn’t sufficient to mollify the concerns they had just given voice to and reported feeling worse, others felt that just expressing the worry gave them some relief, others felt like the exchange was calming. I have been challenged by being asked “Well, what if it’s not going to be okay, like what if it’s cancer?” Of course, the process of coming to grips with death does indeed include acceptance. Oliver Sacks wrote a terrific and touching essay about his own impending death from cancer.

    5. Designer is Present

    • People get into pairs and move so that they are sitting directly across from each other. Their knees shouldn’t be touching but they should be close.
    • Without staring, each pair looks quietly at each other for 60 seconds.
    • Without debriefing or discussing, everyone stands up and moves around for a moment to “shake it off” and then sits down to resume for an additional 60 seconds.
    • As a group, debrief the experience.

    This activity comes from the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a show at MoMA where as part of a retrospective of her career she performed a new piece where she sat silently facing individual museum-goers, all day, day after day, for several months. An excellent documentary about the show is reviewed here.

    I have since learned that you can find versions of this exercise in dance and in couples therapy.

    You can also read more about presence in an article I co-wrote about noticing. For more on this workshop, watch the video and check out the slides.

    6. Reframing Bad ideas

    • Each person is given two sticky notes.
    • On the first sticky note, write or draw the worst idea for a product or service. Something that is dangerous, immoral, bad for business. I often give the example of “candy for breakfast.”
    • Pass the sticky note to someone else. It doesn’t have to be a direct swap, as long as everyone has someone else’s bad idea.
    • On the second sticky note, design the circumstances whereby the bad idea you’ve received becomes a good idea. I’ll offer the scenario where colony collapse disorder has disrupted the food supply enough that children aren’t getting enough sugar through regular sources and breakfast candy is the result.
    • Have people share the idea they were given and the way they successfully reframed it.

    I stole this exercise from Mathew Lincez. I use it in combination with “It’s going to be okay” to illustrate our capacity for reframing and as part of a workshop on creativity called the Power of Bad Ideas (article, slides, video).

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy March, everyone!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Five Questions with Steve Portigal

    This Friday I’ll be speaking at 18F in DC about The Power of Bad Ideas. The talk will be streamed here.

    In advance of the talk, I answered a few questions about working with clients and planning research projects. Here’s a snippet; more at the 18F site.

    SP: I’m intrigued by the user-centered theater — that is to say, people who have a design goal or a strategic need or a hunger for some insights, but who aren’t open to collaborating on how to accomplish that.

    You often see this with projects where a client wants to understand something enormously complex and nuanced, and they don’t have any budget or time to do so. This is a big red flag. Sometimes, it’s worthwhile having a conversation to see if they [potential client] are open to feedback on their situation and on alternative ways to work.

    In some cases, I’m pleasantly surprised; in many cases, though, I’m usually happy to pass on these projects. The kicker is that many of these folks have often already defined the method they want to use to reach their stated goal. It’s foolhardy to try to help people who have set you up to fail.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a holiday in the U.S., but I’m using this as a work day to try and get caught up. Last week, with the Interaction conference (and my Soft Skills workshop) and my talk at the Design Writing summit, put me behind.
    • I’m headed to DC this Thursday. On Friday I’ll be speaking about The Power of Bad Ideas at 18F, and on Saturday I’ll be leading The Designer is Present at World IA Day DC which will also be streamed.
    • The agency I’m collaborating with is leading a bunch of remote interviews this week; we started last week (in a moment reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the participant took delivery of a pizza during the interview). I’ll be sitting in on a few more this week.
    • Last week on Dollars to Donuts my guest was Kerry McAleer-Forte of Sears. This week we’ll have our final episode of the first series, so stay tuned! If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, you should review it on iTunes.
    • Out on the town: We’ll be at the first Design Museum San Francisco event on Tuesday night.
    • Ten years gone: From February 2005 – My days as a Ticketmaster niterun operator, Forbes on customer input into product development.
    • What we’re consuming: Dungeness crab deviled eggs, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths Of Robert Durst.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Jenn’s War Story: Burns, Bandages, and BBQ

    Jenn Downs is a UX Designer at ShootProof in Atlanta, GA.

    I was out of town with a colleague for a full-day customer visit. While getting ready for the day I burned my thumb pretty badly on my hair straightening iron. It was the kind of burn you can soothe for about two seconds before it makes you roll your eyes back and cry out in pain. We’d planned ahead and given ourselves plenty of time that morning, so we had a few minutes to find some burn cream. I ran down to the hotel front desk to see if they had a first aid kit, but they did not. One of the staff offered me a packet of mustard to soothe the burn, perhaps some kind of southern old wives’ tale. I don’t usually believe in food-on-skin remedies, but I wanted it to work. So I let the front desk guy apply the mustard to my thumb.

    Two seconds later I was again whimpering in pain, so I just filled a cup with ice water and stuck my thumb in the cup. We sped out to a drugstore. We were staying on the outskirts of a college town and there weren’t many places to find first aid items, but we did finally find the one grocery store that was open before 8 am. I bought everything: burn cream, aloe, bandages, you name it. But nothing worked. Nothing but the cup of ice water could stop me from visibly wincing. We were running out of time and had to head to our meeting, hoping for some kind of miracle.

    We found our way to our customers’ office and had to wait for our interviewees to come get us from another part of the building. Fortunately the front desk person was keenly observant and before I could even say anything she’d found a refill of ice water for my aching thumb. And then it was time for the interview. We went in to meet our customers, my thumb fully immersed in the cup of water. We worked for a really creative and weird company and we were visiting a very conservative and traditional southern company, so we were feeling a little out of our element; I thought for a moment that my thumb-on-ice was going to be a disaster, but it was actually a nice ice-breaker (pun not intended).

    Then I spilled the cup of ice water all over their conference room table.

    In that moment all I could do was laugh at myself and let everyone laugh with me and just continue the conversation as I was cleaning up the mess, calmly and confidently.

    It turned out to be a great interview and gave our customers something to joke about with us as we shared a BBQ lunch. Imagine trying to eat ribs with one thumb wrapped up in gauze and burn cream! My confidence through the awkwardness ended up helping them feel comfortable with having strangers in their office all day and we got great information we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

    Jen’s War Story: Bad news turns to couples therapy

    Jen Ignacz is the UX Research Lead at TOPP, a design consultancy focused on helping clients shape future products and services.

    I was conducting in-home contextual interviews about home safety and security behaviours. In the recruitment screener, I had found out that a particular participant had experienced a break-in to her home about a year earlier.

    When I arrived at her home for the interview, her fiancé was also there and ended up participating extensively in the conversation.

    My research partner and I had been with the couple for about 90 minutes and they were obviously feeling quite comfortable; they offered up lots of intimate details about their routines and behaviours and were willing to show us everything and anything. I was pleased that they felt so comfortable with sharing (the woman more than the man).

    Part of my protocol was to understand what happened when people find out about bad news about their home, like a fire alarm going off, a break-in, a water leak, etc. So, after 90 minutes of talking about home safety and security routines, I posed the question: “Now I want to talk about what you do when you get bad news. You mentioned that you had a break-in last year. Can you tell me about what happened?”

    As I was asking, the couple looked at each other and an awkward silence fell over the room as I finished the question. They held each other’s gaze for longer than was comfortable (for us). Their sudden change in behaviour told me I had hit on a sore spot.

    The woman broke the silence, still holding her partner’s gaze, saying “That’s not what I consider bad news. Your child dying is bad news.” Then a whispered “Do you not want to talk about this?” to her fiancé.

    My research partner and I froze as if hoping that by not moving, time could stand still for us while they dealt with this incredibly intense personal moment.

    The couple started to talk about the experience of losing a pregnancy in the second trimester about a year earlier. (I made the realisation when reviewing the recordings that the break-in happened around the same time as the miscarriage, so asking the question the way I did allowed for a connection between events I could not have anticipated). They spoke quietly and mostly to each other, but engaged me more and more in their conversation as they went along.

    As a researcher, this felt way off-topic and I was trying to think of ways to get the interview back on track. But as a human being, I felt the need to let them deal with this issue that seemed difficult for them to talk about. From their conversation, it was quite clear they each were still working through their emotions and likely didn’t speak about it to each other often enough. I wasn’t going to shut down an opportunity for them to make emotional progress just because it didn’t fit anywhere close to my research goals.

    So, I let them talk. And I even guided them to share some feelings with each other. I took on a counseling role; a total deviation from the research plan.

    After about ten minutes, they turned to me and said “That’s probably not what you meant.”

    I was honest with them. I told them it wasn’t the the type of bad news event I was thinking about, but the conversation helped me learn more about who they are; their values, morals, and perspectives on life. Getting a better sense of who they are ultimately helps me understand their motives for their behaviours better.

    My response allowed us to carefully ramp back up to the interview protocol. I was very cautious with that transition. I had to ensure that the trust and openness we had established in the first 90 minutes wasn’t harmed by the unexpectedly exposed vulnerability. It didn’t seem to be. I was able to complete the remaining hour of the visit with just as much insights and openness as we had before.

    This Week @ Portigal

    ChittahChattah Quickies

    It’s been a while since I posted short snippets around links I’ve found fascinating, and while that means these stories don’t come out of this week’s news, I think they are all are provocative and worth being aware of.

    Marketers change pronunciation in ads to attract shoppers [CBC] – The value of the Z as a cultural indicator when selling products in Canada. Canadian companies remind of their status by highlighting the “zed” while some American companies will create a Canadian-specific ad, replacing “zee: with “zed” (depending on the product and it’s meaning – and cost)

    Because cars are so closely tied to image and identity, it’s very important to get that identity correct when speaking to Canadian car buyers. But in the end, it all comes down to dollars and cents. If the product is low-end and utilitarian, marketers will go cheap and run the U.S. product name, commercial and pronunciation in both countries.

    But when there’s a risk of offending the identity of Canadian buyers of big ticket items, marketers will spend the extra loonies to do a custom version for Canada.

    Threat of Death Makes People Go Shopping [Inkfish] – Here’s a finding that we really don’t want to see in the wrong hands!

    Nothing says “Let’s hit the outlet mall” like nearly being wiped out by a rocket. A study of both Americans and terrorized Israelis suggests that certain people respond to the threat of death by going shopping. Because if it’s your time to go, you may as well be wearing the latest from Forever 21 Michigan State University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio and her colleagues performed two studies of potential shoppers. The first took place in Israel. Questionnaires were handed out at a community center in a town just one kilometer from the Gaza Strip, during six months of daily rocket attacks there in 2007. The same surveys were distributed in a second town farther from the fighting, where residents were aware of the violence but not in direct danger. The questionnaires were meant to ferret out a few different answers about people. Did they experience post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares or memory loss? Did they cope with negative feelings by buying things? How often did they return from a shopping trip with items they hadn’t meant to purchase? Other questions assessed how materialistic the subjects were-did they place a lot of value on owning nice things? Israelis who were experiencing daily rocket attacks, unsurprisingly, reported more post-traumatic stress. People who felt more stress admitted to more compulsive or impulsive shopping behaviors. And both these effects (feeling stress and going shopping) were stronger in more materialistic people. For their second study, the researchers used a group of 855 American subjects, meant to be demographically representative of the U.S. population overall. Subjects filled out an online survey that measured their materialism, shopping habits, and how much they thought about their own death, as well as other factors. Once again, for people who were more materialistic, there was a relationship between fear of death and impulse buying.

    Because the more materialistic Israelis experienced more stress, the researchers think “materialism makes bad events even worse.” And when materialistic people feel threatened, they buy things they don’t really want (or maybe can’t afford). The findings don’t only apply to people living in the Middle East. Events that make people fear for their lives can include car accidents, assaults, and natural disasters. Yet Ruvio puts a positive spin on the ubiquity of trauma. “This presents an opportunity for both manufacturers of impulse items and the retailers that sell these products,” she writes. When a severe storm or a military crisis is brewing, she suggests stores put their high-profit-margin items up front where impulse shoppers will see them.

    While retailers may be able to benefit from people’s crises, shoppers themselves won’t. Previous research, Ruvio writes, shows that “most materialistic individuals derive little satisfaction from their consumption activities.” So much for retail therapy.

    Weird T-Shirts Designed To Confuse Facebook’s Auto-Tagging [Wired Design] – The space where conceptual art meets technology can be interesting, where working solutions can be produced to comment on the problem without fully solving it, and yet point the way to a possible future where those problems are addressed this way.

    How to fight back? Just buy one of Simone C. Niquille’s “REALFACE Glamoflage” T-shirts, a series of bizarre, visage-covered garments designed specifically to give Facebook’s facial recognition software the runaround.

    Niquille dreamed up the shirts as part of her master’s thesis in graphic design at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. FaceValue, as the thesis is titled, imagines new design solutions for the near-future, mining the ripe intersection of privacy, pattern recognition and biometrics. The shirts, custom-printed for around $65, are one of three such imaginings–a tongue-halfway-in-cheek tool for pushing back against the emerging trends of ubiquitous, computer-aided recognition. Covered in distorted faces of celebrity impersonators, they’re designed to keep Facebook’s algorithms guessing about what–or more accurately who–they’re looking at.

    “I was interested in the T-shirt as a mundane commodity,” Niquille explains. “An article of clothing that in most cases does not need much consideration in the morning in front of the closet…I was interested in creating a tool for privacy protection that wouldn’t require much time to think in the morning, an accessory that would seamlessly fit in your existing everyday. No adaption period needed.”

    Promoting Health With Enticing Photos of Fruits and Vegetables [NYT] – Bolthouse Farms created a fanciful website that visualizes food-related social media content.

    “It’s not that I don’t have an Oreo every once in a while,” Mr. Putman said. “We just want folks to understand that beautiful carrots have badge value the same way peanut butter, chocolate pie does.” Having badge value means something is interesting enough to deserve a hashtag.

    Bitcoin Beauties promotes use of currency by women [SFGate] – If this provides empowerment to someone, then that’s great. But I don’t understand this at all. It seems like Trending Topic + Nekkid Ladies = something.

    The company’s slogan is “Beauty, Brains, Bitcoin.” Its logo is a sketch of two voluptuous, nude women, posing pin-up style beside the stylized bitcoin “B.” The company website, yet to be completed, is now a photo collage of women, some topless, silhouetted against a beach sunset. Blincoe refers to members as “our beauties.” For Blincoe, there is urgency in staking a claim for women in the highly lucrative world of bitcoin, a crypto currency that by many accounts has the potential to shape the future of how transactions take place and currency flows online. For now, the main function of Bitcoin Beauties is hosting a small-but-growing weekly gathering where women talk bitcoin.

    The Anti-Digit Dialing League [Orange Crate Art] – A mostly-forgotten (and mostly unsuccessful) rebellion against a technological advance. Also see the followup here.

    The Anti-Digit Dialing League was a short-lived movement that arose in 1962 and faded, it would seem, in 1964. Founded in San Francisco, the ADDL opposed “creeping numeralism” and fought a losing battle to preserve the use of telephone exchange names.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Dollars to Donuts: Behind The Music

    My new Dollars to Donuts podcast features a nifty bit of intro and outro music. In the podcast you just hear snippets of the song, written expressly for the podcast by my brother-in-law, Bruce Todd. I’ve long been an admirer of Bruce’s songwriting and playing and overall musical thang, and it was an absolute thrill to have him create a piece of music for me.

    Now you can hear the whole piece!

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    Since we’re all about digging into creative processes, here’s Bruce’s explanation of how he developed this music.

    This song came to light through questions and (heaven forbid) assumptions about what Steve was looking for or better yet – listening for. Based on some email conversations and musical examples, I had a rough idea that the music had to be relatively fast-paced, rocking and attention=grabbing. Since Steve had some alternatives there was no pressure for me to actually produce anything and this allowed me to experiment and take a few small sound risks. Most of this recording was completed through digital amplification or direct line inputs which allowed me to work quietly and at my leisure (everything except vocals). Often when recording instruments with microphones you need a quiet peaceful environment which I don’t always have access to in my (non-soundproofed) home studio.

    I began by finding a drum track: a simple upbeat 4/4 rock drum track which I had used on a previous recording (having exported the tracks from a master file and imported to my Tascam DP 32 Portastudio). Then the fun began. Knowing that the end result would be used as a short clip, I laid down about 2 minutes of drums and then pulled out my Fender Telecaster and began to experiment with a riff. This came pretty quickly as it is quite a simple progression in the key of F-sharp. Next, I plugged in my Vox DA5 (5-watt digital amplifier) and located an overdrive sound I liked and added a small amount of delay. I recorded two tracks with the same guitar sound and panned the tracks left and right, which results in creating a thicker overall sound by doubling the part. After the rhythm guitar tracks were completed I worked on the bass part. I ran the bass also through the little digital Vox and added compression which brought out a punchy bass track (this is a discovery I have been using on my other recordings ever since). Once drums, guitar and bass were complete I left the recording for a few days so I could revisit the idea when I was ready.

    Coming back, I wasn’t too sure I liked what I had. If this was a more serious venture I would have probably scrapped the idea. Given that I wasn’t overly convinced that the song idea had much merit I thought I would have my young daughters (Talia 8, Arianna, 4) join me and be exposed to the recording process. Regardless of what the end result was I was sure Uncle Steve would get a kick out of his nieces being involved. Talia has a small electronic keyboard which I plugged into the Portastudio, and I gave her some headphones and had her play along with the guitar, bass and drums. Her first track was a keeper as she found a funny sound and played a part that complimented the space that the guitar riff left. Then Arianna played a part with a toy instrument of hers (in the end this track did not make it on the recording). The girls also helped me do a little vocal improvisation which also didn’t make the master mix but helped me get to the next part of the recording.


    Several days again went by until I felt ready to listen to the song and see what was there and what else I could add. I went back to my guitar and found another overdrive tone which I overlaid with the auto-wah pedal sound setting on the Vox DA5. This was a lucky choice as I think it is what gets the attention of the listener at the beginning of the song. The track is pretty much one big lead guitar riff which from time to time stops and echoes the rhythm guitar tracks. This was a fun part for me as was the final vocal tracks. For the vocal tracks I ran a Shure 57 through the Vox DA 5 flanger setting with a lot of flange and overdrive and experimented by saying “Talk it Out” and by making other weird sounds. I mixed the song and sent it digitally via email to Steve – and to my surprise received a very nice response.

    And that is how Dollars to Donuts found its music.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a holiday today (MLK day) for some folks in the US. But we’re working today.
    • Last week on Dollars to Donuts, my new podcast with people who lead user research in their organization, I had a great conversation with Alex Wright of Etsy. Another episode drops on Wednesday; you can find them all on iTunes.
    • Video from my talk on Interviewing Users from the HOW Interactive Design conference is now on YouTube and Vimeo.
    • My agency collaboration is going well; their client is doing some interesting work and the research is going to help unpack expectations around a few similar-seeming value propositions. This week they’re planning to start screening for participants across the country who will fill out diaries over several weeks.
    • I’ve got the green light (at least the green light that means let’s begin the paperwork) from a client team to advise them through some in-home fieldwork. I’ll be doing some interviews with experts at the same time, and we’ll all come together and synthesize the results into…something! It’s a really nice group and we’ve been looking for a chance to work together for a few months now.
    • Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15 has filled up! Looking forward to the whole conference and to the workshop. I’ll be doing a shorter version for a bigger crowd at World IA Day in DC on February 21.
    • Tomorrow is my rescheduled workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity at GreatSchools in Oakland.
    • Next week I’m doing a lunch-hour session with the UX students at General Assembly. We’re going to talk about the Power of Bad Ideas.
    • Also next week, I’ll be New York to attend the Pro/Design conference.
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – Dubious pancake mix FAQ, Titan Probe Drops Into ‘Creme Brulee’-Like Surface.
    • What we’re consuming: Keep on Keepin’ On, Brenda’s Meat & Three, 100 Doodles in 100 Days, Boyhood.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I’ve just launched a new podcast, called Dollars to Donuts, where I speak with people who lead user research in their organization. You can find it on the Portigal Consulting site, on iTunes, and on Twitter. Our first episode, an interview with Gregg Bernstein of MailChimp, is getting a great response so far.
    • Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15 is filling up. If you’d like to be part of it, register for the conference and then sign up for the workshop here.
    • We’ve rescheduled my workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity for the folks at GreatSchools in Oakland to next week, after we realized that the last week was not good for people’s schedules.
    • I’m kicking off a new project this week, working with an agency in more of a creative director role. Well, that’s probably not the right term, but I don’t think we know what it is. Their staff will be doing the heavy lifting but I’ll be around as a sounding board and general guide on fieldwork, analysis and ensuring we’re meeting the client’s goals. Should be an novel and promising way for me to collaborate with some enthusiastic people.
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – Ghoulish spam, The Google Pause.
    • What we’re consuming: cheese, Episodes, Len Deighton.

    Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories project

    Since 2012, I’ve been collecting War Stories, where researchers share the stuff that happens during fieldwork. There are more than 70 stories (start your reading here) and they’ve proven to be a valuable resource for the practice. I’ve been giving a talk over the past few months about the stories and what I’ve learned from the process of curating the stories as well as from the stories themselves. From UX Australia, here’s the audio, the (minimal) slides, and a few sketchnotes.

    If you have a story about an experience you had doing contextual research, please get in touch! We want more stories!

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    Matthew Magain, UX Mastery

    Guillaume Hammadi


    Join me for Soft Skills Are Hard at Interaction 15

    On February 9 I’ll be teaching a new workshop at Interaction 15 in San Francisco. Entitled Soft Skills Are Hard, it’s a deeper-dive that build the interactive talks I’ve done recently that focus on developing the interpersonal, creative, and cognitive skill sets that are essential in innovative work cultures.

    If you are registered for Interaction 15, you can sign up here.

    Below are the slides and video from an earlier talks. The workshop will focus on identifying individually relevant skills and creating an action plan to strengthen them.

    Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream
    Note: the talk itself starts around 30:00

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    Welcome to 2016! The New Year seems a good time to post my occasionally updated roundup of links to various bits connected with Interviewing Users. Of course, if you haven’t already, you should buy a copy here! It would be fantastic if you wrote a quick review on Amazon here.

    The Book





    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy New Year! It’s been 2015 for a few days, but this is back-to-work day here and for many of you as well, so I think the greeting still stands. Here’s what’s up as we get things back into gear.

    • The semi-stealth project I’ve been working on will launch this week. More to come but here’s a big hint.
    • Please sign up for Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15. It’s in San Francisco on February 9 and you can register here.
    • Tomorrow I am teaching a workshop on improv, collaboration and creativity at GreatSchools in Oakland. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and having a chance to play together.
    • Also this week is circling back with various projects, nailing down schedules for meetings, sorting out invoices and reimbursements, lunch with colleagues, figuring out travel details and generally trying to move forward all the bits and pieces which have been up in the air especially through the holiday.
    • From December, there is now a video for Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (also slides and audio).
    • Ten years gone: From January 2005 – We don’t remember new products, dress up your vacuum cleaner as a bear, bunny, cat or (ironically) maid.
    • What we’re consuming: Lucky Peach, crab rolls, Modern Family, Little Yangon

    The Advantages of Remote Interviewing

    This NYT Magazine profile of author Laura Hillenbrand explores her writing process and considers the ways it has been impacted by her illness. One section of this excellent article had resonance for me around conducting remote interviews, something I’m frequently asked about.

    One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation. But Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote. Gross told me that she began this habit, as Hillenbrand did, by necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Over time, she said, she has come to believe that there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.” Gross also said the remote interview makes it easier to steer the conversation. “I can look at my notes without fear that the interviewee will assume that I’m not paying attention to what they’re saying,” she said. Finally, the distance eliminates nonverbal cues, which can interfere with good quotes. “A hand gesture might be helpful to communicate something to me. It communicates nothing to my listeners.” Hillenbrand, who recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Zamperini, experienced a similar effect. “I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering.

    Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14 (now with video)

    I gave a (remote) presentation, Designing the Problem, at Interaction South America a few weeks ago.

    Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

    As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

    We’ve got video, slides, audio and sketch-notes. Enjoy!

    The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).

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    Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)


    Sketchnote by Thiago Esser (click for full size)

    This Week @ Portigal

    • I got back yesterday from a fantastic client workshop in Austin and am looking ahead to this holiday week. I’m going to try and gear down over the next few days (which paradoxically means I feel like I have a lot to get done) and hopefully take a step back for the end of the week and some time next week as well. We’ll see.
    • There’s now video for Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (also slides and audio).
    • Just announced: Soft Skills Are Hard, my workshop for Interaction 15. It’s in San Francisco on February 9 and you can register here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Bob Dylan Q&A.
    • What we’re consuming: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, The Problem Is Not The Problem, Torchy’s Tacos, Frank, latkes, Whip In.

    Building Rapport With Users Is Building Rapport With People

    We use specific techniques to build rapport in user research, but of course those techniques work to build rapport in other situations. Here’s two great examples of rapport in relationships that map quite closely to rapport in fieldwork.

    Caution: Stuffed Shirts Ahead [NYT]

    Instead, miss no opportunity to chat congenially with your new colleagues — lunch, coffee, the proverbial water cooler, whatever. But remember, these conversations aren’t about you. Though you don’t want to seem evasive, avoid leaping into a happy reminiscence about foosball tournaments with your delightful former colleagues.

    Think of the process as the workplace equivalent of politicians’ “listening tours” during the run-up to election season. Don’t ask, “So what’s it like to work here?” or “Do you like it here?” or anything else that requires a point-blank value judgment. Ask neutral questions like, “So how long have you worked here?” Then keep quiet.

    People love to talk about themselves, and if you can signal that you’re actually interested in what they’re saying — and not merely waiting for your turn to talk — most will do it all day long. (One of the oldest interview tricks that reporters use is silence: There’s a human tendency to fill a conversational void, so let the other person do it.) In addition to signaling that you’re going to fit in, you’ll likely pick up useful clues to help you do precisely that.

    It may take a little patience, but you’ll gradually be able to piece together what you need to know about how this new environment works — and who among your new colleagues has the same kind of sensibility as yours. Remember that even if the company is formal and bureaucratic, chances are that at least some of the people who work there are, in fact, agreeable human beings — the kind who like doughnuts.

    5 ways to build a good relationship with anyone [The Week]

    I picked up a copy of an underground indie best-seller called It’s Not All about Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone. The author, Robin Dreeke, is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. Robin combines hard science and years of work in the field to offer practical tips to build rapport and establish trust.

    1. Ask them questions.
    2. Don’t be a conversation dictator.
    3. Allow them to talk.
    4. Genuinely try to understand their thoughts and opinions.
    5. Leave your ego at the door.

    Keeping the Humanity in our Technology Work

    A few articles about the practice of medicine echo each other in significant ways, but I share them here as a reminder that all of our work that increasingly relies on technology (e.g., developing digital products) will suffer terribly if we fail to engage the human who thinks, talks, listens and tells stories.

    With Electronic Medical Records, Doctors Read When They Should Talk

    Even if all the redundant clinical information sitting on hospital servers everywhere were error-free, and even if excellent software made it all reasonably accessible, doctors and nurses still shouldn’t be spending their time reading. The first thing medical students learn is the value of a full history taken directly from the patient. The process takes them hours. Experience whittles that time down by a bit, but it always remains a substantial chunk that some feel is best devoted to more lucrative activities.

    Enter various efficiency-promoting endeavors. One of the most durable has been the multipage health questionnaire for patients to complete on a clipboard before most outpatient visits. Why should the doctor expensively scribble down information when the patient can do a little free secretarial work instead? Alas, beware the doctor who does not review that questionnaire with you very carefully, taking an active interest in every little check mark. It turns out that the pathway into the medical brain, like most brains, is far more reliable when it runs from the hand than from the eye. Force the doctor to take notes, and the doctor will usually remember. Ask the doctor to read, and the doctor will scan, skip, elide, omit and often forget.

    Like good police work, good medicine depends on deliberate, inefficient, plodding, expensive repetition. No system of data management will ever replace it.

    Why Doctors Need Stories

    I have long felt isolated in this position, embracing stories, which is why I warm to the possibility that the vignette is making a comeback. This summer, Oxford University Press began publishing a journal devoted to case reports. And this month, in an unusual move, the New England Journal of Medicine opened an issue with a case history involving a troubled mother, daughter and grandson. The contributors write: “Data are important, of course, but numbers sometimes imply an order to what is happening that can be misleading. Stories are better at capturing a different type of ‘big picture.’ ”

    Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence. Thoughtful doctors consider data, accompanying narrative, plausibility and, yes, clinical anecdote in their decision making. To put the same matter differently, evidence-based medicine, properly enacted, is judgment-based medicine in which randomized trials, carefully assessed, are given their due.

    I don’t think that psychiatry — or, again, medicine in general — need be apologetic about this state of affairs. Our substantial formal findings require integration. The danger is in pretending otherwise. It would be unfortunate if psychiatry moved fully — prematurely — to squeeze the art out of its science. And it would be unfortunate if we marginalized the case vignette. We need storytelling, to set us in the clinical moment, remind us of the variety of human experience and enrich our judgment.

    From October 2003, Diagnosis Goes Low Tech

    “This technology has become a religion within the medical community,” said Dr. Jerry Vannatta, former dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that still, in the 21st century, it is believed that 80 to 85 percent of the diagnosis is in the patient’s story.”

    Yet medical educators say that doctors are insufficiently trained to listen to those stories. After all, there is no reimbursement category on insurance forms for it. It is this lost art of listening to the patient that has been the inspiration behind a burgeoning movement in medical schools throughout the country: narrative medicine.

    The idea that medical students need an academic discipline to teach them how to listen may strike some as farfetched. After all, what should be more natural — or uncomplicated — than having a conversation?

    But the narrative medicine movement is part of an ongoing trend in exposing medical students to the humanities. It is needed, educators say, to teach aspiring doctors to pay close attention to what their patients are saying and to understand the way their own emotions affect their perceptions, and ultimately their clinical practice.

    The basic teaching method is to have medical students read literary texts and then write about themselves and their patients in ordinary language, rather than in the technological lexicon of the traditional patient chart.

    Venerable medical journals like The Journal of the American Medical Association and Annals of Internal Medicine are increasingly publishing reflective writing by doctors, their editors say. And now some medical schools even have their own literary journals. At Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, there is Reflexions; Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine publishes Wild Onions; at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center, there is The Medical Muse.

    Columbia also publishes a semiannual scholarly journal devoted solely to narrative medicine, titled Literature and Medicine, which is edited by Maura Spiegel, a literary scholar, and Dr. Rita Charon, a professor at the medical school and a founder of the narrative medicine movement.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • Over the weekend we tried to make some sense out of the office space chaos, figuring out what the new layout will be and what furniture we need to get rid of. There’s a long way to go but there’s definitely a sense of progress.
    • I’m working with a client to do a bit of retail observation today, looking at how their products – and those of their competitors – are merchandised.
    • I’m flying to Austin on Thursday to do lead a full-day in-house workshop on interviewing users on Friday. And catching up with a few folks over the weekend as well.
    • From recent talks: Designing for Unmet Needs from Warm Gun (slides and audio), Interviewing Users from HOW Interactive Design (slides, video, Designing the Problem from Interactions South America (slides and audio).
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Company makes clothes for women who prefer masculine style.
    • What we’re consuming: Hobbit Office, TREATS!, Werner Herzog Inspirationals, Baby Sloth Me.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It may be the time of year, but it sure feels like a busy Monday, right out the gate. So many phone calls and planning meetings to try to get scheduled.
    • I’ve been enjoying my collaboration with a new team in downtown San Francisco, as we help assemble a point of view about design directions to prepare for an internal workshop next week.
    • We’re looking good to wrap up the year with a training session in Austin. People are doing paperwork, I’m hovering over the flight-and-hotel reservation buttons. Also, barbecue.
    • Last week, I spoke about Designing for Unmet Needs at Warm Gun. You can find slides, audio and a sketchnote here.
    • More from recent talks: The HOW Interactive Design slides are here and you can find the video (among several) here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Leisurama!, Nike dropping the ‘Goddess’ moniker.
    • What we’re consuming: latkes, Jiminy Glick, dumplings.

    Designing for Unmet Needs, my presentation from Warm Gun

    Last week I spoke at the Warm Gun conference, giving a short talk about Designing for Unmet Needs

    Don’t be surprised if Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users, invites himself to your family breakfast or follows hotel maintenance staff to the boiler room. For more than 15 years, he’s led hundreds of interviews that help clients understand customers and turn insights into design opportunities.

    Steve knows that our success depends on letting the unmet needs of our audience shape our designs. Okay—but how do we hit a target we can’t see? How do we design for people who aren’t us? How do we solve for the complexity of those people?

    Dig into the details, ditch the guesswork, and join Steve to engage deliberately with the people we’re designing for. Look at ways to acknowledge the complexity of your users. Offer solutions rooted in the connections you make with people. Get unstuck and discover opportunities for design that adds value.

    Below you’ll find slides, audio and a sketchnote.

    The talk is 25 minutes long.

    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)

    Sketchnote by Lexi H (click for full size)


    This Week @ Portigal

    • Happy December! I turned over the keys to our second office space. It was a lovely space with good meeting areas and lots of light, but it was just not being used. I feel like it should have been a sad moment, but it was really just a small moment of transition. Meanwhile, our main office space remains overloaded with furniture and boxes. I’ve got a group coming in on Friday and I’m not sure what state it will be in by then, probably the same.
    • I had a great meeting with a new team last week and we put together a plan to help prepare for an internal workshop in the next few weeks. I’m waiting on paperwork to see how and when we’ll move forward.
    • I’m expecting to hear this week if I’ll be doing a training workshop in Austin in a couple of weeks. A new collaboration in a favorite city? I’m hopeful it’ll work out.
    • I’ve been working on both visual and sonic identities for this stealth project I’ve been teasing here. I’ll be working on the content as well this week, but oh, man….I had to buy a bunch of donuts over the weekend and photograph them. This was terrible terrible brutal awful work.
    • I’ll be speaking about Designing for Unmet Needs at Warm Gun this week. Please come say Hi!
    • In case you missed it, from two very recent talks: the slides about Interviewing Users at HOW Interactive Design are here and my new talk, Designing the Problem, from Interaction South America with the slides, audio and sketchnotes are here.
    • Ten years gone: From December 2004 – Val Kilmer Street Meme, Things magazine.
    • What we’re consuming: names of football players, Pixie Donuts, Seiya Sushi, Ewoks are real.

    Today we are thirteen


    Today is the thirteen anniversary of All This ChittahChattah. And since it just about overlaps with Thanksgiving, I’ll once again give thanks for all the enthusiasm and engagement from readers and friends over the years.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • It’s a short week this week, getting as much done as I can before Thanksgiving. If we can work out the paperwork today, I’ll be spending tomorrow working with a new client to explore their very immediate design and business challenges and seeing what we can get done before the year wraps up.
    • Last week I spoke at HOW Interactive Design about interviewing users. I’ve heard great things about how helpful the talk was and the slides are online here.
    • Over the weekend, I delivered a new talk as a keynote at Interaction South America. It’s called Designing the Problem, and the slides, audio and sketchnotes are here.
    • Coming up this week is the 13th anniversary of All This ChittahChattah. That’s a lot of blogging!
    • Ten years gone: From November 2004 – Grotesque consumerism, Nissan Lets You Tell Better Stories, Kreskin Offers Services to N.J. Governor.
    • What we’re consuming: Dungeness crab, Olive Kitteredge, Fog City, exuberant Goldens.

    Designing the Problem, my keynote from ISA14

    Although we couldn’t make it down to Buenos Aires for Interaction South America, thanks to the magic of Skype I was able to present Designing the Problem at over the weekend.

    Too often we assume that doing research with users means checking in with them to get feedback on the solution we’ve already outlined. But the biggest value from research is in uncovering the crucial details of the problem that people have; the problem that we should be solving.

    As the design practices mature within companies, they need to play an active role in driving the creation of new and innovative solutions to the real unmet needs that people have. In part, driving towards this maturity means looking at one’s own culture and realizing the value of being open-minded and curious, not simply confident. This is a challenge to each of us personally and as leaders within our teams and communities.

    Below you’ll find slides, audio and sketchnotes. I’ll repost when the video go up. Update: it’s here.

    The talk is just over 40 minutes and there are two questions (which you can’t hear but which should be obvious enough from my response).

    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)

    Here is my huge head during the Q&A segment (image via Juan Marcos Ortiz)

    juan marcos ortiz B3EU_zyIYAAXKue_425

    Sketchnote by Kat Davis (click for full size)


    Sketchnote by Thiago Esser (click for full size)

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    • We’ve decided to consolidate our office space and so I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks going through the accumulated tech gear, paperwork, books, furniture and office supplies, getting rid of what we don’t need any more and moving stuff around to create a more streamlined and comfortable workspace. It’s overwhelming but necessary.
    • Sign up for my Interaction South American workshop on Interviewing Users.
    • In early December I’ll be speaking at Warm Gun. Use the code SPKWARM to save $150.
    • My Brussels photos are now all uploaded, here.
    • Out on the town this week, I’m hoping to go to this BayCHI event featuring Frank Yoo, the head of design at Lyft.
    • From the blog last week, When A Food Truck Is Not A Food Truck.
    • Ten years gone: From November 2004 – Maybe name is not destiny, then?, eBay tries to harness warm fuzzies, Elevator Pitch Essentials.
    • What we’re consuming: iPhone 6, The Roaring Twenties, roof sealant, Grilled octopus with bacon tempura, USB enclosures.

    When A Food Truck Is Not A Food Truck

    Now you can have all the positive attributes of a food truck (adventure, deliciousness, speed?) without the inconvenience of having to actual go to a food truck. Here’s some examples I’ve seen recently where an individual restaurant is named like a food truck but is definitely not a food truck.

    Slicetruck explains themselves this way

    I like to try and remind people that we are actually a restaurant and not a food truck. We named it Slicetruck because we started with a pizza truck and just couldn’t think of a new name for the store. You should try naming a pizza place. Very difficult to find something no one is already using and real easy to fall into the lame trap of throwing some meaningless Italian name into it or a “papa” or “mama” into the name.

    The Taco Truck tells us

    In 2009 we launched our very first truck in New Jersey…So far we’ve opened stores, kiosks, carts, and trucks in NY, MA, and NJ.

    At least they each have trucks in their history, although it makes for a confusing name, what with their not being trucks.

    This Week @ Portigal

    When your participant repels and scares you

    Embedded above is a fantastic and disturbing episode of Love + Radio. Nick van der Kolk and Noah Morrison visit Jay Thunderbolt, who upon beginning the interview, aggressively reiterates his demand for payment (not possible for public radio, which Jay knew). Noah ends up going on a liquor run instead, as Jay offers him a pistol or Kevlar vest. Jay never stops insulting the interviewers, and stories of violence abound; indeed at one point he points a gun at Nick’s head. Meanwhile, they are interviewing Jay about the strip club he runs out of his house.

    Yikes. This sounds like some of the War Stories, doesn’t it?

    I don’t know what is going through Nick’s head as he’s doing this interview, but as I listen I find myself strongly repelled by Jay. And while the interview here is edited, so we don’t know all that happened, but Nick never reveals discomfort or lets Jay’s obvious provocations get to him. His patience and tolerance create room for Jay’s story to come out, and while Jay is not an appealing individual, you begin to understand and accept him as he is. Well, I did. Your experience may vary.

    Nick finally responds to Jay’s taunting at the end, when he asks Jay “Do you think you understand the way I feel about you?” and Jay admits that he doesn’t. It’s a powerful moment in an intense interview.

    Interviewing Best Practices from Stephen Colbert

    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.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    • 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.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • 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.

    Patricia’s War Story: The Hidden Persuader

    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.

    This American Life on selling your idea

    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.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • 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.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    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





    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    People Have The Power, Says Tech

    I saw this BitTorrent billboard in San Francisco last weekend.
    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.
    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.

    This Week @ Portigal

    This Week @ Portigal

    • 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.

    This Week @ Portigal

    • 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.

    This Week @ Portigal

    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.

    Steve on Tuesday #TechHour

    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).

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m taking today off to hang with my family visiting from Vancouver. But here’s the story for this week

    • Tomorrow I’m flying up to Seattle. I go from the airport directly to co-host a workshop with Dan Szuc and then share the stage with him for a talk the next night. The workshop is waitlisted but there may still be room for the talk. Details here. I’ll also have the chance to meet up with other friends and colleagues in town, and maybe grab a donut or two.
    • I’ll be making my first appearance on AM radio in decades, as part of Tuesday #TechHour, along with the folks from Fluxible. I’ll be talking about UX and interviewing users.
    • I’ve proposed a talk at SXSW about the War Stories (a talk I’ve given at CHIFOO and coming up at UX Australia). It’d be great if you could VOTE for it! Please!
    • This weekend I’m leaving for Sydney for UX Australia, where I’ll be leading The Designer is Present workshop and as I mentioned above, doing a presentation about the War Stories.
    • Also coming up in a few weeks, 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 (to be followed by a side trip to Berlin, just for fun).
    • Ten years gone: From August 2004 – Exorcist: The Beginning, The Hairiest Man in All of China.
    • What we’re consuming: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Happy Taco, Klean Kanteen, Lemos Farm.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from Southern California

    Overcoming bias and developing empathy

    Here are two interesting articles that feed right into the themes of my workshop, The Designer is Present, happening at the end of this month at UX Australia.

    An Appeal to Our Inner Judge is about how biases – judgements we make quickly about others – are natural but can be overcome. The excerpt below comes at the end and is applicable to many things, not the least of which is becoming a better user researcher.

    Recognize and accept that you have biases. Develop the capacity to observe yourself in action and to notice when certain people or circumstances serve as triggers.

    Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.

    No Time to Think considers our always-on culture and the reluctance we have (as a result?) to be in the off position and (ulp!) alone with our thoughts. In the quoted part below, from the end of the article, it makes the case for what I’m aiming for with the workshop; that presence and mindfulness are essential for the work that many of us are doing.

    Studies suggest that [a lack of presence] impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind. Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    Just another manic Monday!

    • I had hoped that I would know about this quick project last Monday but it took til mid-week til we actually were able to move forward. It’s a quick-moving project but it’s also a lot of chaos. As of last week I was going to New York tomorrow and working with a local partner. As of this AM I’m spending the week in LA. As of a little later this AM I am spending most of the week in the Bay Area. Very interesting challenge getting participants, getting clients to go in the field, figuring out where the field will be and what we’ll be doing as well as working through procurement departments and all that. It’s not the most relaxing process but I’m impressed with the amount of wangling my client lead is doing to make this go smoothly.
    • As soon as this project wraps up, I’m off to Seattle for a a workshop and a talk (both in collaboration with Dan Szuc). Sign up, local folks!
    • I’m so excited for The Designer is Present workshop at UX Australia. I’ll also be doing a presentation about the War Stories.
    • In September, 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.
    • In case you missed it, four blog posts from last week: What we eat and what we trash, Smart stuff that seems dumb, Contextual research from a bygone era, Don’t put your garbage here! Please!
    • Ten years gone: From August 2004 – Queen’s music OK’d in conservative Iran, Ofoto Terms of Service.
    • What we’re consuming: vanilla rhubarb compote, Pakwan, gruit, O-CEDAR Twitter support, Alice’s Restaurant, Tafoni sandstone.

    Don’t put your garbage here! Please!


    I encountered this box recently at my local medical office. It’s a squat white bin with a wide black opening near the top. It looks a lot like a trash bin. Obviously I’m not the only person that reacted that way, because they’ve tried desperately and ineffectively (with EXTRA SIGNS as they so love to do in healthcare) to communicate that. There are three signs (see the orange pointer) telling you what the box is for (dropping off sleep study equipment) and two signs (the purple pointer) telling you what it’s not for (it’s not for garbage).

    That’s five different signs, only two of which even vaguely cohere with each other (the red tape), all requiring English. The net effect is chaotic. There’s no empathy here; each message acts as if its the only one, without awareness of the others.

    And still – the thing looks like a garbage bin! That message is loud and clear and no amount of signage will get around that. But the staff who have to pick the garbage out of there have no control over the bin’s design and so they are left with their default tool: signage.

    I wonder if they could do better if they went further, such as painting the white surface and/or the black flap to more strongly shift the meaning. Or by having a sleep study device (which comes in a little carrying case) or at least a large icon near the opening. And a garbage bin nearby. The tactic would be to communicate more visually and directly what stuff (sleep study devices, trash) goes where and not rely on words. Until then, they can expect more trash.

    See previously Signs to Override Human Nature? as well as other writing about post-design.

    Contextual research from a bygone era

    While listening to This American Life I learned about Roger Barker, a psych professor who turned the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa into a laboratory in the late 1940s.

    Barker was one of the most extraordinary — and least known — figures in the history of psychology. Shortly after he became chair of the KU psychology department in the late 1940s, he relocated his family to Oskaloosa to observe and gather data about the residents who lived in the town, population 725.

    At that time, psychological research was primarily done in laboratories. “It was the era of running rats through mazes to understand human behavior,” he said. “Barker said you won’t learn about any real human behavior in a laboratory. If psychologists want to understand human behavior in the real world, they must enter the real world.”

    More from this article

    Among Barker’s more unusual efforts was a 1951 paper he co-wrote under the title “One Boy’s Day.”

    It chronicled 14 hours in the life of a local boy with the pseudonym Raymond Birch . He was 7 when Raymond’s parents allowed the Midwest Psychological Field Station to record his every movement, according to Sabar’s book:

    7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, ‘Raymond, wake up. …’
    7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tugging and pulling it on his left foot. …
    7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg for his dog.

    The notations, archived at KU, track Raymond on his walk to school. He finds a baseball bat in the grass and swings it, accidentally striking a flagpole.

    “This made a wonderful, hollow noise,” researchers wrote, “so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.”

    Barker eschewed academic prose and wanted his charges to record any telling, prosaic detail.

    Through the 1950s, Oskaloosans grew accustomed to the sight of a child being shadowed by a note-scribbling adult. In published papers, this was the town of “Midwest,” in keeping with the scientific practice of shielding the identity of the subjects being examined.

    Barker’s work differed from other scholarly studies of places such as Muncie, Ind., (Middletown) and Candor, N.Y., (Springdale) in at least two ways.

    First, it focused less on class and politics and more on the relationships that made kids feel comfortable.

    Second, Barker’s family settled into Oskaloosa as a permanent home. Roger and Louise continued to live there until their deaths, Roger’s in 1990 at age 87 and Louise’s in 2009 at 102.

    While Barker used many methods, the part that struck me was his belief that simply documenting in exhaustive detail the ordinary activities throughout the day would somehow provide some additional insight. What would Barker have made of today’s era of personal analytics, data smog, quantified self and beyond?

    Smart stuff that seems dumb

    Watch and laugh as Stephen Colbert takes on the Vessyl smart cup. While the company’s video patiently explains the features, their benefits and the design rationale, Colbert calls out the ridiculous jargon (e.g,. “real-time” is not something novel for people in their daily lives which of course take place in real time) and – most devastatingly – the lack of a compelling use case.

    This is the barrier all Internet-of-Things things will have to overcome – so what? Why does it matter to me that I can do this with that and with my iPhone? This recent review of Belkin’s Smartphone-Controlled Crock-Pot – a product that is currently shipping from a major manufacturer – says that it” feels more like a solution in search of a problem.” While the crock-pot isn’t as ridiculous (as it’s presented without the overblown ego), it shows just how immature today’s products are.

    I recommend these companies aim their products at the hobbyist/maker users who will figure out what they might actually be good for and otherwise keep them in the lab until they are compelling to regular people.

    [Disclosure: I bought a smart light bulb via Kickstarter a while back. I can change it to any color or brightness using my iPhone. I also have to use the smartphone to turn it off and on (properly) which takes about 35 seconds. I just put it back in our “light bulbs” box in the closet.]

    What we eat and what we trash

    There’s no end of photography projects documenting an ordinary aspect of life, across diverse individuals, with the hope of throwing some light on who we are and how we live now. Or how others live. It’s art with the frisson of anthropology. Here’s another two in the same vein, each looking at different elements of our consumption.

    Dinner in NY by Miho Aikawa looks at people having dinner, in New York (hence the clever title).


    Also see Dinner in Tokyo and read more at Slate.

    With no nod to naturalism, Gregg Sega shoots portraits of people surrounded by 7 Days of Garbage.


    Also see the fascinating project frogdesign did back in 2007, where staff blogged about the trash they found themselves accumulating throughout a regular week, and read more about Gregg Saga’s project at Slate.

    This Week @ Portigal

    A top of the week to everyone.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello y’all!

    The veneer of empathy

    From this article about newsroom practices at USA Today

    For Social Media Tuesdays, the staff must act as if there is no other way to get their articles except through sites likes Facebook and Reddit. That means USA Today’s journalists diligently place each of their famously punchy, graphic-rich stories onto various social media platforms. The purpose is to get them thinking like their readers, who increasingly get news through their Twitter feeds instead of the paper’s front page or home page.

    “Think like your reader” is a generous framing as it highlights empathy, and who wouldn’t want their company, their products, their staff to be more empathetic? In fact, trying to get attention through social media is an exercise in manipulation (see Harry McCracken’s analysis/history of the “restore your faith in humanity” flavor of linkbait). That’s not empathy.

    I’m not sure if this distortion was introduced by the reporter directly or whether they simply took what they were given at face value. Either way, that’s poor journalism (which is ironic in an article about the challenges facing the newspaper industry).

    Now, the idea of taking what you know how to do and setting it aside, as a creative constraint, is a fabulous approach, like something from Oblique Strategies (See more about Brian Eno, one of the creators of Oblique Strategies, in this great article about his approach to art and creativity).

    This Week @ Portigal

    Good Monday morning to all!

    Ugly Yet Yummy

    From the New York Times comes this story about Fruta Feia, or Ugly Fruit, a cooperative in Lisbon that has found opportunity through a combination of economic pressure and reframing conventional norms for food appearance.

    There is a market for fruits and vegetables deemed too ugly by government bureaucrats, supermarkets and other retailers to sell to their customers. A third of Portugal’s farming produce goes to waste because of the quality standards set by supermarkets and their consumers. Fruta Feia buys the unwanted food at about half the price at which producers sell it to supermarkets. It has quietly subverted fixed notions of what is beautiful, or at least edible.

    Take pictures (of food that) lasts longer


    Insanely delicious burrata small plate, from Alden and Harlow in Cambridge, MA

    On one hand this is just another article about the hype that social media more easily enables, but on the other hand, it draws the (perhaps spurious) conclusion that since so many diners are taking pictures of restaurant food (and posting the pictures online), that restaurants are designing food for photographic appeal first and for taste a noticeable second.

    Cameras that can capture and transmit images in an instant are being used to photograph food that is meant to hang out indefinitely in suspended animation. Parceled out on a slate tile and pitilessly accessorized with leaves, crumbles, froths and sauces (set with emulsifiers so they never break down), even a charcoal-grilled steak would be as cold as a bologna sandwich. And this is what now passes for great, or at least significant, cooking. But great food is rarely static. As soon as it leaves the kitchen, it’s changing. In general, it’s getting worse. The soufflé is sinking. The arugula is wilting. The color of the steak excites us because it’s deeply browned, and we know that toasted, roasted, seared and caramelized surfaces mean deep flavors. But cameras hate brown food.

    Again, I’ll suggest this is not necessarily true, but it serves to remind us of unintended consequences, and at the scale of social media, we are seeing more of this special type of unintended consequences, where we create with the consumption in mind. The media consumption used to be a consequence, but perhaps it’s becoming the primary design target. As consumers, we learn how to participate in experiences so that they can be documented and shared (and earn those addictive likes) and as producers, those that create those experiences, we are learning how to stage them so that they can be more easily shared and earn addictive likes (and valuable cash rewards as well). Public speaking in easily-tweetable soundbites or food-plating in easily-instagrammable bites; either way it all feeds the beast.

    Kayfabe and narrative frameworks


    “Original Deadman” t-shirt, street market, Bangkok, 2006

    I just learned the word Kayfabe. It describes the artificial story elements in professional wrestling. Beyond any discussion of the fights themselves (long dismissed as fake), kayfabe refers to the everything else that is fake, such as the feuds and rivalries. The word is probably a Pig Latin-esque version of “fake” (where by avoiding saying “fake” outright, it’s now a codeword to keep the fakery discussion only among those in the know).

    Here’s more, from the above Wikipedia article

    Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the “relationship” between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).

    Whoah. Layers of meaning and truth and piled onto other layers of implication and lies. My brain feels like I’ve been pummeled with a roll of quarters. Layered conceptual devices are challenging enough, but there’s also interest in breaking kayfabe

    To have certain non-fictional elements weaved into a storyline. They might be staged to look real, meaning that a real truth is being spoken, but are part of the script to make the rivalry look authentic or personal, and to make the feud much more interesting.

    That’s some efficient use of a narrative framework. When you go outside the framework, you still have story (and meaning).

    If you find this difficult to parse, join the team. At least having some labels (kayfabe, breaking kayfabe) make it easier to discuss.

    Related: Canon, the defined world (characters, events, history, etc.) of a story. Especially notable in science fiction, with complicated story lines, detail-oriented fans, and franchises with sequels and prequels galore. Previously about Star Trek’s sprawling fan-driven post-TOS canon, and the person hired by Lucasfilm to maintain continuity as the Star Wars canon guru.

    Related: Retcon is the portmanteau word for retroactive continuity, where a new story element is introduced that changes our understanding of previous facts. I would include It Was All A Dream (e.g., Dallas) as the laziest version. It can also be ironic as well as convenient, such as having Klingons in Star Trek explain their differing physical appearance over the various series (obviously the result of new production designers as well as budget and makeup technology) as part of the race’s own history. Many more examples are here.

    David’s War Story: Let it Bleed

    David Hoard is an interaction designer and here he shares his second story.

    Years ago we were re-designing a device to cool a patient’s blood during open heart surgery. This protects the body during the procedure. The client arranged for us to witness a heart operation, and we were pretty excited about that. My only concern was that I would faint from seeing blood.

    Research day came and we headed to a nearby hospital, prepared to be serious, professional researchers. A nurse helped us gown up and get ready. I was expecting the operating room to be a sober technical environment, and I saw that was true. The equipment was stainless steel; the walls and floor were blue-green tile. I anticipated that this would be an orderly collection of findings.

    But as soon as the surgery team started to come in, the vibe changed. The nurses chatted. The anesthesiologist joked. The patient, a man in his late fifties, was casually whisked in on a gurney.

    The nurses chatted with the patient as they put on the anesthesia mask and he drifted off to sleep. They slathered him with a brown antiseptic wash. It made his skin look like a basted turkey, and I thought “He’s just another piece of meat to them.”

    Then things really got started. The surgeon came in and straight away had the nurse hit the music. The sound of the Rolling Stones filled the O.R. The jokes and banter increased. The technician operating the blood cooling machines set to work and we tried to stay focused on that. But it was futile.

    When the patient was sufficiently chilled, they set to work with a powered saw and cut open his sternum. They were ripping a person’s body open, and they did it while talking about sport scores.

    They pried the chest cavity open and prepared for a bypass procedure. They took a vein from the man’s leg that would be used as a new artery for the heart. “How you doing back there?” came the question from the surgeon. “Good!” we replied, and I realized I wasn’t woozy at all. It was all too fascinating.

    It was at that moment that the most surprising thing happened. The surgeon said “How do you like this?” as he put his hand down in the chest and lifted the beating heart up and out. The music thumped, the heart pumped and the surgeon gave us a wicked grin. He knew full well he was holding the patient’s life in his hands. But at the same time, it was all in a days work for him. No big deal.

    After completing the bypass, they finished their work and stapled the man up. The surgeon cleaned up and zoomed off to something else important. Before we knew it our research session was over.

    As for our actual goal of observing blood-cooling machine, we did gather information about that, but the bigger lesson was in understanding the true nature of our users. We expected one-dimensional experts and we saw three-dimensional humans.

    My work on projects like this has taught me that experts are simply regular humans with a specialized job to do. Help them be smarter, help them be more successful. But don’t forget the human underneath that needs ease of learning, ease of use and help preventing errors. Humans don’t want to devote 100% of their brainpower to your product. They need to reserve some for cracking jokes and singing with the music.

    When your research goes in an unexpected direction, go with the flow and let the Stones play. You might learn something more meaningful than your original plan.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello, summer!

    Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run

    Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

    My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).

    The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.

    I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu or gari. For one thing, it was spicy as hell…so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.

    I had spotted guinea fowl wondering around the village. I asked my host family about it and they just laughed and said they are wild animals.

    So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.

    The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slip knot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.

    The string was about 50 feet long and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.

    The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.

    As dusk fell the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings and I reeled in the string, and soon had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.

    I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep him secure. It was too late to cook them so I ate my mind-alteringly hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.

    I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.

    That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.

    The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.

    We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”

    So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused as he had earlier told me they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor and my daughter will cook it for you.”

    So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with him. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.

    I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side-effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.

    Note: A similar recipe is here.

    Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research


    I’ve always found intercepts – where researchers stop people on the street and ask them to participate in a quick study – to be challenging. (I also prefer to have longer interactions with people and even have them prepare for those research conversations, but that is a bit outside the point here). In Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research Carolyn Chandler breaks that challenge down into many pieces and addresses each of them. It’s a wonderful article because it gets deeply into the specifics and considers the mindset we bring to the activity and how to reframe that, in many different ways.

    Rejection is people’s number one fear when approaching strangers. Hearing no has always been difficult, whether it’s a polite no or an angry no followed by a rant. Either way, it stings. Your response to that sting, though, is what matters. How do you explain the rejection to yourself, and does your explanation help or hurt you?

    Martin Seligman, one of the originators of positive psychology, conducted a study in the ’70s that gives insight into the types of mindsets that make people feel helpless. Seligman found that those who exhibit long-term “learned helplessness” tend to view negative events as being personal, pervasive and permanent. In other words, if a person is rejected, they might rationalize that the rejection is a result of their own failing, that everyone else is likely to reject them as well, and that they can do nothing to lessen the likelihood of rejection.

    When you prepare to approach someone, consider instead that, if they say no, they aren’t really rejecting you, but rather rejecting your request. It’s not personal. Maybe they’re in the middle of something, or maybe they’re just not in the mood to talk. The rejection is fleeting, and the next person might be perfectly happy to participate.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’ve been on the road for the last four weeks and am pretty happy to be around for the next few weeks.

    • Last week with the Grand Rapids IxDA was great. We had a really exciting workshop about developing soft skills. You can see the slides here and the video here (it starts around 30:00).
    • I’m wrapping up the first draft of a strategic plan for a client, looking at how they can incorporate insights into their next iteration of their offerings.
    • I’m looking for some spare cycles to go through a few War Stories that have come in recently. Keep your eyes open and let me know if you have your own story to share!
    • Ten years gone: From June 2004 – $300 toasters.
    • What we’re consuming: The Master, MadCap Coffee, Grand Rapids Brewing Company, onion-rings-on-a-stick.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from the road!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Well a good day to you all! I’ve been home for about a week and now it’s time to hit the road again!

    Carol’s War Story: Driving Force

    Carol Rossi is the senior director of user experience research at

    Since is an auto website we spend a lot of time hearing about how people shop for cars. A couple of years ago we ran a shop-along study where we conducted in-home interviews to both understand car shopping behavior and simultaneously screen people we may want to go with on test drives to dealerships. I always take someone else with me when running interviews – a designer, product manager, exec, etc. – so they get first-hand exposure to real car shoppers.

    This time I had the head of editorial with me. The Edmunds editorial team has a long-term fleet of cars so they can write about car ownership. My colleague tells me that he’ll drive and we’ll take one of the fleet cars. We meet in the lobby and he walks us over to a $100,000 red BMW. Not what I typically show up in to interview somebody who is probably shopping for a Honda.

    The interview is in Hollywood and although it’s only 10 miles from our office this is LA so we drive up Santa Monica Blvd for like an hour. We find the address and it’s not in the best part of Hollywood. There we are with this six-figure car. Eventually we find a parking spot that looks relatively safe and walk to the building.

    We use the callbox and are buzzed into the building. We look for the apartment and realize it’s in the basement. We’re greeted by our interviewee, a middle-aged guy who’s described on the screener as a self-employed writer (like much of the population of Hollywood). The apartment is the tiniest living space. It really looked more like a one-car garage. The air was stuffy, there was a unique odor that was somewhere between musty and dusty, there were no windows open and no A/C, with carpet that had maybe never been cleaned. I started to hope the allergy attack I was sure was coming happened after we were finished. The apartment was overstuffed with piles of papers (screenplays?), VHS tapes, and posters of independent movies (including one with a woman in bondage gear who we later discover is his wife). Although we’d normally want to capture anything descriptive of the scene, to avoid distracting the product team who would watch the video later we had to position the camera to keep the poster out of the shot.

    We’re chatting and after a few minutes our interviewee’s 35-year old wife comes out with a baby. The wife is some kind of Hungarian model (think of a European version of Gisele Bündchen). The guy turned out to be really nice, educated and articulate, but also clearly not at all someone likely to test drive a car at a dealership. Basically he hates cars, rides his bike everywhere, is trying to get off the grid but needs a car now that there’s a baby, and says he’ll buy some used car that’s parked on the street with a sign in the window.

    Was this interview all for naught? From the first moment through the end I wasn’t sure. You always learn something new, so even though this guy did not meet our criteria for people likely to buy a car at a dealership we certainly got exposure to a type of shopper we knew theoretically existed but hadn’t yet encountered (“the eccentric car hater”).

    I’ve seen homes like this (and worse) but after the interview we walked outside and my colleague couldn’t unload fast enough. He’d never seen a living situation like that. In rapid succession he declared (out of concern for our safety) “When we first walked in I though it was a trap – I was looking for a way out” but then (out of concern for the child’s health) repeated several times “They have a baby in there!!” And then he began to express his concern for my safety “Do you go on these interviews alone?…You take a guy with you, right?”

    After this emotional decompression, we jumped back into the ostentatious Beemer and drove down Santa Monica Blvd., away from the unknown of the ethnographer’s life to the predictable comfort of our office…until the next interview.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy Monday from the road.

    • Today and tomorrow I’m in Cambridge meeting with stakeholders. I’ve really enjoyed my initial conversations with this group and imagine I’ll be learning a huge amount about their objectives and their cultural and technical barriers.
    • There are still tickets for our June 20th in Brooklyn. It’s going to be an interactive session about Soft Skills for Design and Innovation. Come on down!
    • June 24th in Grand Rapids, the IxDA chapter will be hosting me for a very similar session (with a slightly catchier title): Soft Skills are Hard. Looking forward to it!
    • Coming later this week is another War Story, now in near-final draft form. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please let me know!
    • Ten years gone: From June 2004 – The truth about toast, Yahoo’s storage error (also here).
    • What we’re consuming: Multnomah Falls, Cocodonuts, Tasty n Alder, Powell’s City of Books, The Americans.

    Young students do “fieldwork” to learn about others

    In For Lessons About Class, a Field Trip Takes Students Home very young children are exposed to the homes and possessions of others. The thrust seems to be about class, but to me it seems like establishing an early model for empathy as well. The notion that other people are different from you seems foundational and it’s exciting to see this being addressed experientially. Check out the slideshow for the worksheets and debrief sessions!

    Some of us have more toys and bigger homes than others. We all have a lot in common, but there are certain things that make us unique, too. Let’s talk about those things and celebrate them, even. This is not standard prekindergarten curricular fare, but it’s part of what the 4- and 5-year-olds at the Manhattan Country School learn by visiting one another’s homes during the school day. These are no mere play dates though; it’s more like Ethnography 101. Do classmates take the bus to school or walk? What neighborhood do they live in? What do they have in their homes? Over the last several weeks, I tagged along to find out. The progressive private school considers the visits to be one of the most radical things it does. “We knew we needed to talk about social class,” said Lois Gelernt, the teacher who came up with the idea. “It was opening up a can of worms, but if we were never going to talk about who we are and where we come from, the sense of community wasn’t going to be there.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s June! For me, June is travel month…

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello to a short week.

    Rachel’s War Story: Research, in Sickness and in Health

    Rachel Shadoan is co-founder of Akashic Labs, a research consultancy that leverages hybrid methodologies to create rich and accurate portraits of users.

    It was my first field assignment out of school. Okay, technically it wasn’t my assignment–a contractor would be conducting the interviews, and I would be along to observe and record. But I’d spent the previous two years and six months in a lab writing code, so I would take what I could get. To say that I was excited would be an understatement. I was stoked.

    Plus, I’d get to fly to California! I’d be on an honest-to-goodness business trip! It was going to be great.

    It certainly started out great. In the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I counted citrus trees. Citrus trees! Growing in the ground! In people’s yards! And no one seemed shocked by this! Of course, I had plenty of time to count those trees, as we crawled through traffic for hours. But the weather was glorious and I, like it, was ebullient.

    Things began to look dicey, however, when I met the researcher I would be working with. She was a smart, gregarious woman, who also happened to be sick. Very sick. Down-a-bottle-of-Nyquil-and-sleep-it-off-for-a-week sick.

    Rest and recuperation, unfortunately, were luxuries we could not afford. The project was on a tight timeline and already behind. At least one of the interviews we had planned had been rescheduled once. Stakeholders across three organizations were chomping at the bit. It was, in the melodramatic way of business schedules, do or die.

    And so we did. We pre-gamed with Thai food, guzzling tom yum soup for its sinus-clearing properties before returning to the hotel for an early-to-bed. The following morning we set off, my compatriot fueled by a powerful cocktail of cold medicine and espresso, myself running mostly on nerves and the delicious feeling of being free of my cubicle confines.

    Still, we felt uncomfortable bringing sickness into the homes of our participants. “Give us your insight, and we’ll give you the plague!” is not the most enticing slogan a researcher could come up with. We tried to minimize risks. I shook hands with the participants; she abstained. She positioned herself as far away from them as their living rooms and rapport-building would allow, with me, a human note-taking buffer, in between. We strove not to be vectors of disease.

    Given the circumstances, the first two interviews went well. But after hours of driving hither and yon across the north Bay Area, in traffic that I would have avoided navigating even with a clear head, my partner’s energy was flagging and the cold medicine wearing off. She tossed back an emergency booster of DayQuil in a Starbucks parking lot and we steeled ourselves for the final interview. It was perhaps more disorganized than the first two interviews, but we muddled through together.

    And then, as the sun sank below the side of the endless freeway, it was over and we were once again untroubled by the inflexibility of a corporate system that put us in the ethical quandary of whether to conduct field work–or work at all–while ill. We parted ways at a BART station. She headed home to collapse into a restorative, cold-medicine induced coma; I went in to the city to spend a few days basking in the glow of more-or-less-successful fieldwork.

    My basking didn’t last long, of course. In no time at all, I had a cold.

    Jon’s War Story: Of Speed and Strip Clubs

    Jon McNeill is the Principal of Hunter.

    Relatively early in my career, as I began stepping out and leading studies on my own, I was in Miami Beach doing ethnographic interviews with participatory “drive-alongs” for a luxury car brand. It was the last day in town, and I, with client in tow, had three 3-hour interviews scheduled that had to get done before we could fly out in the morning, the last one being scheduled for 9pm. This last interview was with Kenny, a guy who was actually supposed to be interviewed earlier in the week, but had to cancel because his yacht broke down and he was stranded for the day on a small island off the coast. We hear a lot of different excuses for non-participation, but that was a new one.

    My client and I get through our first two interviews that day at around 8, hop back in the rental car, and start the trip to interview 3, feeling hungry and tired, having missed dinner. I called Kenny to confirm that we were coming, in case he was on another island. He answered in an energetic but distracted tone: “Yeah, laying out the drinks right now. We’ll get in the car, go get some speed, and come back and I’ll give you whatever you need.” Click.

    “Speed? Oh no. Who is this guy? He must mean going fast, in his car,” I thought to myself.

    I warned my client that we might have a live wire on our hands, but that we’d just go get the interview that we needed and then grab a bite.

    We arrive to the address to see Kenny out front, waiting for us. “My wife is putting the kids to bed right now,” he told us, “so I’d rather not go in just yet and disturb them. Why don’t we get in my car, do the drive, go get a beer, and then come back and do the interview thing?”

    We usually did the drive-along as the last part of the interview, but as intrepid researchers! Going with the flow is what we do best! Plus, at this point in the day, a drink sounded pretty good. My client and I nodded our agreement and squeezed into Kenny’s convertible: me riding shotgun, and my client folded into the tiny backseat area, holding the camcorder.

    As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, Kenny hit the gas and I saw the speedometer jump up to 110 mph. I looked back at my client, white knuckled and – like a champ – rolling video on the whole thing.

    We rocketed through a number of dark, mostly empty Miami streets. I was disoriented but loving the way the car gripped the pavement as we took turns in high gear. Just as I was wondering why he was choosing to take us to a bar that was so far from his home, I noticed a police cruiser waiting at a stop light ahead of us. Either Kenny didn’t notice, or he wasn’t worried; we flew through the intersection, still doing over 100.

    I flashed on how the rest of the evening might unfold: sirens, mug shots, bailing my informant out of jail… but the cruiser didn’t even give chase. I think the officer knew he wouldn’t catch us.

    Finally we pulled into a large parking lot, full of expensive cars, in front of a small oblong building. Two huge bouncers stood out front.

    Kenny turned to us and said, “Welcome to the best all-black strip club in Miami Beach!” and headed for the entrance before I could fully process what that meant. My client’s mouth was agape.

    Neither my client nor I are what you might call “strip club people”. He had been telling me about how he and his partner were remodeling their house into a real mid-century modern masterpiece. As I looked down at myself, I saw with dismay that the polo shirt I was wearing kind of made me look like the guy on Blue’s Clues.

    Since this experience, I’ve heard stories of researchers obliging their clients by taking them to strip clubs, all in the name of client services. And Miami’s relationship to strip clubs did seem to be more casual than other parts of the country, because a few of our other participants had mentioned in passing eating lunch or getting a drink at a strip club. But I was mortified – this was not something I was anticipating. Yet at the same time, I felt cuffed: I knew we had to get this interview checked off, and I didn’t feel like I could demand that we return to his home without ruining our chances at building strong rapport.

    I turned to my client and said, “I am so sorry. If I had any idea that he was taking us here, I wouldn’t have agreed. But at this point, I’m worried about insulting him; so let’s just go in, have a quick drink, and head out.”

    My client, a saint, shrugged and said, “This is just what happens when you do ethnography, right?” Right.

    The bouncers patted us down and we walked inside. Not having a depth of experience in this area, I had to take Kenny’s word for it being the best of its kind in Miami. Kenny was already at the bar, waiting with our drinks.

    “So, what do you want to know?” he asked me, as he handed me a beer.

    I struggled to remember my protocol questions, and we talked for about five minutes before Kenny excused himself to go to the bathroom. I looked over at my client and we both made a silent acknowledgement that we were done with our beers and ready to go.

    Just then, Kenny came back with a stripper on his arm. He turned to my client: “Hey, I bought you a lap dance.”

    My client’s face went white. The room began to spin. My client tried to politely decline.

    Kenny, confused, said, “No, she’s great, I’ve had her before!”

    My client politely declined again, and suggested Kenny go for it.

    Kenny asked him, “What is it? Are you married?”


    “You have a girlfriend that would disapprove?”


    “Well, then, what is it?”

    My client started stumbling over his words, trying to come up with a firmer excuse. Then Kenny laid down his trump card.

    “Look, man, I’m doing this because everyone thinks you’re cops. You’re white, clearly not having a good time, and if you don’t do this, they’re probably going to take us outside and beat us up.” He waited for my client to answer.

    My client looked at me the way survivors of a shipwreck must look at the person holding a life preserver. To my shame, I looked away.

    My client, resigned, was led back to a private room. I turned back around in my seat and started processing all that had happened: my conversations with my client, some of the things he said that I hadn’t caught at the time, his answers to Kenny just then… and it all suddenly clicked for me, with a sickening certainty.

    Kenny handed me another beer and said, “You know, I think your colleague might be gay.”

    “Yeah,” I told him, “I just figured that out myself. But what you don’t know is he’s actually not my colleague, he’s actually my client. You just gave a private lap dance to my gay client.”

    I felt ill. Kenny started laughing.

    “That’s really funny, man. That’s really funny.”

    I think Kenny really felt badly about the whole thing. After my client returned, we left and Kenny took us out to dinner at a kitschy piano bar owned by an old gay friend of his. We all laughed and told stories about crazy things that had happened to us in our lives, and at the end, without us knowing, Kenny paid for everything.

    The night ended back at Kenny’s house, in front of a literal parking lot full of his Audis, Porsches, and huge SUVs. He was a fantastic informant, and helped me craft the recommendations for the brand based on his interview.

    The car ride back to the hotel was pretty quiet. “Strange night, huh.” I said. My client nodded his head.

    We shook hands at the hotel elevator and said goodnight. That was the last time I saw him – he wasn’t at the final presentation, and I heard that he had left the company not too long afterward.

    At the end of the study, we sent him a client satisfaction survey, which was standard practice for us at that time. To my shock, it came back straight 10s. My client was a saint.

    Unlike many of the other War Stories, this doesn’t paint me in the best light – mistakes were made, character flaws became apparent. But in some ways, the ability to realize that you’ve made mistakes and are flawed is one of the things I treasure most about anthropology — ever since my Intro to Anthro college courses where I began to learn about the long, illustrious line of mistaken and flawed anthropologists who came before me. In fact, often those mistakes and faux pas were the keys to unlocking some heretofore hidden cultural truths. And I think that night was no different, although I don’t think the cultural truths that were unlocked for me were necessarily about luxury automobiles.

    I can’t see myself getting into the same situation now – there were at least two inflection points that night where today I would have directed things differently – but it could be that going through that experience together, the three of us, led to a deeper connection and (eventually) a successful interview. It certainly led to a War Story.

    Doug’s War Story: Knock-knock! Who’s there?

    Doug Cooke is founder of Tinder, a research consultancy focused on people-centered innovation.

    In a recent research and strategy project focused on defining a new global platform for a medical device, our research plan required us to shadow clinicians and others as they used existing devices in the “context of care.” With minor issues like HIPAA protecting patient privacy and other security issues at big urban hospitals in the US, our team decided that conducting research in Europe provided a better opportunity to understand these devices and their users.

    Planning started with all the usual steps: multi-day client sessions to assess the domain, issues and problems; auditing reams of client data and documents; becoming familiar with competitive products, etc. We developed a research protocol that went through many rounds of revision with a large, multi-location client team, arriving at a clear understanding of relevant and important user issues. We developed screening criteria for participating medial institutions. Pilot studies were run at US hospitals. Months of preparation were spent in making sure our research team was fully prepared to bring back insights and perspectives that would help define the next generation global respirator platform. Ready, set, on to Europe!

    Our first stop was a hospital in Wales. They had lined up the appropriate people for us to shadow and interview, including department heads, physicians, and medical techs. We spent two days shadowing, probing and gathering, and everything worked according to plan. Wahoo!

    At our second stop in London (hauling two large model cases that would not fit into London’s very spacious cabs), we arrived at the check-in desk and ask to see Dr. Smith (or so we’ll call him). Upon arrival at his department wing, we learned that Dr. Smith was not in. Even more concerning was that Dr. Smith was out of the country at a conference and had not let anyone else know we were coming. After speaking with a few more people, the answer was “Please come back at another time when the doctor is in.” Ouch! In spite of all the planning, effort, and resources to get here, a few uncooperative people were about to jeopardize our research program.

    How could this happen? Well, I ignored one of my primary rules: never let the client take on a critical path item that could endanger the project’s success and my firm’s reputation. Specifically, because of the difficulty of gaining access to the right people and institutions, and extremely high cost if we were to use a traditional recruiting process, our client took on the responsibility for arranging our visits to hospitals through Europe. Few clients understand the level of effort needed to screen, schedule and triple-confirm each participant. When the “research gig” is complex and requires the participation of a number of people carefully choreographed in a short time, it is essential to have a dedicated, experienced resource to make that happen.

    We made it all work in the end. With no Dr. Smith and an apparent dead end, we literally started on-the-spot networking, walking up and introducing ourselves to doctor after doctor until we had made some friends that would grant us two days of access in the ICU and ER. It worked out in the end, but presented unforeseen delays and stress to an already pressure-filled project. Painful but constructive outcomes, nonetheless.

    The rest of the trip in Germany and Italy presented various levels of preparedness on the part of hospitals we visited. Some hospitals were planning on hosting us for our full two day itinerary and some were expecting only a few hours meeting (which we were able to extend by turning on our best charm).

    I have always been a very careful planner and can fastidiously orchestrate research logistics. I know what it takes to gather user insights. But the lessons learned from this European research foray is a clear reminders that whenever I can, I must control the recruiting and scheduling process. I hope to never again knock on any unsuspecting doors.

    This Week @ Portigal


    • I’m hoping to put the wraps on my talk about War Stories (coming up at CHIFOO next month) today and tomorrow.
    • One of the clients I’ve been coaching is presenting their findings to their executive team on Tuesday and then on Thursday I’m going to lead a workshop where we’ll translate their findings into a diverse set of business activities, and then prioritize them into their next steps.
    • Have you registered for my workshop on synthesizing user research at EuroIA?
    • Have you signed up for my workshop exploring mindfulness and presence at UX Australia?
    • And a reminder that I’ll be looking for any internal training gigs near Brussels and Sydney later this year.
    • Ten years gone: From May 2004 – That freaky Ball Park Franks “girthy” ad, Google “serves up” some awkward ads for a story about infected barbecue..
    • What we’re consuming: The White Diamond, Cafe Gibraltar, Star Wars Burlesque, canine acupuncture, Nash the Slash.

    Chauncey’s War Story: Secrets, Security and Contextual Inquiry

    UX architect Chauncey Wilson shares a rather scary story about permissions gone missing.

    In the 1980s, I worked for about 7 years at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as a usability engineer. My group was led by John Whiteside, who pushed to make usability a serious discipline informed by metrics, fieldwork, and lab studies. The method of contextual inquiry was developed in our group by John, Karen Holtzblatt, Sandy Jones and Dennis Wixon. We did a lot of fieldwork to refine our methods and inform product teams about how to improve their products.

    During my tenure at DEC, I set up a set of interviews with a major client who must still go unnamed. The client did military research and used some of our products. I got clearance to interview people at the site with the caveat that all videos, tapes, and notes would be surrendered when I left. I would analyze the data at their site and do a presentation about my findings, leave all data, and not discuss any details of my interviews. I got to the site early in the morning and signed in at the front desk. In those days, we had 8mm video cameras as our primary tool for field interviews. I had permission from the senior security chief to videotape the screens and record sound for 5 different users of our DEC products. I started setting up my equipment for the first interview and about the time I got to mounting the video camera on a tripod, three really large security guards with weapons blocked the exit to the office and asked me what I was doing (“I’m here doing some research for DEC”), then they grabbed my equipment and took me to a holding area and proceeded to interrogate me. I said that I had sought permission and had an agreement with the chief security officer – but that agreement was not to be found.

    My name had been on the visitor list and the people I was interviewing vouched that I had set things up with them, but there was no clear approval for videotaping. I asked if they could contact their security chief, but he was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands. While they called and left messages for him, I spent a few hours in the holding area (you might call it a “cell”) concerned that I might go to prison. Though it took a while, they did catch up with the security chief and took me back to the cube where I had started my set-up and let me continue.

    I spent a week at this site and noticed that the guards walked by and checked in on me a lot. Every night when I left during the week, they had me empty my pockets and remove every item from my briefcase. On Friday, I put together a report and presented to an audience of very serious people who asked no questions. I left all the data, submitted to my final contraband search and left the most bizarre field visit of my entire career.

    The global watercooler


    Sorry about the picture quality, but I grabbed this image quickly. I was in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia. A streetcar is went by and with an advertisement for The Walking Dead. Underneath the title of the show, the poster reads “Same day as the U.S.”

    The value proposition here is that viewers can be part of the global conversation, taking place on social media. If you can’t see episodes of a popular show until days or weeks or months later (as has been the case for secondary markets) then you missed out on the party and it’s already spoiled.

    Granted, with global time zones, this is not a fully synchronousexperience (but then neither is viewing in the U.S., with a three-hour breadth), but this is a fascinating sign of the times and more evidence that Water Cooler TV is still important.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy happy Monday!

    • The week has begun well, with news that a client has accepted our proposal to help them with planning a research program to support a wide-ranging strategic initiative. Looks like a trip to Cambridge, MA is coming up soon to kick this off.
    • We posted two great War Stories last week, from Steve Sato and Gerry Gaffney. I’m working away on the plan for my upcoming War Stories talk at CHIFOO next month.
    • It’s a ways away but I am excited about teaching a workshop on synthesizing user research at EuroIA and on developing an understanding of presence at UX Australia. I’d love for people to sign up earlier, rather than later, for these workshops because it really helps with planning logistics (and finances).
    • Given that I’m going to be in Sydney in August and Brussels in September, it’d be great to line up a training or consulting gig vaguely in and around there. If your European or Australian firm might benefit from working with me, please get in touch to talk further.
    • I’m attending the Core77 Conference next month in Brooklyn. Will I see you there?
    • Ten years gone: From May 2004 – A website about someone famous is not the way to reach someone famous, John Maeda’s Simplicity Design Workshop, Green Tea Caramel Corn
    • What we’re consuming: Benedict Cumbercats, Neil Young’s String Theory, Louie.

    Gerry’s War Story: Right to be Wrong

    Gerry Gaffney runs the UX consultancy Information & Design in Melbourne. He publishes the User Experience podcast and is current director of publications at UXPA.

    I was researching, with my colleague Patrizia Bordignon, how people thought about and dealt with home renovations.

    One of the methods was a diary study (“cultural probe”), and we had carefully recruited – or so we believed – a small set of participants with whom we would work for several weeks.

    Warning bells sounded fairly early with one of the participants, who showed up very late for the initial briefing. These things can happen, so we ran a separate briefing session for him, gave him his kit of reporting materials (camera, diary and so on) and sent him on his way. Let’s call him Mr. W.

    Three days after the briefing we telephoned each of the participants. It’s a good idea to do this to remind people about their commitment, to redirect as necessary, and to address any issues that arise. All our participants were on-track, with the notable exception of Mr. W, who seemed somewhat evasive in his answers.

    At the end of the first week, we visited the participants. Again, this is good practice; it’s an opportunity to see how the data is being gathered, and what changes might be needed to the process. We also use that opportunity to make a part-payment to the participants, which can serve as a nice motivation.

    We were delighted with what we saw. Participants had kept bills and receipts, photographs and magazine clippings, they showed us their renovations or their plans, and we were confident that we were getting plenty of highly relevant data.

    When we visited Mr. W’s house, however, it was evident from the first moment that his home was different. The front gate didn’t work properly and the hinges squeaked, the garden was unkempt and the house gave an overall sense of dilapidation. Inside it was a similar story. Every room was in dire need of immediate restorative work, but none was evident. I felt a tad depressed as we drank tea from cracked mugs and listened to Mr. W list the things that needed to be fixed.

    Mr. W was not an enthusiastic renovator. His house represented a series of urgent and necessary tasks, none of which had been tackled.

    It looked like we would collect no useful data from Mr. W, and as we traveled back to the office we talked about our disappointment and reexamined our recruiting strategy.

    However, as we moved into data analysis, we found ourselves referring quite often to Mr. W, and gradually came to realize (no doubt this should have been obvious earlier) that Mr. W’s world was in fact directly relevant to our project. While the enthusiastic renovator was undoubtedly a key consideration, the unenthused or reluctant could also present great opportunities. Their needs and goals were different, their attitudes were different, and the way that we would design for those characteristics was different.

    In many ways, in fact, Mr. W was an ideal participant specifically because he didn’t fit our expectations. He challenged the underpinnings of the project, and made us examine our design decisions in a much more rigorous fashion.

    I often reflect back on this experience when I’m doing user research, and I specifically watch out for negative reactions and experiences, because they can often teach us things that we might not otherwise learn.

    I still believe it’s important to recruit carefully, but perhaps we should be more open to the idea that the “wrong” participant is sometimes precisely the right one.

    Steve’s War Story: Finding Mojo “In the Moment”

    Steve Sato is the Principal at Sato+Partners, a customer-centered strategy and stakeholder-centered organization design consultancy.

    We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

    I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

    We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

    Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

    It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

    But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

    The personal commitment required for truly immersive research

    Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood [NYT] describes a sociologist who commits deeply to truly immersive fieldwork. At one level this simply reminds us of the differences between academic and industry work, but beyond that it surfaces just how personally demanding it is to deeply engage in a culture, requiring us to forgo much of ourselves (In Interviewing Users that’s Check Your Worldview At the Door) in order to understand the people we are interested in (Embrace How Other People See the World).

    Ms. Goffman comes from a home where intensive fieldwork was something of a family business. Her father, the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman (who died when she was a baby), posed as an employee of a mental hospital for a year to research his 1961 study, “Asylums.” Her mother, Gillian Sankoff, is a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania who has done studies in Papua New Guinea and French Canada; her adoptive father, the sociolinguist William Labov, also at Penn, has done pioneering field research on African-American urban vernacular, among other subjects.

    Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip, fully immersing herself in local culture.

    She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

    By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements.
    It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

    It can be hard to square the very ordinary-seeming academic who recalls her teenage affection for “My So-Called Life” with the young woman of her startlingly confessional appendix, which ends with a moving account of a close friend’s death in a shootout.

    Insights into Internet-era blue- and white-collar work

    Here are two amazing pieces that expose a great amount of detail about very different types of jobs that are specific to the Internet era. We learn about who is doing the work, what the work is like and what the culture is. There’s so much rich detail in both that I am not summarizing or drawing conclusions but simply pointing you to them for listening/reading.

    (Jerry Bowley/flickr)

    Brown Box is a a RadioLab piece about the order fulfillment centers that companies like Amazon and others use. The reporter gets a job in one of these places and describes the physical and emotional toil (although she meets some who really like the work). While you might imagine the way items are stored in those warehouses is incredibly ordered, she describes how it’s essentially random, while “pickers” who are preparing an order carry a handheld device that directs them item after item to each holding bin at random locations through the warehouse, counting down the seconds it has calculated for them to reach the next item. That sounds so stressful!

    It used to be, when you ordered something on the Internet, you waited a week for it to show up. That was the deal: you didn’t have to get off the couch, but you had to wait. But in the last few years, that’s changed. Now, increasingly, the stuff we buy on the Internet shows up the next day or the same day, sometimes within hours. Free shipping included. Which got us wondering: How is this Internet voodoo possible?

    A fleet of robots? Vacuum tubes? Teleportation? Hardly. In this short, reporter Mac McClelland travels into the belly of the beast that is the Internet retail system, and what she finds takes her breath away and makes her weak in the knees (in the worst way).

    Also: a written story by Mac McClelland about the same experience.

    Programming Sucks is an intensely hyperbolic piece that digs into the state of the art for developing computer code.

    For example, say you’re an average web developer. You’re familiar with a dozen programming languages, tons of helpful libraries, standards, protocols, what have you. You still have to learn more at the rate of about one a week, and remember to check the hundreds of things you know to see if they’ve been updated or broken and make sure they all still work together and that nobody fixed the bug in one of them that you exploited to do something you thought was really clever one weekend when you were drunk. You’re all up to date, so that’s cool, then everything breaks.

    “Double you tee eff?” you say, and start hunting for the problem. You discover that one day, some idiot decided that since another idiot decided that 1/0 should equal infinity, they could just use that as a shorthand for “Infinity” when simplifying their code. Then a non-idiot rightly decided that this was idiotic, which is what the original idiot should have decided, but since he didn’t, the non-idiot decided to be a dick and make this a failing error in his new compiler. Then he decided he wasn’t going to tell anyone that this was an error, because he’s a dick, and now all your snowflakes are urine and you can’t even find the cat.

    So no, I’m not required to be able to lift objects weighing up to fifty pounds. I traded that for the opportunity to trim Satan’s pubic hair while he dines out of my open skull so a few bits of the internet will continue to work for a few more days.

    How not to solicit customer feedback


    Seen at a busy lunchtime eatery in San Mateo. The comment card box is placed right above the full garbage bin. No comment cards or pencils on hand, so perhaps this is just a vestige that they haven’t bothered to remove. But abandonware always makes you look like you just don’t care and in this case the visual association between “we value your opinion” and “food waste” is not appealing. Greatly appreciated? I doubt it.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy May! Hope you had a lovely May Day, Star Wars Day, Cinco de Cuatro and Cinco de Mayo!

    • Last week was the first anniversary of Interviewing Users. I posted a summary of links, resources, podcasts and more.
    • While I’m waiting to hear about a number of interesting proposals out there, I’m doing a big push with blogging. It’s a gift to always have more to write about than time, but it’ll be fun to clear out the top layer of the backlog at least.
    • We had a new War Story last week. I’ve seen a good first draft of another new one that hope to be able to post soon. If you’ve got a story it would be great to share it so get in touch!
    • On the subject of War Stories, I’m digging into the preparations for a new talk about the War Stories, coming up at CHIFOO next month (and at UX Australia later this year.
    • On the town: I’ll be at the Designing Innovation panel on Wednesday night. Maybe I’ll see you there?
    • Ten years gone: From May 2004 – Classic concert companion, Starsky and Hutch art installation, Fun Facts!
    • What we’re consuming: dogs and shag, mezcal, Zepparella, Rolling Pin Donuts.

    Happy Birthday to Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    It’s been one year (wow!) since Interviewing Users came out! Hooray! 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, you should write a brief review on Amazon here.

    The Book





    Can you engineer empathy (as part of learning to code)?


    From Engineering Empathy [Re/code]

    Dev Bootcamp, an intensive nine-week coding program in San Francisco’s South of Market district, offers a unique “Engineering Empathy” curriculum. About 30 students stood in pairs and spoke to their partners simultaneously: You don’t respond to email fast enough. Why are you checking Twitter — nothing important happens there. You’re too old to be here. You’re faking it. You don’t know how to develop. You have no career. You’re the worst pair partner. Your accent makes you hard to understand. You’ll never get a programming job.

    When the cacophony finally subsided, many of the would-be programmers were in tears. Some were holding hands. One man sat down and put his head in his hands. “My superego runs on a disappointment platform,” he said to the room.

    The culture of tech (male-dominated, sexist, entitled and so on) has become even more visible as of late. Even the parodies of Silicon Valley, such as HBO’s Silicon Valley, face criticism for not being inclusive enough.

    So I’m a bit stuck on how to parse this particular example. Of course it’s good that people are given the chance to develop empathy! I’ve been teaching designers about presence and mindfulness (and will be doing so again later this year at UX Australia). Perhaps it’s just how the writer took something earnest and presented it out of context, thereby making it look ridiculous (in other words, like a scene from Silicon Valley).

    I suppose things can be both wonderfully beneficial and hilariously ridiculous at the same time (see rock music or romance, for example). I’ve taught a lot of workshops where you if walked in without context you’d wonder what the hell is going on. I feel trepidation (because I can’t tell how whether this is authentic or just a put-on) but I really want to recognize this as a good thing.

    Erik’s War Story: (Don’t) Go Toward The Light

    Erik Moses is the Director of Research and Insights at Product Development Technologies in Lake Zurich, IL.

    Not long ago I was on a project where we were tasked with understanding current practices in BioPharma labs. Overall the program was a huge success and we uncovered critical new insights for our client, which is always rewarding. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about my iPad.

    As a researcher, I admit to having a bad memory. I am a dedicated note taker. I love my notes and can’t do much without them. A few months before this, I had begun using the iPad as my main source of data capture in the field, moving on from my old friend the pen and paper.

    For one of our site visits we were in the Midwest at a notable university lab. We were there for the day, courtesy of our client’s long-standing relationship with this lab. That is to say, we were welcome guests. Part of the process we were observing involved a lab technician processing images in a darkroom. At one point during our visit, the PI (Principal Investigator), who was our client’s main point of contact and with whom they had the relationship, invited our group into the darkroom to understand how the process continued in this environment. Of course, I brought my iPad.

    Our group piled into a cramped university darkroom and to find not only the PI, but also a few other technicians from the lab processing portions of their project. It was dark in the darkroom, so the only thing I could see was the soft red glow of dark room-specific lights.

    The PI began the demonstration, while we tried not to impede the movements of everyone else in the darkroom. At some point, our participant said something very interesting that caught my attention. I thought “Hey, this is a must-have insight I need to remember!” and so I opened the cover of my iPad.

    Immediately, I hear a technician behind me exclaim “Wha-what? Oh, great!” While I now recall hearing this comment just like it was yesterday, at the time I was so focused on capturing this important piece of information, I did not put it together that the technician was referring to the blunder I had just made.

    After noticing a tremendously bright light in this room of black, only then did my mind stitch together the visual information of the bright light with the auditory cue of the mumbled comment. In a matter of seconds I realized what I had done.

    While afterwards the PI ignored the incident and the session continued for rest of the day without another incident, I felt horrible and was flustered for some time. Reflecting on it today, I still feel flustered. I like to imagine that I didn’t mess up that technician’s experiment that much, perhaps only by hours but given what I know about that group and the process, in my heart I know I ruined at least two days’ worth of hard, time- and event-specific work.

    Because of this incident I am now very careful in the field, perhaps to the point of being overcautious, often times wrapping my arms around my iPad to physically tell myself to be mindful of my actions. Learn from my experience: remember, don’t (immediately) go toward the light!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hope things are as sunny where you are as they are here…

    • I spent the first half of today helping our client with a synthesis session. We made it through two transcripts and they’ve got another 11 to do on their own, so they have some work ahead. But it was really fun, really interesting and quite valuable in pulling out some themes and opportunities. I’ll meet with them next to help with a presentation and run a design workshop afterwards, probably in a few weeks.
    • If you missed last week’s well-received 32 Awesomely Practical UX Tips virtual seminar, you can still get the recordings. Use the code 32UXTIPS for 32% off!
    • I’ve got a great slate of catch-up calls and lunches this week. It’s something I find so helpful and enjoyable and I’m glad to have the chance to do it right now as projects wind down and others are still winding up.
    • Ten years gone: From April 2004 – Academics examine Wal-Mart for clues to our culture, Reuters consent.
    • What we’re consuming: Ferrell’s Donuts, Fargo, a rant about design, Fastball’s The Way, improv as life advice.

    Listen to Steve on the UX Discovery Session podcast


    I was interviewed by Gerard Dolan for the UX Discovery Session podcast. In 30 minutes we spoke about my twisted educational career path, the Interviewing Users book, some products and services I’m struck by and my fantasy of putting on a UX conference devoted to soft skills. You can listen to the interview below, or here (where Gerard has included a nice set of footnote-links).

    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).

    Be a rock star, just like…Spider-Man?

    spidey rock star

    This designed-by-committee advertainment highlights three benefits, speed, agility, reliability – the third probably not top-of-mind when we think of the web-slinger. And as if this cross-promotion for the USPS Priority Mail and Spider-Man (well, Spider-Man 2) wasn’t ridiculous enough, these qualities will make you a rock star. Just like the US Postal Service. Or Spidey.


    That’s it. “Rock star” is officially over. Meaningless. We’ve known this for a while, but this is too far and we must all agree to stop it immediately.

    Listen to Steve on Wise Talk


    I was interviewed by Sue Bethanis for Mariposa Leadership’s Wise Talk show. In an episode titled The Art of Interviewing Users we talked about how to see and notice in a different way, being aware of our own filters and biases, and constantly rediscovering what the problem you are trying to solve really is. You can listen to the interview below, or at Wise Talk.

    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).

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings to all!

    • We’re onto the final tiny steps to wrap up this long project. Last week’s sessions highlighted some real challenges in moving innovation through the organization and I know that my direct clients have some more work to do. I’ve put together an iteration of our final presentation that hopefully will help everyone understand the path we’ve gone down – the questions we were tasked with and the ways our research addressed those. For now, I’m waiting to hear that this is satisfactory for concluding this phase of work.
    • I’ve got my single transcript in hand will be combing through it this week in preparation for facilitating for a new client next week.
    • We’ve got another new War Story! Check out Seeing Ourselves As Others May See Us. I hope to have more soon (hint hint hint).
    • On Friday I recorded a conversation with Gerard Dolan for his UX Discovery Session podcast and before the weekend was up he had posted it! Check out our 30-minute chat.
    • More to listen to: the recording from last week’s Wise Talk about Interviewing Users is here.
    • This week I’ll be one of several speakers at Rosenfeld Media’s day-long virtual event, 32 Awesomely Practical UX Tips. Use the code STEVE for 20% off!
    • I’m taking time this week to drive down to meet with a design team we worked a lot with about 4 years ago and see if there are opportunities to collaborate again. I’m also having lunch with a few different colleagues around the area to catch up and share ideas and stories.
    • Ten years gone: From April 2004 – Astro Boy currency, Wacky warning labels.
    • What we’re consuming: Philz Coffee (suburban version), Aaron Sorkin’s QSR drama, renovacation, Chinatown Sartorialist, Silicon Valley, focus group horror, dog treats (inadverently!).

    War Story: Seeing Ourselves As Others May See Us

    Here we break with tradition and present a story anonymously, to mitigate against mortification of those involved.

    Twenty something and fresh out of my MA program I obtained a little consulting job which I completed from afar. The company mailed me a video camera and interview guide and sent me out to discover what people think of dinner food. I was to recruit people who would participate in a video recorded dinner we share and an after-dinner interview. I was instructed to send footage back to the company with the camera along with notes and analysis.

    My first interview was with a man about my age who ate convenience foods. He was shy and awkward with me as I was with him. When I got there I set up the tripod and attempted to build rapport beyond our obvious discomfort. In an effort to focus only on him as he opened a can of soup and poured it into a casserole dish I spent very little time adjusting the equipment. He prepared soup-in-a-dish dinner and we ate together and then I went through what was left of the interview content. Perfect recruit for “convenience food eater,” and I was off.

    Later at home I looked back at the video to make sure my notes are correct and to complete a partial transcript. To my surprise and immense embarrassment I realized that I set the camera up so that the composition includes only one thing in the foreground completely obscuring the participant’s head. It was a close-up view of my right breast – interrupted only occasionally by my arm each time I raised the fork. The entire dinner and interview video contained nothing more than this view. I had never met the employer or the team in person but I reluctantly packaged up the camera and my notes and sent them away without a word. Later they mention that their view of this video inspired quite a few laughs around the office. Oops.

    This Week @ Portigal

    The weeketh beginneth, all!

    Lindsay’s War Story: Sexism in the City

    Lindsay Moore is an independent design research and strategy consultant from Colorado.

    We were in New York City, on day four of a three-week fieldwork trip. We had had some bumpy interviews the first few days, including a participant who clammed up because her husband was in the room, another who wasn’t comfortable showing us any of the software processes she had been recruited to show us, and a third with whom the conversation was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with us hanging on for dear life. But I was finally starting to settle in to the interview guide and was feeling positive about what we were learning. Plus we were getting a great apartment tour of Manhattan!

    We were accompanied on each interview by a rotating member of the client team so that they could all experience the research firsthand, and this day was our first with a particular team member. Our morning interview had gone fairly well, but I could tell our client partner was having some trouble staying in the background, as she was used to more actively managing her interactions with customers.

    We walked in the door for our afternoon interview, and I made some small talk, saying something like “How is your day going so far?” to our participant, who was an older gentleman. He answered that it was going much better now that we three pretty girls were there, but that it would be even better if we didn’t have clothes on. I experienced a shocked moment of “Did he really just said that???” and took a sidelong glance at my client to see her reaction. She had one of those impenetrable customer service masks of politeness on her face. I tried to shake off the comment and proceeded into the interview.

    For the first 30 minutes, I found myself utterly unable to manage the flow with the participant, who would physically turn towards the client to answer my questions, and then turn back to me and say “You understand?” The interviews were about financial behavior, and he made it very clear that he thought I wouldn’t be able to follow what he was saying. Meanwhile, in an effort to be polite, engaged and responsive with her customer, my client was unintentionally making it worse. I realized I needed to gain some kind of credibility and after the umpteenth “I don’t know if you would understand” I told him that I do have some financial background and that I was following just fine. After that I was much better able to lead the interview and he engaged directly with me. Still, for another hour and a half he continued to condescend and make inappropriate/sexist comments (The number of times he suggested we “girls” go shopping at Bloomingdales after the interview? Five. What he wanted us to buy? Blouses.)

    After leaving the interview I was hopping mad and said to my client and my colleague that I couldn’t believe what we had just experienced. They agreed but felt like we had still been able to uncover great information in the interview. They also thought that sometimes older men are just “like that” and that I shouldn’t let it get to me. I was bothered but decided to let it go. The interview had been uncomfortable but not unsafe, and the client was pleased with what we had learned. As an interviewer, wasn’t I supposed to be able to set my own emotions aside?

    When revisiting the transcripts and coding the interview data, it really became clear to me that I was not overreacting to what we experienced. It was blatantly bad. Still, what should we have done? When I’ve related the story to other friends and colleagues, they’ve said that we should have left the home after the initial no-clothes comment. I want to agree on principle, but I also know that if I never allow myself to experience something uncomfortable, I’ll miss out on the richness and depth that is a part of this kind of work. What I do know is that it’s okay to share and talk about our own emotional responses to difficult research situations and that doing so is an important part of self-care for researchers. In the future, I will also make sure to have a plan in place with my fieldwork partners for when — and how — to end an interview, so that it’s not a process we need to invent in the moment.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Howdy April. Hopefully it’s spring for you if you live in a spring-in-April part of the world.

    • The key objective for this week is to wrap up the deliverable document for this project. That means I’m working in PowerPoint, trying to actually craft an articulate statement that succinctly expresses the details of what we saw – and why that’s relevant to our client. I took some time this week to make sure that I left paper (and Microsoft Word) and got into PowerPoint – it’s always gratifying to be in the deck, even though the ideas are still sharpening. I’ve got a bunch of diagrams to draw, oh and the details of a workshop to plan. I know that by the time I get on an airplane Sunday morning we’ll be all set, but it really requires focus.
    • I think it’s on hold this week while my main contact is on holiday, but last week I started consulting with a team who have already conducted their own fieldwork to help inform a pretty significant strategic directive to open up new lines of business.
    • I’m so grateful for Cati’s review of Interviewing Users on Amazon.
    • There’s some tantalizing possibilities for great collaborations for our next project. Conversations this week will tell us more about what is happening next.
    • Coming up on April 17, I will be the guest on Mariposa Leadership’s Wise Talk, where the topic will be The Art of Interviewing Users. You can register here. I hope to hear from you!
    • I helped judge two categories (Effective In-House Team and Work Environment for Digital Practitioners: In-House) for the Design for Experience awards.
    • I enjoyed listening to this podcast with Kerry Bodine, not the least for the amazing shout-out she gives to Interviewing Users at 15:45.
    • I’m still waiting for confirmation but possibly I’ll be leading a session on interviewing at SF Civic Design Camp this Saturday.
    • I’ve posted all of my photos from my trip to Australia and New Zealand.
    • On the town this week: On Tuesday, I’ll hope to make it to BayCHI to hear Michael Kronthal talk about building empathy at Yahoo.
    • Ten years gone: From April 2004 – Mourners honor chickens killed in wake of bird-flu outbreak, Faith Popcorn overrated, Parade of 1000 Samurai, So that’s who likes those robot dogs.
    • What we’re consuming: Frances Ha, Google Night Walk, Inside Llewyn Davis, Walking backwards through Tokyo.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

    Hi! If you’ve read the book and found it beneficial, it would mean a lot if you would contribute a brief review on Amazon here.

    It’s been eleven months 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.

    The Book





    It’s the sharing economy all the way down

    When things start getting really silly, you know you are in a bubble.

    A San Francisco startup called Breeze is renting brand-new Toyota Priuses to people who want to drive for Uber and Lyft. There is huge demand from people who don’t own cars to be part of the ‘ride-sharing’ economy,” said CEO and co-founder Jeff Pang. Breeze now has 25 cars, all fully booked by drivers who answered its Craigslist ads or heard about it from friends. “We don’t buy outright as that’s a capital-intensive, asset-heavy model,” said co-founder Ned Ryan. Instead, Breeze rents the brand-new vehicles from an unnamed partner in the automotive space.

    Yes, Breeze rents cars from their source, then rents them out to people who don’t own their own cars who then rent out their unused vehicle capacity to people who also don’t have cars but need rides.

    Someone has been watching too much Portlandia.

    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s the last day of March…

    • I’m in the office on a Monday morning for the first time in forever. I’m not planning any travel for about two weeks, which is quite nice
    • I’m looking at a huge stack of transcripts from the last few weeks of fieldwork, reading through them and marking up bits and pieces that will accrue into key takeaways for my client. We’re planning both a presentation and a follow-on workshop and although there’s a ton to do to get ready for it, I’m really looking forward to it.
    • Assuming the paperwork goes through, I will be starting a small project coaching a team through the synthesis and ideation process for some research they’ve already done.
    • I’m also talking with a few different organizations about work in the US and overseas. That means some time to spend in conversations, planning projects, writing proposals, reaching out to my network of contractors, and so on.
    • I spend a lot of time last week (as frequently happens) coaching people through various stages of their own practices. So it’s nice that this week that a colleague and friend will be kicking off a project helping me look at Portigal Consulting at this stage of its existence (since 2001!) and consider how to evolve and grow.
    • I’m hoping to hear today or tomorrow about a near-term conference workshop slot overseas. I will certainly announce here if we decide to go forward.
    • On the town this week: On Friday, I’ll be hearing Kristian Simsarian talk about Meaning First: Let’s Humanize Technology.
    • Ten years gone: From March 2004 – Cameron Crowe archive, Wrecked Exotics, Goodbye Googie, Family Circus Decon.
    • What we’re consuming: Kathleen Hanna, Men Oh ramen, Malia and Me, Lee Moses.

    Advice for early-career designers

    Last week I spoke at a fundraising event (Let’s talk design and help a kid with cancer) organized by Jorge Baltazar.

    Glen Lipka, employee #1 of Marketo gave the first presentation, with advice about interviewing for a job in UX. In many ways, it was an object lesson in empathy, as he illustrated many ways that applicants fail to understand the mindset, goals or expectations of the person interviewing them. He described reviewing a portfolio with illegible yellow text over a gray background – but that he’s more focused on what transpires when he asks the applicant about it. A bad design choice is something he might expect in a less-experienced designer but the ability to explain a design choice and especially to acknowledge that a design decision could be improved was really what he was looking for. Some of his points are well-captured in How to Pass My UX Designer Phone Screen and his deck is here.

    Aynne Valencia is a design strategist. She presented a “field report” from a number of conferences she’d been at in the last while (I remember IxD14, SXSW and some others in Europe), looking at the trends in interaction design that were here now, coming soon, and further out. Some examples included Brad the emotional toaster, and Berg’s Cloudwash. I couldn’t find her slide deck, either, but she continues to document the things she’s seeing on her blog.

    Christian Crumlish, the Director of Product at CloudOn, spoke about what makes a great designer, acknowledging that he’s not a designer at the moment and further unpacking the challenging nature of trying to speak to such a big topic from one person’s biased point of view. Meanwhile, he identified three qualities

    • Breadth: Having creative pursuits outside of design that you can uses as sources of inspiration. His ukelele is an example of something he does for fun but will occasionally provide a surprising new perspective or framework. You can read a bit more on this same theme in my review of Debbie Millman’s How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer
    • Passion: Apply everything to your work, or refocus on new work if your passions leads you there.
    • Restlessness: Never being fully satisfied and always looking for something new or better.

    Finally, with some prompting from Glen, he played and sang a bit of “Satellite of Love” on his ukelele.

    I was the last presenter. I gave an overview of my own crazy career path (see Disciplinarity and Rigour? My keynote from the 2008 Design Research Society conference and then offered the following thoughts and suggestions

    • Network. Do it online, but do it in person as well. LinkedIn is good for a soft intro, but find people and talk to them. Take a long view about your career and your relationships that are part of that career. Be authentic. Be interested. Don’t think about what people can do for you or you can push people away.
    • As you go out and speak to people, take the approach of prototype and iterate. Figure out your story, your objectives, what you have to offer and your strengths by talking them through. Use informational interviews to live practice of what you have to say and how you want to say it.
    • I can’t really back this up but I suspect that in one era, you’d be told to get a job in an agency because that’s where the good design was happening; and then in a subsequent era you’d be told to get a job inside a corporation because that’s where the design work really was, and then people might be telling you to work in a startup because (although not always the case) startups were really making design part of their thing, and now it doesn’t seem like terrible advice to do your own startup. Given the tools that are available for small teams to design, develop, build and deploy significant pieces of technology whether it’s the App sSore or AWS or whatever, it seems open to almost anyone now. Personally, I never really wanted to make a thing once I discovered facilitating others to be making a thing.
    • Look for your advantage in moments of upheaval. Design is changing; industrial design is really suffering, firms and agencies are suffering, teams are downsizing; UX is increasingly important but where the jobs are and what they entail keeps shifting.
    • There’s also something with increasingly alternative forms of education. Jon Kolko used to teach at SCAD and then he went and started his own school – the Austin Center for Design. Jared Spool is in the process of starting a school in Chattanooga – the Unicorn Institute. These people are seeing the gaps between the jobs that need to be filled and the people that are trained to do them and they are trying to address that. Even if you aren’t seeking education yourself, there are patterns emerging and it’s worth your while to keep an eye on it, keep trying to make sense of it, and keep trying to connect what you are passionate to do with what the opportunities are
    • For me, career has been struggle in various forms all the way along. It’s great to have the benefit of time because then you can have hindsight. Struggle might be another way of saying that it’s about finding the next challenge and pursuing it, because the ground doesn’t stay still beneath your feet. There are plenty of rewards along the way; and the struggle sucks the most in the early days; it is suckiest when you are at the bottom of the Maslow pyramid and are concerned with survival not spiritual fulfillment. Over and over again I keep being reminded that no one will come and hand it to you. I keep waiting to be discovered and given a magic solution but really it’s about moving forward in small ways.

    Thanks to Jorge for organizing this and the speakers for some really compelling talks.

    The album will certainly sell out and the band already has

    Back in October, I blogged about the We Buy White Albums project (where artist Rutherford Chang opened a retail outlet that stocked only the Beatles’ White Album)

    He’s taken a precious object that is also a ubiquitous commodity and created a very traditional experience that highlights both aspects. As archaic as the original object is, it has managed to hold onto a good chunk of it’s (non-monetary) value over the decades. It’s a somewhat retro-futurist idea, that we have retail set up to deal with one item and one item only, decades later.

    The combination of art/music/commerce/context/ubiquity gets a totally different spin (oh yes I did) with the Wu-Tang Clan’s plan to sell just one copy of their new album.

    The Wu-Tang Clan has decided to release an album specifically to be a rarity. Only one copy of “The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” – a 31-track double album that the band has worked on quietly for the last six years – will be pressed. It will be “available for purchase and ownership by one individual only.” The plan is for the album to first make a tour of festivals, museums and galleries and tickets would probably sell for $30 to $50.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Well, howdy hi!

    • I’m headed back later today from a fun long weekend in wine country. Ah, back to reality after some good socializing and eating and drinking!
    • Fieldwork is done! Logistical hell aside, it proved to be very interesting and provocative. The next order of business is to put together the topline summary of the themes and patterns that we had just with the experience of the fieldwork. The deeper dive will come later on, but for this week, we’re all meeting to talk about what we think we heard and what we think it meant. This interaction will really be helpful for guiding the synthesis that comes immediately after.
    • Since I’m actually around for most of this week, it’s networking time, with a lot of calls and other meetings with people I’ve been trying to connect with for a while.
    • I’ve been chatting with several people about different talks and presentations near and far-flung between now and the end of the year. I’ll announce each of them when they go live.
    • Ten years gone: From March 2004 – Swoops, there it is?, Pleix films, Crossing buttons don’t really work, I am Asian, The magnetic-hook bra is here.
    • What we’re consuming: Snacklemouth, Pinot Grigio, bad service, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Dr. Katz.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings friends!

    • Later today I’m flying home from Up To All Of Us in North Carolina. And that’s my only flight this week. It’s been a crazy few weeks with a number of trips separated by 12 hours or so. Looking forward to at least a few days at home (before taking a long weekend with some friends up in wine country).
    • Along with some other local design-type folks, I’m giving a short talk this week at a fundraiser. If you can come out and support the event on Thursday, that’d be great. I’m donating a copy of Interviewing Users as well.
    • With the big project, this week there’s at least one site visit in San Francisco and maybe another one elsewhere. It’s hard to book these, but it does keep a lot of people’s schedules up in the air waiting to finalize them. At that point, it’ll be a wrap for the fieldwork and we can start diving into what we’ve heard more intensively.
    • Two recent reviews of Interviewing Users: from Tammy and Lan. If you’ve read the book please write your own short review as it makes a huge difference for the book’s sales and general awareness. Thanks!
    • Ten years gone: From March 2004 – Foreclosure fear selling, George Foreman’s inspirational musical offering, Gadgets from history.
    • What we’re consuming: Chuck’s, chocolate-chip rice pudding, Meat Raffles, North Carolina Museum of Art.

    Bringing the reframe to cookies

    It’s time for a cookie post, isn’t it? Grab yourself one or two and settle in.

    This video is brilliant. It takes the familiar trope of the manufacturing-process video, plays it backwards, and then constructs an overarching narrative that makes sense of what we’re seeing.

    The Oblique Strategies offer a set of provocations that can help with a creative or problem-solving block. This video shows an effective use of one of them: reverse.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Well, hello!

    • I’m getting on a plane to Minneapolis in a very short time. Last week’s fieldwork was very interesting but the whole experience was really hampered by poor communication, a challenging recruit, oh and poor communication. Day by day, I didn’t know what – if anything – was happening the next day and so I wrapped up each day by booking another hotel room for that night. Certainly a draining experience. And while I was pretty clear I couldn’t do this two weeks in a row, I really only found out Thursday afternoon what’s happening Monday. Indeed, it’s still in flux, but it’s not possible – within the scope of the project we negotiated – to make a bunch of last-minute trips around the country. This aspect of things feels tense, but that may just be the exhaustion.
    • I’m a good chunk of the way through posting my pictures of Australia and New Zealand to Flickr. There’s about 275 pictures up there now, and definitely a whole bunch still to come.
    • Later this week, I’m off to Up To All Of Us, a retreat type of event that I was invited to go to. I like the people and the energy but I’m honestly unsure what it’s going to be like and what I’m doing. I took a deliberate leap of faith when signing up, feeling the need to broaden my connections into less familiar places – but now I’m having to deal with that leap.
    • Ten years gone: From March 2004 – Blood dichotomy, the worst salesman in the world, The bento – a scrumptious expression of love.
    • What we’re consuming: House of Cards (Season 1), Douzo Sushi, Global Entry.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy March!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Here comes the end of February – 2014 is racing along.

    • Our project schedule may be in jeopardy which is the kind of thing that makes me worry. We already lost a week to getting our hospitals scheduled and I haven’t heard much since then (except that they expect it to be difficult). The team is pretty busy with a number of other efforts (specifics unknown to me) so even getting a response to my request for a quick check-in is a challenge. I’m eager for us to start learning but there’s a huge logistics hurdle that needs to be overcome.
    • Really looking forward to an internal corporate summit I’m going to be part of, probably in April. From what I’ve heard so far it should be a pretty exciting event.
    • On the town this week, I’ll be at Arrogance in International Research this Wednesday in San Francisco.
    • Ten years gone: From February 2004 – Franchise Zeitgeist, Pickle Paraphernalia, Li’l G n’R.
    • What we’re consuming: Enough Said, EQ3, Hangman Jury, Tara’s Organic Ice Cream.

    You say hello, they say goodbye


    More news about technology eating its predecessors:

    Moviefone is shutting down its phone-in ticketing business to focus on its app, according to Jeff Berman, president of BermanBraun, which runs the declining movie ticket service. “The call-in service has been in pretty steady decline… Our customers are much more interested in our award-winning app, and we need to invest our resources in the future, part of which involves a major reimagining of Moviefone.” This weekend, callers were informed that the service would soon go silent. Once a dominant force in the world of movie ticketing and listings, the service is best known for the voice of “Mr. Moviefone,” provided by founder Russ Leatherman, that greeted callers.

    It’s part of the human condition to see things go by the wayside. In many cases what is lost is replaced by something that is better. A dial-in voice-based movie-listing service is hardly the best solution available to us, and the usage numbers for Moviefone show that. So it’s disappearance makes sense in terms of utility (and business). But with many of these disappearances, what we might mourn is the cultural loss (yes, Moviefone was an element on Seinfeld), recalling the affection we have for the familiarity, even considering it as tradition. Sometimes this collective sense of loss is enough to produce an outpouring that convinces a company that there’s a good-will business case around preservation. While I don’t expect that here, these occurrences are common and are interesting to look it through the lenses of function, business and meaning.

    Full story

    Sometimes I feel…

    Back in 2012, this video appeared on YouTube, with disc drives playing Soft Cell’s version of Tainted Love (did you know it was a cover?).

    This sort of thing does go back decades; some folks got an IBM 1403 printer to play pop songs in 1970 (check out the actual songs here).

    In a delightful twist, Marc Almond of Soft Cell recently came across the video, and decided to add his vocals to the disc drive music!

    I’m reminded of when Gotye created his own remix (on YouTube) of the ubiquitous covers (also on YouTube) of Somebody That I Used To Know.

    Platforms like YouTube enable the collapse of the separation between consumer and producer and it leads to interesting and surprising outcomes. These small examples highlight the disruption that is occurring today.

    One way to recruit in-home research participants

    Credit card issuer Capital One isn’t shy about getting into customers’ faces. The company recently sent a contract update to cardholders that makes clear it can drop by any time it pleases. The update specifies that “we may contact you in any manner we choose” and that such contacts can include calls, emails, texts, faxes or a “personal visit.”

    Yep, that’s how you get willing research participants – add it to the Terms of Service! Sure, I’m kidding; that’s not really what this article is about (it’s about the credit-card company claiming rights to repossession for non-payment). Still, this ups the creepy ante for visiting customers and makes the trust aspect of recruiting participants just that much harder.

    Full story

    Changing lives in the developing world

    From this article

    WIRED: What innovation do you think is changing the most lives in the developing world?
    MELINDA GATES: Human-centered design. Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process.

    So great to see this.

    Take a moment to consider the 1%


    The image above, accompanying an article about private jets, reveals a privation so unimaginable it may shake you to your very core. Yes, that’s the personal UI that the elite are forced to use during their painful time aboard. The ultra-elite no doubt have other people who are paid to look at (ugh!) and touch (aieee!) those buttons while puzzling through gnomic instructions. But the regular rich are just like us, I suppose.

    Update: Nathan Shedroff says that’s just for the “wannabe” 1% and the state of the art is here. IMHO still “ugh” but at least current-generation-of-technology ugh.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m back to 90% of normal health today, after a long week of general confusion and extended napping. I was fortunate that we cancelled last week’s Boston trip in the face of a tremendous snowstorm.

    • We did last week’s kickoff over WebEx. It was a disappointing not to be in the same room as everyone and put faces to names, but they closed their office due to the storm and most people called in from home anyway. I’ll finish up meeting with the final project stakeholder today. The next big step is to line up the hospitals we’ll be visiting and despite having weeks of lead time, the team is feeling pretty nervous about being able to pull it off. We’re supporting them with some best practices about how to ask for a site’s involvement.
    • Networking this week includes offering some coaching on writing a book, and strengthening my own connections with folks I can pull in for projects.
    • I’m involved in some early planning conversations for speaking at a really interesting internal corporate event.
    • On the town this week, I’m looking forward to seeing a presentation on Design Thinking from Julie Baher this Thursday in San Francisco.
    • Ten years gone: From February 2004 – Chagall at Costco, AOLiza, Found Typography.
    • What we’re consuming: True Detective, Allman Brothers Band, ramen.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m recovering from flu which appeared in the last day of my trip, leading to an excruciatingly fevered/chilled day of overseas travel and a weekend of confusion and general self-pitying. Even without that, having some culture shock returning to the familiar.

    • I’m off to Boston later this week to kick off a new project. Really looking forward to getting to know the organization as it seems we’re all excited to be working together. Eventually, we’ll be looking at IT and administrative processes in hospitals and doctor’s offices, but this week is all about the planning.
    • Among the myriad messages that show up when you’re away from the office is one from our newish, supposedly user-friendly service-dedicated webhost, with some arcane request to make some technical adjustment I have no idea how to do that. So I’ll suppose I’ll be sorting that out!
    • Ten years gone: From February 2004 – The remarkable photography of Brian Ulrich, Supersize your movie collection, Top 10 earworms.
    • What we’re consuming: Monteith’s, Mac’s Beer, Bintang, Bircher muesli.

    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s a short week here as we’re off on vacation by the last half of the week. I’ll update here upon our return, but it’ll be quiet for a couple of Mondays.

    Announcing: Pro Bono Management/UX Consulting for Small Businesses

    In collaboration with Sarah Rice, we are pleased to announce the launch of our pro bono management/UX consulting service aimed at small businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    We’re looking for small business owners who are interested in growing or who are feeling “stuck.” Using what we’ve learned in years of consulting, we can help you think about what’s working, what to improve, and how you can go about making those changes.

    With one or two short sessions at your offices or at ours, we can help you clarify business goals, look for ways to improve your customer’s experience, prioritize strategic objectives, identify tactical next steps and so on. Each consultation will be customized to you and your business needs.

    As part of the process, we’ll document and share some of your story to raise awareness and inspire others.

    If you’re a small business in the SF Bay Area and you’d like to know more, please get in touch with us! Email or phone 408-315-8961.

    About Sarah and Steve
    Sarah Rice is principal of Seneb Consulting, a solo consultancy helping companies of all sizes understand and influence customer behavior. Past clients include Microsoft, eBay, PayPal, Princess Cruises, Yahoo! and NetApp.

    Steve Portigal is founder of Portigal Consulting, a boutique agency that helps companies to discover and act on insights about their customers and themselves. He’s also the author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights.

    Survey or Proselytizing?

    This religious pamphlet appeared on our doorstep, asking a difficult question – Can the dead really live again? – and giving the prospective convert three choice

    • yes?
    • no?
    • maybe?

    I couldn’t help but think of a survey that would ask you to force your thoughts about a complex issue into some easily-summable categories. Sadly, the rest of the pamphlet did not include any skip logic, where religious content was presented differently, depending on how one responded to this provocative lede.


    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s a gorgeous January day in Northern California. I feel very lucky!

    • I’m kicking off the week drowning in administrivia: sending out 1099 to last year’s contractors, paying the next installment on this year’s taxes, dealing with a missing automated bill payment to our landlord and so on. It’s gotta be done but yuck.
    • There is some fun administrivia though: time spent getting ready for a possible office share with a local designer who is interested in one of our unused desks.
    • Last week was really dominated by chatting with a number of prospects, outlining project plans, creating documents, talking through approaches and schedules. This week begins with…waiting. Although I’m sure that’s going to get a bit zany before too long.
    • We ended last year as an agency of one, and so we’ve begun this year by reaching out to our network of collaborators in order to create just a bit more formality around an informal aggregation. This week will be a lot of conversations with people about the details of working together.
    • I’ve started a fun collaboration with a local colleague and will be announcing that here very soon!
    • On the town: I’ve been invited to dinner with a delegation of design executives from China. I’m not sure what it’s going to be about but will find out!
    • On Thursday, I’ll be teaching a workshop about Interviewing Users at Code for America!
    • Here’s my 5-minute talk about The Power of Silence, newly posted from last year’s Fluxible conference.
    • Ten years gone: From January 2004 – Phase 3 is Profit!, The Sim Mafia.
    • What we’re consuming: The Happy Taco, StarStruck, Modern Family, Steal This Episode.

    Flavor Combination


    The Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Pint Lock is a simple enough product – a locking mechanism for a standard pint of ice cream. But along with its functionality comes a measure of social performance that’s worth a brief closer look.

    The idea is humorous (one side of the lock has the slogan “I’m terribly sorry, but there’s no ‘u’ in ‘my pint'”) – but in that humor is a gentle reminder to everyone that Ben & Jerry’s is precious stuff, worth protecting.

    As far as security goes (the ice cream is in cardboard, after all), I’m reminded of what a research participant told me once. When walking around the perimeter of his fast-food franchise, he said “A lock only stops an honest person.” His point was that any security can be broken with some amount of force, and the role of the lock is to make it clear that you aren’t welcome. Social norms keep most of us from bypassing that lock. So while we might pop open the ice cream and take a spoonful or two of our coworker or roommate or partner’s Chunky Monkey, we’re probably not going to cut through the package and make it obvious. So while this lock won’t stop a ravenous freezer rodent, it will protect your ice cream from most of your regular dessert-craving cohabitants.

    It’s great design in that it considers the functionality in its cultural context. If they built this by spec-sheet (as one might with a bike lock, say) they would miss the point entirely.

    Thanks, Mom!

    This Week @ Portigal

    Happy 2014! I took yesterday off, driving from Vancouver to Seattle, then flying home from Seattle to San Francisco. Of course, a “day off” is a relative term, since I spent much of the travel dealing with scheduling meetings, having pre-meeting check-ins, and so on. Anyway, today we’re back!

    Portigal year in review, 2013

    It’s time to sum up some of the noteworthy writings/happenings of the year. Let’s get to it!

    All those years ago: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.

    Where Credit Is Due

    Magnises is a new sort-of-credit-card that evokes an ultra-elite black card. It’s not actually a credit card, though. As they describe it

    Each Magnises member carries our distinctive metal membership card, which extends and enhances their pre-existing credit or debit card, and provides perks, benefits, and access to numerous high-end brands. Upon admittance, Magnises will construct a card for each new member. Magnises will then extend the magnetic signature from the member’s personally owned credit or debit card onto their new Magnises card.

    Yep, that’s right. You get a metal card that looks like a credit card but simply has the credit card data copied onto it – from the credit card you already own. While there are perks, no doubt, with this card, it is not actually the thing it denotes. It’s merely a gussied-up package for the quotidian plastic in your wallet (well, maybe not your wallet, if you are reading this it’s unlikely you are cool enough to qualify).

    As a species, our ability to create meaning out of almost nothing – and then charge money for the performance of that meaning – is astonishing.

    For more, see

    Magnises Black Card Has Its Privileges (Well, Sort Of) [NYT]

    Serving Up Carrots

    A very small social experiment, more something to reflect on rather than proof of anything.

    The Petite Syrah café in the Riviera city of Nice, has implemented a new pricing scheme. “A coffee” will set you back €7, according to the sign, while “a coffee please” is a little more affordable, at €4.25. If you want keep your expenses down, and stay friends with your local barista, however, the best option is “Hello, a coffee please,” which will only cost you €1.40.

    Manager of the Petite Syrah, Fabrice Pepino, told The Local: “It started as a joke because at lunchtime people would come in very stressed and were sometimes rude to us when they ordered a coffee. Although Pepino admits he’s never actually had to enforce the price scheme, he says he has noticed a difference in his customers’ behaviour. “Most of my customers are regulars and they just see the funny side and exaggerate their politeness,” he said, adding “They started calling me ‘your greatness’ when they saw the sign. But people are more relaxed now, and they’re smiling more. That’s the most important thing.”

    The framing here is important: there’s a reward for the behavior the business wants. It’s not a punishment for failing to adhere to the rules (e.g., surcharge for being a dickhead: $3.00) – even though it’s the same thing economically, behaviorally it’s entirely different. It’s the carrot versus the stick.

    As well, the outcome is less about adherence to the rules and more about the increased mindfulness about a detail of the interaction. We’d need to come back and see what happens after the regulars attenuate to this change, but the empowerment that the rules produce as a consequence is quite enticing.

    Also see previously: A silly (?) coffee pricing scheme at Tim Hortons.

    The Future of the Book, you say? [2013 edition]

    Reading ahead
    In 2010, we conducted a public-facing study about the future of books and reading, called Reading Ahead. We raised many fascinating questions including the design implications for the digital book experience: which elements of the traditional experience should move forward and which should be left behind.

    Looking at the issue a few years later is the New York Times, with Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind

    Some functions of physical books that seem to have no digital place are nevertheless being retained. An author’s autograph on a cherished title looked as if it would become a relic. But Apple just applied for a patent to embed autographs in electronic titles. Publishers still commission covers for e-books even though their function — to catch the roving eye in a crowded store — no longer exists.

    What makes all this activity particularly striking is what is not happening. Some features may be getting a second life online, but efforts to reimagine the core experience of the book have stumbled. Dozens of publishing start-ups tried harnessing social reading apps or multimedia, but few caught on.

    Much of the design innovation at the moment, Mr. Brantley believes, is not coming from publishers, who must still wrestle with delivering both digital and physical books. Instead it is being developed by a tech community that “doesn’t think about stories as the end product. Instead, they think about storytelling platforms that will enable new forms of both authoring and reading.”

    This Week @ Portigal

    The year is winding down and over here it’s periods of frenzy alternating with chunks of extreme slow.

    Out and About: Steve in New York

    Last week I was in New York to speak with two groups at SVA and at IxDA (also to see the city, eat desserts and hang with friends). Here’s some of the pictures I took during my trip.

    “I Know A Guy, Inc.”

    The New Colossus by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, public art at Lever House that references the ubiquitous labor action inflatable rats.

    Blue by Anish Kapoor at MOMA, chock full of subtlety.


    The Strand Book Store unloading some similar titles about the women behind the men of the sea.


    Papa Moozi

    A mini-Jurassic Park seen as street art around sidewalk greenspace.

    New York previously: Summer 2013, 2011

    This Week @ Portigal

    This is the 100th of these updates. No, we won’t be pausing to reflect, just simply making note of it.

    • Just about every week has its own flurry of business-development activity, whether it’s the all-engrossing minutiae of setting up phone calls or the ominous waiting-to-hear-back; I have for the most part stopped reporting on it here and I’ll all say this week is that there’s a particular end-of-year-budget flavor that is emerging. As always, we’ll see what happens.
    • Out-and-about this week: I’m looking forward to seeing Leah Buley and Scott Berkun speak at BayCHI on Tuesday. I’ve never seen either of them present before! Also, on Wednesday, I’m going to see Barry Katz speak about The Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable History of Silicon Valley Design. Hope to see you at either event!
    • Ten years gone: From December 2003 – Headvertising, The Availability of Mr. Potato Head.
    • What we’re consuming: pretzels in milkshake form, Broadchurch, Art Spiegleman, donuts, Paul Cadmus.

    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s December! We’re in the home stretch for 2013. Also, it’s CyberMonday, a fact which Facebook reminded me of today, sending a notification to the Portigal Consulting page with the helpful advice to “write a post about it.” Gee, thanks.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

    It’s been seven months Interviewing Users came out! Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this regularly with accumulated updates.

    The Book





    Today we are twelve


    Today is the twelfth anniversary of All This ChittahChattah. And since it overlaps with Thanksgiving, I’ll give thanks for all the feedback and encouragement I’ve received for this blog in those twelve years. Hooray!

    Steve interviewed about Best Practices For Interviewing Your Audience


    Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

    I spoke about Interviewing Users with Connie Malamed for the eLearning Coach podcast. Listen at the link, or below.

    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.


    • The impact that interviewing has on the product and the designer
    • The places in a design/development cycle where user input is needed
    • Skills needed to become good at interviewing users
    • What you’ll need to unlearn
    • The best attitude to have while interviewing
    • How to think about and manage “reticence”
    • Techniques to reinforce learning about the interviewee
    • How to plan for an interview
    • Tips for asking good questions
    • Ways to record interviews

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m technically off today, spending today and yesterday in LA for a short birthday trip to see the Turrell retrospective at LACMA and eat delicious food. It’s a short week otherwise, with Thursday (and sorta Friday?) as Thanksgiving.

    This Week @ Portigal

    I’m back from a relaxing week in Hawaii and plowing through email, catching up, trying to figure out what is going on.

    Steve quoted in “Digital Products Flunking User Test”

    I was interviewed by CruxialCIO about how companies can design and redesign digital and mobile products that engage rather than frustrate. The article (Digital Products Flunking User Test) is broken across three tabs (SituationSolutionsTakeaways) and the quotes from me appear on the second two tabs. FYI, the pages are a bit slow to load.

    Remember the precedents. While copying competitors isn’t necessarily advisable, it doesn’t make sense to design, for example, a fly swatter that you use by swinging a string around with the flat swatter piece attached to it. People expect a stick at the end. “You can’t fail to acknowledge that there are precedents out there,” says Portigal.

    “There’s some history about how customers are going to expect something to work. Everyone is a consumer so in an enterprise situation, we bring in expectations about how something should work.” If people expect that swiping left or right, double clicking, or other gestures will have a certain outcome, the lack of that outcome will be confusing. After Apple came out with the iPhone, for example, it became quickly clear that when consumers wanted a smartphone, they expected something fairly similar in form factor and function to the iPhone.

    Grant McCracken’s brilliant “Ethnography, a brief description”

    Eloquent awesomeness by Grant McCracken

    The object of ethnography is to determine how the consumer sees the product, the service, the innovation. Often, this is obscure to us. We can’t see into the consumer’s (customer’s, viewer’s, user’s) head and heart because we are, in a sense, captive of our own heads and hearts. We have our way of seeing and experiencing the world. This becomes our barrier to entry. Ethnography is designed to give us a kind of helicopter experience. It takes up out of what we know and lowers us into the world of the consumer.
    Ethnography is a messy method. In the beginning stages, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what we need to ask. We are walking around the consumer’s world looking for a way in. Eventually, as we ask a series of questions, we begin to see which ones work. We begin to collect the language and the logic the consumer uses. And eventually, we begin to see how they see the world.

    The method is designed not to impose a set of questions and terms on the discussion, but to allow these to emerge over the course of the conversation. We are allowing the consumer to choose a path for the interview. We are endowing them with a sense that they are the expert. We are honoring the fact that they know and we don’t. (Because they do!)

    Eventually, we end up with a great mass of data and it is now time to stop the ethnography and start the anthropology. Now we will use what we know about our culture, this industry, these consumers, this part of America to spot the essential patterns that make these data make sense. ”Slap your head” insights begin to emerge. ”Oh, that’s what their world looks like!” “That’w what they care about!” ”This is what they want!”

    And now we begin to look for strategic and tactical recommendations. Now we can help close the gap between what the consumer wants and what the client makes.

    Creative collaboration with jerks

    d_school_the whiteboard_Yes and_vs_that sucks because_

    I love this great post by Margaret Hagan that looks at a few different ways to deal with a “Yes, and…” collaboration when your partner won’t play by those rules, falling back on “that sucks” a little too often. She suggests three different approaches, which I’ve spun as follows

    1. Redirect – go off on your own or find other people to interact with and bring that good stuff back to the collaboration
    2. Respond – challenge those that challenge you with their stinky negativity
    3. Reframe – do all the design activities you like, but don’t describe them with code words, eliminating one particular generator of pushback.

    There’s much more to be said about all of these, but Margaret’s simple post and lively illustrations are a good bit of inspiration

    The dangerous power held by the interviewer

    A recent episode of This American Life tells a fascinating and horrifying story of a murder confession gone wrong. The story is a reflection from the retired detective who seems to have sincerely believed the woman in question to be guilty. He realizes in his reflection that he was open to hearing what fit his theory and dismissed information or cues that didn’t support his theory (this is known as confirmation bias). This is a real concern for people doing user research who have preconceived notions about people, their behavior, their desired solutions, etc. One tactic is to develop greater self-awareness and learn to hear your own biases and assumptions.

    Even more disturbing in this story is how the suspect began to provide details of the crime that supposedly only the person who committed the crime would know. In fact, this woman who would want to clear her name, responded to the questioning by shifting to please her interrogator, looking to provide the “right” answers. While the police didn’t realize it, she was picking up clues from the documents they were showing her and presenting them back as if it was her own knowledge. She wasn’t trying to confess, she was trying to succeed in answering the questions, even though it was significantly against her own interests. This is also a crucial concern for user researchers, where participants will want to please them and will work hard to figure out what “pleasing” looks like. The way you ask questions (e.g,. “Do you like doing it this way or would you rather have it happen automatically when you enter the store?”) has a tremendous influence in how they are answered.

    The New York Times offers this summary

    He tells about a woman who confessed to killing a man. She knew insider things like that the victim was wearing his wedding ring when he died, and that his credit card had been used at a People’s drugstore and a Chinese takeout place. Case closed.

    A few weeks go by, and it turns out the woman has a strong alibi. Charges are dropped.

    Years later, with the case still officially open, Detective Trainum went back to the file because he still suspected that the woman had gotten away with murder. He discovered that he and the other detectives accidentally videotaped the whole interrogation — not just the confession. That’s when he found out how an innocent person could know unreleased details of the killing.

    At one point during the interrogation, they were trying to get her to admit to using the dead guy’s credit cards, and said, isn’t that your signature on these slips? And they showed them to her. So she read the name of the drugstore and the restaurant.

    At another moment, they showed her the crime scene photos. In one, the left hand of the corpse was prominent. You could see the wedding ring.

    So they had accidentally fed her all the incriminating details that she returned to them in the confession.

    Inauthentic customer stories

    We received a pamphlet from RIMADYL, a doggie painkiller. It included this lovely testimonial from “Ronnie Beck.”

    I could almost track my transitions from belief to disbelief to appalled as I read it. What on earth is going on in that company that anyone thinks that this blatant lie is acceptable? Among the pictures of happy canines frolicking in park is this pile of poop. Egregiously bad corporate communications.

    Also see On Authenticity, published in interactions back in 2009.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

    It’s been six months (whaa???) since Interviewing Users came out! Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this regularly with accumulated updates.

    The Book





    This Week @ Portigal

    It’s Fall-Back Monday. What the heck time is it?

    Stories fuel listening

    StoryCorps vehicle
    StoryCorps is “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” And they’ve just turned 10. Founder Dave Isay reflects

    It was about a year into this thing when I began to, I think, fully understand the power of this very, very simple idea and decided to devote the rest of my life to building it into something that I hope eventually in this country moves the needle on getting people to listen to one another.

    Yes, that’s right, an organization that is nominally about getting people to tell stories is really seeking to improve listening. Storytelling has that power; it leads to listening. The fuel for listening isn’t silence, it’s stories.

    Steve interviewed for UX Magazine


    When I spoke recently in Los Angeles I was interviewed by Luke Swenson of Media Contour.

    The interview has been published on UX Magazine.

    When should our clients invest in user research?

    There are two things that you should watch for that can indicate it’s time. One is when you realize that you don’t know the answer to an important question. For instance, maybe you’re not sure who you’re targeting with a product or service. The second one is more difficult: it’s when you believe you have the problem already solved but you’re operating without any type of humility—you’re believing your own hype, so to speak. You’re making assumptions without any facts or evidence to back up those assumptions.

    Does The Dog Die?

    Does The Dog Die_

    Here’s a site that aims to address a single specific need. Does The Dog Die? helps helps viewers avoid (presumably) distressing pet violence in their film diet. While it’s far from exhaustive, it lists a number of films, and codes them as follows
    Does The Dog Die legend

    The site is simply an alphabetic list of titles, each coded with the appropriate legend.
    Does The Dog Die3_

    Clicking in to a title gives slightly more detail – “an explanation which will only contain spoilers relevant to the fate of pets (and occasionally other animal characters) in the film.”

    Cut the bowling scene if you want to make it big

    In the 90s, conceptual artists Komar and Melamid used focus groups and opinion-polls (then-current tools used in politics) to identify the best attributes of a painting, then created works that matched those criteria.

    So why not apply something similar to film? The New York Times tells us all about it (although this is more about correlating with sales data than opinion data, it pursues the same conclusion – without irony here – that a combination of the right elements assembled together will create a successful whole).

    A chain-smoking former statistics professor named Vinny Bruzzese has started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers.

    “Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,” Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. “If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.”

    Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle, Mr. Bruzzese, 39, continued. Therefore it is statistically unwise to include one in your script. “A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero,” one like Superman who acts as a protector, he added.

    Oh um hey there Awkward Chatbot

    Awkward Chatbot

    While our collective techo-optimism leads us to expect – and create – technology-driven experiences (say, bots) of all types that represent our best selves. But to be more realistic we need to consider a wide range of interaction styles. Enter Awkward Chatbot, a site that effectively simulates the disengaged, ineffective and well, awkward, interactions that characterize instant messaging.


    You: Do you have anything to tell the readers of All This ChittahChattah?

    Chatbot: are you like mad at me or something lol


    The Shape of Food and Other Things (To Come)

    A provocative survey article on Edible Geography explores the form that food (specifically Chicken McNuggets and cheese) is presented in.

    It’s a safe bet that McNugget morphology tells us something important about the sensory framework through which we experience the world. Within the constraint of basic economic considerations (shapes that can be made on the same line and ship well), the bell, bow-tie, ball, and boot are sculptures made by our mouths-ubiquitous, finely-tuned artifacts that reflect by our increasingly sophisticated understanding of human sensory perception.

    Early in my career we talked a lot about how digital technology was changing the range of possibility. Form didn’t have to follow function. Industrial designers could make digital cameras (an example early project where we grappled with the form factor for the device and the metaphor/mental model for the software) look like anything.

    Apple’s original QuickTake 100 camera took advantage of that freedom.

    It was not a successful product; the form (and it’s lack of traditional camera references) was certainly not the only reason, but that product might represent some of the most extreme of early experimentation. Now our digital cameras look pretty much like the film cameras they’ve fully displaced. At the same time, revolutionary (e.g., digital) products can seen as making culture (e.g,. cell phones as the new concert arena lighter) as much as reflecting it.

    The story of the Lytro camera, more recently, suggests that it too is trying to introduce a revolution into a staid category (the aforementioned digital camera), and it’s form announces that it’s somehow different.

    I can’t help but assume the packaged and processed foods people have a lot more data and a much more refined (if you will) understanding of what forms connote and how they motivate. If they are speaking to our liminal behaviors and our reptile-brain sensory processing then they are able to use that to their advantage when other forms of design can’t, at least not yet.

    The Color of Money

    A report from a University of Guelph study explains that

    People are more likely to spend dirty, crumpled currency and hold on to new bills. [But] in social situations, people reach for new bills even when they have older higher-denomination currency on hand.

    Researcher Theodore Noseworthy explains

    We tend to regard currency as a means to consumption and not a product itself. It should not matter if it’s dirty or worn because it has the same value regardless. But money is a vehicle for social utility, and it’s subject to the same inferences and biases as the products it can buy.

    This suggests some design opportunities for digital money. I recently tried Square’s new service that lets you email cash to anyone (US only). The user experience was so minimalist and utterly delightful – and such a change from the dirge of PayPal (even without the frequent frustrations). If I’m sending someone an experience as part of sending them money, the quality of that experience may be something to consider (also, it’s free; also it’s a good experience for me as the sender).

    What Data Can’t Do

    Heads, Oakland’s First Friday, June 2013

    I do love this NYT Op-Ed (What Data Can’t Do) from David Brooks, especially

    Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

    Of course, the qualitative narrative data is still data. It’s mostly the kind of information I work with. Perhaps it’s easy to conflate data with Big Data and succumb to the notion that if the approach to Big Data is limiting, then the approach to data in general must be limiting. But data is data – it’s what we use, in whatever forms, to inform and inspire and drive decisions.

    The ethnographic research community is looking at the increasing reliance on quantitative data in business and questioning their role. Rich Radka proposes a “Yes, and…” mindset in this posting, no doubt one of many we’ll be seeing, as our business culture (and culture overall) evolves.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Hello, week!

    • From a Monday point of view, it seems like this is a week for writing. I’m holding for a bunch of different clients and while their different planning processes stretches out, it’s a good time to dig into stuff that’s been brewing for me.
    • should be all set. I think I’ve found all the weird formatting issues that didn’t move over properly. I also updated several hundred rotten links although there will always be more.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2003 – Flashmob tipping point, TERMINAL BAR: the film.
    • What we’re consuming: Touchez pas au grisbi, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.

    We Buy White Albums

    The We Buy White Albums project, earlier this year from Rutherford Chang is pretty fascinating.

    Chang has collected over 650 first-pressings of the Beatles’ White Album. He considers the serialized first-press, an edition running in excess of 3 million, to be the ultimate collector’s item, and aims to amass as many copies as possible. Over the course of his Session, Chang will create an archive, listening library, and anti-store to house and grow his collection of the Beatles’ iconic record.

    Chang will create a record store that stocks only White Albums. But rather than selling the albums, he will buy more from anyone willing to part with an original pressing in any condition.

    I like how he’s taken a precious object that is also a ubiquitous commodity and created a very traditional experience that highlights both aspects. As archaic as the original object is, it has managed to hold onto a good chunk of it’s (non-monetary) value over the decades (writing as someone who doesn’t own, has never owned, and will likely never own the White Album). It’s a somewhat retro-futurist idea, that we have retail set up to deal with one item and one item only, decades later. And more generally retro, asking what album in the last two decades could you imagine doing this with thirty years hence? Is the White Album relatively unique in being the touchstone it represents? The way we produce, market and consume pop culture has changed. What would Chang do in 2043?

    Out and About: Steve in Kitchener-Waterloo

    I was recently in Kitchener-Waterloo (for the first time in over 20 years) to speak at the marvelous Fluxible conference. I had a little bit of time to walk around and take some pictures. Here are my favorites.

    Lots and lots of tea

    Oh noooooooo!

    Downtown beautification.

    Bathroom paper towel dispenser no longer has rubbish below, instead has a badly worn note pointing you to the new solution.

    Someone in this area is scent-sitive.

    Out and About: Steve in LA

    Recently I was in LA to speak at IxDA Los Angeles/LA UX Meetup (see more here). Here’s some of the photos from my time in Southern California.

    The Wall Project is made from the largest section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany, with original and added imagery.

    In a dystopian-LA moment, I filled my rental car with gas only to find the pump had some ridiculous software error and wouldn’t generate a receipt, giving me a message to see the cashier. There was no cashier as the “store” part of the station was gutted and loosely under construction. The unhelpful signage gave a non-working phone number – no matter what variation of the scrawl I tried. And what good would it do to call for a receipt? I was on my way to the car rental place and I needed a receipt in my hand.

    The holes where monitors used to be.


    Excitement over a mail chute denied; it definitely does not work.

    Exterior, Beverly Hills.

    Out and About: Steve in Tampa

    Two weeks ago I was in Tampa to lead a workshop for a client. I had a bit of time to explore the area – here are some of my photos.

    The ritzier area of St. Petersburg, with huge houses and huge trees.

    Salt-and-pepper tofu at the Yummy House China Bistro. This place was good and rivaled Chinese food I’ve had in San Francisco.


    Shampoo Me.

    Houston donut fave, thanks to an airport layover.

    Not sure I’m as excited about the elevator upgrade as the hotel wants me to be.

    God hates swag.

    Parking at the Dali museum.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from the San Francisco Bay Area!

    • I’m staying local this week, which is a bit of a relief, after several weeks of airplanes and hotel rooms.
    • It looks as though was moved to its new host without significant downtime for the website or our email. Phew! There’s some weird formatting things we keep finding on older blog posts, and I’m sure various other gremlins will crop up so if you see something, say something!
    • Out on the town this week, I’m looking forward to Kim Erwin’s presentation about Communicating the New, her new book (where I’m one of a diverse group of interviewees).
    • Ten years gone: From October 2003 – Knee Defender, Brand Names for Kids.
    • What we’re consuming: Cinematic Titanic, Mori Point, Margaret.

    Out and About: Steve in Minneapolis

    I was in Minneapolis earlier this week to speak at the MIMA Summit. I hadn’t been in Minneapolis since 1999, so I took a little bit of time to explore – here’s some of my photographs.

    City icons: Charles Schultz hails from Minneapolis, as did Mary Richards.

    Who needs the Kuik-E-Mark?

    Create your Turkey Masterpiece! Who could resist, when inspired by those nothing-short-of-masterful pieces?

    Inspiring earnest words populate a downtown garden space.


    No smoking or dipping. No, that’s not an ashtray, it’s a tin of tobacco. You can tell because it’s got the word “tobacco” written on it, pretty much the mark of failure in icon design.

    ATMS are increasing featuring mirrors as safety devices, letting you see whose coming up behind you. This takes it one step further, with a video monitor performing the same function. Is that creeping-featurism?

    Marquette Plaza, constructed somewhat like a suspension bridge.

    Not related at all to Chevron. Really?

    Sawing you in half daily. At Sever’s. Really?

    Mill City Museum

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from Minneapolis!

    • I’m in Minneapolis this week to speak about Interviewing Users: Uncovering Compelling Insights at the MIMA Summit. Looking forward to the local cuisine and of course meeting up with some cool people.
    • We’ve moved the webhost for so that will likely impact when this gets posted, and perhaps some other things. Fingers crossed that all goes smoothly.
    • As I dig more into the different collaborations and other engagements that are on the table right now, I’m excited and intrigued.
    • Back home, looking forward to meeting up with Lou Rosenfeld to talk about the various doings we’ve got going. Or the goings-on we’re doing. Either way.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2003 – KFC is healthy?, ACME products.
    • What we’re consuming: Butcher & the Boar, Hell’s Kitchen, The Sense of an Ending.

    This Week @ Portigal

    Greetings from Tampa!

    • I’m in Tampa for a few days to teach a workshop at Wolters Kluwer. I’ve got about 24 hours to explore and sample the local cuisine and then diving into working with this team on their research skills.
    • There’s are seven different prospective projects floating around right now; some are speculative and won’t ever become actual prospects, others will take their own time to fully emerge, and so it goes. We’ll see what happens.
    • In case you missed it last week, we tried a new format of group post at Rosenfeld Media (dubbed the QuickPanel) with our first effort discussing the challenges when Launching a Healthcare Exchange with No User Testing.
    • Around town this week, there’s a meetup in Menlo Park this Friday for design researchers. There’s no website so ping me if you want details.
    • Ten years gone: From October 2003 – General Mills Cereal Adventure, Sinkems: Dissolving Toilet Targets.
    • What we’re consuming: Shipley Do-Nuts, Crossfire, The Salvador Dali Museum, Bo’s Ice Cream.

    From my Los Angeles presentation on Interviewing Users

    I had a wonderful trip to Los Angeles last week so speak at a combined IXDA Los Angeles/LA UX Meetup event. They gave me a really warm welcome (including a pint of cold Ben and Jerry’s ice cream all to myself) and the at-capacity room was filled with enthusiastic and thoughtful folks who contributed to an interesting discussion.

    Here are the slides

    And the video

    Also, an alternate video is here and highlighted tweets are here.

    Interviewing Users: Link Roundup


    Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

    It’s been five months since Interviewing Users came out! Below is a roundup of links to various bits connected with the book. I’ll republish this regularly with accumulated updates.

    The Book





    Let’s talk about death, baby


    Curious to come across Death Cafe.

    At Death Cafes people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea and eat delicious cake. The objective of Death Cafe is “To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. Jon Underwood founded Death Cafe in 2011 based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Bernard offered ‘Cafe Mortels’ in Switzerland and France. Jon was already developing a project to get people talking about death and immediately knew that Bernard’s vision clicked with his.

    Searching on my zip code, I found (within a large-ish geographic radius) 7 events in the next 6 weeks and 3 that just passed. I can’t speak to the attendance levels or quality of the events but this strikes me as a notably well-established movement.

    The Death Cafe site is one of the projects by Impermanence, “a not-for profit social enterprise that undertakes innovative work around death and dying.” Seems a challenging but wide-open area for innovating.

    This Week @ Portigal

    All hail the beginning of the week!

    • No travel for me…well, until this weekend, when I head off to Tampa to teach a workshop at Wolters Kluwer next week.
    • I’m in wait-and-see mode about a number of projects (including two that would be very interesting collaborations); last week was the week where I tried to close the loop on a pile of projects that urgently entered wait-and-see mode back in August. One of them was defunded; another team decided to hire rather than outsource; the last is not returning my emails. That’s how it goes!
    • On Wednesday I’m heading over to Berkeley to lead a session on analyzing user research data with the New Product Development class at the Haas School of Business.
    • I’ve got a few colleagues in town this week and have plans to meet for catching up, networking, and general talking-about-everything. I’m expecting some good inspirations.
    • Ten years gone: From September 2003 – Bad Toon Rising.
    • What we’re consuming: Pusher, Felina,

    From Fluxible, The Designer is Present

    I had an amazing time at Fluxible, and was so happy to have the opportunity to debut a brand new workshop, The Designer is Present.

    The notion of presence is a critical idea for those of us in user experience. At the risk of sounding like Yoda, presence is tied to self-knowing. During ten years of writing, lecturing and coaching on “interviewing users”, many of the questions that Steve Portigal receives are about controlling or influencing another person’s behavior. Yet these interactions with others are really about ourselves, what’s inside us, who we are.

    In this workshop, you’ll tap into a new level of personal authenticity to unlock a powerful boon. Together, we’ll explore this point of view and participate in a range of exercises to learn more about these ideas – and about ourselves.

    The experience was a compelling one for all of us. I can not wait to do this workshop again (so hopefully someone will arrange for that to happen before too long). Taking a cue from Marina Abramovic (as well as performance and couples therapy), we tried an exercise where people gazed silently into the eyes of another person for 30 seconds. Which felt like an eternity, especially when done a second time. Everyone in the group was crazy brave and willing to try anything I asked of them, and even better was willing to really share honestly what these exercises revealed for them.

    At other points we did a simple improv exercise (something I deal with a lot more in Yes, My Iguana Loves to Cha-Cha) about “accepting offers” – essentially one person waits on stage while another approaches and says something like “Hi, I’m a baker and here’s a loaf of bread.” The initial actor responds with “Thanks, I’ll go get some butter!” or something else relevant, and then walks offstage. That’s it – all we did was a series of saying “yes” to other ideas; ideas we couldn’t plan for. Even that simple and silly activity produced a lot of powerful reflection.

    We also explored how reframing (especially bad ideas into good ones; something I deal with more extensively in The Power of Bad Ideas) can help with keeping us in the moment and not letting catastrophizing whisk us away.

    It seemed that these ideas had a real impact; several speakers were present and reflected on the workshop in their end-of-event summaries the next day. Konrad Sauer even shared some of his experience in a blog post:

    Steve then asked us to turn to the person beside us and for 30 seconds, stare into the other persons eyes. We were all strangers and the experience was amazing. After the exercise, we were asked to describe the experience. Most people had a strong sense of discomfort – this was an incredibly intimate thing to do with someone let along with someone we did not know. Many people found strategies for dealing with the discomfort – to focus on a single feature on the persons face – usually to avoid the eyes. Some people laughed, some people looked away. Some people paid attention to their breathing, the noises outside. But we all observed that we had made a much deeper connection to that person sitting across from us. Throughout the rest of the conference, whenever our eyes re-connected, it felt like seeing a very old friend again and there was a an immediate re-connection. That is how one of the other speakers described it and I think he was bang on. It was very cool.

    I put together a reading list with various podcasts, websites, articles and more. You can check it out here.

    Finally, I’ve embedded the slides below (although they are really only a pointer to the experience we all shared together).