workshop posts

Facilitation and exercises for creativity and presence March 2nd, 2015

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).

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Join me for Soft Skills Are Hard at Interaction 15 January 6th, 2015

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

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From Fluxible, The Designer is Present September 27th, 2013

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).

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Come to Steve’s UX Australia workshop on interviewing July 10th, 2012


I’ll be teaching Immersive field techniques: Interviewing and observing for user research, a full-day workshop at UX Australia in Brisbane, in August 29th.

Interviewing is undeniably one of the most valuable and commonly used user research tools. Yet sometimes we forget that it’s a skill we need to learn, because:

  • It’s based on skills we think we have (talking or even listening)
  • It’s not taught or reflected on
  • People tend to ‘wing it’ rather than develop their skills

Without good interviewing skills, research results may be inaccurate or reveal nothing new, suggesting the wrong design or business responses, or they may miss the crucial nuance that points to innovative breakthrough opportunities.

In this day-long session, we’ll focus on the importance of rapport-building and listening and look at techniques for both. We will review different types of questions, and why you need to have a range of question types. This session will explore other contextual research methods that can be built on top of interviewing in a seamless way. We’ll try some practice exercises for improving your own interviewing skills. Through a homework exercise and a field trip during the workshop, we’ll also practice observation of users in an environment.

This workshop is an evolution of something I’ve been teaching for a number of years (and continue to refine). Over the past couple of years I’ve led forms of this session in Istanbul, Vancouver, Savannah, Toronto, Lisbon, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. Now it’s Australia’s turn.

I believe some of the conference workshops have already sold out, so if you might be going, please sign up soon! I look forward to seeing you there!

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Back from UX Lisbon May 22nd, 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Lisbon and presenting at UX Lx.

I gave an updated version of “Well, We’ve Done All This Research, Now What?” where we did a brief observation of the area around the venue and then developed concepts that spoke to the needs we uncovered. Among the concepts the teams played with was a giant robotic sheep that would provide shade.

The slide deck:

Per Axbom took a series sketchnotes during the session and kindly posted all of them here.

I gave a short presentation on the final day of the conference, exploring the power of user research not only to uncover data that drives product development but to change the way an organization thinks about it’s customers and itself.

The slide deck:

Sketchnotes from LiveSketching.com, Per Axbom, and Francis Rowland. Click on any of them to see the larger original.

(Side note: amusing to see the consistent use of the presenter caricature. The organizers of the conference may have contributed to this; in each attendee packet was a poster showing a funny if awkward scene with cartoon representations of all the different speakers, as well as a set of cards for one of the speakers. Attendees were supposed to trade cards until they got a complete set.)

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This Week @ Portigal May 14th, 2012

The Portigal team is on the road and in the air this week. We have lots happening on the home front, stateside and abroad!

  • Steve is already in Lisbon and gearing up for his sold-out workshop (as well as a short talk) for User Experience Lisbon.
  • Tamara is digging into the results of a co-analysis session we hosted with our clients last week and preparing the final deliverable for our research with gamers.
  • Tamara is heading to Phoenix later this week to facilitate for social good at the Phoenix Design Summit.
  • We shared ours, will you share yours? We have launched the War Stories series and are now accepting your submissions about the not-so-glorious side of fieldwork!

What we are consuming: Risk!, Sagres, The Universal Traveller, La Damiana

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Portigal Consulting year in review, 2011 December 12th, 2011

Another year is speeding towards its conclusion and we wanted to share our highlights for 2011.

Really nostalgic? Check out summaries from 2010, 2009 and 2008.

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Steve Portigal teaching “Immersive Field Research Techniques” at UI16 October 10th, 2011

Join me for Immersive Field Research Techniques coming up November 7 in Boston at User Interface 16.

My session will be pretty similar to the recent Rosenfeld Media workshop in Seattle, which was pretty well received :)






If you haven’t registered yet, you can use the code STEVEP for $300 off the whole conference, or $50 of a single day.

I hope to see you there!

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Steve to lead “Interviewing Users” workshop 9/28 in Seattle July 29th, 2011

As part of the Rosenfeld Media UX Workshops Fall 2011 Tour, I’ll be leading a full-day workshop – Interviewing Users: Spinning Data into Gold.

You can choose up to 3 workshops, including ones from Lou Rosenfeld and Steve Krug. Early registration (with a decent discount) ends September 9.

Bonus: the event will held at the amazing Seattle Central Library!

I hope to see you there!

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Steve leading Immersive Field Research Techniques workshop at UI16 July 28th, 2011

I’ll be presenting a full-day workshop on Immersive Field Research Techniques at User Interface 16 this November in Boston.

Registration gives you

  • Two full-day workshops: The UI16 experts will dive deep and get to the nitty-gritty details that make any designer into a pro.
  • One day of short talks: This is where you’ll discover the latest UX ideas and techniques from each of our expert speakers. Don’t forget Jared Spool’s entertaining and educational keynote.
  • Complete conference materials: We’ll send you the PDFs of every session and workshop just before you leave for the conference. Then you can focus on insights and not note-taking.
  • Recordings of the short talks: The benefits keeping coming after the conference. Through the recordings, you can relive every short talk at your office with your entire team.

Right now they are offering 100 registrations at a sneak-preview price of $1349. They are (as of this posting) down to 79 sneak-spots, after that it goes up $300.

I hope to see you there!

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Next week – Steve’s webinar on synthesizing user research data April 1st, 2011

I’ll be presenting my webinar User Research Analysis: You’ve Done All This Research, Now What on Thursday, April 7. This webinar is based on a workshop that I’ve led in Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong, Portland, Vancouver, and San Francisco, among other many other places. I’m always hearing from people who are interested but who aren’t in those cities at those times, but with a webinar, anyone anywhere can participate. I’ve adapted the workshop to suit the webinar format and added a bunch of new content based on what I’ve observed working (or not working) in the workshops, not to mention some of the latest techniques we’re using in our work.

Use the promotion code PORTIGAL when you register and get free lifetime access to the webinar that you can share with everyone in your organization. (A $40 value.) If you can’t make the webinar when it happens (time zone challenges? conflicting meetings?) you can use this code when register and watch it later at your convenience.

Check out a quick preview, below

Also available: last year’s UIE Virtual Seminar on Deep Dive Interviewing Techniques.

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ChittahChattah Quickies March 5th, 2011
  • [from steve_portigal] Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software [HeraldTribune.com] – [Spin in this article is that using computers to manage super-human levels of complex data will have employment consequences.] When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” ­ providing documents relevant to a lawsuit ­ the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for lawyers and paralegals who worked for months. But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time and cost. In January, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. Some programs can extract relevant concepts ­ like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East ­ even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
  • [from steve_portigal] PG&E launches huge paper chase for pipeline data [SF Chronicle] – [You think you have a lot of data to process? Obviously their record-keeping incompetence is just now being surfaced and they have taken on a data task that is beyond human scale. We can create systems that we can't manage!] For the past couple of days, forklifts have been carting pallets loaded with 30 boxes each into 3 warehouses outside the 70-year-old Cow Palace arena in Daly City. Friday afternoon, there were still more than 100 pallets stacked outside the warehouses waiting to go in. "There are 100,000 boxes in there, and you can't believe the papers spread everywhere," one PG&E employee said …"There are records in there going back to the 1920s. "We're looking at all kinds of parameters, and our data validation efforts are going on throughout the service area,…We're doing a 24-7 records search involving at least 300 employees and contractors, and we're working to confirm the quality of our data through collecting and validating our gas transmission pipeline records."
  • [from steve_portigal] Hong Kong, 2011 [Flickr] – [My pictures from our recent trip to Hong Kong for the UXHK Conference]
  • [from steve_portigal] Understanding Culture, User Research and Design with Steve Portigal – [Reserve your tickets now for either Toronto event: a lecture on March 8 and a workshop on March 9. The lecture will focus on culture, insights, and design while the workshop will be a hands-on opportunity to practice synthesizing user research data into opportunities and concepts. Hope to see you there!]
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ChittahChattah Quickies February 28th, 2011
  • [from steve_portigal] Hong Kong’s Couples Invited to Wed at McDonald’s [NYTimes.com] – [We did visit a McDonald's in Hong Kong the other week but we didn't see anything like this!] McWedding starts at $1,280, which includes food and drinks for 50 people. The package includes a budget version of the usual trappings: a “cake” made of stacked apple pies, gifts for the guests and invitation cards, each with a wedding photo of the couple. (Hong Kong wedding photos are taken in advance, with the couple in rented finery.) McDonald’s employees dressed in black suits mimic the actions of hostesses at upscale hotels. They greet guests at the entrance, usher them to the signature book and deliver food, even if it is just a Big Mac and fries. McWeddings were devised in line with local customs, particularly Chinese numerology beliefs that determine the best dates for weddings or other important events. The engaged couple was given a photo frame shaped like Ronald McDonald, marked with the “limited edition number” 138, an auspicious figure.
  • [from steve_portigal] Stalking insights with Steve Portigal [Foolproof] – [Lovely concise report from our UX Hong Kong workshop. Thanks, Tom!] Even a novice UX researcher knows the dangers of moving too swiftly to draw conclusions from fieldwork. It’s important to maintain a state of openness and observation. Leaping to solutions and recommendations can bias your view. This could cause you to miss something really revealing or valuable simply because it doesn’t fit with the way your view is developing. It shouldn’t be true, but in fact the older and more experienced you get the more danger there is that you’ll fall into this trap. Firstly you’re instinctively calling on experiences and patterns in user behaviour that you may have seen before. Secondly, the more senior you are, the more impact your (wrong-headed) views may have on the situation. The antidote? Spend some time with Steve.
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ChittahChattah Quickies January 3rd, 2011
  • [from steve_portigal] Radio Johnny: Steve Portigal on UX Hong Kong [Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction] – [Very excited about UX Hong Kong, coming up in February] Steve discusses the need for all designers to take more time to understand the mountains of data we are forced to sift through before starting into our various processes and methodologies, including the implications of learning about the value of this data in the context of not just the user, but also our respective teammates. Steve also articulates the need for people to become comfortable with ambiguity and how a workshop setting provides a “new lens for looking at these tools”. "The more mature I feel I become as a professional, the more I feel I need to embrace certain kinds of ambiguity and go towards that; not knowing what the answer is. I think there is a lot of pressure on us in our professional lives to say, we’ve got some data, we did the process, and now we’ve got the answer…it can be very threatening to say, I don’t know what’s going to happen…"
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Recap of Steve and Julie’s URF10 synthesis workshop November 24th, 2010

Our friends at Bolt | Peters hosted their (mostly) annual User Research Friday event last week, bringing together practitioners from the client-side as well as consultants to share stories and discuss best practices. Some of our takeaways from the day are here.

The day before the conference, Steve and Julie co-led a sold-out workshop titled “We’ve Done All This Research- Now What?” for a group of 20 enthusiastic researchers and designers.


Julie and Steve in action

The purpose of the workshop was to practice the process of moving from the data and observations we gather in fieldwork toward opportunities and ultimately to ideas.

We framed this as a research project to inform a neighborhood redevelopment/gentrification effort. Before the workshop, participants first wandered their own neighborhoods…


Thanks to Nick Leggett from Zazz for this aerial shot from their Seattle offices


Noe Valley scene (a San Francisco neighborhood) captured by Julie

…and then when we got together, they the explored neighborhood surrounding Bolt | Peters for more data.


This machine shop just down the street from Bolt | Peters has been there for decades


6th street buzzes, about two blocks from the conference

Break-out groups took the synthesis tasks to heart and, in a very short period of time, collaboratively surfaced promising opportunities and strategies and solutions to address them.

We were humbled by the gentle empathy and creativity of the folks in the room. The morning served as an inspiring reminder of just how much progress a handful of smart, dedicated people can make on seemingly-intractable problems in a very short period of time.

More amazing photos, observations, output, and thoughtful commentary can be seen on the blog we created for the workshop.

The workshop slides are below.

See previously: Steve Portigal’s presentation from User Research Friday 2008

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