Steve on the Service Design Show

Thanks to Marc Fonteijn for having me as a guest on The Service Design Show. The episode, entitled How To Unlock The True Power Of User Research, is online now (Soundcloud, YouTube) and embedded below.

By now we all know that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in the service design toolbox. But can we also use storytelling to actually improve our own practice? Steve Portigal thinks so and he explains why in this episode.

And how well aware are you of your own biases, beliefs and assumptions when you go into a project? Learning to better listen to ourselves might be a key to get more meaningful work done.

Finally we discuss why the value of deep research is still often not aligned with the value we put on designing solutions. For this we dig into some economic fallacies that might have to do with this.

The big question of this episode is: When has storytelling worked for you (and when did it fail)?

Watch Steve on Like/Unlike

Here’s a twenty-minute conversation with me, for the show Like/Unlike for, in anticipation of Product Camp Poland, coming right up! I talk about three things – something I recently experienced that I liked (our Punk Rock walking tour of the East Village); something that I did not like (an app required to get filtered drinking water), and a perspective on user research that others may not be thinking about.

sorry about the occasionally blurry video

Much Better Than The Original

Comedian Laurie Kilmartin tweeted

Hey aspiring comedy writers, when my brain is foggy or I just need multiple punchlines for the same setup, sometime I consult my transitions list! It’s dumb but it helps

It’s sort of a low-fidelity methods card approach, where a phrase suggests a particular structure, or triggers the writer to generate a certain type of response. As a comedy consumer, I am amazed at how familiar so many of these phrases are. While I do some amount of deconstructing the form as a fan, it is very cool to see how fully she reverse-engineered standup tropes for her own benefit

Listen to Steve on the Conversation Factory Podcast

It was great fun to speak with Daniel Stillman about research, collaboration, communication and facilitation. now live on the Conversation Factory site, and embedded below


Here’s part of how Daniel framed the conversation in his writeup

Steve is a User Researcher, heart and soul. And he talks and writes about it, fluently. Facilitation is something that he *has to do* in order to bring people together. He’s an extremely reflective practitioner about research, but about facilitation, less so. For me, it’s fascinating to see that divide. I think there are a lot of people where facilitation is a means to an end.

Steve illustrates something I coach people on often – you have to be your own kind of facilitator. I can be theatrical and energetic. Steve is more introverted and centered. My way of solving for group work isn’t Steve’s: he’s adapted his own approach that feels natural and gets the job done.

Tad Friend: Interviewing Master

I love this bit from Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Donald Glover

Noting that he often spoke about how life would be different if he were White Donald, I asked Glover how our conversations would be different if I were black. He gave me a considering look. “We’d have a language we both understood, and you’d know me better,” he said. “But as Black Tad you’d only be in a position of talking to me because you were good at placating a white audience. As a black person, you have to sell the black culture to succeed. So I’d try to trust Black Tad, but it’s really up to him whether he’d sell us out.”

Glover is an elusive interview, dismissing many expected norms around career, goals, success, creativity. Here, Friend takes a framework that Glover has presented (if Glover were white rather than black) and twists that into a new question (if Friend were black rather than white). He’s extending and adapting what Glover has already told him in order to probe more deeply on that model, by asking Glover to consider a hypothetical. And in doing so, Friend points back to the actual instrument of inquiry – the interview conducted by an interviewer, and asks Glover to examine that relationship.

That is masterful interviewing: hearing to the world view the interviewee is articulating; building a hypothetical evolution of that framework in order to examine the assumptions of that framework more closely; and acknowledging the context of the interview itself in order to probe even more deeply.

Since we are reading an article, and not an interview transcript, we only know about this because Friend put it in his article; in order to make his point he had to reveal the questions as well as the answers. And it’s a delightful reveal.

Listen to Steve on the User Defenders Podcast


Artwork by Eli Jorgensen

I had a wide-ranging and personal conversation with Jason Ogle for the User Defenders podcast. We talked about my professional trajectory, my disdain for Forrest Gump, rapport-building, listening, disgust, and war stories from fieldwork. Our conversation is now live on the User Defenders site, and embedded below



And yeah, that’s me in a black-and-purple cape, but you’ll need to listen to the episode to understand what’s about.

How to Grow and Thrive as A User Researcher

Check out an interview with me in How to Grow and Thrive as A User Researcher on the Adobe blog. An excerpt is below

What are the benefits of sharing career failures and mishaps rather than just successes?

We need to share both! Thinking about the field of user research, it’s important for practitioners to continue our development. Examining what went wrong (or what was different from what we expected) can highlight practices that might have avoided any particular mishap. But user research is so much about people and all their quirks, personalities, strengths, flaws, emotions, and so on — it’s what the work is about! There are inevitably surprises, and failures, and so another way to think about improving our skills is in accepting the lack of control, and even embracing it.

Researchers are often ‘selling’ the benefits of the practice to colleagues and stakeholders, and while I’m probably not going to lead with failure stories, it’s helpful to have a framework for considering them. ‘Failures’ are inevitable and while we work hard to prevent them, they are still coming for us, and reframing them as part of the messy people experience that we’re out there to embrace can help us discuss more realistically with our collaborators. There’s no reason any of us should feel alone with these experiences; as Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries illustrates, they are part of this work.

Some well-known and very successful designers don’t do any user research. What do you think about that approach?

Let’s assume that’s true. It’s foolish to declare that the only way to innovate is through research. Even when we do research, there are many other factors at play that determine success. What does concern me is that approaches championed by ‘well-known and very successful’ individuals won’t succeed for everyone. It’s real swell that Steve Jobs (or substitute your favorite successful innovator) did it this way. But you’re not Steve Jobs!

Special thanks to Oliver Lindberg for the interview!

Snark about Bark

I’m rolling my eyes at this article about successful dog toy company, Bark. Specifically:

Bark’s design process begins with research. Packed in every BarkBox sent to 600,000 subscribers is a survey questioning dog parents about their beloved canine’s playing styles. The design team also gets anecdotal data from their Ohio-based customer service team who chat with with BarkBox loyalists about how toys were received. Based on user insights, Jensen and his team creates goofy toys that heighten a dog’s natural play style—chewing, fetching, or even destruction play.

“We know what a golden retriever in Kansas will like compared to a chihuahua in Seattle,” claims Jensen.

Some of what is grating is simply due to sloppy writing, but I am bothered by the hollow virtue-signalling around user research. Their methods are surveys – sent only to people who have purchased their product, and customer service reps – who are probably doing more troubleshooting than chatting with loyalists. The quote, then, implies a Big Data-style sense of insight across geography and breed, which is just untrue. They haven’t met any pet owners and they haven’t met with any pets!

I realize it’s expedient for PR to anchor your genius in customer-centricity, and I guess that’s a win. The founders are industrial designers and there would once have been a day when their innate brilliance would have been sufficient. But really, don’t cloak yourself in shallow methodologies and then claim you are doing everything based on research!

Series

About Steve