Interviewing Steve Portigal About Interviewing Users

By Jeffrey Greger

Published: August 5, 2013

Steve PortigalSteve Portigal, a fixture on the design research scene and founder of Portigal Consulting, has written a new book titled Interviewing Users. His book compiles the insights he has gained from decades of conducting ethnographic research into a highly accessible, informative, and thought-provoking guide. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Steve about his book.

Jeff: Thank you for sitting down with me to talk about your book. You’ve been presenting some of the ideas in Interviewing Users at conferences and on your blog for some time now. What was your process for coalescing and curating all of that content into a book?

Steve: It was a pretty interesting process. As you say, writing this book was a chance for me to finally put together all of these things that I had been mulling over, teaching, and writing about for such a long time. Maybe I’d been telling a story in workshops for a while, but I’d never really written it down in full. There were also some things that I’d been glossing over—like “I can’t really explain how this works, it just does.” So, what was exciting in the writing process was to reflect on those thoughts and realize that I could flesh some of these pieces out, now that I was removed from the immediate mode of presenting.

“People open up just as you’re wrapping up an interview with them. Someone compared it to what happens in psychotherapy.”

In some cases, I would spend some time lending a little more substance to some of my anecdotal examples. For instance, I have long been talking about how people open up just as you’re wrapping up an interview with them. Someone compared it to what happens in psychotherapy. This prompted me to do a little bit of desk research, and I found a term for that. It’s called the door-knob phenomenon, and it’s well known in the medical field, as well as in psychiatry. I think this kind of small enlightenment—realizing, oh, that has a name—helped me to tighten things up and tell the story a little better in the book.

What happened, too, was that the coalescing that occurred during the writing process found its way back into the workshops or other work that I’m doing, forming a really nice feedback loop.

Jeff: In your book, you do a great job of addressing the use of research as a leadership activity within an organization. But the situation seems more challenging when you are working as an outside design consultant, who a client has hired to work on a clearly defined project, and you have limited clout, visibility, and understanding of where push-back to doing user research may lie within a company. In such a situation, how would you illustrate the value of research and get it brought into the scope of the project?

Interviewing UsersSteve: I’ve worked as a consultant for so much of my career, and people often ask me the opposite question, “So, how does what you’re talking about as a consultant apply to me when I’m in house?” I’ve actually been trying to develop that perspective over the last couple of years, and I think you’re right, that’s in the book.

I’ve got a presentation on SlideShare called “Championing Contextual Research in Your Organization that considers some of those ideas and takes a look at getting buy-in. But you’re right, the consulting case is very different. It’s more about being an effective consultant than doing the research. I didn't want the book to get into that because the consulting business is already well covered, but I appreciate your question.

“It’s good for design consultants to be very clear about the process they’re advocating. If there isn’t buy-in before a project starts, maybe that project isn’t a good fit.”

I think—and this reflects my bias—for all the work that I do for clients, we’ve agreed up front that we’re going to do some kind of research-informed design process. It’s really about how I, as a consultant, sell my services. There’s a discussion that happens before the work commences about what I’m going to do. It’s good for design consultants to be very clear about the process they’re advocating. If there isn’t buy-in before a project starts, maybe that project isn’t a good fit. You shouldn’t marry someone expecting that he or she is going to change once you build a life together, and I don’t think you should take a consulting project thinking that you’re going to change the approach once you start working with a client. To be successful, consultants should be doing projects that are about leveraging what they believe in, their passions, and their strengths. It’s not too terrible to say no to clients who don’t align with what you believe in, what you’re good at, and how you want to approach a project. That’s the difference between being a freelancer and being a consultant.

Jeff: I guess this question applies to both the in-house and the consulting cases: Is there such a thing as a cheap, quick, potent “gateway drug” to get people hooked on integrating research into their development process?

Steve: I love your metaphor, the “gateway drug”! Yeah, I’ve seen this happen so many times, where going out to see single users doing their thing in their own environment and talking about it is enough to make a person’s jaw drop.

I’ve seen some organizations turn this into a process, where they set up a regularly scheduled field day. Often what they’re doing is just getting people out to see customers. They’re not conducting a rigorous, consistent data-collection activity, and they’re not doing very much with the data. Instead, it’s more about setting up that gut-punch effect and learning that people do not think and talk the way you fantasize that they do.

“You can’t take an immersive, in-person experience, boil that down into five minutes of footage, then expect the video to have the same kind of impact. … Video is powerful, but it doesn’t have the same profound effect that being there can have.”

There’s a lot of talk about how powerful video is, and I don’t disagree with that, but you’ve got to understand what its limitations are. We took a client out into the field, and they were really profoundly moved by the experience—by the people they met and seeing how they talked. They asked us to quickly put together a short video from our footage. This was midway through the project, not a final-report video where we had some findings to convey. They never told us what their goal was, exactly. Later, they called us and said, “You didn’t hit it out of the ballpark.” They were disappointed that their stakeholders didn’t watch our five-minute video and come away as touched as the team had been when they had spent hours in these people’s homes.

Of course! You can’t take an immersive, in-person experience, boil that down into five minutes of footage, then expect the video to have the same kind of impact. Maybe, if you took the first five minutes of Up, you could have that kind of impact, but that’s a Pixar level of storytelling that’s far beyond slapping together some video moments from a few days in the field. Video is powerful, but it doesn’t have the same profound effect that being there can have.

Jeff: Do you think it would be valuable for students to get this sort of field experience, seeing for themselves that people don’t always behave as they might imagine people do?

Steve: I think that would be a fantastic thing. It’s all a learning process, and one of the things that you learn by doing research is the discovery that you don’t know everything. That’s a great experience for students to have—to learn that they can learn, as opposed to their believing that they’re already supposed to know what people are about. When I’ve worked with students and taught in design programs, I don’t see any resistance to this; I see a lot of excitement about this. In a learning setting, there don’t seem to be any of the barriers to including research in the design process that might be present in production environments.

Jeff: So, while we’re talking about the next generation of designers, where do you see the role of ethnographic design research heading by the end of the decade?

“I imagine that the power of ethnographic design research to reframe problems and uncover new opportunities is something that we will more fully realize….”

Steve: I imagine that the power of ethnographic design research to reframe problems and uncover new opportunities is something that we will more fully realize—rather than how it’s often understood now, focusing on things like gathering feature requests and validating solutions.

Jeff: So, if you had your druthers, is there a particular organization or industry that you would like to see implement the methods and mindset that you’ve presented in your book?

Steve: I guess this is more from my own perspective as a consumer rather than as someone who works with companies: I’d love to see customer service get overhauled. Dealing with banks, credit card companies, cable companies, and technology companies is a really frustrating and overwhelming aspect of our lives as consumers. It’s because of the way businesses look at things. There’s no financial upside to spending more to serve their customers better, but that sort of framing of intractable problems is exactly what ethnography is good at getting around, digging into, and unpacking. Actually, I was once brought onto a project team that was looking at customer service, but it wasn't the focus of our work, so we didn't really have an impact. So, I’ve dipped my toe in that, but I would like to see this addressed further.

Jeff: When you talk about customer service, I immediately start thinking about government organizations that have to deal directly with the public.

Steve: There’s all this great work that’s happening in citizen experience design. Groups like Code for America and Gov 2.0 are bringing these types of design processes and insights to bear on solving how we can improve the overall service experience for government using technology. It’s not an area I’ve worked in directly, but I’m really inspired by Code for America and by people like Cyd Harrell, Jess McMullin, and Dana Chisnell. These guys are doing some really interesting work in trying to change government systems using these kinds of methods. So, I think you’re right, this is a huge category.

Jeff: There has been a lot of press lately around using design thinking to help marginalized populations, both locally and in the developing world. Beyond the sort of First World government interactions you just mentioned, do you see organizations applying research in any other ways outside the for-profit realm?

“If research stops being it’s own thing and just becomes the way we do design, we’ll have reached an interesting point.”

Steve: That’s kind of where anthropology comes from. This is a gross oversimplification, but anthropology had its roots in the era of colonialism, when it had a role in looking at “the other” before there was an idea of designing anything. There were both profit and political motivations underlying this, but the idea of looking at a developing type of environment, then trying to find ways to support it and profit from it seems to go way back. You’re right, it continues to be a hot topic. You have schools like the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) that are all about addressing underserved populations. I would strongly suspect, with the way AC4D talks about leading with design thinking, that they’re doing research as part of it.

As much as I’m an advocate for research, I think to succeed, research as a separate thing ultimately kind of goes away. If research stops being it’s own thing and just becomes the way we do design, we’ll have reached an interesting point. Jump Associates doesn’t talk about research; they talk about business outcomes. When AC4D talks about addressing underserved populations, they don’t necessarily talk about research—that’s not what they lead with. Of course, we’re doing research, but that’s because it’s the only way to drive change in really complex systems like those in developing countries.

Jeff: Someone reading the unassuming title Interviewing Users might at first think that you’ve written an impersonal reference book. While there are sample documents and practical tips aplenty, there are also what are almost philosophical passages that refer to the self-control and mindfulness that a successful interviewer must cultivate. For example, you explain how to accept awkward situations and “check your world view at the door.” Do you feel that the many years you’ve spent practicing these skills professionally have bled into your interactions away from work?

Steve: Your question makes me happy. I think that was something I could bring to the book that might take it beyond a catalog of tips and tricks. The work that I’ve done and the opportunity that I’ve had to reflect on it over many years has given me a richer perspective. And you’re right, it comes down to a lot of fundamentals about who we are and how we deal with other people. I don’t mean that one can literally replicate the interviewer persona in every context—and to an introvert like I am, that would be a horrible idea—but what you’re saying is right on. My work has given me a lot of tools with which I can look at myself in other kinds of settings—both in social settings and in other kinds of professional settings. That’s obviously not the thrust of the book, but it’s there for the taking if you want to reflect a little bit on who you are, how you interact, and how that can inform your design work, your creative work, and so on.

“My work has given me a lot of tools with which I can look at myself in other kinds of settings—both in social settings and in other kinds of professional settings.”

Jeff: So, along the lines of human interactions, you speak a lot about developing a rapport with your interviewees. Julie Peggar even goes so far as to say a “successful field visit is one in which, at the end, the participant feels like they’ve made a new friend rather than like they’ve just been interviewed.” Has this ever led to any unintended follow-ups or friendships from people you have spoken to?

Steve: There’s a boundary issue that I always want to be sensitive to. People let me into their life under a certain type of agreement. To presume to take that further, without an explicit invitation to do so, would be something that I fear could be a little bit shady. I do have a colleague who was invited out to drinks with a participant a few weeks later, and he went. The research was business to business, so I think the participant looked on the interview as a networking opportunity. In fact, one of our client representatives was at the interview, he knew what organization they were from, and what role they were playing. So, although it was an interview, the value that it offered to the participant was more professional, so he invited my colleague out to get together and shoot the breeze. As I describe this, what comes to mind is a kind of creepy dating behavior. When I tell this story about my colleague, I want to make sure that everyone who hears this knows that they were two men, and there was no romantic subtext. My defensiveness about telling this story speaks to the boundary issue here.

Not everyone approaches this issue in the same way. I don't go and connect with people on social networks after I interview them, but other researchers tell me that they don’t worry about this; they just go ahead and do it. This may be more because I’m an introvert, but I think my caution comes from the issue of trust. I mean, this is really deep trust we’re asking people to give us. To presume more or take more than what participants give explicit permission for would be something that I’d have to be concerned about. So, if it happened like in the example that I told you about, I feel that it falls to the participant to initiate and say, “I’m willing to have the relationship extend beyond what we started out with.” That wouldn’t be something that I would necessarily be seeking.

Jeff: I’m glad you touched a little more upon the moral aspects of this type of work.

Steve: Extroverts might give you a different answer. Introverts tend to think about the implicit rules, but extroverts might very successfully navigate that person-to-person rapport. Someone like Julie is just more extroverted than I am in those settings, so she might be okay doing that. And I don’t mean to say that someone like Julie would be violating that trust, but for me personally, that’s a barrier that I’m sensitive to.

Jeff: One final question for you: with your book out in the world, what’s next for Steve Portigal?

Steve: This is one of the most amazing periods in my life, having a book out. If anybody is working their way through writing a book, I tell you that it’s really wonderful to have it out. It’s a rush, being able to talk to people and dive into some of these ideas I’ve been thinking and writing about for a while and have conversations like this, where we get to go beyond what I’ve written. This is really stimulating for me, and I expect that the people who read this will engage further, so it’s snowballing into these wonderful sorts of interactions.

“How we know ourselves really is an important factor to get around when we’re looking to understand others….”

That’s inspiring me to do more with clients—not only to do research, but to help them activate this approach more deeply and bring teams to their full potential. I love your questions about the somewhat philosophical aspects of research. In the little while since the book came out, I’ve been thinking about them more—these issues around how we are in the world, the personal and professional journey, and how those inform each other.

I’m in the early planning stages of preparing for a conference called Fluxible that’s going to be held in the fall, and the workshop, as far as I understand it now, is going to be about presence, self-knowledge, and what limits us. How we know ourselves really is an important factor to get around when we’re looking to understand others, and I want to focus on the self a little bit more than I got to in the book. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to fold in some of the things that I’ve been working on that are kind of post-interviewing and post-design things. I’ve been looking at things like bad ideas, creativity, improv. That’s stuff that’s really inspiring and exciting for me now. It builds on interviewing and having reflected on this subject for a number of years. So, I don’t exactly know where I’m headed, but I’m excited to see where this takes me.

Jeff: I’m glad we were able to continue some parts of the conversation that you started in Interviewing Users. I just want to thank you again for putting out such an intriguing book and for sitting down with me today.

Steve: Thanks, Jeff. Those were great questions.

Steve Portigal’s Book: Interviewing Users

If you want to learn about how to interview users, read Steve’s recent book, Interviewing Users. For a 20% discount on this book, purchase it on the Rosenfeld Media Web site, using the discount code: UXMATTERSIU.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.