The fourth episode of #PeopleOfResearch is a very special one! I am so thankful for having the opportunity to talk with Steve Portigal, because one of the first books I read on user research was a book he wrote, Interviewing Users: How To Uncover Compelling Insights, and it helped me a lot understanding what is this field about at the beginning of my career. Steve has an incredible amount of experience and so much to share with the community, so without wasting any more time, let’s enjoy the interview with Steve Portigal!
About Steve Portigal
Steve Portigal is an experienced user researcher who helps organizations to build more mature user research practices. Based outside of San Francisco, he is principal of Portigal Consulting, and the author of two books: The classic Interviewing Users: How To Uncover Compelling Insights and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. He’s also the host of the Dollars to Donuts podcast, where he interviews people who lead user research in their organizations.
Big thanks for accepting the invitation, Steve, a pleasure to have you on #PeopleOfResearch interview series! Let’s start!
You have more than 19 years’ of experience, how user research changed and evolved since the beginning of your career?
When I started out, user research was primarily being done in consultancies. If you wanted to do this work, you went to work at an agency. As I progressed and people would come to me for advice, I was always sending them to Adaptive Path, frogdesign, IDEO, Jump Associates, and so on. And as we’ve collectively raised awareness of the value of research, companies have invested in building their own teams. I can’t even guess at the numbers these days, I feel like Facebook had 700 user researchers at some point? How many hundreds of user researchers do we think Google has? So when you have that kind of scale, the job opportunities are in those organizations.
It means that you have leadership roles in user research, which maybe we take for granted now, but that wasn’t always the case. That was the inspiration for me to start my podcast, Dollars to Donuts, to shine a bit of a spotlight on a relatively new role in the field of user research.
To be honest, it’s so interesting to me to speak with people inside of an organization about research and hear them talk (as you’d expect) like corporate people, people who spend all of their time inside that culture. Back in my early days, as a researcher/consultant, our job was to bring that outside in, to surface the language of the real world, not the language (and mental model) of the producer of the tool for the world. So when the person whose job it is to bring the outside in is actually part of the inside, the producer culture, they’re going to do that very, very differently. Their own professional success, their financial incentive, is tied to the performance of the company, or the product. And yet the work is about telling truth-to-power. So how I practice that as a consultant is going to differ from how someone who leads an internal team and reports to the VP of Product will. I mean, we’ve long had consultants and internal people in the world of business, but in user research, it’s still a relatively recent change.
We are living in a high speed society, therefore startups and companies work in a very agile development environment, trying to deliver products or features as quickly as possible. How can user research fit in this fast paced context?
Agreed, we’re under pressure to work quickly. And so we respond with new methods that aren’t the “best” method but that work within the constraints that others are placing on research. Teams are understaffed so this means pressure to work more quickly. We even adopt the terminology, like “sprints” which is not an effective word choice if you want to be given time to work through your process. This willing compliance with unrealistic expectations doesn’t serve the practice and it doesn’t serve us individually that well.
I see this as an issue of leadership, though, and not something that an individual researcher can impact that easily. There needs to be someone with authority, responsibility, and credibility to help the organization best utilize research. Without a peer to the leaders in (say) design, product, engineering, then researchers are relegated to taking instructions from people who may be less conversant with the operations of user research. A research leader will work proactively to understand upcoming design and product activity in order to prioritize and allocate resources so that the research that gets done is research that will have the most impact at the right time.
There are a lot of ways to learn research and juniors often feel overwhelmed and discouraged because of that. What would you tell them to do?
Practice. Do as much research as you can. Create your own practice occasions: maybe it’s that chatty person you meet in public like an extroverted cashier — ask them a question and then ask them follow up questions! Also, reflect, just like a sports team coach who reviews game films; watch your videos, read your transcripts, and look at what worked well and what you might have improved.
Take the opportunity to be interviewed yourself — whether it’s for a survey or a usability study or a poll, find an opportunity to experience the interview from the other side of the lens. Keep reflecting by observing others at work — including both great and poor interviewers in your work context, and in the media (for example, what do you think works in a particular Terry Gross interview?)
Junior researchers need guidance at the beginning of their career, what advice do you have for them?
Take advantage of all the ways you can learn more about research (meetups, articles, conferences, mentorship, discussions) but look for adjacent ways to learn. Read widely. Go to museums. Travel. Watch documentaries. Or whatever it is for you that helps you encounter ways of living, being, creating, thinking outside your own as it can inform your own research practice in surprising and joyful ways.
What qualities do you think a researcher should have?
At a fundamental level, there’s an essential inherent curiosity about people (which may be more of a leaning than a skill). There’s the ability to deeply listen. We need patience. We need to think quickly on our feet, to be in the moment and creative in how we ask questions.
There’s also something very individualistic about research. My style as a researcher is connected to my way of thinking and speaking and listening in all of my interactions and in all of my relationships. We’re all unique that way. Of course, in research we are making choices about how to express or not some of our tendencies, but there’s no perfect choice, and over time researchers can develop an authentic style that will continue to evolve with them.
But the most important thing I’ve learned about research is about myself. Research is a person-to-person activity and every time I go talk to somebody I come in with my own experiences and my own biases — my own expectations about what I’m going to see based on (for example) what the research project is about and I have had to learn to hear my own judgment. It’s actually one of my favorite things about research — that feeling you get when you discover an assumption you have made. It could be about anything. It’s just so rewarding that I feel like I am learning about the world and learning about myself because I have dismantled a presumption that I didn’t know that I had. So that keeps happening — I keep discovering my own biases, prejudices, and assumptions and so it feels like I’m always growing as a person.
Thank you again, Steve, for sharing your story and your experience, very insightful!
#PeopleOfResearch is a series of mini-interviews for the Research Loop Community where researchers all over the globe share their vision, experience and advice.