Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

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Editor’s Note: This post for May’s Special Edition on ‘Talking to Companies about ethnography’ comes from Steve Portigal who has a new book out this month titled Interviewing Users. As someone who’s been in the trenches for decades now running his own successful consultancy, Steve has done a great deal of both ‘interviewing users’ and ‘talking to companies about ethnography.’ Below we take the opportunity to interview him! We at Ethnography Matters are also big fans of the ‘War Stories‘ series on his blog where interviewers report on the unexpected things that happen to them in the field.

Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. Over the course of his career, he has interviewed hundreds of people, including families eating breakfast, hotel maintenance staff, architects, rock musicians, home-automation enthusiasts, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of mobile devices, medical information systems, music gear, wine packaging, financial services, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. He blogs at and tweets at @steveportigal.

This interview is available en Español – Habitantes Experiencia Diseño Innovación


Image courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

Ethnography Matters: First all Steve, congrats! We are so excited to have a copy of your book. Before diving into the specific questions, we want to know what motivated you to write this book?

Steve Portigal: Thanks! I’ve wanted to write a book from the time I was a little kid. I didn’t imagine it would be non-fiction, though! A lot of folks in the user experience and design worlds were feeling the need for a good book about this and my name came up as the author they’d want to see something from. I had been talking with Rosenfeld Media for a while about writing something, but it seemed like a daunting commitment. But when your peers are asking for it, it’s pretty compelling!

EM: So which part of the book was the most fun to write? Which part was the hardest?

SP: There were creative and intellectual challenges and rewards all the way along. A lot of the writing process was taking topics I had been speaking about for years and crafting the kind of text that is appropriate for a practitioner book. It was fun to revisit familiar points and find a better way to convey them. And then once in a while I’d hit on something that I maybe would typically gloss over in a presentation and realize I’d better dig a little deeper into myself and find away to explain something. The details of some of those moments are lost to memory, but the part of the process where I was discovering something by articulating it was pretty wonderful.

EM: Nice title, short, sweet and clear. How did you decide to narrow the focus down just to ‘interviewing’ as a method and without also writing in much detail about some of the other methods that so often go along with it in user research oriented towards design innovation – especially observation?

SP: Well, a lot of that is just figuring out what is the right way to talk about “this thing of ours.” For example by naming this blog “Ethnography Matters” you’ve put a stake in the ground not only about the scope of your topic but also the perspective you’re bringing to it. I felt that “going out and talking to users” was the piece of the work that could really benefit from what I had to share. I struggled with “design research” and “user research” and even “ethnography” but they all led in a different direction. I didn’t want to write a book about analysis and synthesis (or theory!); I wanted to write about what happens in the field. I cover a lot of other methods that go with interviewing (e.g., showing off artifacts, diary studies, etc.) but I think the biggest opportunity for readers may be to get better at talking to people.

“Observation” is another one of those popular words when people talk about this work and I never understand exactly what is meant. How many teams are actually going out to simply observe shoppers, pedestrians, farmers or x-ray technicians, without asking questions? That doesn’t seem like a primary approach that the teams I talk to are interested in. Of course, if you are going out to someone’s home or office to interview them, by all means you should be observing what’s going on – that’s the context of contextual research!

EM: This month’s “special edition” of Ethnography Matters is on “how to talk to companies about ethnography.” This is something you obviously have deep and diverse experience with. I was very interested by your proposed hierarchy of formality: e-mail vs. word documents vs. PowerPoint for delivering research reports. How/why do you think PowerPoint has ascended to this position and what it means for the way research is understood and consumed?

SP: Chris Conley has described how modern corporate life is dominated by PowerPoint (along with email and meetings). I can’t speak to the history of adoption that has led to this but it’s certainly the context in which we’re engaging with people in corporations. I was bummed the other day to hear a presentation from a junior researcher inside a major technology company who was creating research decks that weren’t even to be presented, just emailed to the team who commissioned the research. I think the context here is an evolving belief (aka “lean” and its friends) that while we should be talking to customers, we shouldn’t be making a big deal out of it. There’s no time for aligning on objectives, framing the problem and ensuring we have the right people to talk to. There’s certainly no time to deeply analyze the kind of data that comes from research and so it’s not too surprising that the default tools in those types of organizations are the ones that generate the least creative friction. Ultimately, I care less about the formats we use than whether or not we are connecting with people in the organization around what they can do with what we’ve learned.

EM: How much heterogeneity is there between companies / clients? Are there any broad typological characterizations of companies and their attitude towards user research? Does this inform different ways of delivering research results, different ways of “talking to” these companies?

SP: There are no doubt dozens of frameworks (see for example, Jess McMullin’s Design Maturity Model on page 142) for characterizing the organization. But let me throw out a new one: in the Passover Haggadah there is the example of the four sons. One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. The wise son asks to have all of the history, insight and other findings explained to him. We’re encouraged to explain everything to him. The wicked son separates himself from the issue by asking why it’s important to you. We’re told to tell him why it’s important to us (and not persuade him that it should be important to him). The simple son doesn’t even focus in on the issue and just asks “What is this?” so we’re to give him the headline. We’re told to approach the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question and take the initiative to explain things to him. And one scholar writes about a fifth son who isn’t even in the room and it’s up to us to seek him out and give him the lowdown.

Sure, it may be a bit forced but it’s not hard to see those sons as archetypes of individuals, departments or entire workplace cultures. Whatever your framework is, you obviously need to understand the specifics of who you are dealing with and have a range of approaches for responding. All of this stuff with people (be they clients or research subjects) is messy and I’m not so comfortable with pre-emptive categorization and its resultant tactical choices.

EM: What’s cool about this book is that a lot of the methods you suggest are used at the company you founded, Portigal Consulting. So what are some of your favorite techniques in the book that you use to train non-ethnographers in ethnographic methods?

SP: I’m not sure if we’re learning ethnographic methods per se, but here’s something simple that always bears fruit. After I share best practices with teams, I ask them to get into groups of three and take turns interviewing, being interviewed, and observing the dynamic between the interviewee and interviewer. Then we debrief. People will talk about what was easy, what was hard, what recommendations they ignored, what tactics they tried, and so on. And of course everyone’s experience will be different so that prompts a great discussion.

EM: In your book you write that “Poor interviews produce inaccurate information that can take your business in the wrong direction…” Can you tell us an example of where you have seen this happen? What were the consequences of that bad

SP: Well, most of the time when I’m involved I like to think we’re not doing poor interviews! A long time ago we had done some work with a client and the results had really changed how they were thinking and talking about their customers, their product category and indeed the overall opportunity. And they called us up a few months later clearly in a bind: they had purchased video cameras and gone out and talked to a bunch of customers and they were hoping we could do some of that there magic stuff we do by taking their videotapes and telling them what the results were! Their inability to draw any conclusions from their presumably poor research was maybe the only thing that kept them from taking their business somewhere they shouldn’t! Another client started off our project by showing me the evolution of their product with the specific changes they had made because customers had asked for them. They had no design process and were just bolting on features and functionality, all as close as possible to directly implementing the requests anywhere they could fit them. They had been “listening” to customers but they had no process in place for either understanding the real need behind the request nor for synthesizing those needs across different customer types. They had no design strategy. They had really tied themselves up pretty badly and didn’t have any idea where to go from there.

EM: In Grant McCracken’s introduction to your book, he says that “Ethnography has suffered terribly in the last few years. Lots of people claim to know it, but in fact the art and science of the method have been badly damaged by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.” You’re definitely not a snake oil salemen so that’s a good reason to buy your book. So why has ethnography suffered so much in the past few years? What have you seen happen?

SP: As I mentioned before, I am seeing a lot of teams under unrealistic time pressure that prevents them from doing the kind of team communication, reflection and creative processing it takes to do this well. But I don’t think that’s the suffering Grant is talking about. I suspect he’s referring to the embracing of ethnography (although please substitute “innovation” or “design thinking” or whatever you like) by the business press and by business. The media has been regaling us with examples of big brands, sexy companies, and breakthrough products. Some aggressive folks will always pick up the scent of opportunity and do what it takes to cash in on it. It always seems to be about decomposing human behavior into an easy-to-understand rule system (with phrases like “cracking the code” or “why we buy” or “how we decide”). While there is some compelling research that’s part of this trend, there’s also a lot of horsefeathers (can I say “horsefeathers” on this blog?). In both cases (the folks who won’t give this work the time it requires and the folks that are selling magic beans) the commonality is the denial that gaining a new understanding of customers and designing a breakthrough solution is very hard.

EM: Our contributing editor, Rachelle Annechino wrote up a great post of interviewing tips for people who are introverted. So what are some tips that you have for introverts?

SP: That is definitely a great post! I know they come from Rachelle thinking about herself as an introvert, but I think what she’s written is simply good technique. She’s highlighted how defaults for an introvert are actually advantages and that’s important for reassuring introverts. But she’s also illustrating some things that extroverts don’t do as naturally that they should be doing.

I can certainly relate to the challenge of interviewing as an introvert. I have a clear memory from a couple of years ago where I hadn’t been in the field for a long time and just about having a panic attack as we went up to the door! Anyway, here’s some things that might help introverts

  • Go with someone else. This is also good technique, but I think for introverts it has the advantage of reducing some of the stranger-stress
  • Keep in mind that it’s just 2 hours out of your life. It will be over in 2 hours and one minute. So keep it in perspective
  • Use the classic introvert coping tactic of playing a role. Interviewing is such a great fit because indeed you are playing a role. We don’t interview people the way we talk to them in real life, so the person you are presenting yourself as is you-as-interviewer. All your props (release forms, video camera, etc.) all support that role

EM: On page 8 in your book, you have a really good paragraph about the limitations of interviewing,
“Interviewing isn’t the right approach for every problem. Because it favors depth over sample size, it’s not a source for statistically significant data. Being semi-structured, each interview will be unique, making it hard to objectively tally data points across the sample. Although we are typically interviewing in context, it’s not fully naturalistic. A tool that intercepts and observes users who visit a website is capturing their actual behavior, but sitting with users and having them show you how they use a website is an artifice. Interviews are not good at predicting future behavior, especially future purchase intent or uncovering price expectations. Asking those questions in an interview will reveal mental models that exist today, which can be insightful, but won’t necessarily be accurate.”
Do clients have unrealistic expectations about interviews? How do you see this play out?

SP: I met a CEO at a pitch meeting who demanded examples of when I had provided a new insight to a company and they had turned around and created an iPhone-scale game-changer of an innovation. Umm, how often have there been innovations like that? While we can agree that ethnographic research (or similar) could be an essential ingredient in that type of business success, there’s a huge burden on the organization that has to innovate based on those insights. Why would you hold your insights vendor accountable for that outcome?

At any rate, all projects start off by uncovering objectives and exploring the best way to address those objectives. I wouldn’t say that most folks are unrealistic, maybe just appropriately naïve. For example, I once worked with a “paper path engineer” at a printer manufacturer who wanted interview subjects to express a preference between a top-feed or side-injection (or something technically specific but otherwise arcane). I was touched by his eagerness for user-centered design but I had to work with my direct client to help them all get some clarity about what we were going to ask and what we were going to learn and how that was going to inform their design decisions.

EM: Ok we have to ask this question – why the picture of three young men playing the drums in a marching band on page xvi?


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SP: All my photographs from actual user research are confidential (and typically not that well composed) so we decided instead to use my street photography showing pictures of people doing the ordinary things that people do. While not artifacts from the interviewing process, we felt they represented the same philosophy of finding fascination in the mundane. Of course, you may see something different in those images!

EM: What is the craziest thing that has happened during an interview?

SP: Sharing stories about what happens on when you’re in the field is suc
h a great thing for practitioners to be doing for each other. I’ve been curating a series of War Stories on my blog where different researchers relate the different experiences they’ve had. (And I’m always interested in more, so let me know if you’ve got one – ). My War Story – It’s All Going to Burn – is about a research participant who eventually became more interested in proselytizing than answering our questions and it was quite a struggle to extricate ourselves without betraying the rapport that we had worked so hard to create. The participant was certainly not honoring that relationship, but I still felt like I had to. It was profoundly uncomfortable but certainly hilarious afterwards.

EM: In your 18 years in this business, what has been some of the biggest shifts that you have witnessed in the field?

SP: When I entered the field, it was barely a field. There was no community, there were few people practicing, and there wasn’t a lot of demand for the work. I think the growth in the user experience field, through the web and then mobile devices has really pulled us along. Of course, there are researchers working in categories I have less visibility into so their shifts would be different. I saw insights about customers regarded as a luxury in the 2001 recession and thus low demand; but in 2008 companies talked about trying to innovate their way through the downturn and so insights and design were no longer expendable ingredients in product development.

EM: Thanks for allowing us to interview you! How often do you get to experience this role reversal?

SP: Not often enough. I think it’s such a great experience for interviewers to be interviewed. About 2 years ago I had two back-to-back experiences in being interviewed. One was about a piece of software I was struggling with. The other was about my professional trajectory. In the first, I felt like dirt. In the second, I felt like a superstar. I still haven’t really worked it out but it made me think about how, despite of our great rapport and stellar empathy, the things we’re asking people to talk about are going to have a real impact on them. Of course, I feel great about this and appreciate all your thought-provoking questions

Ethnography Matters readers can take advantage of an exclusive 20% discount off the list price of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights­. Use the coupon code ETHMAT2013 upon checkout when ordering the book through the Rosenfeld Media website.

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