UIE Book Corner: Steve Portigal’s “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights”

Sean Carmichael

August 23rd, 2013

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Steve Portigal Interviewing Users cover

In this chapter of our Book Corner series, Steve Portigal joins us to chat about his book “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights”. It’s another great publication from our friends over at Rosenfeld Media and is a distillation of his years of experience conducting research with users.

Somehow existing as both a handbook of sorts and as a casual conversation with one of the sharpest minds in the field, it’s a must-have for anyone thinking about the research side of things. Steve breaks down interactions with users to illustrate when, and how, to ask the right questions to uncover valuable insights.

Steve is one of our favorite people and go-to experts. He’s graced the programs of our conferences and has presented multiple virtual seminars in our training library. We are certain you’ll learn some valuable stuff during this installment in our ongoing series.

Recorded: July, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Hello, everyone. We’re continuing the UIE Book Corner series with a look at “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights” by Steve Portigal. It’s another beautiful book published by the fine folks over at Rosenfeld Media. As I’m thinking about what to discuss with our authors for this podcast, I like to see what others are saying.

The easy way to do that is just to go take a peek at Amazon. Folks there love Steve’s book. Just some of the highlights. “Steve’s guide offers a vivid and rich description of the entire interviewing process. You won’t find academic models here, only knowledge from deep experience.”

Another one says, “The real power in this book is how the author captures the direct interaction with an interview participant, and how to get the responses you need as an interviewer, while not coming across as invasive.” The last one that caught my attention was that, “Steve has written a beautiful and sure to be timeless guide for anyone keen on the art of listening and its practice.”

We’re thrilled to have Steve Portigal join us from the West Coast to discuss this book and its important concept. We’re recording it so you can listen in to what he has to say. Hi, Steve!

Steve Portigal: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

Adam: The book’s been out just over a month, and it’s already got a huge fan base. When people are sharing with you what they think about the book, what are they telling you?

Steve: I’m hearing two things. One is that people are finding it very actionable. That’s a bit of a buzzword. I had someone come up to me. This is someone who is an experienced researcher, who I admire. She told me that she got the book in her hand the night before she went out to do a study. She went through it with some intensity, and it really changed how she was able to go out and do that interview. She found any number of things that she could go out and use right away. That’s a huge compliment.

The other thing that I’m hearing that I’m personally very gratified by, is that people say they find the book very approachable. One person wrote on Twitter that “Reading the book was like sitting and having a beer with Steve Portigal and talking about research.” That’s the feedback I’m getting, and it’s really a high compliment for me. I’m really proud of that.

Adam: A lot of the comments I’ve seen seem to be that it’s a great read but also has this ability to be a handbook that you’d keep coming back to. It seems to me that it’s rare that you have somebody saying those two things. They’re usually one or the other. As you’ve been having these discussions about people that have read the book, are there any favorite tips, tricks, or how-tos that are resonating with folks more than others?

Steve: At a general, high level, the takeaway that people are getting from the book is a sense of confidence. That story I told was an example of that. It’s not like people haven’t done this, people are at various levels. Specifically, people that I’ve been talking to for years and the people that have gone through the book, one thing that people react to is just the realization that you can do a lot by being silent. I go into this in some amount of detail.

You asked me what specific things that people are being able to act on that are new. This is something that I’ve heard from workshops over the years and then people that have been going through the book, that it’s a surprising and powerful realization that, in their work as interviewers, they can do a lot just by being silent. The things they do to give someone else space are something that’s within their control and that it has this profound effect on the dynamic of the interview itself.

Adam: Just being silent is something. I’m the rookie moderator in the usability tests here at UIE. That’s something that Jared has repeatedly asked me to do. “Just let the silence do its thing, and the users will give you what you’re after.” I get that. Anything that’s surprising the readers?

Steve: A lot of what is happening in the book is deconstructing some of the interactions that happen in the field. What I’m believing is happening for people is that even just the idea of having something explained that you didn’t know that you didn’t know can be surprising. Whether they’re rookies or seasoned people, a lot of these types of interactions that happen in the field, in interviews are…We do a lot on instinct. It is a very human activity.

There’s some surprise that can happen when something is broken down. There are a lot of points in the book at which the details of a small utterance or something that you may do in listening or not listening or being silent or what’s happening and what that’s about and how you can change it. The surprise comes with that nod of recognition. “Oh yeah. That does happen, but I never really stopped to reflect on that.” The general notion that there is technique here is empowering and surprising to people.

Adam: I want to take one of the things that you said there a little further. You talked about the book being useful for people that are just starting out or people that have been practitioners of the art for years. One of the comments that I didn’t mention from Amazon talked about how it’s a great book, it’s –the– book to have if you’re thinking about getting into user research.

That surprised me a little bit because a lot of the comments I’ve seen on Twitter have been from people that are experts in the field talking about how valuable the book has been. My question is did that surprise you, or did you set out with a goal of “I want to write this book that’s going to be valuable to people that runs the scope in experience and roles”?

Steve: A lot of this comes out of the years I’ve had in teaching in different kinds of environments, whether it’s workshops or conferences or on-sites. I even taught undergraduate for a while. I’m always surprised. I know that the approach to education is you set learning goals, you understand your audience and where they’re at.

Either it’s me or my own inability to structure that in the proper way or just the messiness of this topic. There’s always something surprising that happens for me where I think I’m doing something at a 101 level. I’m breaking it down a certain way. Then the questions that come up are very profound. Or, I’m talking to people that are very seasoned, and then we get into some conversations about the fundamentals.

The way to measure skill level, even though we can talk about who’s a rookie and who’s got numbers of years of experience, the ways that people reflect on their own skill sets and hear new ideas and put them into practice and learn and get better at them. It’s maybe my own naivete…it doesn’t seem to break up along if you were teaching math skills or maybe illustration skills or something.

That’s just a long way of saying that I felt like if I could capture what I thought were best practices and best ways of thinking about it, philosophically as well as tactically, then different readers would find different things in it based on where they were at. I didn’t have a strategy here. I thought laying it down would be just the best way to put it out there.

Adam: Cool. When you are having a discussion with your clients or you go in, you’re sitting down and discussing their challenges or a problem that they’ve come to you for help with, is there a chapter in the book that you’re either pointing to or that it’s got you thinking about more than others? Is there something that’s coming up most?

Steve: What I want to always be doing a better job at, in my work with clients, is in Chapter Three. Notionally, Chapter Three is about planning, but the chunk in there that comes up so often is about framing the problem. It’s not called out as that’s what the chapter is about. There’s a hand-holding thing here.

Here’s what you have you do for the reader before you go out in the field. Frame the problem. Find your participants. It’s very practical, but the idea of problem framing is huge. This speaks to…What’s the role of research in the organization? Are we innovating? Are we fast-following? Are we open to new things? Are we testing? Are we discovering? That is messy. That is really rich. For me, at this point, a lot of what clients come to me and my practice for is in problem spaces that they can’t necessarily articulate.

I had this conversation yesterday where we talked about internal initiatives, past research they’d done. They didn’t have an RFP for me with bullet points, which is wonderful they didn’t. They didn’t have “Our learning objectives are this. Our business questions are that.” It was just throwing a lot of stuff out there.

That’s right in Chapter Three territory. How are we even going to consider what the problem is for the business and what the questions are? What kinds of people, what types of issues are we going to explore with them in order to get to that business question? For me, that’s not a given. I don’t know exactly how to do that, but that’s the fun, messy, gunky part to get into. Again, that’s Chapter Three and where the conversations with me and my clients are anchored in the most.

Adam: I suspect that something that you had to tackle a long time ago is helping people understand the fact that an interview is more than just asking a question and why that’s important. How is your book going to help people in that respect?

Steve: That’s even one of the Frequently Asked Questions. Why is this even a book? Why are we talking about talking to people? You’re right. That’s been part of my journey, to just stand up for this as a specialty, then, and advocate this as a skill set. And I think the book makes that tangible for people who read it, both for their own realization that this is more than just asking questions and also for their own advocacy to others that don’t sort of give them the power to do more.

And so I think it helps that. And I think that comes through in some of the details. In chapter six, there’s a whole raft of types of questions, and you start reading that through and just seeing there’s a lot of different ways to even ask a question. And the notion that this is a palette we want to always have to draw from, both in the planning and kind of in the moment.

So it’s sort of taking a behavior which is very naturalistic and then deconstructing the way that we have to use it in this different context, I think, starts to shift it. Chapter five describes the stages that an interview flows through.

And so just surfacing those structures, I think, helps tell people that yeah, this is a thing. This is interviewing. This is not just question asking.

Adam: There are lots of aspects to user research study, and you’ve done this wonderful job of crafting this almost 200 page book that’s dedicated solely to the interview. And I find it interesting that there’s sort of one exception to that, and that’s the last chapter, where it seems like you wanted to build a bridge, so to speak, between what people will get out of an effective interview and next steps with that information.

Am I right, and why is that important to folks who are going to read this book?

Steve: No, you’re absolutely right, and part of the questions that, working with my editors, we had to address is what’s sort of the endpoint and the outpoint for this book? What does it cover? I really wanted to do some scope management, and make it primarily a book about, as you say, doing the interviews itself.

There’s so many other kinds of methods, and we touch on them, but I don’t really dwell on it. And there’s many other stages in a design process or an innovation process. I only wanted to highlight something that really hadn’t been given the ink that it deserves.

But then what’s the ending? Where do you kind of leave it? And so you’re right. I think the bridge is really important, and I think in my own career, I’ve just been saddened to hear stories about research being done that’s a gathering of data or maybe slightly better, a statement of findings.

It can be a waste. It’s just kind of disappointing that it doesn’t go any further. It doesn’t get acted on. And that’s, for me, why I’m in this field, why I do this work. It’s really about trying to drive towards that change.

So I think that was the challenge in last chapter, and I think I even say this, like these topics merit their own book, but I’m going to at least speak to them so there’s some bridge kind of built there. So just the idea of what do you do with the data? How do you find these insights?

And then how do you engage the rest of the organization, the stakeholders, so that these new ideas, these new opportunities that build from these insights can take root and kind of go through the organization. So those are topics that I’ve expanded on elsewhere.

There’s some virtual seminars that we’ve done together that I really spent a lot of time unpacking them. And so really, I wanted to just nod to them briefly as that bridge so that you’re not left cold at the end, now what do I do? So that I was, I think, the compromise that I was looking to strike in that last chapter.

Adam: What do you think people are going to do differently after reading this book?

Steve: I think the book sets people up…it sounds maybe a little trite, but let me try to unpack it a little bit…it sets people up to really hear the people they talk to, their users, their customers, their target, to really hear where they’re at and to understand what’s important to them, as opposed to sort of hearing what we want to hear.

And so this is where I said earlier there’s some philosophy, and there’s some tactics. And the tactics come from the philosophy. I think this is what I’ve seen lacking in practitioners that I meet with over the years, is that it’s sort of easy to ask questions or even ask questions well and hear what people are telling you.

But the broader approach, which is to understand people’s world as it’s organized and kind of structured and labeled from their point of view…it never matches either the frameworks that we have going in or the architectures of tools that we’re providing.

So to take that kind of deeply, completely user-centered approach and understand what the user’s building up their world out of, how they think about it and feel about it and talk about it, I mean, that’s what starts to be where you get towards excellence types of user research.

So that’s not what everyone’s always going to do. That’s not always what the objective is, but I think…I’m hoping that this will start to open up people to be able to do that, to have that kind of be baked into their approach to users. It’s not just collecting responses to questions but really grokking where they are coming from and how they’re operating.

Adam: Awesome, Steve. Congratulations on the book, and think for spending some time talking about it.

Steve: Thanks so much. I really appreciate your great questions and the time with you.

Adam: Again, the book is called “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights,” and it’s by Steve Portigal. You can find it at all great places, like rosenfeldmedia.com or amazon.com, all kinds of places where you would find other fine books.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us in this UIE Book Corner podcast. Shoot us an email and let us know what authors we should be speaking with. You can reach us at feedback@uie.com. Goodbye for now.

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