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049: User Research War Stories with Steve Portigal

User Defenders podcast
User Research
049: User Research War Stories with Steve Portigal

Steve Portigal challenges us to enjoy the silence when interviewing people. He teaches us the importance of rapport-building, and offers sage advice on how to do it. He shows us how sticking with an interview even when it’s not going well can sometimes bring forth the best data. He also reveals how a little empathy can go a long way in field research.

Steve Portigal helps companies to think and act strategically when innovating with user insights. 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 the new, 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. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies and conferences across the globe. Steve hated Cats (the musical) – he’s okay with cats the animal, and he’s never seen Forrest Gump.

  • Secret Identity (8:08)
  • Origin Story (12:19)
  • What drives your curiosity? (24:53)
  • Roberta ‘call me Bert’s war story (29:28)
  • What’s Ethnography (the “E-word”) (38:32)
  • Rapport-building tips (46:51)
  • Brian’s war story (55:21)
  • UX Superhero Name (66:28)
  • Habit of Success (75:06)
  • Steve’s Corset War Story (78:39)
  • Best Advice (84:53)
  • Contact Info (88:33)

Steve’s Twitter
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Steve’s Website
The Turnaround podcast
Learning From User Research War Stories [VIDEO]


Show transcript

Jason: Welcome to User Defender – Steve, I’m super excited to have you on the show today.

Steve: Thanks for having me.

Jason: Where do we begin with these fun facts? And in fact by the way, you provided like five different things and I’m sure you have a gaggle more that you could have sent over, but these are really interesting. You hate Cats the Musical, can I ask you why?

Steve: Yes, you can and we’re going to get right into this serious heavy stuff right away.

Jason: Yes, that’s my intent

Steve: I think its high expectations low. Maybe my expectations were too high, depending on one’s age. There was a period where Cats was ubiquitous. It was the only musical that anyone ever saw. It was in every city and it played in Toronto where I was for years and years and years and years. And finally then it came back for return engagement and my college roommate and I went to see it and we just sat there like you know with just picture the reaction gift of people like with a dark confused look on their faces and what is this? All I remember was gelicle songs for gelicle cats and we were like scratching our heads and we left. We were just totally pissed off like what was that? It wasn’t interesting and it was dumb and some things you don’t like when you’re a kid or when you’re a younger person and you think, maybe if I watched it now, I was more mature, I could reflect on the story, but yeah, you couldn’t get me to see that again for anything.

Jason: So high expectation, low satisfaction sounds like a Michael Bay film.

Steve: Right! or a service design principle that we could work into some keynote address like the Michael Bay thing, that’s good.

Jason: So, speaking of film was what’s up with Forrest Gump? Why not?

Steve: It’s probably the same thing or whether that’s just me being a jerk or an iconoclast maybe that’s the best way to frame it. There are things that are just too popular that I kind of turned me off and I remember there’s nothing about Forrest Gump that appeal to me and I remember friends berating me. It was just like these can all be dated references, but there is an episode of Seinfeld where or what did Elaine’s sees “The English Patient” but she didn’t like it and everyone is just, “You didn’t like the English Patient?” which was, which also I never saw by the way.

Jason: I haven’t either.

Steve: So, people can be just berating us for not having seen these things or seeing them and not liking them. And I remember walking by some billboard or a theater marquee and it said “Gump happens” and that just weird pissed me off, it really bothered me in a way that it’s just makes me sound like some kind of Weirdo, but it wasn’t happening for me and I didn’t like them declaring that it was happening and that just cemented my commitment to not go see it.

Jason: Okay! Fair enough.

Steve: But I hope we spend the rest of the time talking about being open minded and open to surprises and all the things that one wants to channel as a user researcher that I’ve just putted myself at the outset as being completely not that in parts of my life.

Jason: Well, as I guess as long as you can check that out the door before you walk into some of these places and that which I think you’ve gotten pretty good at because this book “Doorbells, Dangerous, Dead Battery”, can we just call it “Doorbells” from here on out. We’ll title it that for now and so as it reveals. Fantastic book Steve, I love how you compiled all these stories and I mean it is a real eye opener into how people exist outside of our bubble, outside of our sphere and how people live even and you as a researcher in your team and anybody who does this stuff get to see that firsthand, so I know we’re going to get more into that for sure but that was just – I think just reading through the book, it really increased my empathy levels psych a lot.

So, I think it’s great for that, especially because you’re dealing with people, you probably wouldn’t go bowling with a lot of these people in general, in life but it helps you get a glimpse, a window into their lives and go oh, wow, you know what, there are some people that are not like me, people are different and just a great perspective, I loved it. So, as you know Steve, we take a superhero approach to the show and every superhero has a secret identity in origin story, let’s talk about yours. I’d like to start the show by you taking a few moments just to give us a look into your personal life.

Steve: My personal life – We could go so many places with that I mean, we can talk about things that I do besides write books and do user research and not watching movies, at the time that we’re recording this…

Jason: Wearing corsets [crosstalk] I want to get into that later

Steve: Wearing corset, Okay. I do want to talk about corset. It’s one of my favorite experiences in the field, but we’ll get to that and I’m sure. As we’re recording this, San Francisco is just wrapping up sketch fest, which is every year sort of bigger and bigger. This really amazing comedy festival that’s I mean I don’t know sort of where it ranks the biggest comedy festivals, but it runs for a month and you get all kinds of interesting one off shows where you know at their comedy shows, there are also people getting together from different productions, television shows and so on and they get the cast together into creators together and they do kind of a panel session.

So we’ve spent the last few weeks going into San Francisco to see a show on Netflix called “A Lady Dynamite” with Maria Bamford who, she’s a comedian; who I mean many things. But one thing is that she has some interesting mental illness challenges and that’s what the show is about. It’s sort of a like a hyper real comedic story about her and people got together and they talked about the process of making the show and he started to realize, oh yeah, there’s challenges. I mean she has a disability and it was cool to see in this panel session what it takes, not only sort of the energy and humor and the vibe of this creative team, but also the ways that they accommodate and adapt to someone’s constraints and so produce this like absolutely top-notch production.

So you know, we’d like to see the comedy, but we’d like to get to go and just learn about how the sausage is made. I think creative people will like to look at if I’m going to include myself in that category. People to work in creative fields – This is lots to learn and be exposed to and other kinds of creative work that I get a lot of. So, sketch fest is a big thing, once a year we have a rescue dog who has lots of interesting issues – Part Chihuahua. Do you have a Chihuahua in your life? I can’t remember.

Jason: You know it’s funny you asked that, I used to. I’ve had two in my younger years and they are typically family only dogs and I remember the last one we had was so angry, anybody who came into the house, she tried to bite and in fact toward the end, she’s started to bite us and to hate us.

Steve: That’s a sad note on that story. We have a mix, so he’s was a rescued, he was bounced around in a lot of places and had all kinds of issues and I think the most today of anything as Chihuahua, but I think is a million things but he has that. Yes, he’s territorial about his family and sort of scared and aggressive towards other dogs, other people, and only in the last month as he’s sort of expresses an interest in sort of padding and cuddling even though we’ve had them about a year and a half. So we’re continuing to learn more about each other, but it’s a lot of fun and the third dog we’ve had in about 10 years and I’m always discovering something about yourself or about how the world works through the eyes of an animal that can’t express themselves.

Jason: Yeah, I doubt! Chihuahuas’ are fascinating creatures. I liked having a Chihuahua, there are so small and everything, but I think they have like the small dogs attitude because they are like they know they’re small and so they got to really kind of bring an extra dose of whatever aggression but loving dogs to family members typically other than mine named Bambi, ironically. Tell us your origin story, Steve. What inspired you to pursue a career in this exciting, challenging and ever-evolving field?

Steve: Yeah! It’s definitely a lot of wandering and stumbling. I love meeting people that are – I’m going to do this, I mean, I guess I go back to studied computer science before the web. The web didn’t appear until I was in graduate school when mosaic came out. There was barely any awareness of human computer interaction and I really didn’t know what I was going to do with computer science, I thought I’m just going to end up as a programmer because that’s what computer science people do barely.

I spent a summer working in a – here’s a nerdy word for you, a reprographics department was before we had one CAD system, but it was really where all the drawings were for these giant mining machines, like those huge trucks that look like something out of a Michael Bay film (call-back) and so I would be the guy while I was the junior person, these jobs would come in, which were make photocopies of all these different drawings because they were going to revise something. I mean it’s just the most manual thing imaginable, kind of predating that the dawn of AutoCAD and so on.

I did IT support at a bank and I think I had a summer project to develop a program and I think I liked converted something from a spreadsheet to some kind of compiled spreadsheet code that you could basically – And so I took this spreadsheet system and they showed me what it was and they wanted me to update it and so I went off and did it and I created like a button to add a record, delete record and modify a record and shifted off the end of the summer and my client who I had never interacted with say, this is really nice but we visually scan and columns of things in the spreadsheets to understand what the data looks like and you’ve given us this interface, not that I knew the word interface that would only let you to delete, add, modify and so this is really great, but we can’t use this.

As those are great, I want to say it was a big lesson. I don’t think I got it at the time, it’s only many years later you realize, that is such a rookie thing to do is just make some assumptions about at the basic level, like how people are going to use this thing. I had a job where I had to take a training stimulator that was running on one system and port it over to some other system and it was for how like nuclear reactors simulators. So, people were in these giant training rooms that were full replicas of what an actual training or mid look like with all the carpet and the lighting and the HVAC was all the same and then I had this little software that I had. Again, I didn’t write, I just ported over that was used like in the classrooms to learn how to operate a nuclear energy system, but I know I think about some key moments where the seed or the origin or the Chrysalis maybe were planted in my later years of undergraduate and I took a computer graphics class and we read “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush, do you know that publication or that article?

Jason: I have heard of this and the only reason I have is because of Jeremy Keith and he cites him and some of his work in an article.

Steve: Like it was time or Newsweek or probably was neither of those, but Newsstand Magazine published this essay kind of at “the end of the war” Vannevar Bush was something like the presidential science advisor and so this is 1945, 1946 and he’s sort of thinking, what are we going to do with all this Manhattan project momentum that we have, what do we do with that? And then he outlines, he basically described sort of a steam punk version of the web and hypertext and how people will get information. He just lays out this vision and so to look at that decades later, you know not that I said I want to be a technology futurist, but just this idea that being involved in technology can also include thinking in a forward way about how people are going to do things and how that can change everything in our lives and nothing in my undergraduate education where they’re teaching you algorithms and teaching you computer science theory ever opened up that idea and so that was like wow, I don’t hope to do with this but it’s really kind of fascinating.

And we had this textbook which was something like, I should know the title of it, but it was like readings in HCI by a Bill Buxton and Ron Becker. And it was edited and edited volume of all these different articles about what was happening with human computer interaction but it was really about technology enabling people to do things and there was like we started to see sort of voicemail systems and there was some old article or oldish article about what they built for the athletes that came to the Los Angeles Olympics, so that people with different that spoke all these languages that were far from home so that they could communicate and it was sort of like some kind of integrated voice messaging system.

So, how do you design the icons, how do you design voice prompts when you have to deal with first time users with all these different languages. There were all these really amazing case studies in there, I think there’s a case study in there about how they built a device for cocoa the talking gorilla, who was this gorilla, no sign language, and they modeled an Apple 2 case so that feces didn’t find his way in.

And there was all this great sort of design stuff that was looking at meaning edge cases but really real cases where the world. I think it just started to kind of plant seeds in my head that this was something that I could do in some way that I kind of wanted a handle on that. So I ended up going to graduate, so I ended up working for a year. These things kind of appeared too late in my life to think, oh, graduate school. You know, the kind of people who are leaders in HCI or here, I was kind of late and I ended up working for a year at northern telecomm and then went back to graduate school after that and studied HCI, which I realize we don’t even use those three letters as much anymore but before we had UX, we had HCI.

Jason: Why don’t we use that anymore, what do you think?

Steve: Yeah, I mean, it does sound very tactical, right. You know the human computer, we’d rather say user than human and we talk about different kinds of systems than computers now. I don’t know. We probably can’t blame somebody like Jessie James Garrett or something for that or credit him, I mean credit him. Maybe we should resurrect that battle that UI, UX, what do we call it? How do we define it? Like, let’s just double down on HCI, let’s go back to that or maybe we should go all the way back to man machine interface from like the military human factors days because that’s a nice inclusive term.

Jason: Yes, I love that origin story too, about how UX kind of came to be human factors. Alphonse Chapanis.

Steve: So, I came at a graduate school unemployable basically because; I mean sort of a combination of what you learn or don’t learn in graduate school and where the industry was or the soon to be industry was. It was still pre-web when I came out of graduate school and they came up to Silicon Valley from Toronto and started talking to companies and they just want a lot of people doing whatever, you had kind of a couple of people here and there. And it’s not like I had a portfolio or a skill set that I could kind of get dropped into the working world and I just thought I was like smart educated and interested and that would sort of be sufficient and I ended up finding an organization that was interested in. I know somebody is taking a chance on me or saw something in me and it was an industrial design firm was doing like traditional, was like maybe a 30 year old company doing fairly traditional sort of engineering, CNC milling machines that were doing plastic models and foam core models of what different kinds of hardware devices we’re going to look like doing very little with software.

They had one guy who was the human interface departments and I guess the team saw something in me and they kind of hired me to do something and it worked out terribly, I mean it worked out well in the end I guess but it wasn’t really a design process, there really wasn’t one. The way interface stuff was being done there was client says what features they want, we dried up in a consistent way with the apple human interface guidelines or whatever guidelines were available. We do it in a SuperPaint and then put it in SuperCard so you can sort of see, and these are really old technologies, but like a paint program basically and then I’m a pretty basic sort of interactive prototyping tool which is not exactly the right way to describe the SuperCard, but it was like HyperCard which also is an obscure reference at this point I think.

And then they would just hand this sort of interactive prototype back to the client and then they would have their developers work on it. So, it was like straight convergence, there was no sort of exploratory problem solving, there was no design process. It was just implement, what the client didn’t know how to implement and I couldn’t do that and not to say like, oh I had a much more robust design process like I didn’t have anything but I could never really succeed under this model and my boss was super detail oriented and had some way of like hand rasterizing fonts to give it a sense of what an LCD display would look like and he was super disappointed in me for not being that kind of person and having that kind of thinking.

And I was fortunate that at the same time the company was starting to explore what user research could be in and they are front end research or playing into different parts of the development process. So we ended up seeking prototypes out into the field, which we’re talking about 1996, 1997 was felt pretty cutting edge, just showing people stuff and getting their reactions to it and then they started to do more work where it was fully front end, we don’t know what the thing is going to be and we want to understand how people shop for PCs or how people make and prepare breakfast.

And I was able to apprentice to that kind of work and apprentice as a weird term to use because it sort of implies that there was a fully developed profession, but no one really knew what they were doing but I was definitely. I was a little man on the totem pole like I was the person who is only allowed to do certain things so I could sit in on the meetings where we were trying to interpret what we learned or I could watch video recordings of the field or I could carry the camera or I could carry the camera and ask one question and it was this sort of development process where I was permitted to do more and more and more over time.

And of course with any apprenticeship model, eventually you become sort of eventually you reach the point where you’re the master and I did that I sort of stuck with it and because we all were learning, it meant that we were reflecting on what was happening and we were trying different things and everyone was in a kind of learning mode. So it did prove to be a good environment for me to learn more and try things and we were asked to teach a class at the design program at Stanford and so we had to codify some of the things that we’d been doing in order to present it to others. So, I think it was fruitful for learning, I mean I don’t want to turn this into my whole life story. Your question was about origin, but I think that’s from knowing nothing to knowing something was kind of I think that what I just described.

Jason: Yeah, absolutely Steve! You have a vast background for sure and you’ve been at this for a while which is pretty incredible. I’m curious and speaking of curiosity, what is it Steve that drives you to be curious about people? Like what is it about people or what is it about this work? What is it that really drives you to want to learn more about people and about the work?

Steve: Just to be clear, I’m not in that mode all the time, just kind of like I’m not open minded about Gump. It is definitely a mode, I mean I think there’s just a lot of joy in so many parts of this work, you know I mentioned sort of being a creative person or doing creative work. I think of this is very creative stuff. Research I think may from the outside seem so we talk about data and collecting data and analyzing those that are kind of cold words, learning about people and making sense of what happens is sort of creative and exciting.

You know I’m introverted; I don’t talk to strangers as a matter of course. So the work gives me a – not only a reason or an excuse, but also a structure. It’s not safe for me to like unsafe as kind of an air quotes. It’s not emotionally safe or comfortable to start talking to somebody at the grocery store and in a way that has any substance. I think maybe extroverts have the advantage of being able to enjoy something more kind of transients as an interaction. But I think introverts, we want connection and we want to go a little deeper and you can’t do that in a surface way, it’s not comfortable and you don’t really get what you want.

So I get to meet people and really, really connect with them and so you know guess, I don’t know that is something about curiosity or just sort of a skinner box thing like that pellet is really tasty and I want to kind of keep pressing, pressing the lever to get the pellet. This is a terrible metaphor. I think that’s exciting for me and just and stimulating and so to have some job or like I’m being professional and structured and competent, and I have permission to do this and I have a way to kind of do this. I think it’s interesting and exciting and you know, with anything that you develop mastery in, there’s also some satisfaction in being good at something. Oh, I’m good at this like I know how to pull this off and it’s not to say that I am not always learning more about it and I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m answering your question here and so it’s a really great question.

Jason: You’re and then I wonder too, how much of this could be kind of the variable reward factor in psychology you know, there’s the variable reward which is kind of why we get sort of addicted to Facebook and Instagram and kind of a lot of these social channels because there’s kind of like, I wonder who liked my photo or a wonder who poked me God forbid, you know things like that. I wonder how much of going out into the field is part of like that variable reward of like I don’t know what we’re going to encounter, it’s kind of exciting, I don’t know who we’re going to meet, I don’t know what their story is going to be in and I’m really interested and curious. How much do you think that kind of plays a role in some of this?

Steve: Yeah, I like that framing a lot. I mean In the beginning of every study is very nerve wracking because the first one that you do of anything like is this going to work? Do I have the right approach? Because you plan and plan and plan and then you sort of end up out there and you have to improvise. That’s a scary kind of a rollercoaster ride, scary like good scary. Energizing as the way they were talking about like horror film, yeah. I think that’s a great way to think about it. I mean I work as a consultant, so I am always looking for a new project, forming a new relationship at various stages. Not every relationship is good. Not every prospect pans out. There’s a lots and lots of the chase I guess just it’s interesting to think about how am I wired because I reflect on the fact that this is like a crazy way to make a living, but it seems kind of exciting and rewarding and so just to contrast or to compare you’ve helped me.

It’s a great interviewer thing you’re doing here. You’re giving me some insight on myself I never had before that these sort of structure for my professional life and the content of the work in my professional life share some fundamental instabilities which are exciting and rewarding and maybe wasted aren’t as a parent to someone who is working in a different way.

Jason: I think about “Doorbells” your most recent book. I mean I think for me it’s not just the variable reward of not knowing what you’re going to encounter or what’s going to take place where you’re going to meet their story, all that stuff, but I think it’s also just that empathy factor. Again, I know that some say that’s an overused buzzword, but I still think that’s one of the most important parts of this because if you and if your team and if the folks that are user researchers going out into the field and doing that contextual inquiry in the place where these folks exists, where their environment is which is, I think what I’ve learned is that’s the best, most accurate data you can get is when you’re in their environment.

I think it’s also that empathy factor because I mean this book is full of stories where you just go “oh my gosh” like I can in the way that is crafted. It’s almost like, wow, kind of like I can smell that Dinty Moore that burnt Dinty Moore stew in that dilapidated apartment and I want to share an exhibit if you wouldn’t mind Steve from your book that kind of just [crosstalk] Okay, Awesome!

And it really describes what I’m trying to say much better and this is a story by Cordy Swope, I believe it’s a crisis of credibility. And this is again, “Defenders”, this is just one of the many really fascinating and lightening sobering, even highly educational stories inside of this book. This is a story and I’ll just try to set the stage briefly, but this person – Cordy and his team, they were called to go and meet with somebody who was recruited through craigslist, I believe is what I read and this person was supposed to have obtain a bachelor’s degree online while raising a family and I think that was kind of the core of the research was supposed to be here on surrounding that and so I’ll pick up here and this part I’ll just read a little legs are up here.

This he says “we arrived at the address in Inwood and obscure part of Brooklyn that looks like a sad dilapidated part of Queens that intern tries to look like a nondescript suburb in Long Island. We were buzzed into the building, walked up to a door and we’re greeted by a large woman with a curly red mane of hair. Her name was “Roberta-but-call-me-Bert”.

So, she was Roberta, but she really insisted they call her Bert, that was interesting to me.

“She let us in. The apartment was dim. It smelled of litter box mixed with burnt dentine more beef stew that Ramon Roberta’s-call-me-Bert Husband had overheated on the stove that dingy plaster walls were covered in old shopping list, written in a mangled scrawl that suggested vaguely ministering pathologies and personality disorders suffered by their author. The Sofa we sat on smelled of cat piss and the living room offered up no pretense of ever having been cleaned. We sat up straight, made eye contact and that standard pious nonjudgmental manner that Ernest ethnography often adopts. We’d began the paperwork. We were offered water and politely declined”.

So, the story goes on to basically there’s more to it, but it goes on to basically say that she actually ended up not having her B.A. and basically it was kind of a completely different person than was anticipated through the recruiting process. So, I think the big takeaway in that story was really get your recruiting stuff, try to put more into that and make sure you’re recruiting the right people I suppose. See if I know you can add to that but I think what I want to say before that was just again the environment. The willingness to go into somebody’s environment and not be judgmental to them, you know you have to be just willing to absorb their environment and who they are as kind of unpleasant as it may be.

And I don’t know, I was inspired by this story and many other stories in here at that level of empathy of being willing to do that and even though it was obviously the wrong participant. I mean there’s a great story that came through it obviously but I just feel like it really inspired me Steve, in that way to just suspend my biases and to get out of my comfort zone more and just to try to understand other people who aren’t like me.

Steve: And I think there’s kind of onion layers of empathy or some. Again, I love bad metaphors here, but there’s some different kinds of empathy going on here because; we the reader read this story about Cordy and this smelly uncomfortable environments and we have empathy for him as a researcher while we think, oh Geez, what is poor Cordy going through? But I think that also gives us the opportunity to have empathy for ourselves when we find ourselves and experiences that are uncomfortable or nerve wracking or strange or unmanageable I think that’s an important thing, like having empathy for yourself.

And of course we have empathy for Roberta-call-me-Bert with you know, who lives in this environments and even though the story kind of reveals or there’d be some kind of scam artists whose, or frequent flyers we called them in research who’s signing up for research studies to get money and you could think about her as a villain. You can also have empathy for her situation that’s kind of how she’s handling it. And I think even further for the researchers themselves.

Everyone who kind of tells a story exposes themselves to their community like who is in this book and who shared a war story is at risk because they are saying he basically admits to screwing up recruiting and I definitely seen the reaction where people read this book and they kind of or they read some other stories and their first reaction is a little bit of an eye roll like well, we always vet our respondents and we do this and that’s great like I love that other people have best practices and these stories that remind them of their best practices but there’s always something that any one of us screws up. So beyond having empathy for Cordy for being in this environment, he also made a mistake or is at risk of our judgment for not controlling the uncontrollable or every last detail like that’s the humanity and that’s at the core of doing research.

And Cordy is a little bit judgmental in his story, as he paints a picture of Roberta-call-me-Bert. He also kind of making fun of her a little bit and you know, suggesting that her messy apartment, like the idea that her scrawl indicates pathology, like his narrative style has a bit of an edge to it, and so he is also at risk there as well because; has he described the pious earnest ethnography or he’s being a little critical because they had a negative experience and that’s something that happens to people to share stories because you can have empathy for Cordy and for making a mistake or for overcoming a challenge or failing to overcome a challenge as in this case or you can harsh on him a little bit and so I guess I feel very protective, I call them nice storytellers.

The people that have trusted me and who’ve shared and I’ve seen them be exposed to critique, and I think sort of heightens my empathy for them as storytellers. So anyway, just depending on how you slice it, there’s just a number of different ways that empathy comes out of this project in this book I think.

Jason: Those are great points Steve and I definitely can see what you’re saying about kind of the edginess to it. I mean it got my attention the way that he grafted it and again, it was just very honest, very vulnerable and I’m sure that he learned a ton as well from that I know we did and these are all kind of lessons learned, which I love. I love that vulnerability and I think that’s kind of what I try to bring out in my guests on this show and let’s just be real, let’s be genuine, let’s be vulnerable and I think that’s where people learn the most when we learn not only from our own mistakes but then failures, but we learned from others as well. So, that’s why I think I really love this book, Steve. I love this book that you wrote so.

Another thing that I learned from this book in speaking of empathy is, this is somebody that I can’t – you’re going to have to help me with this. I think she’s a doctor, but she touched on how empathy and discussed are just closely related emotions and I’ll quote, she says that “disgust and empathy are closely related emotions both process in the same part of the brain”. That blew my mind that was really fascinating when thinking about Roberta story; Cordy story about Roberta-call-me-bird, they are deliberately choosing to act with empathy when we feel disgust will reduce that disgust. Empathy turns out to be the counter agent for disgust. How brilliant is that?

Steve: Yeah, I love that. That just blew my mind when I came across that.

Jason: Never heard that before never knew that. That makes so much sense. What’s an ethnography? And I probably didn’t say eth-ethnography. How do you say that Steve?

Steve: Ethnography, you said it exactly right!

Jason: Okay! Oh good! Or should I say the e-word because I know it can be somewhat controversial. Steve, can you touch on that end and I will caveat this too the Grant McCracken in the forward of your first book interviewing users. He states something that kind of drew my attention out and I really wanted to know the answer to this as well as you answer ethnography question. He states that “charlatans and snake oil salesmen have damaged this area”. What did he mean by that? So what’s ethnography and what did Grant mean by that?

Steve: Great! I’ll try to interpret Grant, but obviously he’s the ultimate authority on what he means by anything. I think in the first few pages of interviewing users, I think it maybe in a sidebar somewhere where I talk a little bit of ethnography just from memory, I think I said something like, it’s this sort of third rail word, like if you use the word ethnography, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing under that label. Someone will appear to tell you that whatever you’re doing is not ethnography, which is kind of why I call it the e-word. Like everybody has a stake in it and mostly they use that stake to hit you with.

There’s ethnography in terms of what it means and the social sciences and how it’s used in anthropology and means the writing of a culture and so if you start there then you can say, well, you’re not doing ethnography because you’re not living with people in their village for a year or you’re not producing a thesis. You’re not creating this kind of written piece. There’s kind of that way to say what you’re doing is not ethnography and so then some people said, oh, well we’re doing applied ethnography, so we’re applying the tools of ethnography to business problems. So, you hear a bunch of modifiers or a bunch of kind of dodges around language. So, that’s why I avoid using the word because; it’s a distraction to the conversation I want to have, which is like, what is it that we’re doing? And you made a great point earlier on about learning from people in their environments, going to where they are.

So, I think about the kind of work that I do as going into context, going to where the people are doing the thing that you’re interested in, being open ended with them. So just like the conversation we’re having, you prepared some things, but we’re also going places that you couldn’t have prepared for. So there are things that you hear that you follow up on within the constraints of the time that you had and what the interest of your audience might be. That kind of exploratory, conversational interviewing is part of it.

And again, the living in a village, you not just doing interviews, you’re doing other kinds of interactions and you’re doing participant observation, right. If you live in a village, you have to figure out what the rituals are for gift giving or how marriage ceremonies and you have to figure out how to get food and share food and you’re doing it all. So that’s really sort of an aspect of ethnography that we might pull things from. If you look at a lot of research often involves us going and doing something or being shown are trying as well as talking to the people that are doing it.

So, I mean what does grant mean when he talks about the charlatans and the snake oil salesman? There’s definitely people that have popularized a aspects of looking at culture. I mean, Grant also was really so into culture. I think he would use the word culture to talk about what ethnography is because I think that’s a real strength of his and something he really advocates for. But you know you see books come out and people show up in business publications that they’ve kind of cracked the secret code of how people will work or what’s going on. Here’s how we can hypnotize people or measure their brain waves or unlock within their reptile brain and those people make their really great self-promoters and they speak interesting sound bites and they get these incredible profiles in the press and they get hired by CEOs of multi-national companies that kind of unlocked the world.

So, as opposed to thinking of ethnography is just work that there’s a bunch of us out there that are doing this and kind of grinding it out in a way versus these magicians who televerde egocentric story about what they’re doing. And you can say, look, here’s ethnography or here’s user research and it’s hard, you’ve got to work at it. There is sort of a superhero aspect to it, but you can get there with discipline and training or you can say I’m a magic being and I have this superpower that was bestowed upon me. So, people that claim they’re kind of that infinity stones have been bestowed upon them and they can therefore do this thing. That is kind of a modern day snake oil and that how’d you like to be sort of working in a company, you X person who’s talking to users and then your CEO hires snake oil lady who brings the infinity stones and it has people playing with play-doh and shooting hoops and then draws a magic graph and you’re like, I know our customers and I’m helping to uncover things every day. It sort of sucks for the rest of us I think is what Grant is kind of highlighting and it changes the conversation. We’re advocates for this work and what it can bring. We ended up in some ways competing with these other messages.

Jason: Yeah! It’s funny, you definitely explained that well the best you could because you’re not Grant McCracken, but when you were talking about kind of the alluding to sort of those certain folks that will rise up and say I’m the authority on this, I’m the guru or the expert or whatever like that kind of get out there and just really maybe play more off of image than actually doing the work kind of thing. To me, I was thinking about like kind of the whole fates law approach of like the people who say earn money, lose weight or whatever in X amount of days.

Like those people tend to sell a lot of material, whether or not it’s proven that tends to be more to the negative but to me it’s kind of like the fates law. The reason those are so popular is because; I just think a lot of us, we want the path of least resistance. We don’t want to actually work as hard as we need to actually achieve that in reality. So I don’t know, perhaps there’s a correlation there and again, I’m just assuming that kind of what he was alluding to but to me that always bugs me and the Internet’s full of it and they are the Internet marketing people of hey, here’s how you gain an audience in 10 days or whatever. No, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success.

When you look at Chris Coyier blog, you know that guy. I remember in 2008 or 2009, anytime I type something into Google that was CSS related, his picture and his article was number one and it’s because he blogged a lot, it’s because he spent a lot of time doing the work. So anyway, that’s just maybe that’s a little bit of getting on kind of a soapbox there but I just say it just bugged me that whole thing.

Steve: Preach brother, is great!

Jason: So, how about what about building rapport, because; I know that when we interview users, that is a critical part of getting as much data and the right data out of people as we can about the project and everything like that. So what are some tips that you have Steve that you’ve learned through your numerous years of doing this, of building rapport with people?

Steve: I want to just emphasize how important rapport building is. Sometimes I think if you just, and this is maybe an extreme statement, but just to play with it. If you just spent your energy as an interviewer in service of rapport building, the interview would sort of emerge from that. So, it’s kind of like a little bit of a Kung Fu thing where you kind of go in this way as opposed to kind of pushing for what you think you need to learn. You know, you kind of push on making the connection with people.

I think the naïve approach to rapport building is that people think they should talk about themselves. We often have these moments in interviews where we have are trying hard face on and we’re like, yeah, we’re leaning forward, we’re listening. We’re just trying so hard to give this person all of our energy and the person says I mean “I never saw Forrest Gump because I just wasn’t really interested in that movie” and you’re the interviewer and you’re thinking like, yeah, I never saw Forrest Gump either like I hated that movie, those stupid Gump happens, marquees, what the hell are they talking about? And you have two choices at that moment, right?

You can go “I know I didn’t see that either. I thought that movie was so stupid and I just didn’t want to see it”. And that’s this impulse that we have kind of in our social environment to say “hey, unlike you, I’m not a threats, you should like me”. It’s to be so pleasing and make a connection with


And I’m obviously doing a cartoonish version of it, but I think you have this power in an interview just to let go of that like actually is liberating to say like “oh, this isn’t about me”. The person says “I was not interested in Forrest Gump”. You could say “well, interesting, why won’t you” means, what you just did to me early on, you asked me about it.

The power we have when we talk about ourselves like that’s a special use case and I liked to share about myself even though I have those, “Oh my God, Oh my God moments” all the time in an interview and they think like, “oh, I’m like that; I have that; I didn’t know; I want to”. Thinking about me, me, me, me, me just setting those aside and just letting it be about that person.

I had an interview a couple years ago and the person describes her profession of the gate and she’s in this kind of complicated case management for young people who have drug offenses who are in this criminal justice system and some things started to make me think about what my partner does. She does a mental health case management and so I immediately thought about how this pertains to me and something that I know, but I didn’t say anything and the interview goes on for quite a while and of course this person is more and more comfortable as they’re sharing and this person I’m interviewing, she starts to talk about the ways that she and her colleagues communicate and there’s some dark humor and she’s sort of catches herself as she’s saying this because; she is a very compassionate person and she’s spending so much energy taking care of other people. And she kind of acknowledges that they have an outlet that’s looked at in the wrong light seems unkind. She starts since she kind of catches herself and that’s when I said I was honest here, I said, “yeah, my partner does similar work and I’ve seen the kind of emails that her and her colleagues exchange” and that just relieved her and she’s like “oh, okay so you know” and then she was able to continue.

So, I shared about myself not in kind of this I hear something about me, but when it solved a problem, when it’s served a need, when it helped her feel okay about sharing, and so that’s kind of a maybe goes against people’s instincts as they’re learning to do research. I’ll say one more thing about this person here because; you sometimes see the lack of rapport or the emergence of rapport, you could almost look at if you look at a transcript, you can just see kind of question and answer these short little utterances and at some point you start to get into the interview where you get questions story, and that’s when you’ve built the rapport and the trick of it is where the challenge is you don’t know whether that’s going to take a minute or an hour or 90 minutes like how long is it going to take for that person to feel like they want to start sharing stories and not give you these sorts of answers like various sort of answary answer. How long have you lived here? 3 years. And what did you like about the neighborhood? Good schools. You want to get to the point where they’re like, well, we looked at this and that’s just not always going to happen right away

And I think here’s an advice for the interviewer is, it’s okay like don’t freak out, just keep listening and asking follow up questions and being interested in making it about them and he’s starting to create a space for that person to feel okay to share with you in a more kind of rapport like way or having more rapport or the way, the manner in which they’re sharing with you but that takes time and so you can’t freak out if you don’t have rapport at the beginning.

And then, so just back to this woman who does the case management? If you look at sort of the number of words spoken, like I think I asked her one question to start the interview, I think she spoke for like 8 minutes without a prompt for me and it was about her family and her husband’s employment and like a chronic illness her son had, she was not holding anything back really. She was just being very open and saying loss of words. So everything was a story. It’s just like one of those iceberg models because you can just go deeper and deeper and deeper. And I think we talked to her for two hours and I remember having this Aha moments that like maybe an hour and 15 minutes into it. It was before the thing with me sharing about myself and my partner.

There was just this point at which I just felt this dawning realization where it wasn’t about the sort of the answers went to another level of depth introspection and kind of revealing of concerns, anxieties, mental models that she had never really reflected on before like we got to this other level and I don’t know if that’s a rapport or just kind of introspection but again, like the iceberg model like you can keep going deeper and deeper and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. And if I’d left after an hour, I would have said, “oh yeah, I established a great rapport”. She was a great out of the gate, she told me all this. I didn’t know there was kind of his other level to get to until we got there and it was super exciting because you’re like, oh, now we’re really getting into it. Now we’re really hearing what’s going on. Let me stop there. I could obviously go on and on and on, but let me

Jason: That great stuff Steve, and I’m just thinking about the whole rapport factor and how you were describing kind of how you identified her with that background and you knew something, I try to be the second smartest person in the room. I’ve kind of written about that before and I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room because I didn’t have a like an ego, like I can’t learn anything, but I want to be the second smartest person in the room meaning I can identify with a lot of different things and I think that’s going to be kind of a superpower when you’re out in the field and these contextual inquiry is trying to make a rapport, build rapport and make a connection with somebody that you know right out the on the outset and that’s hard, that’s hard to do and that’s probably a skill that takes a lot of practice.

I thought about the more we expose ourselves to other areas even especially not related to design, not related to our field you know let’s learn more about other fields and then and things I think it gives us that kind of oh yeah, like Elon Musk, he just made some solar tiles you know, stuff like that. But I think about, make a connection, identify with a person like you did Steve and I think that lowers the boundaries naturally and genuinely care about the person that’s in front of you. As you are saying is you’ve probably heard it before. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care and I think that’s a segue into Brian’s story. Forgive me for not remembering the exact background of this but in interviewing users, you talk about the story of you were supposed to interview a fella, he’s a student I think maybe college age named Brian and Brian was really anything but interested even though he signed up for the interview, he was anything but interested in actually talking to you and I think he was more interested in playing video games and eating pizza with his brother if I’m not mistaking something like that. Do you want to tell the rest of the story, Steve that would be great?

Steve: Sure! I mean it’s a part of the context here is it was a breakfast interview and so we showed up I think seven in the morning. This guy comes to the door and he was just like, I’m going to the football players shaped guy like just a hulking dude and we kind of answered the door like a five year old or something like you know, sort of in comedies where like the little kid answers the door and then just leaves the door open and like turns on their heel and walks into the rest of the house and you’re like kind of left standing there, brings us into the kitchen and him and his brother lived at home and his brother was also just like a big hulking dude and they had these tiny parents.

Jason: How did that happen?

Steve: Yeah, I don’t know. Genetics is amazing. And so my colleagues are sort of – there was not really any place for us to sit. We’re kind of jammed into the kitchen, so there is how big people sort of sit over chairs like there’s a way that they just hulk, I mean it’s not, I don’t want to be unkind to anybody who’s that size but my colleague and I are sort of not super tall and these guys are sort of sitting like they’re sitting around the kitchen like they are intimidating and they’re also just not ignorable and yet they would not make eye contact or I couldn’t even get a clip to answer like they just would not look at me and they would say like one word and then they would look at each other and giggle and just they were superannuate interested and the parents were there and I think they didn’t know that we were coming, which is sort of an awkward situation and they weren’t happy with us and you know, we’re sort of sitting in the kitchen just sort of start.

I started talking so that everyone would talk to us. Just trying to learn about the family and the mother was like preparing food and ever watch on law and order. There’s always a scene at the beginning part of law and order where the cops are interviewing someone while they’re unloading a truck or while they’re working retail and there’s all this body language while they’re doing their business and they won’t really answer their questions because they’re doing their job. It’s a trope they always do in law and order. This was like that.

She was still talking, so she’s moving around with like the frying pan or whatever and that’s her focus and she might kind of look over her shoulder to kind of talk to us, but I remember she made this declaration to the beginning because I was asking about food I guess, and she said something about food is about intimacy and about who’s in our family and who’s kind of welcome here, and she was basically using coded language to talk about the fact that we were not welcome there, we were these interlopers she wasn’t expecting and she was doing this kind of privates celebratory sharing thing and making food and we were there kind of ruining it.

Jason: It sounds like the burnout family circle from Mr. Behrens.

Steve: Yeah! It was just very uncomfortable. I mean I didn’t know any better, I just kind of kept going. I mean no one asks us to leave and at some point we kind of gently pivot to the people that would talk to us who are the parents and we had an amazing interview with them. They were very smart and reflective and we got into fascinating issues about culture and how it’s experienced and consumed and how food is emblematic of that. We ended up moving the interview to different parts of the house with them, with the parents like the kids eventually just completely disappeared to go do video games or speaking they’re ranting language, like whatever it was, we ended up with the parents.

We sort of ended up at back in the kitchen kind of wrapping up. We did the whole full two hours. We really had great rapport with them at a certain point. And we’re packing up and mom says “okay, well, no one leaves here without me cooking for them”. She went and made us something like, I can’t remember what it was, but it was culturally specific foods to that family to their heritage or where she came from. So, she went from kind of using the sort of sacred value of food and home to exclude us, to then explicitly kind of rewarding us and welcoming us and sending us off with kind of the sense that we had made this very real connection with her.

We walked out the door and my colleague turns to me is just a great moment for me because; he said, ‘’I don’t know how you did that, but like I’m really glad that you did’’. It was a great experience, right that kind of the arc of drama like the further down you are, the more joy as it is when you kind of end up on top. And I think the joy is not just like facing the interview, but like we made this really great connection with this woman and her and her husband.

Jason: Yeah! How’d you do that?

Steve: I stuck with it. I think you get a lot of cues and research and like a lot of best practices. I think interviewing or about ignoring your own feelings and understanding the difference between how they’re feeling and how you’re feeling are different. So if someone is and this is like stuff out of like cognitive behavioral therapy, like of CBT, so few show up and to talk to someone and that person is like speaking in a guttural voices and not making eye contact. You can say to yourself, well that person’s angry at me or that person doesn’t like me or that person doesn’t want to do the interview, but you don’t know any of those things. Those are all your own inferences. Those are all your own supposition and CBT teaches you to say like well, what other reasons might there be? And we’d do this a lot, like this is how we lead our lives.

We come to conclusions about other people’s intentions or feelings about us and then we have a reaction. So this is happening very quickly around in a sort of more subtle things in the interview and I think we make decisions about what is happening based on what our feelings are. We don’t know what their feelings are, where are referring their feelings, so this person doesn’t like us or this person doesn’t want us there so you can set some amount of that aside.

And if you watch like those great interviewers to do this, I love Louis Theroux who does these interesting documentaries where he had all kinds of documentaries for 20 years. They’re kind of pop culturey, but one of his amazing, his superpower is to not pick up on the cues that somebody is irked or don’t want to answer the question. He just never lets on. He’s just as sort of pleasant and patient and we’ll ask a follow-up question and you kind of cringe when you’re watching because he’s never a jerk, but he just doesn’t, he sort of happily persistent and he makes connections with people and I cannot do what Louis Theroux does, but I think I did some of that, that day and I just kept going and kind of, almost like a bull headed way, but like in a friendly way, I just started getting responses from the parents. I just started asking him questions and eventually we got more and more permission. I mean, that’s how rapport works kind of in a gradient, right, you eventually get more.

So, I think it’s a lot of just sticking with it and listening and just following principles of good interviewing and being patient and being kind of present and not letting the feeling of being unsettled. Kind of take you out of the moment and just be interested in that mess. I can’t say it’s always going to work. I can’t always get there with everybody, but 99.9 percent of the time. Yeah.

Jason: I love that story Steve. I’m so glad that you take it from where I started because; you obviously tell it the best and you were there. So, I’m glad you told that story. It’s inspiring to me and just making that connection sticking with it. I think “Defenders”, I think that’s the takeaway right there just stick with it. You never know. It’s sort of like I guess digging for buried treasure in a way, maybe just keep digging it, if you don’t find, you dig somewhere else and maybe you will find some treasure you never even imagined and so I just love that. And speaking of turning things around, I want to thank you, Steve for turning me onto the turnaround podcast with Jesse Thorn.

Steve: Oh yes! So good!

Jason: Just talking about exploratory conversation, I appreciate that warm comment you mentioned earlier about how this just becomes kind of an exploratory conversation and I’ll be honest with you, I thank you for turning me on to that podcast because that just opened my mind in so many ways about what it means to be an interviewer and just hearing from the greats. So, that’s just an incredible for “Defenders” listening, especially those of you who are doing user interviews or even if you’re a podcaster like me and Steve and great podcasts for kind of being inspired by how other people do it.

And I think one of my favorites in that series was the one with Errol Morris, the documentary film maker was so good. I mean they’re all good, but that one was just so great. And when you watch these films and I haven’t honestly seen all of them and all the entirety but when you watch like the way he interviews people, he just basically like leaves the camera on and he just lets them talk and there’ll be like, even moments of silence where there’s nothing going on, but he just kind of sticks with it and he gets some brilliant content out to people. So I think that’s inspiring too.

Steve: There’s some moment in wormwood which is his new show on Netflix, which is like a six part documentary. Errol Morris is famous for using this thing he invented called the interrotron which is a camera that with a monitor in it or something like that. I mean there’s a diagram of it somewhere on the web. So, he’s not sitting face to face with them. They are looking into this camera, I don’t know if they see themselves or something, but that’s how we got Robert McNamara to talk so much because he loved this feeling of being an interrotron.

So, in wormwood, he doesn’t use that and there’s a lot of two shots of him sitting at a table talking to this person and like as much as I’ve seen his films, it was exciting to see him doing the interview and he’s very still like you hear from him more in this than other pieces, but he’s physically very still. I don’t know if there’s some kind of directing tricks that he’s done or something like that, but it’s cool to sort of just. You never see his face. You just kind of see over the shoulder him, but you’re aware of him sitting in this room and he is this sort of benevolent facilitator of the conversation just by his very presence.

Jason: So awesome! I’m going to have to check that out and I didn’t know he was behind that. That’s amazing. Steve, this is a funny question. I always caveat it. I know you didn’t get where you are in your own and you’ve given us a wonderful origin story, a backstory to kind of how you got where you are and I know that it’s been also by surrounding yourself with really smart people as well. What’s your U.X Superhero name be?

Steve: I got a couple here and you’re going to have to pick – Captain Silence, The Deducer. That’s hard to say. It doesn’t sound so good coming off the tongue. Listening Jay, listening sign.

Jason: How do we choose just one of those?

Steve: I don’t know.

Jason: Those are all great. Captain Silence is interesting, can you elaborate?

Steve: I can elaborate by being silent, right dead air. I mean one of the tricks there’s a few one I teach workshops about user research and there’s a point I get to where I talk about sort of the – This is the slide where mediocre interviewers become good ones and good ones become great ones and it’s about silence. It’s about how you can make your greatest contribution to the interview by not saying things.

Jason: Errol Morris.

Steve: Yes! Right! I mean you brought that up and you see it in a lot of great interviewers. Furtive Herzog who is up and down, he does a really well. So he’s up and down as a good interviewer in my assessment but there’s just some great things he does where he just keeps the camera rolling and doesn’t say anything. And I think he can unpack the silence a little bit in terms of how we sort of manage a tactically, you see what we tend to do is put the answer in the question. So the example I always go to is “what did you have for breakfast today? Did you have toast or juice or cereal” or the question’s really “what did you have for breakfast?” But there’s a fear of silence that we have and I don’t think we attend to that fear and what happens when you say, what’d you have for breakfast is nerve wracking and so the way what we do is instead of giving silence, we give more.

We start suggesting possible answers and everybody does this and if you listened to your interviews, you can hear yourself do it, I still do it. And so that’s about avoiding that moment of silence because that’s a little bit of a leap into the chasm. So, we start putting suggestions into the question and you might think naively well, I’m just being helpful, like I’m showing them what an answer might be, but it’s really about you and your discomfort and it really is very negative for the interview because you might think people can say, ‘’no, I didn’t have any of those things, I had yogurt’’. What happens is over time you start to present to your participant a model of what it means for them to do a good job for you. You’re basically training them.

There’s a segment on John Oliver where he shows 60 minutes interviewers putting answers in the mouths of their interviewees and it’s just amazing. The interviewer says “so it was a cat and mouse game” and the person they’re interviewing says “it was a cat and mouse game” and we have enormous power to put words in people’s mouths. So this is where…

Jason: Cats are really good at that too, by the way.

Steve: Oh yes! Right! There are some great models of interviewing or dark patterns for introducing, you can see from interrogations and so absolutely. So, we don’t want to do that, right. We don’t want to try to coerce a confession or induce a confession. We want to hear the real answer and if that answer is outside the framework that we’re going to put in the question even better, the thing that you have to do is just be still, just say what did you have for breakfast? And then do kind of the Errol Morris thing, which is when you get the answer is continuing to be still, is continued to offer silence because someone says “yeah, I had yogurt for breakfast today” and if you say nothing, they say, “I really started having yogurt because I’m trying to shift protein in my diet because I feel like natural foods in the morning is really going to change my whole energy balance”. So, they’re going to tell you more just by you doing nothing and it takes a lot of strength, you have to be kind of captain of it to hold back on your impulse to like go to ask the next question, right.

We’re trained on like turn taking and linguistics as about a breath cues and you know, you and I are working hard on this because we don’t have eye contact while we’re doing this, but when you talk to somebody and you hear them exhale or inhale, you know they’re about to talk or they’re done talking, there’s that “ah” thing that we do. In conversations, that’s the cue to move onto your next thing and if you misapply that, you get that kind of Barbara Walters thing where she says, what was it like to be the [inaudible 66:04] “oh, it was really great”. What kind of tree would you be? You know, she just goes on to the next thing and you don’t get a conversation and I’m really picking on Barbara Walters, but whatever, she has a range of


She can handle it. I’m not going to get into it because am not going to fight with her. But suppressing your instinct to use that cue, you don’t really hear the breath you just know how to act on it. Suppressing your instinct to use that as the time to move onto the next question and just doing nothing or cocking an eyebrow at most, right, is a way to get more of the whole answer. So anyway, that’s just the long riff one. I think what silence has to offer. So, think about if you build rapport and you were silent, you could kind of take that and be a really great interviewer without even a ton of other techniques or a ton of other learned. And those are very hard things to do. They’re not natural for us based on how we talk to people in the rest of our lives.

Jason: Steve Portigal, you win for the best possible explanation of your superhero name I’ve ever heard on the show.

Steve: Yes! All right! Ha ha everybody else.

Jason: Oh my gosh!

Steve: Am better.

Jason: That was amazing. I would add, the only time that silence isn’t good is when meeting to practice the McDonald’s theory and I learned this from one of your talks as you’re talking. The power of bad ideas and I think this is a quote from John Bell and this was so great. When a group is having a trouble deciding where to go for lunch, suggest Macdonald’s as the worst possible idea. Better lunch suggestions immediately emerge, amazing. People are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off the bad ones.

Steve: The great piece of facilitation and a great insight into like how our creative brains work and that pushing against something is different than sort of starting from scratch. Isn’t there nothing worse like on TV when you see a see them try to do brainstorming and they just start with like, “Okay, who’s got something” and then it’s just sort of awkward like I’m watching halt and catch fire right now and they keep having these sort of pitch meetings for game design and they start with like, what do you got. It would be much better to say, well, you know, throw the McDonald’s in and sort of get some reactions because that’s how we kind of create synthesize.

Jason: Absolutely! I just love that was inviting and I’m going to hold onto that one and use that one for sure. And you also mentioned that’s how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas worked for the raiders of the lost ark production when they were brainstorming this idea. It was like they were intentionally going for the bad ones to get to the good ones and that there’s so many lessons in that in everything we do. Just be willing to fail, be willing to go for the bad stuff to get stuff.

Steve: I think the caveat on caveat is that you don’t always know if it’s good or bad stuff at the time. So, being willing to play with stuff that feels like bad stuff, it may lead to good stuff or it may turn out that it reveals the implicit criteria that no one’s really talked about what is good or bad and that it’s the old trope like, well that’s that idea so crazy, it just might work.

Jason: So true! Like you mentioned in the talk to, you mentioned the breaking bad show, which I would say it’s probably one of the best shows ever made, the best TV I think ever made still, and that’s arguable, but I think many of you agree with that, but you mentioned the old in that story about how Vince Gilligan was like, this is absolutely the worst idea that I could think of, but it might work. You know is just like what on paper it just looks horrible like a total failure. What is it? Teacher dying of cancer starts selling meth. That sounds ridiculous, but look at what he was able to do with that. I love that. Steve, let’s wrap up the show with the imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit that you believe contributes to your subjective success?

Steve: You always put the word subjective and when you ask that

Jason: First time

Steve: It goes back to what you were saying about curiosity. I think like I’m someone who’s always looking, as in we talked about curiosity, we were talking about talking to people and looking at maybe more of a passive of it, no, it active but it’s less interactive. Always looking and always seeing things. The other day I was taking the transit system here and we were walking through the parking lot and so there’s a bunch of buses that are just in holding areas, they’re not running and there was someone sitting, not in the driver’s seat. I’m sure she was a transit employee because you couldn’t get on these buses. Otherwise, she was sort of using some part of the bus as like a little lunch table and so, she had her stuff laid out and she was looking out the window and she’d kind of turned the bus into a little one person cafeteria and we were just walking by and you might not look up or you might look up and see the person. You might look up and see the person and kind of what they were doing and sort of figure out a little story about it. I’m doing that a lot, but that’s how I spend a lot of time walking around in the world, you know and that can get annoying for the people around me who have to sort of hear “did you see that woman, she’s sitting in the bus and she was having a little sort of cafeteria moment and she’d made herself with her” and like people I’m with are like, no, I didn’t see it.

So, I have lots of little micro stories of things that I share or that I observe and then that I feel compelled to share if I’m with somebody because I liked the think aloud protocol of kind of being in the world that just saying this stuff and making up a little story and just having some delight in it. But yeah, I think that’s a habit that sounds like it’s by choice. Maybe I can’t really help myself how I am wired in the world and I pick up lots of stories and examples that you know, that story may show up in some bit of synthesis or analysis that I’m doing because it’s an example of something that may emerge from some point. So, I’m sort of pulling up these little artifacts, as little stories are bits of material that might get used in the creation of something down the line. Most not, but sometimes they do.

Jason: I love it and I said this before, “Defenders” and I’ll say it again, use your super power of observation always. Always be looking around like Steve does and see what you can learn from your environment from people and I think it’s a great way to live is very satisfying just to really see how other people go about life, helped other people do life and how other people decide to do things, it’s fascinating that awesome stuff, Steve.

Steve: Can I say how great it is every time you turn to the virtual camera and address the listening audience.

Jason: Oh, thank you.

Steve: “Defenders”, isn’t he great at doing that?

Jason: Thank you so much. They are my buddies. I think about them as I do this and I know you do too. You touched on it earlier. It’s like we do this for our audience, for the people we’re designing, for the people we’re trying to help, so I appreciate that nod, that hard tip there.

Steve: You’re breaking the fourth wall.

Jason: Yeah! That’s true! So there are a couple more things I want to maybe touch on briefly. I know we’re going way over and I appreciate Steve so much as sticking with this as well, sticking with me through this time, but a couple things I want to touch on, we alluded to one, the corset. Any pictures out there in the wild, why? First of all, can you give a really quick story about that and then any pictures in the wild?

Steve: The story is interview with clients and I was interviewing small business owners and we talked to a guy where he ran Los Angeles creamier handmade corset of business and I don’t know about corsets as an industry. I think of them as sort of being a little like something you’d see at like a fetish ball or something like that, but he’s in a very matter of fact and like, you know, these are for celebrities, back problems. He kind of presents it pretty straight and we had this great conversation about how he manages his finances because that’s the topic of the interview and then we go to take a tour of his space and he takes us into the adult video room and it was some kind of I mean it’s not a storefront. This was not a place you would go to rent something and we had not heard about this at all.

So, now this sort of the more Laura nature of his business, which I had assumed from the beginning, and then let go of my judgment based on the conversation kind of comes out again and it’s not like I’ve never been in an adult video space in my entire life even online or offline. This was like really intense. Let’s just say it was really intense. There was a lot of stuff, a lot of imagery, a lot of posters and he made us turn off the video camera. So, we didn’t really ask about why this was there or anything because we just didn’t really get to. And so the final stop on this tour of the spaces is the corset showroom and there are all these corset kind of hanging on hangers and everything. And my client is female and so this guy turned to her, he describes the corsets and everything. He said to her, “would you like to try wearing it on’’. And so she’s like, totally game and she says, ‘’yes’’. And so he goes through the process, he picks one and he straps it on.

I mean a corset is – I think it’s part of its function is to kind of change your shape, right. It’s not just about back straightening or whatever like change your shape. So it changed her shape and here she is in a professional setting with me and videotaping and then she’s now kind of not exposed, but you know…

Jason: Is she’s very curvy.

Steve: Yes! That’s an appropriate way to say that she’s much curvier than she had dressed that day and she’s like fine and we’re kind of taking pictures and joking about it and I mean we would have to get her story about it if she felt harassed or not. I think the line is definitely being towed and probably being crossed, but she’s being a good user researchers, she’s just kind of in for the experience and then so she says, “Steve, do you want to try on a corset” to wish I said “yes” and I mean the guy was not unhappy but this was not clearly what he wanted to do. He wanted to put it on her and kind of let us all admire her and what had been done for her but anyway…

Jason: He didn’t want to see you with anyone…


Steve: He put me in one and we took pictures. And so your question, right? Are there any pictures of floating around? Absolutely not! But we did send the picture, we emailed the pictures right away, back to the home base team and it became just this great story of kind of what the thesis of “Doorbells” is like this is what happens in the field like this is what life is like, things happen. And the interview wrapped up, the guy asked us what we wanted to have a drink, then we said we have to go to another other interviews, so we’ll come back later and we can have a drink and we get in the car and you know, I haven’t worked with this woman very long, I don’t know her super well and we’ve just been in corsets together and we’re kind of driving away to the next thing and kind of saying like, “you didn’t want to go back to drink there later, did you?” No, I’m fine. Oh, okay.

So yeah, no pictures, I can’t even visualize what I looked like in it, but I can definitely remember the feeling of like we’re going to go for it like in in a really pleasant positive way

Jason: I mean I think of empathy again, there is a saying about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, were you putting yourself in somebody else’s corsets?

Steve: Yes!

Jason: Right, I mean you really like all but later I mean you quite literally did put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

Steve: Right, when he said, you guys want to try on a corset, we could have said no, meaning that was not relevant to sort of learning about how he manages his financial accounts, which we’d already covered, right. But there’s sort of a spirit to it, which is like, that’s the participant observation where from social science. You do it. Part of going there is not just standing in the space. It’s like walking through the adult video showroom and having all the reactions that you have from that. I mean, I don’t know that I would have said, can I try on a corset, that might be a little pushy, but when the offer is made, you know, as they say in improve, you accept the offer, that’s just the way to say yes.

Jason: It’s kind of like turning down to somebody for a drink when you go to their home, but that can be considered quite rude or a meal for example and in other cultures like it can be actually construed as a very rude thing to do when somebody welcomes you in. So I think you did the right thing.

Steve: Yeah! You asked about rapport building tips and one of the ones we didn’t get to is like, accept the glass of water, accept coffee and I think you’ve just explained exactly why it works against you if you don’t.

Jason: Yes! So I’m going to do my best to resist the temptation of asking Eli my artists to render you in wearing the corset. I’m going to do my best to practice restraint in my art direction.

Steve: That’s funny because I was just thinking that, oh my God, now that’s what is going to be and if I ask you not to do it, I’m going to put that idea out there

Jason: Yes! McDonald’s theory

Steve: Yes! So, I’m glad you brought up your attention to resist and you’re going to hold this.

Jason: I will resist temptation and I do have a wonderful idea that in mind for your art, based on your super hero name. Steve, what’s your best advice for aspiring superheroes? You’ve given a lot. You have given a ton, but do you have anything else? Let me put it this way. Do you have anything else you want to add before we close here that maybe we haven’t talked about or that you think is really important for the “Defenders” listening?

Steve: Yeah, “Defenders” I’m going to address this one to you because I can break the fourth wall as well. Let me go tactical in big picture but I will like to do both. When one is to take pictures, it’s similar to me in like looking at the woman eating your lunch on the bus, take pictures builds up your noticing habits, it builds up your storytelling because it creates artifacts and it’s cool to like take a moment in time to experiential and then freeze it and then you can talk about it. You can bring that into a different context you know, so posting pictures on social media and saying, here’s what this picture is, here’s what happens, and taking picture changes something, right. It moves it from one context to another.

It’s an abstraction and so that gives you power in seeing through different lenses literally right. What the camera sees, what you see, what the facebook posts kind of reveals, and that’s like a tiny little bit of I think what you need to be able to do as a researcher or just a person in the world is trying to understand the world in order to change it or improve it or do whatever you’re trying to do to it. And that’s kind of a tactical thing and maybe more hand-wavy.

“Defenders”, if you’re an aspiring UX superhero, you’re improving yourself along that path right now because you’re spending time and listening to “User Defenders”, you’re listening to other people, you’re getting practical tips, you’re getting inspiration and there’s lots of learning styles and we have a lot of different resources in our field. We’re doing one of them right now and I think that’s kind of a way to keep going and I don’t know this sort of talking about superheroes and the success or kind of qualified success, but I think keep going, like surviving is success, think about that a lot. And so we’re doing good stuff right now or listening to or speaking or listening to a podcast and reflecting on it and you know, if you’re engaged, you’re translating everything that we’re saying into some way that you’re thinking about your own life, your own challenges and like that’s you’re doing the work by listening and working on this and that I think is a great source of fuel for the keeping going that I think is so important to any of us as we seek whatever our version of success will be.

Jason: So good. Always be learning, always be growing. I appreciate that Steve and like you said, there’s no end to the resource out there for learning. It’s really just what are we tuned into? What stream are we cleaning from? So, I appreciate your comments on the show and you’re doing the same thing with your show, with your work out there and your books. Especially “Defenders”, pickup Steve’s books, I recommend both of them, they’re both incredible. Be sure to have links to those in the show notes as well. Have you received Christ as your savior yet, Steve?

Steve: That’s a question that is left for another time.


Jason: Would that be part two?


Steve: Massive context missing here for everybody else.

Jason: Okay, I’ll be sure to link to the talk. It’s your talk for the book right

Steve: That’s the moment of truth in like the war story that kicks off the “Doorbells” book.

Jason: That’s it right?

Steve: And my answer when I was asked that in the field was the answer I just gave you, which is, that’s a question best left for another time like didn’t know what else to say.

Jason: Very good, Steve. Why don’t you tell our listeners and “Defenders” the best way to connect and to keep up with you?

Steve: Well, I’m on all the platforms. Under my name and it’s usually @steveportigal or steveportigal on LinkedIn and there is a portable consulting LinkedIn page which has posts interesting articles that I come across or videos of talks or other resources. I’m on twitter, but I talk about everything on twitter, so it’s a great way to get to know me. It would not be my recommended like go to resource to learn more about Steve Portigal’s user research chops or recommendations. It’s just a lot of everything about everything. So, like I recommend you don’t follow me on twitter but connected with me on LinkedIn. Under my name, I just like to warn everybody, it’s not in the context of what we’re talking about. There’s a lot going on.

You know, the podcast “Dollars to Donuts” has a Twitter account, that’s very quiet. My blog has a twitter account, but depending on how broad or narrow your focus is, Twitter or LinkedIn or both, are good places. I’m at There’s an email lists which is mostly very sporadic blog posts, those are places to find me.

Jason: Awesome! And I’m going to add to that I believe you’re still receiving war stories, right

Steve: I will always be open to receiving new war stories. Most of the stories come because I go chase them down, but occasionally people learn about it and they think, “oh, I have a story to share” if you have a story about contextual research, not usability testing, but being out in the field. It’s a putting together stories a collaborative process, so if you think you might have an idea for a story, reach out and we’ll talk through how to put one together. I would love more storytelling to happen.

Jason: Yes, wonderful and I think I see to be emailed to that address.

Steve, thank you so much man for being here. This is incredible like I’ve been looking forward to this and I’m so sorry. Steve’s been really gracious with me because I had to unfortunately reschedule one time and thank you for sticking with me against Steve to do this. This has been everything and more than I expected. I know our “Defenders” are going to be gleaning a ton and have gleaned a ton from everything you shared. I myself, I’m super inspired and I learned a lot too and so just thank you for all you’re doing, man. Keep in touch for sure. And lastly, but not least, I want to say fight on my friends.

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