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Interviewing Users: An Interview with Steve Portigal

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I've done hundreds of interviews in my life. I've interviewed people as part of the recruiting process and a bunch as they walked out the door. I've interviewed real-life rock stars on this site and probably 100 people for my books.

To that end, I recently sat down with Steve Portigal to talk about his book Interviewing Users.

Q: Your book is about interviewing users. Why should business people be interviewing their users?

A: There are a few reasons. Most often, it's to get more insight about the products and services under development, to see if these products are really going to address the concerns people have. I think there's tremendous power, however, in interviewing users to get a rich sense of what's really going on with people and to feed that nuanced understanding into the creation of ideas for new products and new services.

Increasingly I find that producers know that going out and talking to users is a necessary part of product development but they believe they should d so primarily to gather specific feature requests and are not leveraging the opportunity to gain a profound new understanding and use it as the basis for innovation.

Interviewing Users

Q: What led you to write the book?

A: Through my own career path, I've learned a lot of skills through trial and time; what strikes the most is that talking to people in this manner is not as easy as it looks. Somewhat frustratingly, the fact that it looks easy makes it even harder; people don't realize that their existing people skills and conversational approaches can actually work against them. For example, when chatting with a friend you wouldn't ask a question you were pretty sure you knew the answer to, or if you did, you'd state it as an assumption ("If I recall, you stopped eating meat three years ago..."). It's not as easy - but so much more effective - to ask someone an open-ended question ("Do you make any specific choices regarding your diet?").

Q. What's the difference between this type of research and something like focus groups?

A: When interviewing people we arrange to meet with them in their own context: at home, at work, at the park, in the car; wherever the thing we're interested in is happening. We'll be with them and maybe some of the other people you would find in those settings. People behave differently in their own environment and there are details of those environments that turn out to be relevant but we could never plan for. The organized pantry reveals something about how they approach the apps on their device, the room full of the father's previous generations of PCs tells us about the son's rejection not only of specific devices but also a whole approach to what it means to own devices.

Q: How important is empathy for organizations?

Empathy seems to be a hot term right now. Developing processes that include empathy is wonderful and it can really help teams rally around solving the problems that people have rather than the problems they want to work on. You hope that there's an overlap but not always. Maybe this points to what school of innovation you're from; you may want to be a few steps ahead of the people who will be your customers but you do need to be thinking about where they will be headed.

Empathy, meanwhile, is only the first step. Having a good sense of how people feel can instill the desire to do the right thing for them, but it doesn't tell you what that right thing is. Empathy is not the same as understanding a highly nuanced, unarticulated, latent problem space. That's the hard work.

Q: What does doing this well require in terms of communication within the organization itself?

A: People are afraid - and rightly so - of having some user research effort take place and then be provided with a report at the end. The successful teams I see are those that are willing to dig in a bit; to discuss beliefs and head-scratching questions at the outset, to hit the streets and go along to see customers, and to chew on the information that comes back. It's not a magic bullet; it's a collaborative and creative process. In my own practice, we do produce reports because it's great to document what we learned, but we make sure that we shift from reporting to creating and get teams involved in designing - even if it's just conceptual - what they could do with what we've learned.

Q: What are the sorts of results that you've seen in companies that go out and talk to users?

A:
As I hope we'd all expect, they are making strongly well-informed decisions about design, features, strategies and beyond. It's also exciting to see better alignment about the nuanced aspects of who is being designed for. Talking to customers isn't a panacea; all the organizational culture stuff is not going to go away but this type of work with users can be effective as part of a larger effort to shift thinking.

Q: How does your book help people talk to their customers?

A: Lots of people have some experience going out and doing this at some level; what experienced researchers are telling me is that there are some practical tips in there for them, but the net effect is one of increased confidence. For others who are newer, they are digging into some of the information about different types of questions, or the framework that describes how most interviews flow, or the troubleshooting suggestions for some of the dynamics that often emerge in interviews.

Q. Did you discover anything while writing this book?

A: I realized more clearly than I ever had before that for many people, the default approach to developing their craft is built around controlling or managing other people. I get a lot of questions about what to do when the participant isn't doing what the would-be researcher wants them to do. But those questions always point outward - the problem is assumed to be with the other person, and it's assumed that there's something you can do to that person them to get around that shortcoming. But really - and anyone who's been through therapy knows this - the only thing we can control is ourselves. Having a better sense of who we are and what're bringing to our interaction is the key, but that's a bit scary and a bit hi-falutin. But all the trips-n-tricks won't help you if you don't develop the right mind-set.