Understanding Customers: Research, Insights, and Storytelling with Steve Portigal — DT101 E48

Steve Portigal is the Principal of Portigal Consulting and an experienced user researcher who helps companies harness the strategic power of insights. He is the author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. He also wrote Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. We talk about interviewing people, customer research, and storytelling with Dawan Stanford, your podcast host.

Show Summary

Steve started out in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), in the days before the World Wide Web and before the formal idea of user experience (UX) existed. He had a brief exposure to design as a profession through an article about industrial product design, and to the idea of bringing together people from many different disciplines to collaborate and create solutions to problems via another article about a project trying to determine how best to find a way to demarcate dangerous locations, like nuclear waste sites. These ideas planted seeds leading to his interest in design. Steve graduated with his Masters in HCI, had a summer internship in Silicon Valley, and eventually found a job in an industrial design consultancy to work on what was essentially proto-UX design with their software.

At the same time, this company was exploring ideas surrounding ethnographic research and the idea of uncovering product opportunities, and Steve managed to apprentice himself with the team, where he learned about organizing and finding connections within data. He also had the opportunity to develop his initial interviewing skills, which he continued to hone as he started his own consultancy focused on user research. Steve was one of the first people in the early 90’s to develop design processes for user experience and research.
We talk about Steve’s excitement for and interest in spending more time with stakeholders within a client’s organization. He has learned why a stakeholder’s perspective is essential in relation to the success of a project. He talks about creating “learning-ready” moments, how he helps people have these moments, and how learning and sharing the journey of learning affect learning retention.

Listen in to learn:

  • How Steve and others developed the design processes in the early stages of user experience and research
  • How Steve’s skills, interests, and the work he does for his clients has evolved over the years
  • When Steve knows he’s found a great client
  • Why he believes that learning together is when change can happen
  • Why understanding stakeholders gives better results with clients
  • Being able to embrace realistic expectations of what you can accomplish

Our Guest’s Bio

Steve Portigal is an experienced user researcher who helps companies to think and act strategically when innovating with user insights. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is principal of Portigal Consulting and the author of two books: the classic Interviewing Users: How To Uncover Compelling Insights and, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories.
He’s also the host of the Dollars to Donuts podcast, where he interviews people who lead user research in their organizations. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies and conferences across the globe.

Show Highlights

[02:09] Steve talks about his origin story and his introduction to the ideas of design and user experience.
[06:15] Steve’s first job at an industrial design consultancy.
[08:15] Steve’s apprenticeship with the team exploring a nascent practice in what was basically user experience.
[09:58] Many companies were exploring and experimenting with these new ideas around user research in the 90s, and how that led to the development of best practices and processes around the work.
[13:05] Steve’s litmus test for a new client.
[13:37] How Steve’s role and work started to shift and change.
[15:40] The way in which Steve sets up expectations with new clients and spending time with the stakeholders in a client’s organization.
[16:20] The value in spending as much time with stakeholders as with users to gain a deep understanding of their motivations and perceptions.
[19:03] Repetitive patterns and questions Steve sees with clients.
[22:28] Using storytelling to help explain concepts and share information, and to help move clients through shared experiences and discussions.
[24:04] Separating the value of the research from any action that may take place.
[28:15] The importance of the “Why” of user research.
[30:39] How Steve’s practice has evolved and the scope of his work today, now that many companies have in-house user research and design teams.
[35:05] Steve’s specialized “master classes” for design teams.
[38:52] What Steve wishes everyone knew about user research and what you can do with it, both personally and organizationally.
[41:24] Steve’s reflections on a few of his learning experiences.
[44:55] His experience with one of the experts he used in his consulting work.
[48:35] What Steve might add to a new book about interviewing users and UX, should he decide to write one.
[54:00] Where you can find out more about Steve and his work.


Portigal Consulting
Steve Portigal on LinkedIn
Steve Portigal on Medium
Steve Portigal on Twitter
Find Out More About Steve’s Books
Dollars to Donuts Episode 30: Laith Ulaby of Udemy
Dollars to Donuts Episode 27: Colin MacArthur of the Canadian Digital Service

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