Episode 92

92 — Beyond the Surface: Navigating the Depths of User Research with Steve Portigal

Published on: 8th January, 2024

What does it take to turn conversations into compelling user insights?

In this engaging episode of the Greenbook Podcast, esteemed user researcher and author Steve Portigal joins us to discuss his book "Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights." He delves into the evolution of user research, highlighting the critical distinction between business challenges and research questions, and the importance of adapting to societal shifts such as the rise of remote user research. Steve shares invaluable insights and practical tools from his book that aid researchers in effectively capturing and analyzing data, and emphasizes the significance of driving impactful research across organizations.

Use the code Greenbook for 20% off of your copy of his book!

You can reach out to Steve on LinkedIn.

Many thanks to Steve for being our guest. Thanks also to our producer, Natalie Pusch; and our editor, Big Bad Audio.

Mentioned in this episode:

IIEX Europe Registration 2024

Transcript
Karen:

Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Greenbook Podcast. I am your host today. This is Karen Lynch. And I’m excited to talk to you all today and introduce you to an author and a speaker and a user interviewer, if you will. Steve Portigal is with us. He has recently republished a book—or revised, I should say—a 2nd Edition of a book called Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. And, spoiler alert, I’m about to have Steve introduce himself to you. But, when I read this book, I was immersed in it pretty quickly. It’s not only highly readable but loaded with tools and techniques and methods and practices that you can build into your research practice, whether you are a user interviewer, a consumer interviewer. There are applications across not just the UX space but the consumer insight space, the market research space, if you’re a traditionalist in that. And I’m just so excited to have Steve here to talk to us further. Steve, before I let you introduce yourself a little bit more, comprehensively, I just want to say welcome to the show.

Steve:

Yeah. Thank you, Karen, for having me. It’s great to meet you and chat with you. And, yeah, I’ll say a little bit about myself.

Karen:

Please do, yes.

Steve:

I’m an independent consultant in a little costal town near the San Franscisco Bay area. I’ve been working on my own as a user researcher for more than 20 years. I’m really big into qualitative contextual research and, you know, finding out stuff that we don’t know, that we don’t know about people, and figuring out how companies can act on that. And, as you kind of pointed out, I also write and speak. So I like to teach organizations about research and, you know, just advocate for it in general but also have an active practice myself in, as you said, interviewing users.

Karen:

Yeah. That comes out in the book, also, because you actually mentioned—I’m going to keep giving spoiler alerts for this book, but you mentioned some of the methods, the contextual methods, in this book. And I was devouring it for the research geek side of me that loves a good kind of projective exercise or, you know, exercise where you can, you know, bring in some stimuli to get people to stop thinking really literally but kind of give them a moment to think about things differently or metaphorically and bring in creative tools and techniques. So those of you who know me know that I love all of those kind of activities that you can bring into qualitative research in general. So there’s those great applications in here too. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. So, first, let’s take a step back, Steve. You talked about kind of what you’re currently doing now. Give us a little bit of an intro into how you got to this place, your career journey, if you will.

Steve:

Sure. And it does go back to sort of previous eras. Like, I like how you were describing the traditionalist version of market research. And, right, we sort of work in shifting sands over the decades. So, you know, I came up in the era before we had UX, before there was a web, which, you know, definitely ages me a certain amount. And I came out of an academic discipline. Well, that sounds so—I mean, that sounds so smart when I say that.

Karen:

[laugh]

Steve:

I got a degree in human computer interaction, which was, again, before the web. But, you know, that was sort of looking at, from the computer science point of view, how do people do stuff. We didn’t talk about design. We certainly didn’t talk about UX. We didn’t really talk about user research. We didn’t really talk about usability testing, which were sort of earlier. Like, the next era, we had those as disciplines or terms or processes or titles. And I came out of graduate school with, like, you know, a degree, but not—there’s no industry for me to go into yet, and I really didn’t have a set of applicable tools. So I definitely struggled to find a place to take me in, but I found this industrial design consultancy. Oh, another sort of term that we hear less of, but that was—you know, if you go back to—now we’re talking, like, mid ‘90s, ‘design’, I mean, ‘industrial design’, which meant sort of form giving or, like, physical products. And they were thinking about this word ‘innovation,’ which was, again, if you go back to that era, a hot word, and product development. These are all sort of jargony terms. We talked about the ‘the front end of innovation,’ ‘the fuzzy front end,’ and, you know, all this sort of stuff that dominated sort of the business language around what we all do. But, you know, we were situated differently. And they were trying to figure out, like, what are other ways that we could learn about people and define what products could be and—or services. And I kind of had an apprenticeship, an informal apprenticeship, where no one knew what the answer was. We didn’t have a process. It wasn’t an established discipline like when you hear ‘apprenticeship.’ So we were figuring out what does a project look like. Like, how do you conduct research? How do you explain it to—how do you charge for it? How do analyze it? I mean, all that stuff that I think is sort of more baked into our discipline now. Like, maybe, for sure, in academia, they knew this in social science. But, in at least my corner of the professional world, we didn’t. And so we got to figure it out. You know, for better or worse, you kind of learn as you go and make mistakes and improve your processes. But that’s kind of where I started. I worked at that agency for a number of years, and then started my own practice in 2001 and have been, yeah, learning and making mistakes and teaching and writing. And that’s also how you—well, how I, I guess, sort of hone the practice. You do it. You talk about it. You tell other people how to do it. You keep making mistakes and learning and sort of seeing how other people do and don’t do things that you think they should do. So I’ve been, yeah, lucky to work with companies and do interesting projects and teach interesting teams and, you know, have that experience over many years, right? It’s a long time. So that, I think, if you stick around, that’s also one kind of key to reaching a certain level is I just—I have the years, and then I’ve been working on this and trying to—keep trying to figure it out more and more.

Karen:

Yeah. You’re [laugh] , you’re not alone with the years, right? So I remember, quite specifically, in the early 2000—so my career launched a few years ahead of yours, which is, actually, a place of pride for me because I have seen some of those changes that we’re talking about here. And I remembered when—and I think it was my husband who, at the time was in the industry, also, shared with me about the—like, a usability group in Connecticut, CTUX or UXCT or something like that, and said, “You should go. This would be really relevant for you.” And I remembered going to it and thinking, “Wait... They’re talking about qualitative research. I do this. I do this work,” but it didn’t have that label on it. And then there were even clients of mine that had web-based products, a lot of ecommerce sites and things like that, and they’re trying to optimize their sites and talk to users of their sites, but it wasn’t quite called ‘UX’ yet. It was all of this—this period of time where we all had a little bit—‘we’ on the sort of qualitative research side had a little bit of cognitive dissonance about like wait... is it a separate field? Is it the same field? Are we sharing skills, or are we learning new skills? So I remember that time. So it’s interesting that you kind of came at it through that side of things, and I had come at it through the other side. And here we are today, talking. So it’s neat and interesting. And I think that some of that dissonance still exists for people. Have you found that?

Steve:

Yeah. I think sometimes they call it ‘the definition wars.’ Like, it still persists. I think the—where you have, you know, terms like ‘discovery’ that maybe come from product management. I’m a little out over my skis here. But, you know, you have other people doing research with different titles, and maybe they don’t call that thing ‘research.’ They might call it ‘discovery,’ or they might think that what they do is research and don’t know why there are people whose titles are researchers. So I think the—yeah, it’s same as it ever was, right? So, if you didn’t go—you know, if you’re listening, and you’re like, “Why are Steven and Karen talking about the olden days?” Like, it’s—

Karen:

[laugh]

Steve:

It’s still happening. It’s just a—

Karen:

It is still, yeah...

Steve:

—a different set of things to be cognitively dissonant about.

Karen:

Yeah.

Steve:

That’s, you know—because it’s a discipline. It’s a bunch of disciplines. It’s also a processor or practice or a set of tools that, you know, many people can use. So I think we’re—we are—I know I’m inconsistent, and I think that suits me, but it does create confusion for people as they’re trying to find their place, or who should they be working with, or who should they be learning from. You know, so, I don’t know, I think you’re trying to build bridges and kind of bring different disciplines together and give everybody a voice in that. I may be projecting some—

Karen:

[laugh]

Steve:

—kind of lofty aspirations on you but...

Karen:

Oh that’s hundred precent what—but, certainly, at Greenbook and in the role that I’m in, I’m trying to make sure that everybody recognizes that there’s—there are practices that we can share. There are practices that make us unique. There are methods that we can borrow from and adapt and make our own to get the work done, right? And it’s all about one of the things I want to talk to you about on this call. It’s all about using research and talking to the users or consumers of a product or a service, whether it’s a, you know, a tech product or a virtual product, you know, whatever it may be, or something tangible that you consume, to answer business questions. And one of the things that I think researchers find themselves challenged with is translating the business question or the business challenge into a research question. And, you know, there’s a great section in your book pretty early on that digs into that is how is the business challenge addressed with research question? Like, what is actually the research question at hand that could get some insight into a business challenge. And, then, how do you execute research accordingly. So it’s actually going very much into detail about how all the pieces fit together. So talk to me about how you had even that thought and realization that that is a necessary part of this book.

Steve:

Yeah. And I think even, you know, asking people to see that these are different things. You know, I think, for me, it comes from years and years of taking requests. Or taking requests makes me sound like I’m a—I’m playing in a lounge or something like that.

Karen:

[laugh]

Steve:

You know, I’m a consultant, so I get into conversations with people, and they have something in mind that they have thought through a certain amount and maybe not more and sort of what it takes to get to—I mean, what it takes to get to a project. Like, how do we go from an initial conversation to starting to do some research? But, then, even seeing—and I guess here’s my spoiler alert, right? The stuff that you do at the beginning to set up the research project has a big impact at the end when you share something. You know, that’s a bad place for surprises of, “Oh, I thought we were going to learn about this. I thought we were going to do this. I thought this was our question.” And so, yeah, I mean, talk about learning from mistakes, I’ve been bit at the end. And anyone that does this gets bit at the end at some point, and you change sort of what you do up front. And I think, for me—and I hope I’m not jumping ahead here—but I think, for me, the difference between these things is the business challenge is about us, the organization. I think this is how you can distinguish it, right? We, as an organization, we make a thing. We’re publishing a thing. We’re changing a thing. We want to innovate in this thing. It’s all about what our objectives or pressures are. We’re losing space to a competitor. Our technology is being sunsetted. There’s something that’s happening for us. And we have to take some action. And, oh, we don’t have to. We might want to take some action in response to that, and we don’t know what action to take. So that’s the business challenge. The research question is what do we have to learn in order to do that. And so the research question faces outward. Like, what do we have to learn from people who might choose, use, receive the output of whatever the world out there is? So there’s an inside and an outside. And I think, you know, what I have from, you know, the experience of talking to people about potential projects is they frame their initiative or their objective or just why they’re calling me. It’s all over the map. And, as you were kind of saying, right, that once you understand the research question, you have to select an approach to the research. People will contact me. And I think anyone, as a researcher, has this eventually. They’ll contact me and say, “We want to do ‘method X’. We want to do some ride-alongs with pet owners as they go to dog food stores.” And so, you know, sometimes people start with the method. And so it’s—I think it’s incumbent on any of us that are planning research to say well—you know, to go back up. I think it’s a hierarchy, right? So your method is to do this ride-along. What is it that you expect to learn from doing that ride-along? “Oh, we want to learn, you know, how people make decisions at the shelf.” “Well, why do you want to learn that?” “Well, we are facing increasing competition from, I don’t know, online shopping.” Again, I’m just making this up—“from online shopping, and so our, you know, decision process needs to be kind of refined.” It’s just—I think it’s a lot. The research has to ask ‘why.’ The researcher or, you know, the project manager, whoever is kind of going to go out and figure out how to do this work needs to understand ‘why’. And, you know, this is not a criticism of people that think they need research. Like, they don’t know this model. They don’t know. “And I want to get a quote for someone to go do some ride-alongs with pet owners.” That may seem like a perfectly reasonable way to start. And so, when you ask, “Well, what is it you want to learn?” you’re not being difficult. Like, you’re trying to help. So, “Oh, we want to learn this and this thing.” “Okay, well, you know, do you already have some data about this? We don’t have to do some research.” Or maybe, “This is the approach that would be the most effective.” Or, “You’re going to get an answer, but you won’t be able to use it this way, so what’s your objective?” You want to unpack all of the ‘what’s’ behind this. And I think it’s fine that people don’t know. They wouldn’t have put that in a brief because they don’t know, and they may not be able to give you, like, an answer right away. “Oh, it’s for this reason.” They might want to think about it. So you—I think this positions us from kind of order takers or kind of deliver of insights to a strategic partner that makes sure that the research that we do go and do is aimed at something that the business really needs, that wants to pay for, invest in, and make use of.

Karen:

Yeah. Yeah. No, I agree a hundred precent, and that’s how I practiced when I was executing research as well. And I think that it became critically important in lots of the trainings that I did also. At the end of a project, when you’re trying to synthesize all of that, all the information that you get, I think, if you just stay hyper-focused on what those research questions are and what that business challenge was, then, suddenly, you know how to sift through all that information, right? There’s a lot, in many of the research efforts that we take on, that just becomes extraneous information that might be great to mine in the future. But, if we need to do the best job that we can do on the current project that we’re on, we need to stay hyper-focused on, you know, business challenges and research questions. So we could probably talk a lot about that. But I want to take another step back real quick and just say talk to us about this book in general. Like, why the need for this book in the first place? And, then, why the need to revamp it for the 2nd Edition?

Steve:

Yeah. I think in 2013, there was not a lot of books about the practice of, you know, of interviewing users. Specifically, like, research, we could keep laddering up and laddering up. But, you know, UX research, design research, user research, you know, consumer research, qualitative, there were a few handbooks. I think there were some kind of classics that maybe came from other disciplines. I think probably somebody probably has something from journalism that they love, and they were maybe more social science based things. But there wasn’t a lot of material versus now. I think there’s a lot of great books and a lot—and it follows the distribution. There’s many books. So, I’ll say, you have a lot of great one. You have a lot of, you know, okay ones. But the field has matured over 10 years. So, 10 years ago, it was something we didn’t have and that we needed, and I was kind of in a place to be that person to kind of write that book. Ten years has gone by and—yeah, I don’t know. I mean, personally, for me, as, you know, someone who wrote this book—and it’s a big project to take on. And it’s been very meaningful for me, I think, to have that out in the world. But 10 years is, like, a really interesting anniversary. And I was really thinking like, “Well, how am I going to observe this? How will I commemorate this or talk about, you know, in a reflective way?” The book is not a reflection on 10 years. I think we’re doing that in this conversation. But—

Karen:

Yeah, no.

Steve:

—for me, that’s the—that was something. And, you know, I had already been approached by the publisher, Rosenfeld Media, like, “Do you want to do a 2nd Edition?” like a year before. I’m like, “No, why would I ever do that?”

Karen:

[laugh]

Steve:

You know, I just shot it down and then came back to it. And like, “Oh... this is exactly what I should do.” And I did this little exercise of—without opening the book because it’s not like I read a book that I wrote, you know, nine years ago that I read it. It’s just it’s sort of I have all this stuff that I think about and talk about and that I practice. But I did this little exercise. Without even opening the book, what topics do I think are new, that have changed, or that I left out that I’d want to talk about? And with—so just to kind of top of mind, I came up with six or seven. And, you know, don’t ask me what they were because that was sort of outside of the process. But that was sort of proof to me that like, “Oh, I do have more to say. Things have changed. I feel differently about this kind of stuff.” And so that was, like, a good impetus. And, you know, you work with an editor kind of through the process. And the editor was very sensitive to like, “Oh... this is an old example. You’re talking about things that don’t, you know...” I think there was a reference to Skype in the original edition as being how we would do, like, remote research, video research. And, you know, you could sort of see, “Oh, yeah. These are old examples.” It sort of—it dates the book even if the principle is true. We’re talking about Skype, and so it feels a little dusty. I didn’t really see that until I got into it. And it was like, “Oh... there’s a lot of ways that we can refresh this.” But there are also—and I’m jumping ahead. Sorry. There are also things that changed, like our relationship to money. And this is a very, simple, tactical thing. In the olden days, like in how I wrote about it in 2013, it was a, I mean, a point of pride for me to, like, give people cash at the end of an interview as, you know, their honorarium or their incentive for participating. Because cash is like you don’t have to take it to the bank. You don’t have to do anything with it. You can just go start using it. And, in fact—and this is almost embarrassing. Like, I liked to—if it was $100, I liked to give people a hundred. Like, that felt, like, symbolically, really, like, “Here you go.” And I think, over time—like, now, that’s a terrible idea, and everyone is rolling their eyes. Like, what’s there to do with 100?

Karen:

Do you remember we traveled with all that cash?

Steve:

Right?

Karen:

We traveled. Just for the people listening that don’t have that, we—if we [laugh] —we traveled with—you know, I don’t even know how—it’s embarrassing to think about, now, how many $100 bills we might have had on our persons, or $50 bills that we might have had on our persons at all times. Like, it was our responsibility to deliver that money to the people we were doing the work with. I mean, sometimes we could bring a check to facility, and they would spot us the cash. But, yeah, anyways...

Steve:

But cash was the thing, right? And cash—

Karen:

Yeah.

Steve:

—isn’t the thing, right? Why would you give—

Karen:

Exactly.

Steve:

—anybody cash? What are they going to do with it? And that’s been the case for a long time. But that’s something where, oh, 10 years can, you know—that was one of the—

Karen:

Yeah.

Steve:

—I thought, “Well, if I ever do another version of this book, I’ve got to change that.” Because it’s almost embarrassing how it was so true then, and it’s just so untrue now. And so, you know, you’ve got to change that guidance to reflect what the current practice is.

Karen:

Yeah. And one of the things you write about, and I know we kind of pointed this out, is that things have changed in our world, like that one for example. The techniques maybe haven’t changed too much. We haven’t really evolved that much, but the industry has, right, the focus on research technology and research operations and the shift in, I guess, behavior out there and even some of the language. So are there any other examples of how the kind of changes in the way we practice the work that we’ve practiced are kind of in parallel to changes in the world?

Steve:

I mean, the biggest one is remote user research or remote any kind of research. You know, we had a pandemic. It changed everything about the world. It changed sort of how people work together and, you know, keep in touch with their families and their friends. And everything obviously changed in a really dramatic way. And it’s not like we didn’t have remote research, you know, beforehand. And I think I mention this in the book. There’s a—you know, one of the classic texts that promote research is by Nate Bolt, and he published that in 2010, you know. And I don’t think that everything in there is still true. Like, the technology has changed. It was pre-Zoom and so on. But it’s been a part of the field for a long time now. But it became the default for a number of years. And I think we’re much more sophisticated in how we talk about it. Because, if work took place over Zoom, then the challenges of using Zoom became part of the fabric of work and the fabric of everyday lives. And so we, you know, we started seeing articles about, you know, Zoom fatigue and how do you counteract that and, like, you know, things like maybe make the faces smaller. Because there was, I think, some work at Stanford. It’s kind of evolutionary we’re not well-suited to look at—to make eye contact this long.

Karen:

Hmm.

Steve:

Or to have, like, a big face right in front of us kind of triggers some fight or flight stuff. And so there are sort of bad-meeting-hygiene things that some people have access to guidance to say like, “Maybe we should do this a little differently,” that apply to remote research that we didn’t have, I think, the insight in kind of our work culture pre, you know, lockdown and pandemic and remote research. So I think we’re better at doing remote research just from a more awareness of what it demands from us. You know, that’s my idealistic kind of view of it. And, certainly, the technology to support remote work has improved, and so that has kind of pulled remote research along with it. So, yeah, I think that’s sort of a societal change, a systemic change, a work change that has kind of impacted us.

Karen:

And it’s a great example. It really is. It’s a great example. And, you know, it’s interesting. When you kind of think back to even the evolution of online interviews or online research and you think about how people weren’t comfortable with certain—or some people weren’t necessarily comfortable doing that, and then, you know, 2020 was as our great disrupter. Like, “Oh, yeah. We do this now.” [laugh] And we’re all—we’re all pretty comfortable with it. But, now, we have to really think, you know, yes, we like to be in person. Yes, we like to, you know, get and do our ethnographies or our ride-alongs and things like that because we really need to be in person with people as much as we can and really see their usage in real time. But also to think about that, what’s happening as we adapt to a new reality of this video interaction? So it’s really interesting stuff. And it would be interesting to just kind of track that over time, too, just in general just to, you know, see how we all do and come back to this conversation in a couple years. And, you know, we’ll see our interface is completely different than it was this year, right, because we’ve learned from that. And now we’re all sitting way, way back. So [laugh] everybody can see our backgrounds a little bit differently. It’ll be interesting to watch that play out. Anyway, super cool. Thank you. Let’s talk about some of the things you did add to the book other than, you know, what we’ve talked about already. I know that there’s some new chapters that you did add. I know you did your brainstorming. What made it into the final cut?

Steve:

Yeah. I mean, I think some things make new chapters, and some things are, like, at a sentence level or even at just like a, you know, a paragraph. So, yeah, you can rewrite the incentive thing. That’s not a new chapter. And you mentioned research operations. So that—you know, there was they way that I talk about logistics has changed. And it’s not just about research operations. I think it’s the maturity of the field. If you go back 10 years, you know, things like—things in the practice like do we get a signed release from a participant. I mean, I think, I was writing 10 years ago, “You should probably get a signed release,” which tells you how sort of loosey-goosy—how loosey-goosey the world was. And even my advice was like, “It’s a good idea.” And I had somebody, from an operations perspective, look at that draft chapter. And they were like—their head kind of exploded. They’re like, “It’s not a good idea. It’s a requirement.” You know, we have, you know, legal issues, compliance issues. You know, for anything global, international, it becomes really, really important. So the sophistication of the practice of research and issues around data privacy—which, you know, we’re seeing maybe as ethical issues. Like, and I don’t—that doesn’t—I don’t mean it to sound pejorative. Like, this is a good thing to do because we have to care about people and take care of them. And, in fact, that discussion has advanced. And I make a reference to—I think it’s The Ethical Researcher’s Checklist in the book, which, you know, it starts to ask questions like should we even be doing this research, and how do we protect people from harm. And so, you know, 10 years ago, we were, like, we should probably—you know, I’m the person saying we should get a release, and the release may talk about, you know, the—even tax, you know, for tax purposes, documenting that the money exchange take place. That doesn’t make somebody and employee. Like, those are some sense of how to protect the company, but it’s gotten much more robust. I think, inside organizations, the legal department and the researchers work together. I know many people that, like—they have someone from legal that supports them. As opposed to, if you go back, it's like, “Well... should we even make legal aware of what we’re doing because they might stop us?” So there was an adversarial relationship. And, I think, now, in the best scenario—and I’m sure this isn’t true for everyone—but it’s a collaborative thing. Legal’s job should be to--how do we empower this research to take place in a way that, you know, matches our compliance for privacy and tracing information about how money is spent and, you know, all that stuff? And so that’s logistics, not operations. But operations is, you know, how do we create the conditions for the company to be able to do research, all the aspects. How do we—it’s not finding participants for people doing research. It’s how do we create infrastructure that supports an ongoing, sustained finding of participants. So finding participants, being able to put them through a legally compliant consent process that we can document and save and archive that. How do we archive the material from research and make it available so that it supports future decision making? You know, all the stuff that has to be put in place for a mature user research practice is one of the objectives of research operations. And so, right, we didn’t even know, if you go back, what that would look like. And, if we were trying to address it, it was maybe in a more ad hoc way or it fell to the researcher. So someone sort of taking on, from an operation’s perspective—we’re going to build this, and we’re going to make it sustainable. We’re going address all sorts of things that make the organization ready to do research—is a big shift. And that reflects the maturity of the field and changes in, you know, regulatory stuff that have happened in 10 years that sort of necessitated a growth in the field. So the discussion around sort of the logistics, I think, has grown up a lot. And, you know, you don’t need a research operations team, but you do need to be legally complainant. And you need a way to, you know, archive your material so it’s reusable. So operation sort of says ‘we’re going to own the building of this.’ But what ‘this’ is, I think, has kind of expanded and grown over time. And I try to—not being an ops person myself, I try to sort of reflect as best I can, you know, what that looks like. So, wherever you’re coming from, you can, you know, make some progress along that line.

Karen:

Well, and you did it well. I mean, there’s even some frameworks for creating a knowledge management platform for yourself, you know, how to have a database of your own research. So excellent applications for a smaller shop that might not have access to platforms and tools. But here’s a way you can kind of create your own hub, knowledge hub. You did a very—a good job, solid job, an important job of also providing different—you know, here are some forms. You gave structure to the field is what you did. You know, here’s some forms that you can look at for, you know, debriefing your interviews after you conduct them. Here are some kind of, like—I don’t want to call them templates. But here’s the framework that you can do for creating your discussion guide. Here’s some tools you can lose—use to synthesize your data. So you were—you’ve given some very tangible tools in this book for anybody who is really trying soup to nuts to go off on their own for the first time or just get to know the field that maybe they’ve been hired in, really practical, tangible things that researchers can borrow from. I mean, again, having been in the field for a long time, some of this was—you know, some of this was a part of my practice. But I’m like, “You know what? That’s a great debrief form. That one really stood out to me.” For example, Interview Debrief Form, where it’s not just take notes on what you just experienced, but it’s prompting your brain to think through what it means. So kudos to you on that. Is that just a practice of yours? Or did something kind of stimulate that thought that you’d might want to include those?

Steve:

Well, you know, there’s this interesting part of research where it’s collaborative and facilitative. I mean, it’s not just what, you know, I, as the researcher, or me, as part of the research team, learns. It’s, you know, the people that we’re working with. And so I have an obligation to them. Boy, that sounds like—it sounds very—more moralistic than I mean. Like, I can do a better job if I can help them learn something and take something away. But, if I also—if I hear what they’re taking away, especially—I’m, you know, I’m not the domain expert. I work as a consultant, so I come into an area that somebody else inhabits. And so they’re going to always see things in the research that I won’t see. It’s really helpful for me to understand what didn’t they hear that person say. Like, if there’s a gap in what they took away, then I now know I need to kind of emphasis that because it’s—there’s a takeaway that’s obvious to me that isn’t to them. So that needs to be surfaced as I share back. So I can get that out a debrief. And, when I hear what they heard and what surprises them, I understand, yeah, how they’re framing the world, what’s relevant information. Like, I’m getting this indirect feedback. So, you know, I—like, it’s not my natural way of being to have a template for an activity. I’d rather just chat. And sometimes that suits me well, and sometimes I need to put a little more structure in it. So, I think, you know, writing up a debriefing guide—well, I think there’s—having something formal like a template or a tool you can use sort of reminds me that this is an important part of the process. I need to make time for it and mental space for it, and I need to tell the people I’m collaborating with that they should leave time for it. And guess what? This is a serious activity. I don’t—I’m not just trying to, like, get coffee with you and, “Hey... what did you think?” I’ve got a document here. So there’s a little bit of a theater. And I don’t mean that in an unkind way. But there’s a little bit of a, you know, a formality to it that reminds me to take it seriously and that shows my collaborators that I value what they have to say and that I, you know, I’ve got some format for that.

Karen:

I love a good worksheet. I’m just sitting here just thinking, like, I love that framing. I think, for a million qualitative researchers out there who are frequently struggling to debrief at the end of a series of focus groups—for example, stepping into that world a minute, you know, just sometimes, clients are like, “I’m just too tired to do this.” It’s just—it feels like they can easily dismiss it, you know. But, boy, let’s put a worksheet in there and everything changes just a little bit because you are collecting their information because it matters. What’s in their brain really does matter. It’s incredibly important. So lots of applications to borrow from. One thing—I want to be mindful of time, but I do want to ask you about this because it’s a pretty important facet of the book in my opinion. You know, you did really bring home the importance of not just kind of analyzing and synthesizing the data but driving impact across the organization. So talk to me a little about that add and what you were seeing and why that felt important to include in this edition.

Steve:

You know, I think it’s the million-dollar question or the number one question that sometimes frustrates me. I mean, I’ll just be a little gripey here. You know, as I go out and talk to people and, you know, maybe I’m teaching a workshop and so on, and I, you know—like, follow-up questions, for example. Like, one of the most important things in a research interview is asking follow-up questions. And so I might teach people. Like, we could do a whole session on following-up questions and how to do them and practice doing them. And people are like, “Okay, I get it.” And then we get to discussion, and then people say, “Well, this is great, but how do I get people to let me do interviews, or how do I get people to act on interviews?” Like, it’s the question that’s always behind the question. So you—I want to talk about technique because it’s really important to hone the craft, but I have to recognize, like, there are sort of systemic challenges that limit the use of any technique. And then, so, you know, I think it’s—it is sort of the number one topic that, I think, when researchers get together, they wring their hands about it. I saw, like, a social media thread from a panel that was held a few years ago, and people were saying things like, “My research doesn’t have value unless someone acts on it.” And I feel really sad when I see that, actually. I understand where that comes from because we do all this interesting research, and, you know, you don’t—you can’t get anybody’s time, or they don’t want to act on it, or they—it doesn’t sufficiently change somebody’s mind about something. You know, I feel like, you know, the research is good, and there’s other things that have to happen as well. But I don’t think it has no value. And, sometimes, we can’t see the impact. Sometimes, the impact happens later on or somebody—people don’t always attribute. You know, “Karen, you told me that people think X, and so I made decision Y.” Like, that’s not how minds change and people’s lives change. And they’re going to do something down the road, where you’re not there, that they not even consciously attribute to a fact that you presented them but to kind of the dynamic and the relationship you have with them. So I want to reframe it so people feel positive about it. But, also, you know, how do we give people tools for success? It is uphill. Like, we’re talking about culture change. We’re talking about changing minds, changing beliefs. And I have been, you know, shot down so many times. I try to get a little better at it. So I think it’s really important, and it’s on people’s minds. So, I don’t know, I guess I’m kind of answering ‘why is this important’. I don’t know if that’s the thrust of your question or not. But that’s...

Karen:

[laugh] Well, the—you’re answering why it’s important, which is why it was important enough to include in the book. So I appreciate that very, very much. Yeah, again, really, really great stuff in this book. So I want to bring us to a close and ask two things. First, kind of what’s next for you? What’s kind of on the horizon? Are you doing another one of these books? And then, kind of after that, the second question in my question series is how can people learn a little more and find out more about this book or get one into their hands? So let’s take those one at a time. What’s next for you? What’s on the horizon?

Steve:

You know, I mean, I’m self-employed. My priority is always my consulting work and working with clients. So we’ll sort of see how that shakes out. I think writing a book about the practice, I think, I’m hoping will, you know, help me continue to do training and kind of helping teams build better practices. Because ‘hey... I have a new book about doing that.’ I have my own podcast called Dollars to Donuts. It’s a podcast about leadership in user research, which is also something that’s changed over 10 years. There were no people running teams of researchers, if you went back, or there were few. I think it’s now a discipline, and it impacts everything that we’re talking about like—certainly, around impact. When you have a peer, it changes the dynamic. That podcast is—you know, I don’t have the steady commitment that I, you know, I think people like you do. So it comes in and out, but I’m eager to—and so I’m sort of, you know, declaring my intent. I’m sort of staging that. I want to start those conversations again. And, you know, I learn a lot from those. I think there’s material that will come out of those podcasts that will find its way into something. I don’t know what that is. But, yeah. So there’s—I think there’s a hand—there’s, like, 30, 35 episodes that are, you know, up over the last few years. And then, you know, more to come—I guess as I’m declaring that—is up for me next. To get your hands on this book, Interviewing Users, 2nd Edition, the best place to buy it is from the publisher, Rosenfeld Media. You know, it supports small businesses. If you buy a print copy, you get a digital copy included. So they do things like that. And, for listeners of this podcast, I’m just going to sound really host-y. For listeners of this podcast, you can use the discount code ‘Greenbook,’ the name of the podcast, to get a 20 percent discount if you buy through the publisher, Rosenfeld Media. If you want to find me, my website is my last name, Portigal, portigal.com. You know, I post things there. I’ll post this when it comes out and other stuff that I’m doing. You can read about me and find stuff about the book. But I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. And so I invite people to find me on there and connect. And, yeah, that way I can learn what other people are up to as well and connect with them.

Karen:

That’s great. Well, thank you for that discount code and for labeling it ‘Greenbook.’ We appreciate that, and I know our audience will as well. And I love the idea. And now I’m just really curious about the digital version, also, because I’m like ‘oo... are some of those sort of forms that we talked about available for download?’ That’d be pretty sweet.

Steve:

I think any of the forms are footnoted in the book. So there’s URLs, I think, for all those forms that are in the print edition, but you could just click on it if you’re in the digital edition. You should be able to get that form.

Karen:

Yeah. It’s pretty cool. That’s a pretty sweet feature. The book that I have is just the hard copy. I don’t have the digital version there. So now I’m going to be like ‘oh, that’s really, pretty cool.’ Anyway, thank you so much for being on this show. I really appreciate you, Steve, and the time and the fact that you kind of put this book out there into the world. I think it’s important, and I’m grateful for the work you did.

Steve:

Thanks for a really lovely conversation. It was nice to meet you and chat with you.

Karen:

It was so nice to meet you too. And we probably could talk a long time, but I have to watch the clock before our producer, Natalie, who I appreciate every single time—she puts these into place for us. She will be saying, “Karen, Karen, Karen, you just have to talk a little less.” Anyway, thank you, Natalie, for all you do to support this show. Thank you to our editor, Big Bad Audio. We appreciate how well you make us sound episode after episode. And, of course, all of our listeners, thank you for tuning in. We’ll see you next time on another episode of the Greenbook Podcast.

Next Episode All Episodes Previous Episode
Show artwork for Greenbook Podcast

About the Podcast

Greenbook Podcast
Exploring the future of market research and consumer insights
Immerse yourself in the evolving world of market research, insights and analytics, as hosts Lenny Murphy and Karen Lynch explore factors impacting our industry with some of its most innovative, influential practitioners. Spend less than an hour weekly exploring the latest technologies, methodologies, strategies, and emerging ideas with Greenbook, your guide to the future of insights.

About your host

Profile picture for Greenbook Podcast

Greenbook Podcast