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The State of UX Research: Insights Into The Field With Steve Portigal

Our Lead UX Researcher, Jen Ignacz, had the opportunity to interview Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting, and author of one of our must-read books at Topp, Interviewing Users: How to Uncover compelling Insights.

Steve is also the host of the podcast Dollars To Donuts, in which he brings to light the practice of User Experience Research by interviewing practitioners about their experiences in the field.

We hope you enjoy the interview!

The following is a transcript of the interview by Jen Ignacz with Steve Portigal. Some parts have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jen Ignacz:  So today we're going to be speaking with Steve Portigal, he is an inspirational, influential thinker in the UX world especially when it comes to user research. He is the principal and founder of Portigal consulting an agency based in Silicon Valley that's committed to helping companies discover and act on insights about their customers and themselves. He literally wrote the book on interviewing users aptly called Interviewing users: how to uncover compelling insights. I found out about Steve and what he was doing when I came across his podcast called Dollars to Donuts in which he talks with people who lead user research in organizations. I absolutely loved the podcast and then looked up everything else that Steve had done. 

Jen Ignacz:  Steve, welcome. 

Steve Portigal:  Thanks, it's great to chat with you.

JI:  It's great to to talk to you too. It looks like you have got quite a bit going on with the book, and the podcast, and your own consulting firm; is there anything else going on that you want to talk about? 

SP:  It feels like this time of year for me is really busy, as anyone that works for themselves knows, about, what’s the phrase: ”feast or famine”, so, I go through various periods, where, I’m trying to get a lot of things to happen and then they all happen at the same time. I’ve got a fairly active time of consulting right now and a bunch of interesting conferences, you mentioned the podcast, and I'm writing some other things. It's good – one never wants to complain about having a bunch of good things happen, but it's sort of a challenge to see if I can do everything that I wanted to do, do it well, learn, and learn and have fun. But you listed at a lot of good things I'm excited about.

JI:  Every time you publish something new that you're doing or going to a conference I get really excited and also little jealous that I can’t go to the conference myself. 

SP:  Well, that’s kind of you.

JI:  So how long have you been practicing in the field of UX?

SP:  It's hard to pick an exact date. I was doing stuff that we didn't have the phrase UX for while I was learning. The mid-90’s was when I entered the professional world and started learning about design and about bringing users into design. Twenty years is what I've been saying. It´s an intimidating number for me but when you look back on it that's where it is.

JI:  Have you always focused on research?

SP:  My graduate degree was in human-computer interaction and I was a computer science guy, so I thought I would go and make software. Then I learned about the idea of users being a part of that, but that was still a software development process, in my mind, as opposed to a specialty. When I was an undergraduate, and graduate school, user experience wasn't a profession – maybe there were HCI people working for, like, telcos, but there was no web, and so there was just not as much awareness of how different kinds of software could be made, and this idea of testing usability was kind of an emergent notion at that point. So, I didn't know that this would be my profession for a long time, but I think there was always the seeds planted early, that understanding from people how the thing that you're making works or doesn't work for them was novel, and had a lot of potential. 

JI:  When did it turn into more of a profession, and putting labels on it like UX as opposed to computer science, for you?

SP:  I got hired into a design firm in 1995, at an industrial design firm, and that was a concept that I was only loosely aware of, that there were these people that kind of made devices or – they didn't make them, they contributed to the ”thing” of the device but it was really about form giving, and that profession, traditional industrial design, didn't think very much about interactivity. There were kind of buttons, or maybe like a status display or something. I got hired into this firm that was experimenting with things they called human interface design, so they were a software specific biz which was teeny tiny. I was the second person brought in to do that, and it didn't really integrate with the rest of the traditional industrial design clients, and at the same time they were incubating a service offering around, I´m not even sure what the label for it was for it, but over the years it came to be called innovation (which was an overused word then and certainly is now), but it was about new product developments. “Fuzzy front-end” were the kind of the words that were being thrown around and ethnography was a big word that was being used. So, I apprenticed to do that work when they were still figuring out what it was – it wasn’t a well-established thing. We still didn´t have User Experience. I think we were still just in the early web days and we were living outside that world. So they ended up refining and revising what the software design offering was, so you had just a bunch of different kinds of creative design related consulting work going on together. I guess, for me, it coalesced into a profession once I got exposed to the practice of research – going out and talking to people, and trying to make sense of things, and then translating that into “well, what does that mean for the opportunity for our clients?”. So, the apprenticeship was super formative for me, in the rest of my professional path, so far.

JI:  What did you do once you started to understand ethnography, a hot word nowadays, and not everyone agrees on what it means, especially when it comes to business ethnography, but when you started into the research side of it, and studying people, at what point did you take off, and you mentioned that was the beginning of your professional side of user research, what happened after that up until about now?

SP:  I worked in this agency for about seven years and it's the time when business ethnography start being a thing and companies started asking for it. For me, I'm learning all the different steps. I didn't even go in the field, I would just watch videos and do analysis, sitting at workshops and help make sense of something we didn't really know how to do. I would go out and hold a camera but I wouldn't ask questions, then I would be able to ask one question - it was a progression through that apprenticeship, because of the small flexible nature of the consultancy, I was the guy that always got cast in these different roles and sometimes it was frustrating, because everybody had a thing that they were, and no one would allow me to have a thing. I would always fill in for everybody else's thing, so we’d have some project kicking off and that somebody who was supposed to speak for research canceled, they’d throw me in and I would step up to that, or I'd be the person who managed the project, or I'd be dealing with the logistics, or I would be the creative that would brainstorm things. I would just get thrown into all these different roles and it let me build up a lot of different kinds of muscles. So when I started my own practice in 2001, there was certainly so much that I didn't know, and there is still so much I don't know, but I felt that at least I knew something about the operating of a business: how to find clients, hopefully, and talk to them about what they're looking for, and propose how you might address that for them, and to write a proposal and to execute on a project, and to invoice... I mean any of these things that have to be done to be a consultant and to have your own practice. I was fortunate to not have been cast in a specific role, but picking up different roles that took me into figuring out what my practice was going to be, and it´s something I'm still figuring out fifteen years later. So I’ve had this business since 2001, but it's been very different as I developed, as the field has changed, a market for this kind of work has changed. I've sub-contracted to other agencies, I've hired my own staff and managed them through multiple projects where we're doing eighty things at once, I have partnered with other consultants… 

JI:  You mentioned that companies started asking for the research at your first industrial design firm. Was that a big shift? Was it something you saw change over time, or something that was already there when you went into this industrial design firm?

SP:  It was a big shift and I think there were two chunks to that shift: One was companies asking for this and I think there was definitely an extensive sales process which I didn't have a huge amount of visibility into, but I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we've seen that we've done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn't look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought "this is a real thing" – you know, companies - business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. FortuneBusiness week and magazines alike were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

JI:  The other follow up question that I had – you mentioned that you were often filling in roles for whatever needed to be done. Is this characteristic of you as a person or where user research kind of bubbled up and created itself by filling in those gaps?

SP:  It's a cliché response, but I have to say that it is an awesome question! Well, I felt that it was characteristic of me, and I don't mean that in a self-aggrandising way, like I could do everything. I was, and still am, frustrated by the fact that other people were able to create stronger brands: ”hey, I do this, I'm the idea guy, I'm the logistics guy…” I don't think I ever had that amount of cred that's my negative take on it. At the same time I remember in the thick of that period, where I would be on two or three projects, and I could shift roles from meeting to meeting, and I really liked that. I guess your question is making me think – I don’t know if I’ve thought about it in a positive way before – I do really like that – I like to play a range of roles. It doesn't mean that I'm good at everything, but I like to collaborate with people, if we’re brainstorming and they're super aggressive, I can just throw in little bits here and there and redirect. I like to flip it around and be just super talking, arm-waving, shouting person, and have someone you know organise and structure me. I think that satisfies me creatively and intellectually to be able to do that. So maybe it is me. I guess I gravitate towards relationships where I can stretch different muscles. I hunger if I can´t get different kinds of relationships where I can play different roles. But you're bigger question which is less about Steve and more about the work, which does that have something to do with user research: Does user research attract those people or is that that the nature of the work?

JI:  That is actually why I ask, because as you were describing this, I certainly was able to identify my own experience and personality filling in the gaps and doing whatever you have to do to in order to get a job done. Some days that means being a leader, others a follower, an organizer, doing logistics whatever needs to get done. And I also see that in a lot of research peers, so I was wondering if you kind of pointed out this communality. 

SP:  I feel like Topp hired really well, I mean if that's what you and your peers are like that then to me it’s just a good culture. Maybe being seasoned in research teaches you that stuff just has to get done: it takes going to the bank and lining up for stacks of cash to put in envelopes to hand over to ten participants, it takes creative thinking, it takes working with video, and it takes explaining to a client why they have to keep quiet or whatever. It takes a lot of different kinds of skills, but let's try to be conclusive here: good to great researchers need to do all those things because the work is so multi-faceted, but I don't know that people that self-identify as researchers therefore can. I think that there are, like any community of practice, you get a lot of different types, and I think there are researchers that have their little slots they have developed for themselves that they like to rest within. Which I think is the same as any practice, but to me it's about the organisation and organisations where you and your teammates can do that. I think that is about the belief in the addressing the bigger picture, like, “we have to work together to solve this”, and that means we have to summon up whatever skills are needed.

JI:  Looking at the practice of user research, where it is now, and connecting that back to the previous question that, about companies asking for user research and part of that shift over time. Do you have any thoughts on where user research is now, in terms of how businesses seek it out, how they expect it to become part of their process? Where is the state of user research right now?

SP:  I have very mixed feelings about the state of user research, that I will try to put into a cogent observation, which maybe is full of hot air. But to me, it feels like as much as I described that inflection point where people started asking for it, they started seeing the value it was being a champion in the business press, there were conferences starting to happen… it's still been, not a fight, but I think we in the field have been passionate advocates. We have been asked for it, we've been advising, coaching, guiding, teaching, arguing ”this is what you need to do, this is how it has to work, this is the value that it can bring…” and you have really seen a huge impact from that. Right now the demand for research staff, and I don't think it's just Silicon Valley, far exceeds supply. So it really is being done and being sought, so that's the good thing, that's what we've been asking for for so long. At the same time, I fear that its commoditised by being sort of co-opted by the machinist – I sound like a sixties radical – and now we're just kept in a little safe corner. I don't think research has always seen as to its potential. I think it's often very tactical, evaluative, it's a checkbox, the people doing the research are not necessarily empowered in the organisation. There is not as much leadership in the organisation for research as there is for technology, design, marketing. It's the sort of service piece that doesn't have the impact by being absorbed. There's a huge growth in in-house research providers, or staff I guess, that just didn't exist. The idea that you would build a team of 40 researchers and six global locations is amazing, but I don't know that they're being asked to do or that they are skilled to do. It goes back to the previous discussion of what are the skills of a researcher? And if you look at user experience design, there was the whole whining we want a seat at the table piece for many years, and design got a seat at the table. The discussion of design and business is tremendous now, although probably we won't get into this conversation, but I think you can see some horrible co-opting and devaluing of design as well. So, I think there are these tensions going on around it. Once we're accepted we're not – we're sort of cool ’cause everyone loves us, but we're not edgy anymore we're not… we're not doing the thing that we had this enormous potential to do. And, of course, no one thing is right; you have zillions of researchers working on zillions of projects at organisations at different levels. I guess these are sort of the forces that I see: this acceptance and yet this this kind of downgrading of the potential. I think it asks all of us that do this work: what do we want to be doing with our own careers? How are we going to develop ourselves? How are we going to find value how are we going to get hired and paid? and what's the profession going to look like? That's where I wring my hands a lot more now and it´s good to have that challenge.

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Jen Ignacz

UX Researcher

Let's talk about the future of user research.

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