Finding the 'Aha!' Moment
Expert user researcher Steve Portigal breaks down why thinking about bias and mistakes is the key to joyful discovery.
Steve Portigal says being a researcher allows him to do things he would never do as his “civilian self.” A self-proclaimed introvert, Portigal recalls the kind of uncanny magic of going to dinner with a friend who’s particularly extroverted. “We joke about all of the service experiences and interactions it unlocks,” he says.
The structure of research work, Portigal says, allows him to have those kinds of interactions, the ones he’d normally feel locked out of in everyday life. It’s why he posits introverts are so common in the research field.
“Introversion’s not about shyness or dislike of people,” Portigal says. “It’s about energy. One of the coping mechanisms for introversion is to play a role. And in a research situation, there’s that kind of structure to talk to strangers and ask them questions and learn about them, and do all of the things you’d never be able to do as your civilian self.”
Portigal’s done more than simply master the art of talking to strangers; as a sought-after strategic consultant, speaker, author, and podcast host, he’s teaching a new generation of researchers how to do the same. We sat down with him to chat about everything from the importance of being present to how our mistakes can create unparalleled moments of discovery.
dscout: What’s the biggest mistake you see researchers making right now?
Steve: I’m concerned that it’s easy for us to think about research as a tactical activity, because there are so many tactical details to work out. How are we going to find people to talk to? How much are we going to pay them? What kind of release will they sign? What happens with their data? These are certainly important questions, and a necessary part of the work, but sometimes they take up more space in our minds than they should. When the research community gathers to talk about their work, so many of those conversations are about those tactical aspects. Those are generally the easier conversations to have, but in some cases they’re taking the place of some of the more crucial topics we should be tackling, like understanding bias.
We often take it for granted that people who are out in the field doing research can behave in an intellectually neutral way for the purposes of research. That they’ve spent the time to cultivate a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness. And I’m not sure that’s always true.
Bias is a loaded word. It doesn’t necessarily mean something that’s socially unacceptable. A bias could be that you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of your organization, or you have a strong belief in the value of the design solution that your company wants to utilize. We often take it for granted that people who are out in the field doing research can behave in an intellectually neutral way for the purposes of research. That they’ve spent the time to cultivate a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness. And I’m not sure that’s always true. Because there’s so much visible energy spent around things like managing the delivery of incentives, and fewer researchers saying, “I had an experience where I realized I was being very critical of this person,” or “I realized I was turning into an advocate for the solution.”
I was coaching a research team recently, and they’d institutionalized this kind of practice. They were trying to have sales meetings and conduct user research at the same time. I had to tell them, “You can’t do that. Those are two completely different objectives.”
Those are conversations that are often difficult for researchers to have within their own organizations. There can be pushback from management.
Ideally there’s a collaboration and a chance for research to speak truth to power. But that’s not what a person in a support role does.
So how do you help a researcher make the case for why their work needs to be separate from a sales conversation?
I’m interested in how researchers are positioned within a company. Sometimes you hear researchers say: “I support this product team” or “I support this group of designers”—and it’s interesting to me that the language frames research as a support function. It’s not about trying to be on top. Ideally there’s a collaboration and a chance for research to speak truth to power. But that’s not what a person in a support role does.
A lot of organizations don’t have leadership in research positions, so young people coming in don’t always have access to mentors. Structurally, that makes it difficult for young people in the field. In the example I just gave—the researchers were the ones who told me they were using a sales meeting to learn about people, and I had to be the one to advise them not to do that. Because they didn’t have that kind of senior leadership on the inside.
Take a pause from the larger world and go into a space where all you care about is the person in front of you and your curiosity and desire to learn. That transition in mindset is important. At first, you should make it explicit, and then over time, you develop the ability to kind of flip from one world to the next more fluidly.
It seems to go back to your point about the lack of focus on something like bias, and how, since it’s not a tactical concern, it’s something a young researcher might not realize they need to focus on without someone more senior to guide and mentor them. Because humans are only objective up to a certain point—we bring our own baggage and our own worldviews with us to any conversation. How do you advise people on how to manage their own biases in an interview?
Research requires a certain kind of mindset—we have to keep objectives in mind, and the mechanics of the job and the project, and wants and needs of our colleagues and so on. That’s a lot to bring into the field with you. But if you really want to hear a person for who they are, you can’t carry all that with you. You can’t go into an interview saying, “I’m going to come back with seven key takeaways that I’m going to type up and put into the Slack channel.”
The more you think about how you have to extract something that’s going to be utilized in the work world, the further you are being pulled out of just a chance to be present with someone. So my advice to people is to set that aside. To be very literal about it and say aloud or under your breath or to your team, “Right now we’re just going to focus on how Joanne organizes her desk, or whatever the scenario might be. We’re just going to focus on that for the next few minutes.” Take a pause from the larger world and go into a space where all you care about is the person in front of you and your curiosity and desire to learn. That transition in mindset is important. At first, you should make it explicit, and then over time, you develop the ability to kind of flip from one world to the next more fluidly.
What do you see happen when people don’t make that switch? When they go into an interview just seeking their seven takeaways and they aren’t really present?
There’s a very positive feeling—that I would almost consider joyous—which is realizing that you’re wrong. Identifying that you might have had an assumption coming into a conversation, one that you didn’t even realize you had.
Often you’ll see people do things like using corporate-speak instead of natural language, or proposing things to people as opposed to listening to what they’re saying. Some of it is that biased questions try to generate solutions, when that’s not at all what interview should be about. There’s a very positive feeling—that I would almost consider joyous—which is realizing that you’re wrong. Identifying that you might have had an assumption coming into a conversation, one that you didn’t even realize you had. And after having an interaction or looking at some evidence, you start to feel those assumptions drifting away, and you feel lighter and freer. You’re realizing you have a bias, but the act of realizing it is also the act of letting it go. In some ways that’s what research is. It’s the shedding of bias. Because a person can only become so much of a hollow vessel, and not know things. You’ll always have assumptions about how a task is being performed, or what a value proposition is, or how a word is being used to describe a set of experiences. Bias can be any of those presumptions we’re carrying around. But uncovering those biases and letting them go can be really joyous, and lead to those “aha!” moments.
It can be instructive.
Right! “Wow, I just learned something.” I think that joy is really the joy of discovery—gaining a richer understanding of the world. The work of a researcher is really about our engagement with other people. But so much of it comes back to ourselves and how we know ourselves and whether we have the ability to listen to ourselves.
Those moments of discovery are at the heart of a lot of the stories in your most recent book, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. The book collects a number of stories about times when research went spectacularly wrong—and yet it ended up being a kind of game-changer for the researcher in the long run.
This is a pattern in a lot of these stories. The interview feels very stressful, that you’re wasting your time, and the person’s not going to give you anything. It feels like you’re in the wrong place. But you stick with it and finish the interview. And then, later on in the process, when you’re going back over your data, often you can find that those moments are very helpful. It goes back to the idea of bias coming in, that when you’re speaking to people in your research, you start judging the value of what they tell you based on what you think you want to learn. Sometimes, those conversations can lead to valuable and specific insights. But perhaps, more often, they serve as a touch point to understand the world more broadly—a contrast to the rest of the data that was more like what you expected to gather.
In the last couple of years since the initial publication, a number of people have shared their own war stories in an online forum. Was that surprising to you, that people were so willing to share about things that went spectacularly wrong?
It wasn’t so surprising to me—I really wanted to give people permission to share the reality of those experiences, and to normalize that research experiences don’t always go as we expect. Sometimes they can so spectacularly wrong, and sometimes they’re just sort of confusing. Sometimes they provide huge insights, and sometimes they don’t. But I just wanted to create a space where the reality could be discussed. Researchers like to talk about ideal experiences to evangelize what we do. But the reality is that sometimes it can be more dramatic, and not fit into a certain box quite as nicely. I’ve actually seen a number of industry events where people are setting up “war stories” sessions and bringing in researchers to talk to each other about the kinds of things that go wrong, and what really goes on. It’s a movement with a lowercase m, and it’s really gratifying to see those conversations happening. It’s what I’d hoped would start from the project.