User research interviews: An interview with Steve Portigal

Listen (MP3, file size: 9.9 MB)

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today is based in San Francisco. His small consulting company focuses on helping client companies to, and I’ll quote, “discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers.” Clients have included a wide range of companies such as Sony, HP, Fisher Price and Nestlé.

He writes on UX topics in a variety of forums as well as running workshops and tutorials. One of his particular interests currently is interviewing and he’s working on book entitled The Art of and Craft of User Research Interviewing: Diving Deep for Insight. And he’s a nice guy.

Steve Portigal, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Steve Portigal:

Thanks so much for having me. This is great.

Gerry:

Now I was actually a bit surprised to realise that on the podcast we haven’t covered the topic of interviewing previously and we’ve been going for five years now. It’s such a core skill, isn’t it, in the field?

Steve:

I think it really is and I guess maybe I’m not surprised that you haven’t talked about it. One of the things that strikes me about interviewing is that unlike other skills that make up a UX practice, it’s seen maybe more like an ingrained, built-in human skill.

It’s talking to people, it’s asking questions so in my experience a lot of people feel like, well yeah that’s not a specialty, anyone can do that. And to a certain extent, yes anyone can, but I think like a lot of other things once you start to look at it more closely you realise there is, well art and craft that underlie… reaching an extremely high and effective level of skills.

Gerry:

I guess it’s also something that we take for granted after you’ve been doing it for a while to a certain extent. I mean, hopefully we’re always examining ourselves and looking at our practice but you do tend to get a little bit blasé about it, and I know whenever I send students out and say, go out and interview people on the street or whatever they sort of freak out.

Steve:

And why do they freak out? Because that’s something new that’s outside their core skill set.

Gerry:

Yeah that’s right. I guess we should make it clear what sort of interviews we’re talking about here today. I’ve got some ideas in my head what we’re talking about but you tell us what you think we’re going to talk about.

Steve:

The kinds of interviews that I’m most interested in, that I talk to people about, and I think why you and I are talking are about… Interview is kind of a broad-based term for a method that you can use to do user research. We want to understand people, something about them in order to design for them. And so that’s different from interviewing prospective job candidates or interviewing for journalism and so on.

Gerry:

I also think that something that falls into the gamut of what you’re talking about is possibly the sorts of discussions or interaction we have with people during usability testing and those sorts of forums.

Steve:

Sure, where there’s maybe more of a… it’s more a conversion type of activity you’re focused on, some pretty specific types of interactions and types of outcomes you’re trying to get to. I think a lot of the principles can apply so, you know, you can do usability testing and have a discussion component of it and I think some of these best practices that I’m very interested in around interviewing can be applied there. And actually I think in media interviewing and employment interviewing, they are sort of analogous parallel methods in the same way that someone that’s interested in sketching for user interface design might study how painters deal with perspective, and that’s an example out of my hat obviously.

You know I think these analogues can be very illustrative. Just this week we were speaking with job references for a candidate and that person was a user researcher as well and we were throwing in some stock interview questions from user research interviews… they were very effective questions to try to get what we were trying to learn from this very different kind of situation but we were laughing because we recognised these archetype questions as they came up.

Gerry:

One of the things I think that newcomers to interviewing find quite difficult is the concept of silence.

[A few seconds of silence ensue.]

Steve:

Agreed, and I was going to see how long I could hold silence…

Gerry:

Yeah, I was going to do the same but you blinked. [Laughs]

Steve:

It’s too difficult to do I think because we know people are listening to us so… we are talking to each other but we are also talking to some other people as well as part of our conversation today.

Gerry:

But our conversational norms really militate against silence don’t they and it’s funny because I was talking to Jim Lewis about speech user interface design on the podcast a while back and reading his stuff on how human dialogues work. We just do not have any silence in a normal conversation.

Steve:

I think, and this is just sort of anecdotally, but I believe that we’ve kind of trained ourselves to listen for that breath intake that the other person says and I’m sure there’s a kind of speech cadence and pitch going up and down that says, your turn’s coming up. So I think we are trained to wait for our next moment and kind of seize that moment. And I think what goes with that is because your ears and your brain are kind of saying okay here comes the moment, you’re cueing up what you want to say next.

And so silence is a really interesting approach to interviewing and I think a really necessary one because it’s about holding back. It’s an interesting idea that in order to be effective at something you have to actively do nothing. That’s just such a counter notion I think to so much of how we work, how we succeed professionally. We’re not rewarded for doing nothing. So if you go out to interview, you think well your job is to ask questions, come up with questions, more questions, next question. And in fact really amazing things can happen when you do nothing…

Gerry:

It can be quite difficult in the early stages to sit there and ask a question of someone and you can see that they’re perhaps struggling with the answer and the natural tendency, I notice this a lot when I’m looking at recordings of other people doing interviews, that the natural tendency at that point is to interject a possible answer or to start helping the interviewee come up with an appropriate formulation. But in fact generally speaking we want to avoid doing that.

Steve:

Exactly, exactly. People will eventually answer. And I think often as not that idea of sensing that a person has trouble and sort of wanting to help out and offering more questions… So my example’s always like: “What did you have for breakfast today?” Which is the question, the simple question. You stop and you just hold it and there’s silence until the person tells you what they had. Or: “What did you have for breakfast today? Did you have toast? Did you have juice? Did you have jam?” And start to give them things to say. I think often as not it’s our own discomfort that’s happening here and that we may decide the other person is uncomfortable and want to help them but in fact we’re nervous ourselves about how much permission we have to ask questions. So we want to kind of over-deliver, over-promise, over-commit, just over, over, over, everything we do in our question asking.

And sometimes when I’m asking a question, I can see in the person’s face, I’m not done with my question and they’re starting to answer. You know, their face starts to move and they start to lean forward and shift their shoulders and they start to even move their jaw; they’re ready to answer the question, they’re with me, they get what I’m asking, and even in that case, you know, stopping your questions right there. “What did you have for …” “Oh, for breakfast today I had blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” And I can see that person jump in. That’s great if you can do that but it’s that same impulse… I certainly struggle with it all the time, wanting to push the question forward, being uncomfortable with my own silence, taking that risk when I throw the question over to them. These are all our discomfort projected on the other person.

Gerry:

One of the things that you talk about in your slide pack, I’m thinking about the one you did for South By Southwest… You talk about building a rapport with people and I guess there’s a kind of relationship thing there where you need to build a certain rapport with people but you also have to hold back, don’t you? You have to maintain your professional persona in that you’re representing an organisation or a development team or some group who are actually trying to gather data from the activity you’re carrying out.

How do you balance that, you know being a friendly human and having a rapport and getting, if you like, too close and too involved and too much of your own personality in the interview?

Steve:

Yeah there’s something about interviewing. It is such an individual and it’s such a human activity that we can talk best practices, you know, all day. I think there’s something really great that happens when people make it their own. I think this is one of those “find your own style” things. I like to be dictatorial about best practices but I also have to acknowledge very strongly that what people bring is very interesting and different. Along those lines think about introverts versus extroverts and what’s easier or different for introverts or extroverts in these kinds of situations. Extroverts of course get energy from other people, introverts get energy kind of on their own and so that starts to manifest itself in interesting ways or in silence. But also just how much of yourself do you bring to it? And so I’ve seen extroverts be very successful at establishing rapport by talking about themselves, by being very open and genuine and giving.

My tactic as an introvert is to remove a lot of myself from it and really focus on them, express my interest in them, ask questions, ask questions, ask questions, ask follow-up questions, really drive everything towards my focus on them. So my long answer there is I think there’s a personal style thing that kind of comes out. I think if you reveal things about yourself, regardless of your style, I think it needs to be very deliberate. It’s a great tactic to give somebody permission. This goes back to the silence thing and listening for breathing; the social norms that we’re channelling in these interviews are different, right? Conversation between two people, you’re going to aim for about 50 per cent, you want to get yourself heard. I don’t have numbers but let’s say it’s an 80:20 here. You know, it might be a 90:10. This is really about the other person talking and so you’re leveraging social cues and so on but you’re playing them very, very differently.

Gerry:

You talk about going and somebody being offered a drink, an interviewer being offered a drink when they’re out on a site visit to somebody and not taking it…

Steve:

Right.

Gerry:

Tell us about that.

Steve:

Yeah, I think my standard practice for years was to sort of make myself as small as possible, right? That what I’m trying to do was interfere as little as possible in the environment. So if I was going into somebody’s home and they would say, you know; “Can we get you a drink? And do you do need anything and what can I …?” “No, no, no we don’t need anything.” We’re just here to be all about you, we’re going to focus on you and so if you’re going to extend yourself for us that’s an imposition and that’s kind of wrong.

I remember one interview where the person was a little miffed and we had a hard time establishing a comfortable dialogue with them, and I think if I remember correctly, this was well over a decade ago… If I remember correctly at the three-quarter mark they asked us again about some refreshment and we accepted the drink. This was a mom and we were in her home and when the drink came out we accepted it, everything kind of opened up and we realised after that, as much as we were operating kind of in our frame of you know, we’re professionals, we come with clipboards and video cameras and tripods and cameras and non-disclosure agreements and prototypes and all this stuff and we’re on the clock, we’re working; we have this you know self-importance for ourselves. We’re visiting somebody in their home and in this case that’s the only frame of reference they have. People are coming to my home so when someone comes to my home, you know our participant is thinking you give them a drink. That’s just what you do. That is what you do. Right, and you think about countries where if you don’t deal with those… the cup of tea or something… in Japan if you don’t deal with that properly, everything’s off.

So I’m not worried about being an imposition. I want to accept the social graces that just say, hey you know we’re here to negotiating a middle ground between my professional interviewer frame of mind and your I’m a person who has guests over to my house frame.

Gerry:

I’m always amazed when I go to people’s houses to do interviews how incredibly open they are about stuff. I remember going to do some work for a financial organisation and somebody got out their black book and went to the back page and logged on to their various internet banking and superannuation accounts and they had all these passwords and everything there right open in front of me.

People really do welcome you in, don’t they?

Steve:

Yeah, and I think that’s the rapport thing and it’s about creating trust and some people are out the gate, you know totally, totally there with you and other people need a little bit of time. Obviously you have to cherish that trust, right? You have to turn off the video cameras or not take… you know, whatever it is to communicate to them, hey it’s great you’re going to show me this stuff but we’re going to respect your financial privacy.

But you’re right, not only that kind of data but stories, right? Stories about people’s… I had a woman… they come up in all sorts of fantastically unrelated situations and this may sound really cruel but give, me a moment… My goal for every study is to see if someone will cry.

Gerry:

[Laughs.]

Steve:

And I don’t mean that I’m interested in people in sadness or making them cry but I’ve been amazed at how, regardless of the topic, if we are getting to that point of trust and people are really sharing things with us then deep personal stories will come out to the point that, you know in a study that was looking at packaging, well labels, labelling for wine bottles, a woman began to cry in an interview about that. We were talking about what these different labels meant and there was one, I can never remember what it is, but it has small, it’s called Barefoot or something and it has silhouette footprints on it. It’s a wine label so it’s quite small physically and she said it made her think of a baby’s feet and she’s been trying for a number of years to conceive a child and can’t, and she began to weep.

Obviously that’s a sad story. I feel bad for her and I’m not trying to induce sad feelings but you know as a marker, a little more dispassionately, as a marker of how much and what kind of connection am I making with this person… Have I established their trust, and I want to cherish that trust and respect it, not abuse it or anything like that.

But if we’re at a point where people are really sharing personal things then we’ve done our job, we’re making connections with people in a really deep and intimate way.

Gerry:

Now you talk about, Steve, in interviews there’s a tipping point that occurs at some point during the interview. Tell us about that.

Steve:

This may be kind of mythological and whether it’s an actual tipping point or just a perceived tipping point but, you know, we’re talking a lot here about rapport, about getting to this point of connection where people really are trusting us and sharing things with us in these interviews. It doesn’t always happen that way out the gate. You know you sort of start with somebody and often you get… the dialogue with somebody is kind of question and answer.

So, you know, “How long have you lived in this home?” “Two years.” “What made you seek out this home that you’re living in now?” “Liked the neighbourhood.” “Who else lives here in this home with you?” “My daughter, my son, my husband, my dog.” You know, these kind of very straight to-the-point answers. And sometimes there gets a point, and it’s interesting, it’s unpredictable when it will happen, but it’s almost kind of magic to me where you ask another question and you say, “What is it that you’ve noticed about this neighbourhood.” “Oh, well, you know my neighbour, he’s lived here seven years and he came over with some fresh fruit yesterday.” Suddenly the responses… you can imagine a graph where you see the length of the question and the length of the answer as a squiggles, it’s some sort of simulated bar chart of what the dialogue looks like just in volume of responses, forget content. It’s little bits, little bits, little bits, little bits, woomph!, long responses.

So it’s question, answer, question, answer, question, story. And so I say that might be a little bit mythological, and a tipping point may not show up if you do a transcript analysis, but it’s a feeling that you as the interviewer can have when it dawns on you; Oh, wow, now we’re into a story phase. And so that obviously is what you want to get to because stories are where people tell you things that you didn’t know they were going to tell you. When you say “Who lives in this house?” you want more than just that information. You’re priming and seeding and exploring around the edges of what these topics are to see a little bit where it’s going to go. You are directed but you are also pretty open ended around the extra stuff that’s going to come back and that’s often in those stories.

Gerry:

I guess at that point you’re in the flow as well aren’t you? It’s a kind of a flow thing and a conversational thing as well. We spoke to Whitney Quesenbery recently on the podcast about story telling among other things and it’s an interesting area, isn’t it?

Steve:

Yeah. I think flows is a great way to characterise that. I think a lot of the story telling stuff that she’s been so articulate and passionate about, I think in interviewing you’re kind of facilitating that happening, which is a different way to think about interviewing. We talked before about sort of asking questions, this thing that we all know how to do but in fact you’re creating space for someone to do that.

This is where the silence thing comes back which you asked about earlier. You’re trying to encourage someone to tell a story, not just answer a question and so silence is a tactic to give them that space to do that.

Gerry:

I remember doing a particular project and we were looking at people who were renovating, let’s say, their homes, and we spoke to several people and there was one particular chap and he was completely monosyllabic about everything and we’re in his house and he was like, you just could not get information out of him, everything was really, really negative and I remember thinking… because it was negative for the whole duration, the process, not just the interview but for other things we did with the guy as well… but I remember thinking afterwards we actually learned an awful lot from that negative stance because we learned something about somebody who wasn’t engaged in the process that we were trying to support.

And sometimes you come out with unexpected findings like that I think by being open to it.

Steve:

We have this happen at every project where you create the ideal customer in your head; we want to talk to these enthusiastic renovators that are making frequent trips to the hardware store, I don’t know what you would call that, the DIY outlets?

Gerry:

“Hardware store” we get.

Steve:

Okay, so much for me trying to go local. [Laughter.] You’re looking for a certain kind of people, you’ve characterised them as enthusiasts and thought about their passion and so on. We often get people in our study that are not quite as far along as… our questions to find them were hypotheses about what those characteristics are. And people end up in the study that met all the criteria but don’t show up as that hypothetical character and they’re always really, really interesting. Those are just, they’re sort of mistakes, kind of, but they are really happy mistakes because, like you said, they give you interesting information from a different perspective.

Gerry:

Now one of the things that you said is that people should go to where people are. What do you mean?

Steve:

Well there’s many different… you mentioned usability earlier in the conversation and there’s many different methods for interviewing users to understand how to design for them, methods like focus groups, you know bringing people into facilities, bringing people to you. If you’re a corporation bringing them into your office, into your usability lab, into your conference room, into your focus group facility because that’s expedient, right? You can have people come what, an hour, and you can set up and do your thing, have the conversation. And if you think about interviews as just going through a series of questions, well that conversation could presumably happen anywhere. But in fact there’s so many things that you want to do as part of that interview that are in the environment, in that person’s environment.

So if you are talking about renovation you could have a conversation about renovation but you probably need to see where they’re at. You can get people to bring in pictures or tell you stories about it but you want them to be where the thing is happening or has happened, on one level just basic kind of observational features. Or you want to for reasons of observation go take a picture of what that looks like now that this thing has happened.

You want to see their rack of CDs that they don’t listen to anymore when you’re trying to understand their digital media library. But you’re looking for surprises as well. There’s always things in the environment that that person would never think to tell you about because they don’t notice it as being any different, but you walk in or you’re being shown around and you think, wow, that’s completely unrelated but yet it’s so revelatory.

Gerry:

Kind of… pretty much totally off topic but I did go and interview one lady who had a fish tank which was not relevant to what we were interviewing her for and I commented on the fish tank because my son had the same one at the time and she said, yeah but there’s a design problem with it and sometimes the pump does this and if it happens then you end up with water all over the floor and she explained this thing to me that had happened to her and I thought, oh that’s interesting and we moved on with the conversation. And literally two days later I came downstairs in my house and there was water starting to accumulate at the base of the fish tank and I said, I know what the problem is, because I already had the solution to it from this serendipitous discussion with the lady that I’d been interviewing.

Steve:

You know and I think that discussion about the fish tank is a great rapport builder, right? You’re not just there to ask about the thing, you’re there to learn and, you know, maybe not always but sometimes those fish tank conversations prove very relevant and maybe it’s not until you leave that you go, wow the fish tank was just like what she was trying to do with this other thing and you can see how technology’s fitting into her life and if she could only do with the fish tank what she’d done with her internet service provider then this is where she would be. You know, you can look at all these other data points, as ways that triangulate. And I think that conversation, those surprises, those seemingly unrelated things can only happen when you’re there.

Gerry:

And of course the richness of that, the stuff that you bring back to report to your team or your project or whatever it happens to be can’t be underestimated. Or shouldn’t be underestimated.

Steve:

I agree. I think there’s two other things that you’re doing here. One is, think about the symbolism and meaning of going to them versus asking them to come to you. If you’re really interested in these customers and what they do and how they live and what’s important to them, your bringing that process to them symbolises to them your deliberate and passionate interest.

If you can make them come to you, kind of report in, that’s asking them to bring their lives into your world which is really the problem I think with so many organisations and how they approach design is that they’re not reaching out, they’re waiting for dribs and drabs to come to them. So it’s the act of going out and the second part of that there is that that’s weird, for you the designer, the researcher, the corporate person, that’s weird and scary and challenging and different and it’s very experiential.

The stock phrase we so often hear is… someone we go to meet who maybe isn’t as smart as we would like our customers to be or isn’t as successful with the product or isn’t spending enough money or whatever it is, that doesn’t fit the aspirational archetype that already exists… oftentimes we get that line from our clients when we leave they say well that’s not our customer. And that’s an opportunity to say, well actually it is your customer, they’re buying your product or are using your product. They may not be doing it the way that you want to and that makes you uncomfortable and that’s okay.

But you can’t… that discomfort is very experiential. You’ve got leave the nest to have that happen to you and reflect on it and extract some value from it.

Gerry:

But sometimes I think there’s an expectation that you can somehow define… almost like we’re going to give this quantitative data and it’s going to be of this format and it’s going to tell us precisely these answers; you know, give us yes, no answers to a bunch of things and it can be hard I think to communicate that when you go out there you’re going to get a very, very rich data set and it might not comply, in fact it almost certainly will not comply with your expectations, and it’s going to be confronting at times.

Steve:

Agreed, agreed and you know there’s always the opportunity to triangulate with other methods. You can bring different methods together to get different kinds of certainty. We try hard to, at the outset, to understand… before we talk about the methodology we’re going to use we want to understand what’s the business question. What does the organisation hope to accomplish that’s driving this initiative and what’s the research question? What can people tell us that will give us information that will help us drive towards the business question? Once we understand the research question then we can talk about the research method and ideally you want to create a nice link between the business question, the research question and the research method. And be cognisant that those are different things.

Gerry:

My experience has been that the stuff that you find out when you do interviews in the wild in particular, in the field, is of enormous value. Its value is so great that I often say to the clients if you’re going to do one thing and one thing only, have somebody go out and spend time with a few customers on a one-on-one basis in wherever it is that they’re using your product or will be using your product.

Steve:

Yeah I agree. That’s great advice.

Gerry:

You say about going out to people, but you also say avoid bringing your world into theirs. What did you mean by that?

Steve:

When we do work during business hours and people that we’re taking out or leaving meetings and their iPhones or their Blackberries or their Outlooks and so… you know our world, we’re measured by certain kinds of success. So when we talked about sort of the importance of speaking versus not speaking we have belief structures about what the problem is and what the solution is and what our internal initiatives are, you know, companies are really good at coming up with lots of jargon to describe behaviour patterns, terminologies for personas, all that stuff that’s completely inside an organisation and is completely inappropriate as a mindset, as a vocabulary, as jargon in the reality of people’s world.

I think trying to let go of that, letting go of what you think the answer is, what you think the question is, how you want to talk about it, and letting go of all the tools and all the processes that kind of define a workplace. You have to be prepared to, if people’s worlds are very different and what they care about is what you’re really interested in, you have to be prepared to let go of what you already think. You know maybe it’s creating a little space in your head to separate that. You know, here’s what I believe goes in one channel and here’s what I’m hearing goes in another channel. You can mix them together and debate and choose a winner afterwards but for that time when you’re with them you have to be, you have to really keep things wide open.

Gerry:

I think it can be difficult for interviewers too, sometimes, to watch somebody who’s clearly got the wrong mental model about something, wrong so far as it doesn’t match the official mental model. They’ll be explaining what they do and, you know, somebody’s sitting with you who knows it’s wrong and you can see them fidgeting around just dying to explain what they should be doing to the person.

Steve:

Yeah it’s always a really interesting part in the process. Just recently I was out looking at how people were using a specific online service and I was with people from that online service and the participants were recruited to participate knowing we were from that online service and so there’s this really interesting dynamic that you’re trying to balance.

It was fascinating because we actually talked to this person in a conference room for about an hour and he was talking about his 25-year career in sales, building businesses, doing deals. Extraordinarily confident. The guy was basically like a Jedi of this and we were all lapping it up. He was so confident and explained everything, very high level, hard to get specific with him but just fantastic and then one of the folks I was with very wisely suggested that we go and look at some of these tools that he was describing how he used.

So we went into his office. He’s sitting at the computer; we’re standing behind him. So there’s kind of this weird body language thing that happens, and he’s not a savvy Windows user. So we’re just watching him trying to type in a URL, it was too small for his vision, he had several monitors, he couldn’t figure out what was coming up where and they were positioned… the Windows system thought one was on the left and one was on the right. So when you’d cursor off screen it would get messed up. So just at a fundamental level he was not empowered and so the whole dynamic changed and he started inevitably asking us questions about things and some of the people I was with were very good at just reflecting that back and getting him to talk.

We had one guy who was, you know, no offence to engineers, but an engineer. And so very oriented towards the right way to do things, was just bursting to explain what these features were and how to use them and what the proper term is and what department they emanated from and so on. It was just such a contrast if you look at what the dynamic between the participant and the interviewers were when we went from talking on his turf and then, even though the computer was still in his office that was more our world than his world. He was a little older and that was not really his comfort zone. So just really fascinating to see that happen.

Gerry:

You pick up a lot of language too, don’t you? I always say to people if you’re interviewing and the person you’re interviewing refers to your application as X then X is the term that you must use throughout the interview to describe it.

Steve:

Yeah. My favourite story, and I tell this a lot so listeners can fast forward, there’s… I don’t’ know how global some of these brands are but if you’re familiar with Tivo, the digital video recorder, I was with a client who, again, engineer, so there’s sort of a way that engineers like to see problems solved. We were at a guy’s home and he was showing us, in front of his family, showing us his very carefully designed home entertainment system; what services he chose, what products he chose and he talked about the privacy concerns he had with Tivo, why he didn’t have it. But he called it “Tie-vo”. Because it’s spelt T-I-V-O, who’s to know? So he kept on saying well you know Tie-vo watches what I watch and so I don’t want to have Tie-vo and as I recall this I can picture, you described that twitch, I can picture my client twitching.

Gerry:

Yeah.

Steve:

Right? And he’s gritting his teeth and going it’s not called Tie-vo. So I asked a question and I asked him about Tie-vo because I was trying to, like you’re saying reflect back his language and later on my client asked a question and he called it Tivo. He didn’t correct him he just said Tivo and I think you could see the air in the room change.

Gerry:

Yeah.

Steve:

Because suddenly we were the experts and this man had been quite proud of what he had accomplished and was using a lot of pride and the energy that he was showing us in front of his family how technology was enabling them to come together and connect and be entertained and, you know, these folks came in and basically caused him to lose a little bit of face. It was a delicate little moment.

Gerry:

It’s so true. It rings so many bells. I’m sort of conscious of the fact that we’re getting tight on time as well here, Steve.

Steve:

Sure.

Gerry:

Tell me what do you about, you know when you’re interviewing someone and they just want to rabbit on and on and on and on probably off topic. Do you have any strategies for cutting that person off in a friendly and effective fashion?

Steve:

You know I try to let them go where they want to go as much as I can. I mean you mention time, I think that’s one of the battles you fight in these situations is we have a lot we want to get through but we want to kind of see where it goes. So like your fish tank example, like these examples of things that come up that are sort of unexpected, if I ask a person a question about their meal preparation routine and they start talking about their childhood, and that’s an actual example, there is a reason they chose to answer that even though it seems irrelevant for me. And I have to give them a lot of space.

Sometimes what happens is you say; “Tell me about your meal preparation routine when you come home from work this week?” “Well, when I was a child my mother blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” And they may peter out and you may have to say, okay so tell me how that relates to… you know, you have to ask your question again a few times because they may not draw the loop back for you but somehow your question has triggered something.

So I try to be generous in letting people go where they want to go because it makes sense. I’m trying to understand their world and what’s important to them even though I’m bouncing against the things I’m very interested in learning about, that I have an objective to learn about. That all being said, there’s definitely a type of person that just can’t follow your lead strongly, that is just going to kind of natter, frankly.

Gerry:

That’s the one I’m thinking of. [Laughs.]

Steve:

Yeah. But I guess I give that first example because I don’t want everyone to be thrown into that bucket, that most people will ramble and you want to let them ramble.

Gerry:

Sure.

Steve:

Sometimes you’re just, you have to just let it go and get what you can get. I think I try things like you just did. You just reminded me of the time so I might do that as well and say, you know I’m just looking at what we want to continue to talk about, sorry to cut you off but…

Gerry:

So you don’t say; “Jeez, we haven’t got all day here.”

Steve:

You know that may be what I’m thinking but I do try to find more of a rapport–building way to do that and you know this person is trying to do… they’re trying to do their best for us within however they’re operating. So I want to encourage them and redirect them wherever I can.

Gerry:

Interviewing is the best fun, isn’t it? I think it’s the best fun thing that we get the opportunity to do in this field, to be honest.

Steve:

Well to make connections with people, you know, maybe if you’re introverted like I am you can’t, you don’t get deep with strangers naturally, so it’s a thrill and people are super interesting and super nice and reveal so many interesting things and it gives me so much to think about around the problem that I’m trying to help my client solve.

So it’s ridiculously stimulating, so I agree. Very fun.

Gerry:

But it’s also very difficult for the newcomers and I think I alluded to this at the start of the conversation we had today, you know I see it with students in particular when I say okay you’ve got to go out and you’re going to interview people and you can see there’s this sort of frisson as they think, oh my God, you know he’s actually going to make us go out and talk to people and interrupt them and interact with them and it can be quite scary, can’t it?

Do you have any advice for people who haven’t interviewed and who find themselves needing to do it or confronted with the likelihood that they will have to do it?

Steve:

Sure, and maybe this is bad advice, but it’s still scary for me. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years and the first interview of any study is scary for me. It’s about kind of getting into that mode. You know, half way through the first one I’m back on the bike and off we go. But I think it’s okay to be scared. You got to think, well what’s the worst that can happen? So, assuming that you’re going to leave and everyone will still be alive and uninjured then, really, what is the worst that’s going to happen?

If this is a 90-minute interview, in 91 minutes you’ll be done and you can talk about it. So that’s the worst case scenario. I think planning is really, really helpful. So having a plan and clear objectives, having a plan as to how you’re going to handle the interview so that you can have something to fall back on so you’re not just winging it and doing a pilot study so you can practice it on a friendly person before you have to go out there and talk to a stranger, and giving yourself the chance to reflect.

So when you debrief about an interview, you’re asking yourself not only what did I learn about the topic but what would I do differently next time? And even going back and watching your own videos and listening to your tapes and reading your transcripts and thinking about, or having other people do that. So if the first one is scary if you can structure it so that you’re on a learning path and, you know, that never goes away. You’re always learning and reflecting on it but if you can be deliberate about that I think it can give you some confidence, looking ahead to being better.

Gerry:

I think one thing that can be useful for as well is a little checklist; you just remind yourself of the topics that you want to get covered off during the interview and if you find yourself floundering you can sort of reflect back to that and think, oh I need to ask you about X, and start a new bit of the conversation at that point.

Steve:

Absolutely. We put a lot of work into creating that document and get everyone to buy in on it and I often find then they don’t have to use that document because I’ve prepared it. To me it’s the cognitive walk through or whatever. It’s the prototyping of the interview. When I write the plan, I’m doing it in my head. But you described it really, really well. You hit that moment where you say, ah, I don’t know what to ask next, flip, flip, flip, flip … ah! We haven’t talked about blank so let’s talk about that now.

Gerry:

You also talked about debriefing there and I guess one of the things that I find sometimes, particularly if clients haven’t done this sort of activity before, they’ll say to you, well we could interview six people on Monday and six on Tuesday and it becomes a ridiculous workload. What’s your take on how long you need, if you like recovery time between interviews and how many would you normally try and do in a day?

Steve:

Depends on what the length of it is but, you know, three a day is a full day.

Gerry:

Yeah. That’s right.

Steve:

If you’re out and about then of course you’ve got transportation, you have meals, you have bathroom breaks and definitely de-briefs; you know stopping to talk to your colleague, these are best done in pairs, talk to your colleague about what happened, what did we see? What did we learn? That’s essential, because this is not… as I think you said, this is about surprising data, this is about open ended exploration. You need time to process that and that’s just cogitation time. It’s stuff that you can do in the shower. A day of six interviews, you’re really, you’re just a babbling vegetable at the end of that and you don’t get the value out of it. This is about really taking you someplace new so you need that time to get to that value.

Gerry:

Yeah. Now, Steve, the book is called The Art and Craft of User Research Interviewing; Diving deep for Insight. When will it be out? What’s the plan?

Steve:

Early next year [2012] is what we’re hoping for.

Gerry:

In the meantime, I’d recommend to listeners that a good starting point is Steve’s presentation at South by Southwest.

Steve Portigal thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Steve:

Thank you very much.

Published: August 2011

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).