Pen and Notebook

Stories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. Today’s guest spoke to us in 2011 when he published his book Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. Around the same time he initiated a project he called War Stories and this consisted of stories about ethnographic research from practitioners in the field. And this is now the subject matter of his latest book, Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. It’s a cautionary, bizarre, entertaining and instructive read.

[For 20% discount, use code "UXPOD" at Rosenfeld Media website.]

Steve Portigal, welcome back to the User Experience podcast.

Steve Portigal:

Very happy to be talking with you again.

Gerry:

Always a pleasure. Now listen when did the idea of collecting war stories first occur to you?

Steve:

I think I had this small moment, the small epiphany at a conference, it might have been as far back as 2003 and it’s a total cliché but we were sitting at the bar and…

Gerry:

I find that hard to believe, Steve.

Steve:

I know I don’t, I mean I try to stay away from the bar as much as I can at a conference because I want to focus on, you know, the good parts but there I was, they dragged me to the bar and… people won’t know that you’re teasing me and they’ll think that, I don’t know what they’ll think but that I guess is part of the mystery.

Gerry:

Indeed.

Steve:

Anyway, we were at the bar and it was after a day of presentations and here were all these people that some of us hadn’t met or we knew each other by reputation and stories started to flow and it was just “Oh has this ever happened?” “Oh, I’ve got a story for you,” “This and this kind of thing happened,” and I felt cool, like I felt part of the club because I had stories that people were entertained by and I’d never heard stories from the other folks, I’d never really heard stories like that. We’d never really done that sharing of stories and you know that’s… war stories I think exist in every professional community in one form or another but I think it’s often at a bar is the cliché. And that was, the experience was just so positive. So I think that’s kind of, there’s sort of a second stage to this, I think. That was this collective communal moment and it kind of planted a seed in my head that said “Oh these are kind of amazing and interesting and it’s good to share them.”

And a few years later Dan Soltzberg, who has a story in the book, he has this story in the book. He and I were working together and he came back from this fieldwork experience and came back into the office and, you know there was no alcohol but we were having the same sharing and so he tells me this story, you know the précis is that he, out of a moment of deep empathy where he’s holding the video camera and trying to really connect with this person giving this impassioned speech, he kneels down in front of the guy and realises he’s kneeled in cat pee but can’t let on and so he goes to all these lengths to conceal the fact that he has you know been despoiled basically but doesn’t want the guy to feel bad which is just such a beautiful thing that he would put his own comfort in a pretty extreme way below the, you know, the comfort was less important than protecting and respecting this person he was interviewing. And I just, my jaw just dropped and I thought, okay this is a great example.

So you know the seed was planted at this bar but I think Dan’s story was just sort of patient zero for me and I sort of set about to look for some format or some way to do it. It took a couple more years to formally start gathering these stories but I think those were kind of the points where I thought there is something really important here just judging by my own reaction and I think there’s more stories and more to be gained by collecting and sharing them.

Gerry:

Yeah and in fact Julian Huxham, my colleague whom you know, is particularly keen on that story for some reason. I think the first time he met you you were telling that story at a conference and he’s always gone on about “that guy with the cat piss story.” [Laughs.]

Steve:

Right well that’s you know that’s what I’m looking to have inscribed on a tombstone so we’ll go to Julian for the exact quote when the day comes.

Gerry:

Indeed. So I guess following on from that, what stories get the strongest reaction? You’ve presented some of these stories at conferences and obviously you’ve spoken and written about them as well as maintaining the war stories blog or publication. What stories get the strongest reaction from other people in general?

Steve:

I think you know it’s, I think there are the stories that get the first initial reaction are then the ones that ask you to go a little deeper. So stories about cat pee, like about anything gross and there is a whole bunch of stories about, well there’s a number of stories that all feature cat pee but you know homes that smell bad, that are messy, where like stuff is just out of control and it’s unpleasant to be there. I think those are everybody’s first or second idea about what a war story is so you can kind of, I don’t know tease people a little bit or lure them in with stories of gross stuff.

The other category is frustrating participants. I think… I was at an event a few months ago and, a few weeks ago, I was at an event a few weeks ago and people were just offering up not full stories but just you know quick headlines of things that happened to them and most of them were about “Oh this person came in,” or “We met this guy, we met this woman,” those sort of stories of being exasperated by other people and I think you look at all the stories, you find other, I think some of the ones that compel me are some of these epic experiences that happen.

But your question was what do people kind of get drawn to. I think they’re drawn to stuff that’s gross and stuff where I can’t believe that someone said or did that. What’s wrong with them?

Gerry:

Yeah it’s interesting you know there are stories in the book about strip clubs and streaming porn and all sorts of bizarre stories in there, not that that exemplifies I guess the type of content that’s in the book.

Steve:

Well, I think it’s a range and it’s hard to pick a single story or a single type of story and I think what I’ve been excited by in the process of first of all gathering the stories over years and then you know putting together the book is seeing what they produce in the aggregate, you know, synthesising and seeing new things come out and seeing some of these themes and patterns which make it more clear.

I think I always knew intuitively these stories were great but I didn’t know what I would want to say about them until I started looking at them more deeply. So Dan’s story is “Oh gross, I kneeled in cat piss,” but if you kind of look beyond that it’s a story about, like I said, putting himself and his own comfort above the other person and that raises a question about, well how far do you go with that? How far is too far? When are you creating risk for yourself? It brings up this idea that you can’t control or plan for things and certainly user research attracts a lot of people that are, well it attracts people with different skill sets but one is kind of the organised, you know, the checklist and the packing list and so on but, you know, who would have advised Dan that he should bring a second pair of pants?

In fact the part of Dan’s story we didn’t talk about is that after he leaves this interview with you know a wet knee, he has to go to another interview and he really doesn’t have time to deal with this. So he’s got to clean up as best he can, he’s got to go into somebody else’s house. So there’s no thing that Dan could have done differently, and so thinking about what does it mean to make a mistake? And whose fault is it? And what does it mean to kind of be in control or lose control?

You know that’s just one story and I think I feel like I’ve just hit you with four or five big themes that have come out of there. So when you kind of swirl all these stories together and start to see what comes out of them, they’re entertaining to read and I think they bring us to consider some profound questions, not all of it is profound, I don’t try to inflate, be too self-important here, but it does raise a lot I think for us to kind of to reflect on.

Gerry:

And of the stories that you’ve included in the book, you divided the book into eleven sections essentially and you’ve given the sections various titles. One of them, with a nod to Bob Dylan’s recent award perhaps, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Another section is “The myth of objectivity,” and “The perils of fieldwork.” At the end of each section there’s a set of takeaways and I particularly like “be prepared for things to go wrong” which somehow seems to be metaphorical for life in general. Would you like to walk us through some of the sections and the takeaways? Is that a good way to approach a few minutes’ worth of this chat?

Steve:

Can I address your comment first?

Gerry:

Yes, of course.

Steve:

Yeah I mean I think the idea that some of these ideas are metaphors for life I think is absolutely true and, again, I can sound kind of highfalutin and pretentious here but I think the thinking that I went through in this book is looking at… some of these external factors, right? You know, make sure your camera is ready and you don’t break the cable and you know the sort of “equipmenty” type things that we have to think about. But so many of these are about what do we do when the unexpected happens and acknowledge the unexpected is going to happen and that those are definitely life skills. And I think one of the takeaways that I come back to several times, and I just alluded to it a minute ago, which is know when to walk away. You know and so when you’re in a situation do you keep trying to turn that situation from a failure into a success or do you say “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” and you leave.

And I think if you look at the different chapters, I offer both those pieces of advice for many different triggers and it’s not like, you know, this is not algorithmic. When A happens, apply solution B. It’s kind of thinking in these takeaways, well what are the ranges of responses that I have? And how do I think of this as kind of a palette of solutions as opposed to the prescribed one for any particular situation. I don’t think it works that way and so that is to your point; that is how life is. Know when to walk away from anything in life, I think is great. But you should always be asking yourself that question.

One of the chapters deals with control and I actually separated “planning” and “control” into two different chapters because I think planning is what you do before and control is what you do during and obviously planning is an element of control as well but you’re thinking now about what’s going to happen in the future and then and the chapter says “Control is an illusion,” and we’ve sort of talked around this a few different ways but it’s people that are in situations where there are things outside their control.

In one story, these researchers go into a corporate office where they’ve recruited a couple of people and they start conducting this interview and the boss walks in and absolutely tears into one of the people at this meeting, at this interview, and tells them to “Get out!” and go to this other meeting and so they leave the, the other participant is still there, the researchers continue the interview and a few minutes later the same boss comes in and screams at that person to get out. It sounds like a joke but I mean it’s what happened to them and in fact they just, they’re just left sitting in this conference room. Like there’s no wrap-up, there’s no escort out and they kind of look at each other and shrug and pack up and leave.

So what would you have them do differently to prepare for it? There’s not really anything you can do. There is something going on that day and I think when you go out into the field and deal with people in their contexts you’re going to see, you’re going to be there the day that they’re having a DDoS attack, that they’re having management problems, there’s a story about someone conducting research at a, they’re in Paris and they’re in a fast food restaurant and a hungry large man who’s just been released from prison comes up to them and wants to know what they’re doing and he’s kind of shouting at them and, you know, if you’re going to be in public things that you don’t expect to happen in public are going to be there. And so, you know these researchers all, they don’t always, I think these aren’t stories about “Well, here’s how I fixed it.” I think that’s not really the point because a lot of, many of these stories are things that you can’t fix, you can’t prevent, you just have to figure out how you’re going to deal with it when it comes. And that’s what I think some of these takeaways are about.

So in this chapter about control, and you kind of mentioned some of these, maybe I can kind of spin them back at you. So here’s the thing that I said before; it’s okay to walk away, especially if you’ve tried everything, that you just can’t control everything so maybe if you try something and fail at it, that teaches you a certain lesson. If you can’t get the interview to be, because there’s a hungry released prisoner or there’s a technical problem or a management problem, that kind of tells you something, you have assumptions going in that, well we’re going to book an hour with these participants and they’ll sit and talk with us. Guess what? Their corporate culture is such that people yell at each other and people pull each other at meetings and there’s hierarchy and power and so you learn something through that failure. Sometimes just things failing is a laugh, it’s a shared experience, it’s a war story that the people on the team have.

Gerry:

You really have to get your hands dirty though, don’t you? You really have to get out there in the field and be in kind of the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. I’m not sure but you have to see the things that are going wrong, don’t you, in order to really get the valuable research?

Steve:

Yes. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, can we talk about your story? Your story is kind of an example of that.

Gerry:

By all means, yeah.

Steve:

I mean your story is, I mean, literally getting your hands dirty and you find yourself in the home of someone that just didn’t fit the profile. You wanted people that were enthusiasts about home repair and you had someone who was kind of an enthusiast about home neglect.

Gerry:

[Laughs.] That’s right.

Steve:

And so you could, and maybe you did this to some extent, you’ve come back and you’re like, figure out well how did this person end up in this study? You know, this is wrong, we made a mistake, we had a screener, somebody screwed up, this is a problem, you know, but by being in the real world kind of, the reality of the real world is just grittier than we kind of conceive it to be. So you have this real world experience, it’s not, this person doesn’t look, their home doesn’t look like the cover catalogue to a renovation, you know a renovation glamour shot. This is kind of a dump and this person is distressing because this is not what you planned to do. But you did it and you had the interview and then I think what’s important in your story is you just kept coming back to that person afterwards and it got in your head and it made you think about what you hadn’t imagined you would think about. Even though that person wasn’t your target and who you were going to design for, it provoked a level of thinking that, that’s what we’re trying to get at when we do this work.

Gerry:

Yeah indeed. I remember talking, I mean this is going back several years that that occurred and I was with my colleague Patrizia Bordignon and we were talking afterwards about it and I guess that person became almost an anti-persona. But it’s something that I tend to look out for now as when you do get the wrong person because invariably it happens, doesn’t it? I mean either the screening is wrong or for some reason… or you go out, I mean a typical example is where you’ve got to do contextual inquiry of some sort and you’ve told people you want to sit with them at their workplace and a middle manager will come and bring you into, take you into a meeting room and want to conduct the whole thing in there. This issue of having the wrong users foisted upon you is very, it’s universal, isn’t it? It’s hard to avoid.

Steve:

Right, and I think people, the more experience you have the more you know how to anticipate that, that the agenda of your participants is different than your agenda and that you have to control for it or be prepared to say “Yes, we’re here to talk to you but we also want to do this other thing.” As you and I are having this call, I’ve got a team I’m working with that’s preparing to talk to participants for the first time and they’re doing, in fact they’re doing interviews in their office, they’re recruiting participants, it’s a known social media site and so they’re hiring people off Craigslist who known who the company is and we’ve been talking a little bit about the fact that these people are going to come in, they’re going to be very excited to be in the facility where this product that they love is being built and so that’s similar to the middle manager, right? That person has an agenda and you have to respect that agenda and kind of say yes and add to it and make sure you get what you want otherwise if you’re not prepared for them to have that agenda then you can’t overrun them and say “Well no, no I don’t want you to do this. I don’t want you to have these feelings. I don’t want you to protect your job or promote yourself to my company. I just want you to be this.” You have to sort of know where they’re at and look for where they’re at so you can help them help you. It’s a universal thing.

Gerry:

The whole idea of conducting I guess ethnographic research of any sort is that you can really end up in an ethical minefield, can’t you? You can be co-opted into illegal activity fairly readily or you know sort of inadvertently just find yourself being with people who are doing something that is illegal, immoral or morally repulsive, as somebody said in a movie, I can’t remember the movie but, you know what do you do in that sort of situation? What do people in the stories that you’ve collected do?

Gerry:

Sorry that was a bit of a multi-pronged question.

Steve:

No, it was a good question but…

Gerry:

I guess I was thinking of two examples, one is the person who’s stealing fruit, I think, from a market and somebody filming themselves driving down a highway at speed.

Steve:

Right, I think the issue that sort of underlies this is, and a lot of this, right, if you go out to look at the world what are you going to do with what you see? And so you’ve got kind of you know there’s some stories about being exposed to what’s just called “adult content.” You know in your story you’re kind of exposed to someone that didn’t live up to either the aspirations or kind of your targets, so what do you do with what you see? In your story you found something to get out of it anyway. There’s a story about some researchers observing self-checkouts at a grocery store and you know people are, they know how to work around the system, they can like get a banana without paying for it or they can artificially reduce the weight. And so if you’re the researcher that observes that, right do you have to make this decision, do you get that person in trouble? Do you reveal their behaviours to the, because often there is, the person that’s being ripped off in this case, the grocery store was, you know, they can be a stakeholder in research like that and so do you reveal that and what are the consequences of doing that?

And I think this is really a not cut and dried area. I think it’s a negotiation that we kind of have to do sometimes right in the moment and so we create documents that say that you know we tell people how they’re being protected and what their confidentiality is.

If you’re going to sign a confidentiality document, tell the participant that “Hey, this is only going to be used for these and these purposes.” That’s an easy thing to do until something happens where you feel like, “Oh someone needs to know about this.” And so I guess, I mean it’s a cliché but ethics are kind of easy until they’re challenged.

Gerry:

Until you need them.

Steve:

Yeah. And so I think what’s interesting about these stories is it’s not so much the pay-off, like here is the situation and here’s what the researcher did. It’s the struggle that they went through, that struggle is an exploration of kind of the boundaries or the edges of the space and, I think these story tellers are very brave in terms of how they reflect on like “Oh I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t sure and I felt this pressure and this pressure.”

You know I think the person that, the other person you mentioned is having people do a diary study and this one guy shoots selfies of himself driving down the freeway at freeway speed and he’s watching, it’s like there’s two cameras involved or there’s two devices involved because he’s watching a show on one of them and he’s shooting himself doing that on the other, he’s filming himself. So you know and I think the researcher was sort of amazed and concerned and I think even ends up talking to the participant about this and he has kind of you know sort of a logical explanation as to like well this is his time and this is what he wants to do and so on and so forth. In this case this researcher, his resolution was to create an additional release that I think basically said that “anything that you would do for me while creating this, filling out this diary study, that’s on you, that’s not on me.”

And so that’s an interesting resolution. It’s kind of a legal resolution but maybe not an ethical resolution, or that’s my interpretation and I think, I’m kind of going on a little bit here, Gerry, but I think what else is going on with these stories is we read them and we interpret them and so I just gave you my judgement of what one researcher’s resolution was but our judgement and our interpretation of these stories will vary. Everyone’s going to have a different takeaway from these stories besides my takeaways and you can feel critical, you can laugh at them or you can dismiss them. I think in all the cases that reaction is something else to be considered because that says, “Oh, well I’m different than the researcher in this story and I have a different set of principles or values,” and I think reflecting on where we experience judgement in reading these stories teaches us a little bit more too about well what’s going on in these stories. How are these questions and these issues being negotiated and navigated? And we can listen to ourselves for that as well.

Gerry:

Yeah, and I think as a researcher you have to distance yourself from your beliefs and feelings, don’t you, in order to avoid them interfering with your ability to get the rich information that you’re out to collect, although obviously that’s difficult to do.

Steve:

I think we’re probably good at doing that with participants like in the scheme of doing research but are we as good at doing that when we’re talking about research or talking to researchers? Then I think you’ll probably hear more judgement. I don’t think we’re sort of, as a profession, you know, judgement-free beings. I think it’s a scale or framework we can utilise and I think these stories will produce a lot of reactions and you know I kind of say in the introduction like I encourage people to listen to what their judgement is as opposed to kind of dismissing the stuff out of hand and I think that they can learn from that. But again that’s a mode we have to choose to go into.

Gerry:

Yeah, you just reminded me, there was a great presentation in Service Design UK last year. I can’t remember the name of the person who gave it, I think she was a New Yorker, but she talked about going back to research participants with the outcomes in order to run them by the participants and you know she was talking about the pretence we have of being kind of a disinterested third party producing this author-free content but saying in fact there is an authorial voice at all times and maybe we as researchers should be more upfront about that. Sorry, that’s totally out of the blue question for you or a comment for you, but any thoughts on that?

Steve:

Yeah I mean I don’t come down on the side of any of this here. I think it’s interesting to kind of surface it so yeah what I think, that raises a bunch of questions. You know, what kind of rights, what rights do these participants have? Do they have rights to the outcomes or to contribute a voice? And rights is such a bad word because that takes it back into the realm of the corporate approved consent release and non-disclosure as opposed to what I suspect this person was dealing with was sort of not only an ethical issue but just an efficacy issue. If we don’t go back to these folks and get that additional perspective, are we missing out on the ability to do our jobs well? And so I don’t know if that’s exactly, I don’t know what even label to put on that but it’s definitely stepping away from the sort of transactional functional aspect of you know corporate research where we have to make sure that we have incentive form, invoices signed, or receipts signed, so that we can be tax compliant. That’s very different than the sort of larger issue about how do we navigate and include their voice.

So I mean I’m glad that there are people advocating for a sort of a disruptive perspective and a very strong one and I think again driving reflection and driving conversation and helping us think about what choices we make and how not to do business as usual.

Yeah, I think driving conversation or reflection so I don’t know, like, she makes a good point. Is it realistic? What are the factors to kind of weigh here? That’s my hemming and hawing response to it but…

Gerry:

Another thing that occurs in the field quite often is the inclination to help, you know, you see somebody and they are struggling with something or other and you know there’s a better way to do it or… you know I had a situation where I saw somebody struggling with assistive technology that had been set up incorrectly and you know I was, I found it personally quite difficult because I kind of felt I could have helped that person but on the other hand I would have been interfering with the set-up that they were already using and by trying to help you can make things worse of course or you certainly take on a different role and it’s like you’re interfering with the Prime Directive. Any thoughts on that?

Steve:

Yeah you know I do a lot of workshops and teaching about research and I try to outline, here’s common mistakes, here’s why not to do them, here’s how not to do them etc, etc. And the thing that you just described is what I tell people like that’s the only unrecoverable mistake. I think I’ve managed to worm my way out of a lot of mistakes of mine or colleagues or clients in the field but I think that once you start telling them or showing them then the power dynamic has changed so strongly that you’re the one that knows how it could be and they start asking you and it’s really hard to get back to “Well, oh well, what would you want? Tell me how you do it, show me,” you know it’s really hard to get back to making it about them and now it’s just a very expensive tech support call.

My caveat though is once the interview is over, I think there’s that point in which okay, you’re kind of wrapping up and things kind of loosen up and I will sometimes say “Well, okay before we go, I noticed this, would you want me to show you this?” Or “I think I might have something,” even if it’s you know, it could be about what we’re talking about or it could be “Oh I know a restaurant that still serves that,” like anything that has kind of come up that you want to share that’s for them, not for you, I think there’s that point at the end. Like I helped a guy, he had a laptop and an external monitor and they were set up in Windows so one was to the left and one was to the right but it was the opposite of how they were physically placed and, you know we gave him I think a couple of hundred dollars for the interview but as we were packing up I asked him if I could, I said “I have the same thing,” so I didn’t try to sort of come off as some big IT guy but would you want me to fix that? Because he had, it was, he had talked about it, it was like, “Oh this is frustrating.” It wasn’t like I just observed it like it had been a thing that had come up and you know he was thrilled so I mean I did help him but I helped him at the end of the interview and I think doing that didn’t really, didn’t change anything and it was a chance to do you know a little nano element of good in the world. But I think there’s, you know back to the book there’s some stories in here where people kind of, people also negotiate this line. There’s a story by Nancy Frishberg about someone who you know has some health challenges and has a lot of used syringes sitting around in biohazard boxes that need to get dropped off and so Nancy like she does some things, I think she helps them with the Christmas tree, but she won’t run errands for them and you know so even in this story, the researcher is negotiating what is helping them because I’m a person and they’re a person and what is changing the dynamic of the interview into something that’s inappropriate?

You know, Nancy made her call and it’s you know it’s very true to her core but I think we all will be faced with that and, again, I think the negotiation and thinking about that as where there’s a set of choices and it’s up to use to make those choices. I think that’s the interesting part.

Gerry:

That opportunity to talk to people at the end of a session can be really useful if you’re bringing along clients or stakeholders or project team members whom you have to specifically brief not to get involved and if you tell that after the session is over then they will have an opportunity to contribute or ask questions or jump in, it gives them the opportunity to do that without interfering with the activity itself.

Steve:

That’s right and there’s that moment where the formality of the interview starts to end and I think you know in social science or medicine they call it the “doorknob phenomenon,” right? Where the person is done with the, the patient’s done with the appointment and they walk to the door and the put their hand on the doorknob and they say “Oh there’s just something else,” like now that they’re done, the real reason kind of comes out and so that moment where you know you’ve handed off the papers and you’re starting to zip up your bag of prototypes or whatever, that point of having that, that’s still part of the interview and I think you’re right that’s when other people start to ask questions and if that’s how you’re going to kind of set it up then it creates a certain looseness and there’s a certain permission that people have and some really nice things can happen there that are different than you know ten minutes earlier where you’re kind of in the structure and there’s a sense of everyone wants to do a good job for each other.

Gerry:

I think it’s really important for researchers to look after themselves as well you know wellbeing, I guess. I’ve been doing a bit of work in prisons and courts and police stations and places like that and some of my colleagues have been in even tougher environments dealing with young victims of crime of various sorts. It can be very traumatic and it’s easy to forget that you’re affected by these things as well.

Steve:

So what do you do after coming out of a prison or an environment like that?

Gerry:

We’ve got access to counselling and so on but it’s something we often debrief a lot about it. I don’t have any expertise in exactly how to deal with it but I do think you have to acknowledge that you are emotionally affected by these things and you potentially are experiencing some trauma.

Steve:

And I think even just saying that, maybe I’m just reiterating your point, but I think even just saying that, acknowledging the need to look after yourself, just as opposed to denying the need to take care of yourself, right, I think that starts to you know we encourage each other to talk, to ask each other questions, to check in to say, “How are you doing?” I think that’s, and you’re right that’s not counselling, that’s not, there’s a whole level of things that could be done but even that, even having the awareness and choosing to think about it and take it seriously I think is, I just think that can make all the difference.

Gerry:

In the sector they refer to “vicarious trauma,” you know, the I guess the harm one can experience from being peripherally involved or aware of sort of nasty things happening.

Steve:

And that’s great to have that phrase because in all these cases where that would happen the situation for the primary individual is way worse than us. We’re dealing with, I mentioned a thing in the book about talking to people with cancer and I had no preparation that this was going to be, I was brought into a workshop and I had like an hour and then we were doing these interviews and they were kind of bam, bam, bam, bam and there was no time to prepare for them or process them and no-one ever said, “Hey, this is kind of tough. I have feelings about this, I don’t know what they are.” And I would have, I might have felt uncomfortable bringing it up there because that would somehow make it about me as opposed to the people that I was trying to help, that we all were trying to help. And I think you know once you use terms like “self care” or what was it, “vicarious trauma,” that just acknowledges, I think those words are helpful, it acknowledges that everybody has an experience here and yes you’re not someone that witnessed a crime or has been incarcerated or you know has this issue but it’s still difficult. It still represents a certain type of difficulty and it’s, I’d like to see just more acknowledgement that we have an experience as a researcher and that we have to, just have to make space to deal with it in whatever way we can as opposed to thinking of that as a selfish act.

Gerry:

Yeah to move on to a much lighter note, one of the stories that I particularly enjoyed, maybe it says something about me, is the one by Jon McNeil, and he ends up in a strip club which I thought was very funny and the rationale for being in this strip club was that the person who, with whom they were researching said that everyone would think they were cops unless he took them to somewhere where they clearly were not cops.

Steve:

Well the, even to get a little more specific they, he takes them to the strip club and then insists that one of them go and have a private dance and that everyone you know that if they didn’t take that dance they were really going to be in trouble, they were kind of in a tough place. And yeah so here you’ve got, it was a pretty, they were talking to someone with a lot of money, with an extremely expensive sports car and he takes them to this dangerous club in Miami and kind of pressures them into taking this dance. And there’s a few stories like this in the book that I think are epic in terms of it’s not just one thing that happens, kind of one thing compounded by another, by another, by another you know and I think it’s interesting and that story it kind of ends up well, it doesn’t end up well for the people that have the experience but the interview ends up well, even though this kind of out of control guy, I think there’s substance abuse going and like high rates of speed, of both types, you know, it’s just a lot of out of control stuff happened there and I think you know no-one knew what to do, right, none of the researchers knew what to do. Who could be prepared for kind of this, someone that’s that out of control and getting in a car with them?

Jon, who wrote that story, reflects on it as something that happened to him earlier and thinks about how he might handle it differently and how he might prevent it and you know he talks about in that story that he didn’t always make the right choices; you know this enforced private dance was actually his client and through this story, in this story they figure out that his client’s gay which is why he, one of the reasons why he was trying not to have this dance foisted on him and Jon just kind of, he doesn’t take the hit for the client, he like lets that guy go off and have this mortifying uncomfortable experience happen and you know Jon, with hindsight, owns that, that it wasn’t sort of the best set of decisions that he made. So I think there’s an element here with these stories that they’re in the past, many of them, and that you can sort of pick them up and look at them and revisit them and judge yourself or reflect on yourself with the benefit of time and so you know these stories are, I don’t know, these stories I think are therapeutic for the storytellers as well as for the readers as well.

Gerry:

Some of them are very uncomfortable, you know that particular one, various people involved, the people working in the strip joint to the stakeholders, everyone, you read it and you cringe a little bit in general, don’t you?

Do you ever worry, Steve, that the stories might scare away new practitioners?

Steve:

Yeah, I don’t think these stories are without risk. I mean when you start highlighting the negative, I talked to one of the storytellers a few years ago and I asked, I was asking people “What do you think it means to sort of have this collection?” And she said she was worried about it sort of presenting research as kind of lurid and extreme rather than, because you know some of the comments I get are, “Oh these stories are good for students, they’re good for new researchers because they show that research is exciting and challenging and very personal.” And she kind of said you know that people that don’t kind of “get” research, that aren’t bought into it may sort of see the extremes as opposed to you know there’s sort of more of an everyday piece to it. And I don’t know, I don’t think it means we need to conceal these stories but I think everything has an effect. I don’t know, I mean if this, if these stories scare you and you’re new to research maybe that’s good.

Gerry:

Maybe you should be scared.

Steve:

Right, I mean you know when you compile all of these stories, it’s a lot and there’s sort of a lot of things happening and if you read this and think that, “Oh in the course of a year of my career all these things are going to happen to me,” I think it’s a matter of scale, right? Most of these things will never happen to most people but…

I’m sure I need a Venn diagram for this. Most will not happen to most people but some will happen to all people.

I mean I think there’s a… I think anybody with any experience in research is, as they’ve been reading this book is having a kind of a nodding along response like “Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It doesn’t mean that this is what your career is going to be like. So, yeah it might scare you but I think there’s some context here. It’s not sort of catastrophize and say well research is always going to be crazy, but I think there’s elements of these stories that are you know diluted examples you know not everything that happens to us makes a story but we might recognise bits and pieces when they happen and so if you’re new and you think this is scary I think it’s preparatory. Like when this happens to you and you have the option to just kind of nod and go like “Oh yeah,” right, what do they say? Mamma told me there’d be days like these, right?

Gerry:

Yeah, that’s right.

Steve:

You know that’s what I think what this book can do for you if you’re new.

Gerry:

To continue the musical metaphor, everything that happens will happen today.

Steve:

Now who are you referencing?

Gerry:

Eno and Byrne, I think.

Steve:

Oh, wow, okay, you win.

Gerry:

Unlike Van, Van the Man.

Steve:

You win the obscurity.

Gerry:

I wanted to ask you something else. Yeah. Are you still collecting stories?

Steve:

Absolutely. One of the things I hope that can, that this book can lead to is more stories. Like I don’t think this is the definitive set and I don’t want you to read it and go “Hmm very good, now we can move on.” I’m hoping that, in many ways I think this book is a call to action that people should continue to tell stories and if you look at this book you can see why, not only the aggregating of stories is important but the telling and the listening and the sharing. And so people can tell stories however they want but you know I maintain a blog with these stories on it and anyone who wants to email me a pitch, I can help them put a story together and put it out. And I’d love to, I mean I’m realistic that you know people will have other things to do but I can fantasize that in a few more years we have just you know double the amount of stories. I think there are many stories out there and it’s a little bit of work to write them up but for people who are so inclined I think it offers so much to the community to keep sharing these things.

Gerry:

And it’s a great way to produce a book isn’t it, get a whole bunch of other people to do all the work for you, just whack them together and publish it.

Steve:

Yeah, that’s how the book got made. And in fact that was my initial idea, like “Oh I’ll just kind of collate them,” but once you start working with an editor and a publisher they have an idea that you should actually…

Gerry:

Do some work, yeah.

Steve:

Yeah, and create some value and create some new content.

Gerry:

Which you have done. I mean you’ve certainly sort of curated them and assembled them and made a sense out of them and added your own overlay on the top of it so I was being facetious of course.

Steve:

No, no, but I hear you. I hear you. And people give me a hard time like “Are you going to put these in a book?” and I just said “No, I never had a thought that I would do that,” and I think once they accumulate to a certain level, like once it becomes kind of a corpus of material, I started to see like, oh there was, there is a gestalt here, there is something that is in all these stories. I think that’s the process that you’re describing to get to which is sort of unpacking and kind of re-sequencing and finding what story do I want to tell about these stories? Until I did that I didn’t really understand what was, what the value was in these stories altogether.

Gerry:

Do you know Gina’s in the book?

Steve:

Oh yeah?

Gerry:

Yeah, you didn’t know that.

Steve:

Is that the back of her head?

Gerry:

It is the back of her head in that photograph.

Steve:

Yeah, that’s right.

Gerry:

So, Steve, given all the thought you’ve put into this and the effort you’ve put into it, what’s your nugget of advice for practitioners who are beginning their career of ethnographic research?

Steve:

[Sighs.]

Gerry:

Other than a sigh.

Steve:

Yeah, and the sigh is like how you know to boil it down to a nugget.

I mean I think especially for the beginner, I mean I think my nugget is forgive yourself. There’s a lot of pressure to do everything right and when we’re new we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do that. And, again, Dan Soltzberg kneels in cat pee. What could you possibly have done to prevent or to ameliorate that? Nothing. And so to come back and feel like a failure or like I screwed that up because this and this happened.

I mean when you look at all these stories you see some really experienced researchers taking their best shot at the world and the world is messy and human and complex and unpredictable, and we are human and we are messy and complex and error-prone and so even the best researchers making their best efforts with all the best support still have things happen to them that we couldn’t have predicted and even if we could we still don’t know what to do.

What do you do when someone steals a banana? It’s not cut and dried. The banana might be cut and dried but the decision how to handle it is not cut and dried and so I think when you read these stories and you say like, “Oh, these people didn’t succeed, they didn’t triumph.” It’s not a feel-good story necessarily. It’s a story about shit happens and we have to forgive ourselves and so that’s my nugget expounded upon.

Gerry:

Okay, well, Steve the book is very entertaining and informative and I very much enjoyed it. The book is called Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories you can get a 20% discount at the Rosenfeld Media website with the code UXPOD. We seem to be doing a lot of Rosenfeld Media stuff on the podcast lately.

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

Steve:

It’s been great. Thank you so much.

Gerry GaffneyStories from the field: An interview with Steve Portigal

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