Quotes from Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

I just finished reading Interviewing Users. It’s one that has been on my list for a long time, probably because I loved Steve Portigal’s Dollars to Donuts podcast. It did not disappoint.

It was a great read for me because I’ve done enough user research to have some experience to map to, but not so much that I knew everything in the book.

Here’s a collection of quotes from the book that I found valuable, organized by theme.

Preparing for interviews

Portigal first walks the reader through what to do before interviewing users.

“At the outset of a project, make the objectives your initial priority.”

Interview 6-8 stakeholders (yes, you interview the team even before you interview the users!) to see what they want to learn. Sift through the politics and agendas and try to get everyone on the same page as to what the objectives are. Find issues such as

“…hypotheses masquerading as facts, aspirations, and mass hallucinations… resolve those issues as tactfully as possible.”

Prepare a field guide but

“this is not a script. It reads very linearly, but it’s really just a tool to prepare to be flexible.”

Research scheduling

Once you’ve agreed on the objectives and recruited participants, schedule two interviews a day or so. But why not more?

“Quality work doesn’t come from being rushed, exhausted, harried, or overwhelmed. Interviewing is hard work. You need time between sessions to reflect.”

And while it’s tempting to save time or resources by using Skype or a phone call or getting users to come to you, go to where the users are.

How many people should go to each interview?

“I find the ideal size for the field team to be two people: one to lead the interview, and one to back up the other person.”

Documenting the interview

Photography

Prepare a shot list before interviews that lists the photos that you want to take.

“Even if you’re capturing imagery using video, still pictures are essential.”

“Even though they agree to the use of photography when they sign your release, let the interview settle in before you start taking pictures. You can verbally confirm that it’s okay before you take your first picture.”

Taking notes

Note taking is okay but no one writes fast enough to capture everything and

“you must maintain eye contact while writing.”

If taking notes, just write the facts. Not judgements. But if you must interpret,

“it’s easy to lose track of what you were told versus the conclusions you made, so take care in how you document the two.”

As soon as possible after each interview, write a top-of mind summary.

“Allow time for debriefing after each interview… The longer you wait, the less you will remember, and the more jumbled up the different interviews will become.”

Video or audio

Video or audio recording is the only way to capture everything the participant says.

“Keep your eyes and brain in interview mode until you are fully departed.”

“consider keeping your recording device on, even if it’s packed”

because of

“the “doorknob phenomenon,” where crucial information is revealed just as the [therapy] patient is about to depart.”

Interview technique

Portigal offers lots of tips about actually conducting the interview.

They’re the expert

“make it clear to the participant (and to yourself) that they are the expert and you are the novice.”

“Asking that person to play the teacher role not only reinforces the idea that she is the expert here, but it also can make it easier for her to articulate the details you are seeking.”

Invite honest criticism

“if you bring out a concept by saying, “Here’s something I’ve been working on…” you’re activating a natural social instinct that will diminish their comfort in being critical.”

Building rapport

Start with general (easy) questions to get them warmed up. It will feel awkward and uncomfortable but accept and break down the awkwardness by

“accepting, acknowledging, and appreciating her responses.”

“Try to construct each question as a follow-up to a previous answer.”

If you change topic, “signal your lane changes”.

Stories

Once you’ve built rapport, you will reach a tipping point from question/answer to question/story.

“Stories are where the richest insights lie, and your objective is to get to this point in every interview.”

Use their language

“build rapport by accepting the terms the participant was using rather than trying to demonstrate credibility.”

“Don’t correct her perceptions or terminology if the only outcome is “educating” her. Advocate for her, not for your product.”

The interview isn’t about you

“[Only] talk about yourself if doing so gives the other person permission to share something.”

To dodge questions asked by participants,

“Do the Interviewer Sidestep and turn the question back to them: “Is that important to you?” “What would you expect it to be?””

Question Types

Ask about sequence, quantity, examples. Ask for exceptions, lists, relationships. Clarify comments, language/ code words, and emotional cues. Ask them to teach, to compare, etc.

You want to know about their needs. But you can’t directly ask about their needs. So you ask them indirectly.

“There’s a difference between what you want to know and what you ask.”

On participatory design

“My aim with participatory design is to give people a different way to talk about needs, where the solutions stand as proxies for those needs.”

You don’t actually have to implement any of these designs.

Silence

“One way a novice interviewer tries to counteract nervousness is by preemptively filling the silence.”

“Ask your question and let it stand…. After she has given you an answer, continue to be silent.”

Improving as an interviewer

Practice interviewing. Even in daily life.

“Cultivate a style of interacting socially that emphasizes listening, reflecting back the other person’s comments, allowing for silence, and so on.”

Also, review your interview recordings with a critical eye like a football coach would review game tape.

“ask someone to come along to your interviews and get his feedback. Also ask for feedback from the rest of your field team.”

Other tips include teaching others to interview and even taking an improv class, because that will improve your abilities of thinking on your feet, accepting awkwardness, and “going with it”.

 

Analysis and synthesis

After you’ve finished all of your interviews, follow a procedure like this to squeeze as much learning as possible out of your research:

  1. Divide and conquer: “get your data in text form and divide it among the team.” Each team member reviews and summarizes one or more interviews.
  2. Summarize for the team: “The group should then reconvene and present each interview as a case study.”
  3. After all summaries, recap: “Discuss each interview briefly, and then create a sticky note that summarizes the key point of that interview.”
  4. Group findings: “create groupings. You may want to start with the categories from your topline and add to them.”
  5. Prepare the report: “the Presentation of Findings, which is the main research deliverable.”

User research and organizations

Interviewing is a good way to increase a company’s UX Maturity. It…

“starts to drive shifts in the organizational culture”

“position yourself in your organization so that interviewing customers is an integral part of how you work.”

How?

“The most impact for the least effort comes from your colleagues joining you in the field.”

For organizations with high maturity, research informs design but also exposes

“new opportunities for teams to embrace a user-centered approach to their work.”

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book and I’m sure I’ll continue to refer to it (and these notes) for years to come!

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