Ever wondered what it takes to unearth the most compelling insights from a user interview?
In this episode, Hannah Clark is joined by Steve Portigal—User Research Consultant & Author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights (2nd Edition)—to discuss the nuance involved in conducting user interviews, how to ask follow-up questions, and tips to manage unexpected responses.
- Steve’s Journey in User Research [00:34]
- Steve has been running his own consulting practice for 22 years.
- Prior to that, he worked for a design and innovation consultancy.
- He has a background in human-computer interaction, coming out of graduate school.
- Over his career, he has gone through a journey of learning, re-examining, and evolving.
- Despite having the same practice for 22 years, he sees it as having had 4 or 5 different jobs due to shifts in what he does, market dynamics, and where he provides value.
- Steve reflects on the challenge of sticking around long enough to realize that what he knows may no longer apply, leading to the need to reinvent, pivot, and evolve.
- He has been working as a user researcher for over 25 years, and while the core of what he does remains the same, the context around him has changed.
- The Evolution of User Research [02:31]
- Steve mentions the second edition of his book, “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights”, comparing changes over a decade.
- Highlights the transformation from consultants being unique to a more widespread recognition of the value of user research.
- Emphasizes the positive changes in business, including more interdisciplinary conversations.
- Acknowledges ongoing challenges in staffing and managing user research teams.
Anyone can talk to customers, but they shouldn’t; only those with the appropriate title, training, or discipline should.Steve Portigal
- The Art of Interviewing Users [05:02]
- Steve explains his interest in interviewing as a craft, emphasizing the challenge and excitement in unlearning and learning.
- Reflects on the changing perception of interviewing, from being dismissed as just talking to now having more recognition of its complexity.
- Acknowledges the fear, intimidation, and uncertainty some feel about interviewing.
- Steve enjoys delving into the topic, finding new insights even in familiar practices, and refining guidance for others to benefit from.
- Common Mistakes in User Interviews [07:27]
- Steve emphasizes the natural inclination to connect by sharing similar experiences, but this can divert the focus from the interviewee.
- Steve acknowledges the challenge of holding back personal anecdotes, recounting instances where he struggled to avoid making the conversation about himself.
- He highlights the need for judiciousness in deciding when sharing personal experiences can genuinely benefit the interviewee and the overall interview process.
- Advanced Interview Skills [13:19]
- Crafting interviews as a series of follow-up questions, creating a seamless and natural flow.
- The goal is to go beyond scripted questions and build a path through the conversation, maintaining a connection between topics.
- Steve emphasizes the importance of transparency in the interview, explaining changes in topics and inviting the interviewee to join the discussion.
- He suggests two classes of follow-up questions: asking for examples and seeking clarification.
- The distinction between transitioning to different topics and building on what the person is saying is highlighted, with the latter creating a more engaged and insightful conversation.
- Steve explains the psychological aspect, where a well-crafted follow-up question signals the importance of what the interviewee has shared, fostering engagement and reflection.
- Steve stresses the need for the interviewer to monitor their understanding, recognizing key moments when they have gained clarity and can move on to the next topic.
- The importance of creating a continuous and connected conversation, akin to peeling a tangerine in one piece, is emphasized for deeper insights.
- Steve encourages interviewers to consider the journey they are taking both for themselves and the interviewee, allowing for thoughtful and reflective responses over time.
A follow-up question signals to the person that what they’ve said is important and that you want to know more about it. This is delightful for the person being interviewed, as it makes them feel engaged, excited, and reflective.Steve Portigal
- The Power of Silence in User Interviews [23:02]
- Steve discusses the common mistake of suggesting possible answers to questions out of fear and emphasizes the need to embrace silence after asking a question.
- He contrasts the problematic approach of verbal ellipsis or multiple-choice suggestions with the effective method of asking an open-ended question and allowing silence for the interviewee to respond.
- Steve acknowledges the discomfort of silence but advises interviewers to let it happen, giving the interviewee space to formulate their thoughts.
- Silence is identified as a tool to encourage interviewees to share additional details and stories beyond the initial answer, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of their experiences.
- Structuring Questions for Insightful Answers [29:07]
- The importance of structuring questions before silence is discussed, with an emphasis on the impact of question formulation on user feedback.
- Steve suggests having various ways to ask a question in the interviewer’s toolkit, such as comparisons, specific examples, and projections into the future.
- Examples of question structures are provided, including comparing across time, asking about colleagues or bosses, exploring exceptions, and delving into childhood influences.
- The goal is to triangulate around the interviewee’s mental models, helping them articulate the underlying reasons behind their behaviors.
- Interviewers should adapt their questioning techniques to uncover deeper insights, recognizing that individuals might not be consciously aware of the roots of their choices.
- Addressing Bias in User Interviews [31:34]
- Steve encourages self-forgiveness, recognizing that cognitive biases are inherent in human thinking.
- Confirmation bias, where interviewers hear what they expect—among other examples of research bias—is highlighted as a challenge. Steve suggests pre-research discussions about assumptions to make biases explicit.
- Steve shares a personal story of overcoming his own ageism bias during an interview with a small business founder. He realizes his preconceived judgments were incorrect, leading to self-reflection and redirecting questions.
- Steve emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing biases during interviews, with the goal of understanding participants more deeply.
Meet Our Guest
Steve Portigal is a consultant who helps organizations to build more mature user research practices. Over the past 25 years, he has interviewed hundreds of people, including families eating breakfast, film production accountants, hotel maintenance staff, architects, radiologists, home-automation enthusiasts, credit-default swap traders, and rock musicians. He has informed the development of commercial lighting controls, medical information systems, professional music gear, design systems, wine packaging, work-from-home practices, financial services, corporate intranets, video conferencing systems, and music streaming services.
People want to do a good job and please us, so the more you communicate what ‘good’ looks like, the better they perform.Steve Portigal
Resources from this episode:
- Subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter
- Connect with Steve on LinkedIn and Twitter
- Check out Steve’s website
- Grab Steve’s book “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights”. Use the code “product20” and enjoy a 20% discount (valid until February 26, 2024).
Related articles and podcasts:
- About The Product Manager Podcast
- The Complete Guide To Collecting Meaningful User Feedback
- Card Sorting: An (Actually Really Fun) User Research Method
- 17 Insightful Survey Questions For Gaining Useful Product Feedback
- The Real ROI Of UX: How To Convince Leadership To Invest In Users
- How To Analyze User Interview Data: Stop Searching for Needles in Haystacks!
- How To Create An Effective Customer Feedback Loop For Product Teams
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Hannah Clark: Before we dive in, I just want to say that what you're about to hear was the most meta conversation we've ever had on this show. I'm not talking about Meta the company. I'm talking like this was the inception edition of the Product Manager Podcast. In this episode, I got to interview a user interview expert about how to interview better while simultaneously getting better at interviewing in real time.
Yes, I am still excited about it. And not because of how helpful it was for me, but because the next half hour or so is going to make a noticeable difference in how you conduct user interviews. Maybe also podcast interviews, if you're into that. Steve Portigal is the Principal of Portigal Consulting, where he spent the past 22 years as a user research consultant and practitioner.
But you may know him best as the author of User Interviews - How to Uncover Compelling Insights, and the host of the Dollars to Donuts podcast. And it should come as no surprise that given Steve's expertise as talking to people, this was a really fun conversation that was absolutely riddled with 'aha' moments, great takeaways, and a non-zero amount of grunting. I'm not even going to explain it. Let's just jump in.
Welcome back to the Product Manager Podcast. I'm here with Steve Portigal. He's a user research consultant and the author of User Interviews - How to Uncover Compelling Insights, and he's here with us today. Thank you so much for joining us, Steve.
Steve Portigal: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Nice to chat with you.
Hannah Clark: So Steve, well, we always start out by asking folks a little bit about their professional background. So can you tell me a little bit about how you found yourself in this point in your career?
Steve Portigal: The smart ass answer is like sticking around. I mean, I have been writing my own consulting practice for 22 years and worked for a consulting agency, like a design and innovation consultancy before that, and came out of graduate school before that with a degree in human computer interaction.
And I think it's if you go from backwards forwards, it's a journey of figuring out what is it that I do and, learning and re-examining, even though I've had this practice that I'm in now for 22 years, which feels like a long time, it's probably like 4 or 5 jobs that I've had because what I do and what I know and what the market is and where I am trying to provide value has shifted. So, I don't know, I guess it's a, I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse to stick around long enough to realize that what you know no longer applies and reinvent and pivot and evolve.
But it's in some ways it isn't even that it's just I've been, working as a user researcher for, 25 plus years and then doing what I do has, I could argue it either way. What I do is the same and the context around me has changed. Yeah.
Hannah Clark: Prior to writing the book, so you've been a practitioner for up to 25 years. So how has that sort of evolved when you talk about the context having changed around you? How has that impacted your work?
Steve Portigal: Yeah. And maybe I'll just point to the book a little bit as to answer that in the, this is a second edition of a book that was first published in 2013. And going back to something that I wrote 10 years ago, the things that I'm sure we'll talk about some of these things, like the way that we talk to people and interview and listen and try to get information from them a lot of that is pretty evergreen.
It's about people and so on. But the context that has changed, there weren't in-house user research teams at and UX teams, of a substantial size at many companies. And I realized like while we're talking, a lot of this is in flux. There's been a lot of sort of changes in the industry and in staffing levels and so on.
But if you look at, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, being a consultant was great because we were the only ones that did this stuff. There was organizations didn't know what to do with us, where to put us in the hierarchy, what teams would look like. So that context has really changed.
So who's doing research? And in fact, right, it's not just researchers doing research. And we can talk about that if you like to, right? But that's not something that was necessarily true or that was embraced or supported. Maybe it was a thing we didn't want to talk about 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Anyone can talk to customers, but they shouldn't.
Only people that you know, have the title or the training or the discipline should. So I think we collectively all recognize, Hey, there's a lot of value in doing this. We have different people doing it. We have organizations with more mature anyway, senses of how to staff this, how to lead it, how to manage it, how it integrates where it says. I don't think these are solved problems at all, but these weren't even topics for discussion going back.
So, that's the world changing around me, right? That's the, who I work with. And, what my contacts are, what I have access to with my clients has really changed over this period of time. Even if teaching people how to research and doing research myself is it's always the same because we're trying to build these skills about people.
But the world of doing business has changed, and I think for the better, right? I mean, I think something is always lost and gained when things have changed, but the embrace of this work, the fact that you and I are having this conversation today, across I'm going to make air quotes across discipline boundaries.
It feels perfectly natural and there was a point when it wouldn't have. So I think that's just all tremendous evolution over the years.
Hannah Clark: I would agree. And calling back to the idea of building skills, one of the skills that I'm hoping we can build today in this episode is about interviewing users, which is the focus of your book, Interviewing Users - How to Uncover Compelling Insights.
We have a second edition out, which is fantastic. So what was it about interviewing users specifically as a craft that really compelled you to write this book?
Steve Portigal: It's such an interesting topic because it builds on a thing that everybody does - talking, and then, oh, maybe it's asking questions and listening, but those are things that we do.
It's part of just interacting with people. But I think the more that I did it and, as I had chances to teach people, going way back and still part of what I do, it was always a fun topic to help other people with because it involves unlearning as well as learning. Like the idea that we think we know how to do this, I think is deceptive.
It makes it a challenging topic, I think, in an exciting way. And, again, we talked about how we've all kind of grown as in our practices. I don't hear people tell me any more as much as I used to like, oh, I can do that. It's just talking to people. I don't hear it dismissed as much. And I think maybe I hear more like fear or intimidation or uncertainty about doing this.
And I don't want anyone to feel bad about it. I think for people who are researchers, we you take any topic, anything, and you scratch the surface and you're like, Oh, there's more to there. And you peel something back and you're like, Oh, there's more there. There's more there.
And so just having spent years, these years that we've been talking about of my, duration, digging into it, being more specific, unpacking it, communicating to other people felt like, Oh, I had, going back to the first edition, I felt like, yeah, I had a lot to say. And even coming back to it 10 years later and thinking, and we've talked about the changes around us, if you reflect on that.
Oh, yeah, there's new things to say, but even if the practices haven't changed, it was lots of fun to go back to, guidance or tips and realize, oh, I have a better explanation for that or I have a new story or I have another mistake that I've made that I can keep digging deeper and try to hone the guidance so people can act on it. So it's work that I find interesting and to nerd out on and try to, convey it in a way that other people can get some value out of it.
Hannah Clark: Totally. And I think, nerding out on talking to people, if you're going to be working with people closely in a cross functional context or talking to users, that's definitely the first skill you want to be mastering, right? But to build on, you mentioned mistakes. I think that's always an area that's interesting to talk about a little bit.
So if we think about some of the common ways that we unintentionally drop the ball during a user interview, what are some of the common mistakes that you've observed in your teaching and your craft and that you think are interesting and good to call to mind?
Steve Portigal: Yeah, I'm going to pick one. I'm going to unpack it a little bit.
And that is talking about ourselves. And I think if you're new to doing this or new to doing it in a reflective and intentional way, your defaults is likely to be, the way that I make a connection with somebody. And let me just insert we want to make a connection with someone. We want to have a comfortable, warm interaction.
The more comfortable that person is, the more we can really get into what's really behind us. And so that goal of making somebody comfortable is necessary and appropriate. And so I think if we pull from social interactions and mistakenly apply it to these kinds of conversations, which aren't really conversations, but they have all the sort of the same ingredients, then people tend to think, Oh, I will make that person feel comfortable by telling them, Hey, I'm like you.
So when someone says, I'm just burned out on all these like Star Wars cinematic universe series. I can't keep track of anything. And you think, Oh, my goodness, this new one, just, I didn't know what was going on. And you have that 'OMG, me too' kind of response in an interview. I think people's impulse is to, convey empathy and say yes, I know I had, I know it was terrible.
What did you think of this? And really, and start bringing themselves into it as a way to make a connection. And if you're at a social event, that's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but it actually is the wrong thing to do in an interview. And these are all I'm going to make declarative statements, but I think there's always interesting caveats behind it.
So when someone says, and now I guess I'm locked into the silly example, someone says the Star Wars cinematic universe is just too complex for me. You can ask them a follow up question about that, keep it on them. Oh, what's the last show that you saw? Did you have a favorite?
How loyal to those are you? Do you read the books? Do you see the movies? What are you anticipating in this series? I mean, there's a million things that you could ask about, regardless of what your sort of objective is. If you want to pick up on that thing that person shared, then just come back to them.
And I think that's a different mindset, right? That I'm going to keep it on you, not on me. And that's how I'm going to establish rapport and tell that person, Hey, I'm interested in you. I'm interested in what you have to say. And then, so I'll just to keep unpacking, I'll offer one caveat. Sometimes people share something with some hesitation because they're not sure, is that all right?
So I interviewed somebody who worked in a a criminal justice case management role. And as they started talking about it, I saw some similarities between the kind of work that my partner does. And I didn't say, Oh, my partner does that, I didn't talk about myself. And we got quite far into the interview and this person was starting to describe like a coping strategy for some traumatic stuff that she as a provider was experiencing.
And so the thing that she wanted to talk about was using like dark humor as a coping mechanism. And she started and then she got super hesitant, right? She was exposing herself to being judged by me. I think that's a normal reaction. And so that's when I said, and this was, I gave it an authentic response.
I said, right, my partner works in a similar field and I see how they cope and I see the presence of dark humor in their communications. I didn't say it exactly like that, but I basically normalized what she was starting to share. And that's when, it unlocked her. And I'll tell you, I make this mistake myself.
I talk about this in the book a little bit, where I've, tried to connect with somebody based on where they lived and they were just not interested. And I realized, oh yeah, why would they possibly be interested? And I will say, I've described this in the book, so I've talked about this, I made this mistake about a, a year and a half ago and like it really stung because, I should know better than this.
And so that made me a little more aware of it. And then I had an interview a few months later. And so before we turned on the recording, we were talking about me as an expat Canadian, but I've been living in the United States for a long time. So there's an identity that you carry as an expat Canadian and wanting to identify with other Canadians or talk about Canadian things or whatever.
It's a little annoying thing that we do when we move here from Canada. And so I interviewed somebody from the Canadian branch of this American company. And he had a lot of gripes about how Americans don't respect Canadians. He was, the way, the spelling with the U and in words, and just, I think the typical stuff, right?
And he was really laying into us, and I was perceived as being an American, I mean, I am an American, but, and I just, every fiber of me was just screaming I know, right? Right? And wanting to tell him what my journey was like to be accepted and to get over those things. And the interview was not about me, and he did not need me to accept or normalize his complaints about, cultural dominance of one country over there all the issues that, that Canadians know about.
And so I just kept my mouth shut the whole time about that, but boy, it was killing me, right? And so I think that feeling of wanting to share something that someone talks about that provokes a strong reaction in you is real. And you got to sit with that. And then I think the mistake is to get into it just willy nilly and not. Be judicious as to where it's going to help that person, where it's going to help the interview.
Hannah Clark: Okay. This is fascinating because I obviously identify with that conversation as well, but also, I'm interviewing you now.
So the tables are turned in an interesting way and I feel like I'm getting some useful skills for my future. And not to say that I consider myself an advanced interviewer, but hopefully all of us are aiming to get there. Anyone who makes it a part of their line of work. So let's talk a little bit about some of what you might call like advanced interview skills.
So things you may be learned a little bit later in your career. We've talked about the don'ts, let's talk a little bit about the do's. What are some of the skills that we can work on that can really help us extract a lot more value from our conversations with users?
Steve Portigal: So this is gonna sound like a non answer, but one of the things I love to do is just the weird thing. But even since being a little kid, when you get a tangerine and it has just the right kind of loose skin is try to peel it in one, right? Maybe you need that starter one to open it up. But just I don't know, it's an obsession thing or something like that. But I bring that up as a weird example like that is sort the, an ideal for the interview.
And what I mean is that the interview could be all follow up questions. And so we prepare for the interview, we write questions, we sequence them, we think about how they're going to go. But I aspire to or fantasize about having the interview just be everything as a follow up question.
And it doesn't mean that I'm not asking the questions that I've written, but I might ask them in a different sequence, or I might ask clarification questions, or, tell me why that is, like all the follow ups and follow ups that are not going to be in your list of questions, your questions are higher level topics.
And so the craft is like, how do you weave that, I guess it's a tangerine, but it's something you're weaving. How do you weave that path through what you've written, what emerges, but so that you don't sound like you are like a verbal survey where you have the question, answer, and then you go on to the next thing.
And I think there's like baby steps that you can take, which is just to remind yourself, Oh, ask follow ups, look for things that aren't clear and ask follow ups. And I think the, it becomes more advanced, the more you can craft that path through the whole thing. Of course, there are points at which you have to change topics.
And I think the guidance there is to just tell people that you're doing that and be comfortable kind of talking about the interview in the interview that actually is not a thing you have to apologize for, but a thing that you can be empowered and to say things like, we're going to switch topics here, or this is really great.
And so there you might say, I want to go back to something that you said before, like you're talking about the map in the, now I've got a map, I've got a thread and I got a path and I've got a tangerine, whatever, every metaphor here, however you flow through the interview, you can talk about it.
And that actually is really, I think very helpful to someone so that it doesn't feel abrupt, right? You ask a question about this, now you ask a question about this other unrelated thing. You say I'm going to change topics here, I'm going to come back to something that you said before. Just to wrap up, I want to cover a couple of last things very quickly because I know we're out of time.
All those sort of management things that you do, it's when you can't peel, you choose not to peel the tangerine. And you reach the stopping point, you switch lanes to start another kind of flow thing, and then you do follow up. And it's a dance. And I think when I train people, boy, I've got every metaphor in here now. When I train people, they like practice writing questions and they practice doing the interview and that first thing they see is like that writing the questions is like a hypothesis about how the interview is going to go.
And guess what? You meet a real person to start talking to them, it doesn't go like that. And they realize that those questions are a tool for them to use, but they have to be able to ask follow ups and guide the conversation, not just speak the words of those questions. And so that's I think part of the evolution of a researcher to get from that beginner to that advanced age that you're asking about.
Hannah Clark: Okay. So I'm going to try practicing this skill and putting it into practice. So let's say I want to, maybe I've been doing a moderated usability testing or something like that with the user and I want to really focus on just follow up questions. Do you have a anecdote or a sequence in mind or something like that, that you can pull from your experience that can give us like a practical example of what the follow up question after followable question could look like?
Steve Portigal: I think the, I think there's probably two, I'm going to speak in generalities even though you asked me for a specific here. I think there's two classes of follow up questions and you just did one, which was the, give me an example, right? You took the, I spoke in a generality and you asked for a specific.
And so I think that's a, there may be more than two, now that I say that. That's a really good technique. And sometimes you get like a crappy answer like this one, which is No, I don't have a specific example. Are you then going to try something else? Are we going to move on? I think you have to make all these decisions.
I think there's follow up questions where you just ask for clarification. Wait, was that before you wrote the book or was that after you wrote the book? When you said you couldn't click on it, which feature were you talking about? And then I think there's the more subtle one, which is where the next question on your discussion guide is presented, not with that sort of, TV interviewer abrupt change. But it's asked in a way where you say things like, well, now having said that, What would you expect?
Or you put some joining words in, or you just change the way the question is phrased or even the emphasis in your voice so that it feels like it's building on what they've just said. So I'm sorry I don't have a specific example, but you got what you got.
Hannah Clark: No, actually that is helpful. And I'm curious because you make a distinction there of asking a question that is like a different train of thought versus positioning it as a follow up question or building on what the person is already saying.
Why make that distinction? Like, why are you trying to fit in that adjoining characteristic to the question? Is there like a psychological reason that is more helpful for the person being interviewed or helpful for extracting insights than to just change course of action and kind of guide in a different question altogether?
Steve Portigal: I think going from beginner to more advanced, I think it is that difference between you ask a question, you get the answer, and you ask a question, you get the answer. And you're doing this really well now. I think you're, and sorry if it's uncomfortable to get meta.
Hannah Clark: No, this is very meta. I like it.
Steve Portigal: But you're probing, right? I think you said something. I couldn't quite answer it. And so you're coming at it a few different ways. And transparency to people that are listening, like we're now in a part that you didn't write, right? I saw some of the questions you'd prepared. And this is emergence.
But you're doing what the researcher should be doing, even though we're not doing research now, but you're mirroring some of it. Okay, fair enough. You're identifying an area of interest and you're pursuing it till you feel like you've got it, right? Unless you're acting as an advocate for the people that will use this podcast or use this research.
And there's almost like a spidey sense, like, when do I understand what this person is trying to tell me? And it isn't question answer, it's question as a trailhead, and then you're winding your way to get to something. And so, psychologically, yes, I think a follow up question feels, a follow up question tells the person that what they've said is important and you want to know more about it.
And that is delightful if you're the person being interviewed. The more that somebody tells you the way you have to say is important, the more engaged and excited and reflective. Like I'm working hard to try to answer your question now, partly because I punted on it so badly, but now we're into something.
And and so you want to facilitate the state that you have facilitated me towards. So I think that follow up helps. And again, you're looking for like a little harmonic moment of Oh, okay. Like you're going to reach a point or you're not depending on how difficult I'm going to be like, you're going to reach a point where you're like, either you're like, I've got it.
I understand what he's saying. And I think I've got him to say it out loud. So we've got it on tape. Or you're going to be like, okay, I can't get any more out of him without pissing him off. I don't know why I made this about me, but I was talking about me as the interviewer. You do reach these points where you're like, okay, there isn't anything else there.
This person can't explain it anymore. But I, as the interviewer, I've got it. I have clarity about what this point is. So you have to be like listening and thinking and monitoring your own, understanding your own 'aha' kind of feeling. I don't mean 'aha' as like spraying new insight is here, but you know, when is it feel you're like, Oh, I've got it.
I get where they're coming from. I get what their experiences are, their hopes are and why. And then you can move on. And I still want you want us to move on in a way that feels continuous. Because again, that if you can, if the questions connect to the answers, then you're helping that person get deeper and deeper into it.
They're not disconnected things. It's all one conversation. It is the tangerine. And so where that takes the person, like when you do an interview, you can ask a question in the first five minutes and ask the same question in the last five minutes. And you're going to get a reflective, insightful story about their aspirations at the end.
And you're going to get one sentence at the beginning. And that's how people are. Like, that's why we do this kind of over time and so you want to create the conditions where that person is as thoughtful and reflective and passionate and honest with you, as they can and they haven't thought about it until you talk to them for a while about it.
So making those kind of connections between different questions by making them into follow ups, it is a journey. It is a path that you're doing for yourself, but you're taking them along.
Hannah Clark: I actually really follow what you're trying to say. You're like, as an interviewer for me, and I'm breaking the rule of making this about myself.
I'm interjecting only because I feel like there's a takeaway here, which is always my objective is to like, find what's the takeaway what piece of value is a listener going to be able to take with them and then put into practice in their own work. And so when I'm formulating questions, there really is the sense of, well, I don't know what the person is going to say, even if I have an idea where we want to guide it and what the takeaways are that we're trying to extract from a conversation.
There's always got to be some room for that person to come up with something that's just Oh, well, we really got to follow that thread because that's taking us in an area where there's a lot more value than what I had, preconceived. So anyway, that's just my little tangent. But after quite a bit of talking, I do want to talk about silence.
I don't necessarily want to go silent, but I do want to talk a little bit about the power of silence as its own sort of user research tool, which is something that you've shared some insights about in the past. So how can folks use silence to their advantage in an interview setting?
Steve Portigal: Yeah, so let me maybe talk about a do and a don't since, to use your framing and the newer researcher versus the more advanced. The new researcher asks a question like this. They say so what did you have for breakfast today? Did you have juice or toast or cereal? Or in fact, people do that.
It's like the verbal equivalent of an ellipsis. They drag the question out. And the reason that we do that, I think we have to be kind to ourselves and all these things because they're baked in human behaviors. And you said it really well, I don't know what the person is going to say. And that is a little bit of fear.
If you ask a question, you don't know what they're going to say. You also don't know with what cadence they're going to say it, and you and I are in video right now and you're giving me some like nodding. Although I guess I'm the answerer, so that doesn't really count. I don't know what, I don't know what I'm giving you when you're asking the question and it's harder over video.
And so when you ask a question, when you stop the question, there's a little moment of fear. It's a little cliff that you're leaping off of into the unknown. Will they think I'm stupid? Will I accept this question? Will they give me the right answer? And so, this behavior of suggesting possible breakfast items is foolish, right?
People know what breakfast items are. So it's just like talking about yourself as a way to be helpful. Suggesting possible answers to the question seems like it's a thing that you're doing to be helpful, but it's harmful. The person can come up with what they had for breakfast. If they don't know what do you mean by breakfast, they'll kick it back to you.
And occasionally that has happened to me. They'll just be like, I don't know what you're asking. Because my question was not as clear as the breakfast example. So the question that you want to ask, and this does go back to the silence thing eventually here. The question you want to ask is, what do you have for breakfast?
And then be silent. And that beat, I just did it for a short beat, it's like super uncomfortable and it feels to you, the interviewer, much longer. That person may give you some thinking face, like looking up or scratching their chin or, being read. They might even do that while you're asking the question.
They might start people's faces start answering. They like squint their forehead up or they like open their mouth and make an a face or something like people will indicate that they're ready to answer, but not everyone, that's where the fear comes from. So you want to ask the question and you have to stop talking and you open up the risk of there being silence, dead air, this interview is failing, this person's not comfortable, we're doomed.
And, sometimes I say just give yourself something to do make your, it's a monkey brain thing, right? Your monkey mind is like, Oh my goodness, what's gonna go on? So, even if you just say, not with your mouth, but with your brain let there be silence, let there be silence just give your brain something to do. And then hold your eye contact, and hold your kind of body language to look interested in, it'll work out.
And, again, the risk here is in putting the answers in the question. So when I say to you, what did you have for breakfast? Did you have, toast, juice, or cereal? It starts to become a multiple choice question, and that is fine maybe the first time person to say, no, I didn't have any of those. I had coffee and I don't eat breakfast. By the ninth time you do that, you have trained them what it looks like to do a good job for you.
And I think as we build our sort of experience in this, we start to realize how much power we have in the situation. We have a lot of power. People want to do a good job. They want to please us so the more you tell them what good looks like, the more they perform that way.
And so if you don't use the silence, if you don't just let it hang, then you're training them to answer within the set. And what you're saying is possible answers for breakfast items include some of the following. You're not saying choose one of the three. You're just suggesting in a helpful way, but it's being perceived as Oh, these are the answers that you want.
You're making it harder for them progressively to tell you what their actual experience is.
Hannah Clark: Like you're setting up like a multiple choice when you want to set up a mental long form answer box.
Steve Portigal: Yes. And that's a really good example because there's another silence piece here. So right thinking about in those survey things, there's a long form answer box.
There's a one line answer box. So, if I ask someone, what did you have for breakfast, and I just stop, and they say, I had orange juice. And then I say, what kind of refrigerator do you have? This is the follow up thing, right? If I move on to the next question, I have cut off any chance of that single line being a long form.
And the fact is, if I ask somebody what they had for breakfast, they don't know how much I want to know about any of this. So they're going to start off with orange juice. And this is the second piece of the silence. So, I don't have to ask another question. So, I just went on and on about follow up for 45 minutes.
Your follow up could simply be nothing. You could also nod, or raise your eyebrows, or say, you don't even have to say, 'mm-hmm'. You can just say like it's almost a grunt, that sort of auditory feedback that just confirms that you've heard them. And I think the practice here is what's the minimal amount, including silence, of body language, facial gesture grunting, utterances that I can offer to give that person space.
So you're trying to give them silence back after their answer. So they can say and the reason I had orange juice today was because, our rice cooker broke and I usually do whatever the rest of that story is, they're not going to give you that story unless you give them kind of the space to do it.
So there's silence in the question and then there's silence after the answer to I really like that. You want that long form, type in box and you got to give them silence for that.
Hannah Clark: It makes so much sense to me, but it also, I'd never thought about it that way about, and it's in like kind of interrogation room playbook.
Where sometimes just the most powerful thing that you can do to get people to talk is just stare at them or, grunt at them, presumably. So if we talk about questions and we're talking about, short form and multiple choice and all those kinds of things, the questions that you ask before the silence also matter a great deal to what kind of feedback from the user you're going to get.
So, do you have any tips as far as structuring or building questions that lead to a more insightful answer?
Steve Portigal: I mean, one thing is there's so many different ways to ask a question. You can write your guide with the best possible assumption as to how do you think you want to ask that. And you're still going to adapt it to sound like a follow up, but each question is going to need more questions to get at it.
So you want to have kind of in your back pocket all these different ways to ask about something. And I don't think I can list all of them, but it's things like asking people to make a comparison. So, what did you have for breakfast today? I had this and this. And so you wouldn't do all of these, but you could say, how does that compare to how you ate breakfast when you were a kid?
How is that different from how you'd expect to have breakfast in five years? How is that different than, how you'd want your children to, what you want for your children to have breakfast? So you're comparing across people and across time. So, talking about a work process, do your other colleagues do it like that?
Does your boss do it like that? You're looking for different factors. You can say, if someone speaks in a generality like, Oh, I always have orange juice. You could say like, when was the last time you had orange juice? Why did you have orange juice that time? So you pick a specific example.
What's what we just tried before? Here's a generality. What's a specific example? Tell me why that happened. And then, you can even say and was that an exception? Was that different? Did you, oh, that behavior you just described, is that something that came from your childhood? You mentioned your childhood before.
Again, these are, you wouldn't use all of these, but it's this idea that questions are, grouped together to triangulate around this thing that somebody's saying. And your job is to help them, right? It's not, nobody's concealing information, but they're mental model expectations around breakfast item choice.
It's actually rooted in something and they don't know what it's rooted in. So as ask them to project in the future, reflect back or draw comparisons, they start to, be able to present things in a way that has a little bit more of a model attached to it. And again, you're looking for the point at which you get it.
Oh, okay. So this is about this, in your head, you might think that. And so having those things in your pocket so you can, pull them out and ask them in different ways to try to get at, yeah, what's beneath this, here's a behavior, what's beneath that.
Hannah Clark: Something I really wanted to make sure that we end off on before I let you go is bias because, we always hear the interviewers should be as unbiased as possible.
I know you have some thoughts on bias in general. So how should we think about bias in the user interview context?
Steve Portigal: Right. And that word in our society outside the domain we're talking about today, it's a really bad word, right? It talks about discrimination, racism sort of everything that is screwing up our society is is bias and, hiring bias.
So the word is a bad word. But I think when we talk about bias, interviews, we're talking about cognitive bias. And one thing is I'd encourage people to be a little more forgiving of themselves. It's how our brains work, right? There's reasons why human beings have these biases, I guess.
Confirmation bias is where you hear what you expected to hear. You already had an idea, and so when you hear somebody say that, you're like, yeah, see, I was right. So that's not good, right? You want to do better at that. And there are tactics for this hey, before we start doing research let's all talk about what our assumptions and expectations are, not as hypotheses to test, but just to say them out loud or write them down so that they're not flinched within our chest, but they're just things that we can look at and oh, yeah, this is a thing that might happen.
I think that sets you up a little bit better to see those biases when they come up and to let go of them to, have things confirmed, but also see something different. But there is a compassion for ourselves that's necessary. And I want to offer just like a short story about my own sort of encounter with my own bias that is yeah, it's a story about me doing something not great, or at least feeling something not great and overcoming it.
And it's a story about going to interview small businesses and going into this agency, and the agency had the name of the founder like on the wall, and I could go in, it's like this creative environment, lots of, fairly young, hip people riding around, and I'm there to meet the founder, which I don't know how I would get access to this person.
And you know they come out and they're older than I am and I was younger than I am now. And you know we go into this conference room and we start talking and I'm asking about goals and expectations and planning all the stuff I want to understand about small businesses. And I realize at some point you know this guy is talking about his short term goals and his long term goals.
And I realize that I am surprised by his articulation of long term goals. And I realize that the reason I am surprised by it is that I had judged him. I mean, I'm, it's my own ageism. I had decided this guy is this, figurehead founder who doesn't really, he's not really involved and is there to interview, not do the work.
And there's a terrible story that I'd come up with about him based on, what I brought into the room, my own biases, my own ageism. And so when I realized that, this is all happening in my head I'm asking questions, he's giving me information. And I realize, oh, my questions are based on my mental model, which is completely wrong, and it doesn't always have to be a horrible ism like this.
We all have our mental models about people, and if we can hear them being wrong, then we can redirect. We could like, oh, tell me more about your long term goals. And so as a researcher, yes, I wish I was a person who didn't participate in isms and was not, ageist myself. We all are some amount to some extent and I think, there's a very unkind way to have that manifest itself.
And there's just a more normal human level of that. And I don't know that I can be the arbiter of what the, what those levels are, but I'm not saying this to be proud of my ageism, but just to be full disclosure with everybody. When I had that moment, it was like really awesome.
Like it was just such a great feeling of like it was even joyful Oh, I was wrong. I understand this person in a a much deeper way and actually to get over myself to be able to do that. My goal is to understand this person in a rich way. That's what's really exciting about research and what, makes me be able to go get this stuff and kind of bring it back.
And so again, they're not always this extreme, but you often have to get over yourself a certain amount. So, I mean, what was happening for me was, I could hear myself, I could hear where I was, almost clenching, like trying to steer his story a certain way, and he was steering it another way. And just to feel that tension between what he wanted to tell me and what I wanted to talk about, which happens in every interview to a certain extent, and some of that's just topic based, but here it was identity based.
So, there was insight for me in that about myself, about the topic, about this guy. And I mean, I say that, at the risk of being judged for, my own bias, but with the hope that, we can all get better at hearing our own bias and, in the moment and grappling with it.
And being intentional about the choices we make in the interview to get to what we're trying to get to.
Hannah Clark: Steve, I think you put it so succinctly there, because I think we all can really take a step back, whether we're doing user research or not, to just be more open minded and prepared to have our biases challenged, especially in the world we live in right now.
So that was a very poignant way to end the episode. And I really appreciate you sharing all of your comments. So Steve, now everybody's clamoring to buy the book. We'll have a discount code in the show notes, of course, but where else can people find you if they want to follow your work online?
Steve Portigal: Yeah, two places. My website is my last name portigal.com. So if you know my name, you can find me there. I post about user research and the work that I'm doing. I'll post this episode there when it goes out so you can learn stuff that way. And LinkedIn, I think, is where I spend a lot of time kind of talking about work and work adjacent kind of things.
And so if you know my name, you can find me on LinkedIn and people are welcome to connect with me and, continue our dialogue there.
Hannah Clark: Awesome. Well, we hope to see you there soon and thanks so much for being on the show.
Steve Portigal: Thanks for a great conversation.
Hannah Clark: Thanks for listening in. For more great insights, how-to guides and tool reviews, subscribe to our newsletter at theproductmanager.com/subscribe. You can hear more conversations like this by subscribing to the Product Manager, wherever you get your podcasts.