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Understanding the Importance of User Research with Steve Portigal

by Luke Swenson
4 min read
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A recent conversation with Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, highlights the importance of effective user research.

At the Los Angeles User Experience Meetup & IxDA organized by Crystal Ehrlich in September, Media Contour’s Project Director, Luke Swenson, was lucky enough to catch up with speaker, author, and thought leader Steve Portigal of Portigal Consulting.

His insight and expertise on finding users for research, on conducting user interviews, and using unique research tools are invaluable. Portigal puts a lot of emphasis on interviewing users, and on doing it the right way. He teaches the importance of learning how to interview users correctly, rather than just “winging it,” in order to get accurate answers to the right questions. Portigal agreed to answer a few questions for us, and we think you’ll find his answers helpful and enlightening.

What are some common types of user research?

There are many, many methods, which is a good thing. Some primary groupings to help get people started are quantitative and qualitative research types. Quantitative research involves large groups of users where you can get look at large populations and determine accurate statistics from that. Qualitative deals with more “human” aspects in smaller samples. Where you might have 1,000 users in a quantitative study, you might only have 12 users in a qualitative study. There are different methods you might use within qualitative studies as well: contextual methods, lab or focus group methods, and more.

When should our clients invest in user research?

There are two things that you should watch for that can indicate it’s time. One is when you realize that you don’t know the answer to an important question. For instance, maybe you’re not sure who you’re targeting with a product or service. The second one is more difficult: it’s when you believe you have the problem already solved but you’re operating without any type of humility—you’re believing your own hype, so to speak. You’re making assumptions without any facts or evidence to back up those assumptions.

What are some common problems user research can help solve?

I think the most common application of user research falls under the umbrella of “testing.” I see most people going down a development path and then checking to see if they’re on the right track. But that’s really missing what user research is best at. I think user research is really good at developing an understanding of the need/problem/situation and how your solution fits into that. It helps determine how your solution solves the problem and how it fits within users’ lives.


How can small teams conduct inexpensive and effective user research?

I think the thing with research is the more you put in, the more you get out of it. Of course, not every situation really needs a huge budget, or enormous amounts of time. I think talking to people versus not talking to anyone is huge—putting a little bit of effort into figuring out who the right people are to be talking to, putting a little bit of thought into the conversation itself. Come up with more than just basic questions like, “what do you think?” It really does require time and planning. For companies with budget and time constraints, it takes no money at all to come up with better questions and you’ll find a huge amount of information that can be applied directly to your process or product.

Put yourself in the mindset that you’re there to learn about that person within their framework

Where can we find users for our research?

Finding people really requires a little bit of thought. You need to think about who is going to give you the best feedback: Are they current users? Are they potential users? Are they former users? This is one of the most important parts of your project plan, actually. Finding relevant people can be a challenge. For companies with a budget, working with a market research or recruiting firm is possible. Some companies hire staff to do full or part-time participant recruiting. For a startup, you can find users in your normal networking activities, your current business connections.


What are some common issues that beginners face?

One of the most significant issues is the type of questions that you ask, or how you ask those questions. I think you need to practice asking short, open-ended questions rather than long, detailed questions. Put yourself in the mindset that you’re there to learn about that person within their framework. Don’t impose your own model on your testers, cultivate within yourself a sense of curiosity and openness and let your questioning follow that. That’s hard. It takes practice.

Are there any services or websites you would recommend that can help facilitate user research?

That’s a tough one. [There’s] my book, Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. There’s UserTesting.com. UIE.com (User Interface Engineering) has a great library of webinars and articles. Rosenfeld Media, my publisher’s site, always has great resources, too.


UX Magazine is presenting the international Design for Experience awards and Steve Portigal is a judge. Check out our categories and make your nominations today!

post authorLuke Swenson

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