Active listening & leaving your world view at the door
Steve Portigal a world-class expert in customer research, and the author of Interviewing Users, a practical handbook oh how to get the most value from customer interviews. In this podcast, Steve pulls back the curtain on his professional journey and shares powerful insights about who to talk with – and what to listen for – when you’re interviewing users.
About this episode
[Amy Jo Kim] Steve, for those who aren’t familiar with your work, why don’t you start by giving us a helicopter tour of your background. What experiences led you to your current role and expertise?
[Steve Portigal] Yeah, well, I was born … No, we won’t go back to that, but, you know, you ask any question about how something came to be, it does trace back to different things. For me, it came from getting out of graduate school with a degree in human-computer interaction in the days before the web where there was no … The word “design” was not applied to software very often. Certainly, we didn’t have phrases like “user experience,” so with a graduate degree, I didn’t have a portfolio.
I ended up working for a consultancy in Silicon Valley that was traditional industrial design. That’s kind of where the design work was happening in the ’90s. From there, trying to make it in the world of human-computer interaction, which, again, there was no mature process or mature practice there, and that organization I was in was prototyping, I guess I’ll call it prototyping, using ethnography, doing a service called innovation. It was sort of a transgressive offering at that time. Now, it’s just part and parcel of what we all think that we all do.
While they were figuring out what did it mean to do work where you were producing insights that maybe inform design or inform strategy, I got on board with that and apprenticed for a period of time. As you apprentice, you go from journeyman to master if you do it long enough and do it well enough, so I learned in the ’90s, which just makes me sound old, but that’s when it was. I learned about user research back then, started my own practice in 2001. Obviously, it’s not something that you ever stop learning about. I’ve been learning about the work and then doing my own consulting with clients and years with my own practice as well and teaching and writing and sort of learning by not only doing but also putting it back out there in the world. I guess it’s sort of the … Now I’ve rambled off the point of your question, so I’ll stop there.
That’s okay. You launched your business during the tech downturn, tech crash.
One of them, yes.
2001, yes. How did that go? Who did you get as your first clients?
It was a challenging and interesting period of time, and you look back on yourself and realize … I had no idea what I was doing. I had done a lot of the work. I knew how to write a proposal. I knew how to execute these kinds of studies, at least to a certain level I knew that. I had been in a consulting practice. I didn’t know how to build my own practice, so I really started networking with people and just talking about what I was doing and what I thought I wanted to do and seeing what they were doing. I don’t know, I felt like people wanted to give me a break. If you remember that time, it was an awful time economically, it was an awful time culturally; 9/11 happened a little while after that.
As challenging as it was economically, professionally, personally, I think there was something positive going on. I want to say my first project was totally someone giving me a break. It was someone that had been just a good networking friend, if that’s a category of person. I think they hired me for something like a day of work over three weeks to help them with one of their clients do a survey. It was really just more about, “Can we throw Steve a bone and get him working on something.” It was a chance to collaborate with someone independently.
I remember when I started my business that, okay, I had zero clients, and that big leap to go from zero clients to one client just felt tremendous. I knew that once I did that, going from one client to two clients … Client number two was people that wanted me … I can’t even remember how I got hooked up with them, but I think I led some discussions in a market research facility about printer queue management for professional print jobs or something. This was obviously a long time ago.
My third project was a fourteen-month, basically longitudinal study with Hewlett Packard where we went to Japan and some other places to look at the development, guide the development of what was hoping to be an innovative printer and I think never got made. It was an amazing arc of a little drip here, a little drop here, and then, boom, it was one of the biggest projects I’d ever worked on. I haven’t and don’t continue to struggle or try to figure things out about having a consulting practice, but that one-two-three thing was … I think now that you ask me about it, I realize it was quite a wonderful trajectory to have there.
You’ve been doing it ever since.
You’ve got a great catch phrase that I’ve now used and I always attribute to you, “Check your world view at the door.” Can you tell us a little about that, following up on what you wrote in your book and how you came to understand that and why that’s so important as an interviewer?
Can I add some more geekery to this as a prelude to that question?
Because you’ve asked me a few different questions in this conversation about where did things come from. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me where that phrase came from. It’s being a child of the ’70s and ’80s. Americans will remember “We Are the World” and Canadians, which is what I am, will remember the Canadian response song, which was called “Tears Are Not Enough.” Anyway, just like with “We Are the World,” there was a making-of video that just showed all these pop stars coming into the studio.
David Foster was the producer and he put a sign on the door. I hope I’m remembering this correctly, but he put a sign on the door that said, “Check your ego at the door,” because you have a huge amount of big personalities coming in to try to collaborate. The idea was just you got to set that all aside and come in and be with this mass to make it happen. I’m sure that that’s just where I first heard the phrase. The phrase obviously exists in many versions, check your whatever at the door. That’s where it lodged in my brain and that’s what I was channeling when I said, “Check your world view at the door.”
I think it really is the same thing. You go into an environment, it’s not your environment, you’re a certain person outside. If you’re going to sit with someone and watch how they make travel reservations or whatever activity they’re doing, you come into that environment and you’re thinking about yourself and why you’re doing it and what you know and you’re just overloaded with identity or ego, as they called it in the music situation. That’s just how we carry ourselves around in the world, being alive and being human, but that just so much gets in the way and you can’t hear, you can’t be ready to pick up on what’s going on if you’ve got your metaphorical baggage. It’s setting that down and going into it.
I’m not sure if I answered all the parts of your question because I got into my nostalgia part of it. Was there another part?
Everybody loves a good story. I love your story. Yes, the other part of it is really digging into the point of view that’s behind that, which I think you really embody. As you coach and train other people, how do you help young researchers and especially product people who’ve created something and are testing it, and, of course, they love what they’ve created, how do you help them embody “Check your world view at the door” in order to be the most effective researcher?
If I look at my own trajectory and how I framed that, I think I might have started off from a place of eye-rolling or scolding. Not that I would ever be a jerk about it, but thinking like, “Oh, those people, they’re so in love with their own solution, they need to just shut up.” Realizing the more I explored these topics, the way to get better at them is to have empathy. Empathy is a word that we use when we talk about this work, have empathy for the user, but I’m really talking about having empathy for yourself. Of course I’m caught up in my passion and my hopes and my hypotheses about this project, of course I am. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be innovating, I wouldn’t be doing a start-up, I wouldn’t be committing to this team, I wouldn’t be working at this job, whatever it is. People do things because they love it and they’re committed to it.
One of the tactics for that empathy is talking about “check your world view.” It doesn’t mean discard your world view. It doesn’t mean forget everything that you know, what you think is wrong. It just says create a space, compartmentalize. When you go into this environment, take the thing that you have and just put in on a shelf. Leave it at the coat check and then go in. You still have that. You know that your world view is waiting for you and you can go back to that, but just take some time and be deliberate about what mindset you cultivate when you go into that environment.
There’s some tactical things to do to be mindful, things like being aware of what the transitions are. I take the analogy of … I don’t know why I pick sports analogies, because I’m the worst person to ever use them, but the football players in the huddle. They get together, they talk about something, they put their hands in the middle and they say “break” and everyone raises their hands up at the same time and they pull back. That’s a transition ritual. They were off the game, were sort of planning, and then were transitioning to go back into the game.
Those transition rituals tell people when they are going to go into an interview, there’s a point at which you’re getting ready, you’re going over there. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re using, if it’s in-person or not, you’re going from an activity that’s not the interview to an activity that is the interview. Just to take a moment and say, “Okay, for the next thirty minutes, the next hundred twenty minutes, let’s just try to learn about how Joanne makes travel reservations. Let’s just make it about that.” The implicit part of that statement is that we’re not thinking about what meetings we have, what aspirations we have, what sales targets we have to make, what our burn rate for our coders is. We’re really thinking about just looking at this person and their behavior.
I think that’s just a way to give yourself a break and just make it easier, not easy, but easier to really think about that experience with that person and learning about them as a complete thing. Afterwards, you can leave and you can go back and pick up your world view and make sense of this and start to triangulate and organize and learn. For those periods of time where you’re with someone to learn about them, just taking that weight of the world off your shoulders and just saying, “Okay, I’m just going to learn about them.”
The transition ritual is to consciously articulate that. I had a client that brought a yoga bell into the field. When she would take people out, they would be getting out of the car to go into someone’s home. I think she had it in the trunk. She’d gather around the trunk and they would ring the bell, creating this moment where, okay, we were trying to get here, we were making phone calls in the car. Now we’ve got here and we’re going in and we’re just going to center around this little moment of the bell and then we’re focused and we can go in and do the interview. It may sound silly. I love it as a concept. I don’t know if I could ring a bell, but I love the idea behind it. Whatever transition ritual you create for yourself, it’s just about marking the difference between A and B.
Following up on that, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see particularly first-time entrepreneurs or first-time product builders make when they set out to do research? What are the things that most people hit that you’ve seen over and over again?
Let’s talk about language as the first one. This is about the fact that real people don’t talk the way that start-up people, innovators, business people talk. Of course, business people are real people, but when they put on their business hats, they talk in a horrible way. Real people’s language is much mushier and terms are not used in the same way. If you have a conversation with someone, I think the tactic here is to reflect back the language that you heard, to keep your way of asking questions jargon-free.
When someone says, “Well, I just plug in my iPhone and the data moves over,” don’t ask a follow-up question that says, “So when you’re synchronizing, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” They didn’t say it that way. They said, “I plug in my phone and move the data over.” When you say synchronize, even though in your head you’re thinking like, “Well, that’s synchronizing,” when you lay that word on top of them, it changes the power dynamic very strongly and people feel chastened and like they’ve been corrected, that you’re smarter than them.
It requires a little bit of sitting on your hands. A lot of this does, sitting on your hands. Just hold back on using the terminology that you use internally to describe a process or something. It’s on some PowerPoint slide somewhere in your planning process that’s in the stage of interaction with something, but no one calls it that. Having the discipline to hear how they’re talking and reflect back their language, even if their language is “wrong.” If someone describes a download and you realize it’s actually an upload, you don’t need to correct them or change the words. You understood what they’re saying.
You may want to ask a clarification question. I was in Starbucks the other day. It was a lovely little moment where the person in front of me was ordering and he said, “I’ll have the cupcake.” The cashier or the barista … Are they still a barista if they’re not actually making coffee? They did it in a really lovely way. They said, “Did you mean the muffin?” There’s no cupcake in the display case there, but there is a muffin. She did it in such a way it was clear she was asking to clarify to make sure that she put the right order in. She wasn’t interested in being right. Once she established what the person wanted to order, then she said, “A lot of people think it looks like …” or, “It really does look like …”
She acknowledged, she kind of normalized that person’s reaction. She needed to get the language precise because she had to make sure she was doing her job, but she didn’t need to be right, and she gave that person a lot of credit for their “erroneous” mistaken use of terminology. That’s a thing a lot of people could draw a lesson from. Just let them be right and make them be right. Clarify as much as you need, but that’s all you have to do.
Let them be right and listen to their language.
Don’t impose your own language.
You said it’s like you’re putting on your learning hat when you go in if you ring a bell or not. It sounds like the message there is when you’re putting on your learning hat, really learn from their language. Consider that your job. You want to know what language they use.
Yes. In order to continue learning, because it’s not just a simple one question, but through all the time that you’re there with them, you need to keep using their language to ensure that you keep learning. That muffin interaction was really over a minute, but if they were to continue talking, the Starbucks employee had really set up a nice dynamic with that customer. They had established rapport, they had built trust with them. They were in a good position to keep going. If you hit that person with your corrective language early on, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to get them to share as deeply and earnestly with you as you’d like.
That’s great. The second one we talked about I called call and response.
Yeah. That’s a thing. It’s a lovely phrase. I think we have a lot of bad models of what interviews look like in the media, where it’s a question, answer, question, answer and where question three may have nothing to do with question two, let alone the answer to question two. Maybe you’ve had this experience where someone has a clipboard or they phone you up and they just ask you a bunch of questions and they don’t even say, “Uh-huh” or “Good.” They just go on to the next question because their objective is to fill in that slot. You know how you write a form that has text of the question and then some underlines for the answer, they’re just trying to fill in that. They’re not actually listening. They’re not interested, so the conversation never goes anywhere surprising because they’ve super constrained what they want to do.
Surveys are good for certain kinds of information, but that’s not what we’re talking about doing here. You can ask a question and listen to the answer. You’re going to get a lot of information there. The thing that you might choose to do is nothing. It’s just to nod or go, “Mm-hmm” and let the person keep going. When they do that, you may have five or six other questions to ask as well as the next one that you’ve written down, so you have to choose judiciously where to go.
I have a story about that where I was coaching some people who were doing some practice interviews. They had customers coming into their office, and we were sitting in a meeting with them and I was working with this guy who was the interviewer who just was the sweetest personality, just so genuine, so authentic. He just was really lovely, was doing a great job. Anyway, he’s talking to this guy about some financial processes that he’s going through, and he’s asking lots of follow-up questions and it’s really great. He’s listening and he’s using his language.
The guy that’s being interviewed says, “So I get all the materials together and I hand them to the CPA, and then I go home and have a panic attack.” My guy, the interviewer, says, “How do you organize those papers?” He totally sidestepped the panic attack thing. What was happening was that was sort of a trust fall exercise. The man being interviewed revealed something very vulnerable about himself, and that was a cue. That was a trailhead. That was a couple of things going on there. He was saying, “I’m going to reveal something about myself to see if it’s okay to trust you. Is it okay to talk about the softer side of things here,” and the guy ignored him. He didn’t pick up on it. He said later on that he was uncomfortable and he didn’t know what to do.
That was like a flare being sent up. The question to ask is, “Oh, a panic attack. Tell me about that.” The person basically told him what his next question should be because they gave this very large emotional cue. He didn’t say, “I have a panic attack because A, B, C, D, and Q.” He said, “I have a panic attack.” He held some information back. He’s wanting to be asked. It’s like a little kid or a dog that comes up to you and wants you to chase them. They’re telling you what they want you to do. I don’t mean that to be a patronizing metaphor. It was meant to be a sweet metaphor. It was a very sweet thing that this man did by making himself vulnerable. My guy, for all his good intentions, he just didn’t know what to do with it.
I think listening for those emotional cues and choosing your questions that follow up based on what some of those cues are is a way to sort through the many, many, many questions. At any point in time, you probably have ten possible questions just based on what’s going on right then, so trying to prioritize based on the person and really listening to them and really listening to them. When they say, “I wanted to have a panic attack,” you need to hear that for all that it messages.
Why is it so important to listen to and follow up on those emotional cues?
Because we’re not just trying to collect usage information. We’re trying to collect meaning information. It’s there. It’s there for the picking up. If you ask about what people do, they will also talk to you about what it means. What it means reveals the biggest barriers or the opportunities. To understand how emotionally fraught this financial transaction is, tells you a lot about what role your solution can play in someone’s life, and it’s not moving data points from A to B. Anyone that’s innovating knows that. You’re providing higher order benefit, so understanding the meaning and the emotion behind these things as well as, of course, the facts, the transactions, the data, the workflow and so on. Where are those points helps you come up with ideas for what role do you want to play, what do you really want to help, and what do you want to tell them that you’re going to help with to encourage people to engage with you.
Sounds like being a good interviewer is more like improv and less like script reading.
Yeah. I talk about improv a lot, actually. I teach people about improv from a context of design and interviewing. It was a really helpful thing for me to learn about it as an interviewer. When I talk about improv, I always say improv is heavily constrained. There’s many degrees of constraints and many degrees of freedom. Improv is not just blah-blah-blah, let’s just run around and scream. It’s highly structured, and that’s what makes it work, understanding how to really, really work with those structures and then how to improvise within those. It applies to many different kinds of problem-solving activities where there’s some direction but some amount of unknown or just being able to be comfortable with that.
That’s why call and response is a good metaphor, because that comes from African drumming, which then turned into salsa and all the Cuban, et cetera music and basically African-based music. It is completely constrained improv. The art of it is about having a wonderful structure, but then improving and vibing off the other people’s emotions in real time.
I love that.
I love that you connect it to problem-solving, not just to doing research, because it’s also a great metaphor for research, and you’re a master at this, but problem-solving in general. I know that you work with teams on problem-solving, not just on research. That really leads us into the third one that you mentioned earlier, which is to stop fixing.
Yeah. I think there’s kind of a micro and a macro aspect to fixing. People talk about this in terms of relationships. They’ll describe one of their friends or their family members like, “Oh, he’s a fixer.” I think there’s often some gender challenges around this where people in a relationship … I guess it’s more of a relationship than a gender thing where someone says, “Oh, this and this happened today.” “Well, have you tried this?” People don’t often feel listened to when they’re offered a solution. What they really want to do is talk about the problem. I think that applies here as well.
Let’s start with the micro. The micro fixing thing within the realm of trying to do well in an interview, this is the worst thing that you can do. Obviously, there’s terrible things that you can do if you are trying to do a bad interview, but this is the worst well-intentioned thing that you can do, which is when you’re looking at a program or a product or a service that you know, whether it’s yours or one that you have experience with, is to start telling people how to use it.
People will say things like, “You know, I really wish there was a space in here where we had help tutorials,” or, “I wish that I could configure this in this thing so it would be over here.” If you say, “Well, there is. Go here and click here and I’ll show you how to do that,” the interview is over, because now you’re doing a tech support call and the dynamic has shifted to that you are the expert and you can help this person fix their problems, and that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to say, “Well, and can I do this and can I do that?” As much as you try to get back to what would you want and what would you expect and show me how you do, they’ve figured out who you are. It’s really almost impossible to back out of that.
The thing to do is wait till you’re done and if they expressed a pain point that you can address as opposed to the thing you think they should be doing. It’s not about your judgment. It’s about where they’ve expressed a need. You can say, “Oh, by the way, you had mentioned this earlier on. Would you like me to show you this?” If that’s the case, go ahead. You’re done with the interview. There’s no harm that can happen, but to do it in the middle, I think it’s the end.
That’s sort of the micro version. The macro version is just that whole attitude of being a fixer. I’ve been doing a podcast myself earlier this year with people inside pretty large corporations talking about how they have built up user research practices. It’s called Dollars to Doughnuts, and I’m sure we can put the link to that in this as well. I was reading over some of the interviews that I had done, the transcripts of them.
One of the folks from MailChimp talks about the fact that, “We don’t go out and research products. We go and research people.” His questions are, “What is this person’s life like? How do they work? What’s important to them?” That’s really the fundamental question. It was Gregg Bernstein talking about this, the fundamental question that he’s doing research with and it’s not, “What should our product be? How do we make our solution work for them?” It goes back to checking your world view at the door. Part of your world view is what things you want to make and just setting that aside and really just being interested in the person, and not having a fixing mentality but just a learning mentality, as you mentioned before.
The reason why that’s important is because it allows you to be exposed to a much broader set of information and there are opportunities beyond what you had thought about. If you knew everything, you wouldn’t need to do this research. You’re trying to set yourself up to be able to be surprised by what you don’t know that you don’t know. I think that fixing mentality aside and just being open to learning about the person, not the product, really opens that up for you.
Decoupling the problem from the solution.
There’s an undercurrent to everything you’re talking about, which is the power dynamic of an interview and what the best practices are and then when it shifts, and as you say, “the interview is now over, you’re doing a tech support call. Dig into that a little and give us a framework for thinking about power dynamics in an interview. Ideally, if you’re coaching someone and say, “Here’s what I want you to do and think about,” what can someone who wants to get that right do to increase their chances?
Being genuinely interested and curious. I think that’s sort of a fundamental state. I really want to know about you. Why do you check your world view at the door? It’s, again, to give yourself a break, set aside all the things that you have responsibility for and just be interested in them. I don’t know what I’m going to learn. I’ve heard it phrased as thinking about your interview subject as the expert. They’re the expert. They’re going to explain to you the thing that they do and what works for them and what they get and what they don’t get.
There’s a podcast I’ll recommend if this is a topic of interest to people. Slate put it out. It’s the Working podcast. It’s called Working, with David Plotz. I think there’s, I want to say twenty. He interviewed twenty people, just very different professions, a waiter, a pastor, Stephen Colbert, a musician, exciting and ordinary professions. He just talked to them about what they do. It’s classic field work. I’ve never been a soccer mom, and I want to learn what it’s like to be a soccer mom. That’s a terrible example, but it’s not just professions. It’s sort of the circumstance, the thing that that person is that you’re there to learn about.
I think what people often default to do is trying to make the connection and saying, “Yes, I have kids. Yes, when I travel … In this part of my life, I think about it this way,” and you’re trying to build a connection with someone, but that’s about you. Actually, if you can take yourself out of it and say, “Wow, I haven’t done this. I am not this, and I am excited to learn from you,” whether you say this literally in words or you just think about it as a framework for yourself, just being enthusiastic and interested in the chance to learn in a deep way about somebody’s something that is new to you and being excited about that. That’s very compelling to people.
I was interviewed. Someone did some research with me the other day, and it was like it’s going to be the high point of my week, which is not yet over. They made me feel so good about talking to me. They were appreciative, which was nice, but they did this … This was cool. I haven’t fully reflected on this. They had this technique. We were doing it online. It was a remote interview. They asked me to tell a story, and they pulled all these high points out of the story and they put them on something that we were screen-sharing in a hangout, and they created little cards.
At the end of the interview, they put this up and I could see all the high points of my story, which I hadn’t really synthesized. I was just yammering. They were all these key points. Oh, my goodness, I felt so good and so respected, like what I had to say was important to them because they had been listening and they captured it. There it was, all laid out there. I haven’t talked about this, because this just happened. Giving that feedback to someone to tell them that you are interested in what they had to say and that it’s important, I felt like I had a lot of power in that interview. Power is maybe a misleading word because it’s not about what I could do to them. It was more about how I was lifted up.
They had a lot of power because they were able to create that experience for me where I was very lifted up and I felt very valuable and important and was able to give broadly and freely to inform them. They didn’t make themselves the experts and control me. They created space for this thing to happen with me. That was just one of the best experiences I had when I was on the other side of the microphone with it. It inspired me to think about how can I make people feel really good about what they’re sharing with me. I guess I’m taking your power question and blowing it up a little bit, but that’s what it’s about for me, I think.
That’s so cool. It’s a strategy for maximizing learning.
Thank you again, Steve, for joining us.
Thanks so much for the great questions and the good conversation.