Episode 92 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Steve Portigal. Steve is a consultant who helps organizations build more mature user research practices. He’s the author of the classic Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. He’s also the host of the Dollar to Donuts podcast about research leadership. In this conversation, we discuss the skills required for conducting successful interviews with users.

As Steve pointed out, there are many facets to being a good researcher. On one hand, you must mind interview logistics:

I know some people in operations that have gone on to be a “researcher.” I don’t know that that’s the objective or the skillset, but, research does really well when things are well organized. Everyone knows where they need to be. They have the documents, they have directions, there’s technical infrastructure in place. Non-disclosures are signed that need to be signed. All the pieces to make research go really, really well.

On the other, you must be attuned to the other person. That doesn’t necessarily mean being a “people person”, but listening and being open to the context of the conversation:

being able to summon up different kinds of energies, different kinds of mindsets as you go from situation to situation. And I actually think that makes for a better researcher because no two situations that you find yourself in are the same. The energy and the mood that the person you’re talking to is going to be different, so being able to adjust your energy and mood and approach and tactics and tone and all those things, in order to respond to that situation is… I mean, I can’t say it’s easier for introverts than extrovert, because I’ve never been an extrovert, but if we are putting on clothing and kind of adjusting it based on situations like playing a role, I think that potentially can be more dynamic and more responsive to the context.

Many interviewers go into research sessions with a fixed list of questions they’re looking to answer. But sticking rigidly to the interview protocol may take you out of the moment. One practice that can help is improv, which “only works if you let go trying to control what the end point is going to be.”

Interviewing Users influenced my approach to research. It was a privilege to spend a bit of time with Steve discussing this subject. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life episode 92: Steve Portigal on Research Skills