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Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories

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248 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 2016

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About the author

Steve Portigal

3 books147 followers
Steve Portigal is an experienced user researcher who helps organizations to build more mature user research practices. Based outside of San Francisco, he is principal of Portigal Consulting, and the author of two books: 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 Dollars to Donuts podcast, where he interviews people who lead user research in their organizations. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies and conferences across the globe.

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5 stars
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35 (38%)
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20 (21%)
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Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews
Profile Image for carla.
255 reviews13 followers
December 5, 2016
I really wish this book had existed when I first started doing user research. The stories are super insightful and present the real range of things you will encounter in the field. They range from the obvious (let's make some checklists) to the not-so-obvious ethnical dilemmas that may arise when someone tries to convert you to their religion or asking you to help them clean something up in the house.

Many times you get a work-related book like this, read it, and think "that was great" and never go back to reference it again. Due to the power of storytelling, the truths about fieldwork become more alive. Steve takes stories and frames the lessons in a way that isn't always obvious -- and that make some simple and memorable lessons. The lessons also build with more obvious ones coming early on and later these stories showing very tough decisions made by researchers in the field. I look forward to coming back to re-read these stories and really think through a few things before doing my next project.

At the end of Chapter 10, Steve provides the sage advice "We meet people wherever they are in life." Which is true, as a researcher, you are greeting your research subject wherever they are. This book also proves that the subject of research is also meeting the researcher wherever they are in life too. We bring our own cultural context to every interview, and these stories bear out those experiences. They also show the great range of empathy with the research subjects.

Disclosure: One of my short stories appears in this book. As I read the ones from other researchers, I was astounded at the breadth of experience and the challenges that people faced in field. I also recognized various situations that were less than ideal and similar to some of my own.

I look forward to sharing this with many folks - from those new to user research to those well experienced.
Profile Image for Michael.
309 reviews
March 31, 2017
Many of us involved in User Experience Research are control freaks.We try and keep our studies scientifically rigorous to obtain unbiased, measurable and comparable data. We rely on scripts, checklists and controlled schedules to achieve these goals.

All that goes out the window when you step into the field. You learn to expect the unexpected.

This book is a collection of tales from many of the top UX field researchers on the planet. It’s a lovely mix of interesting anecdotes and practical insights. They range in topics from pee breaks to serious ethical dilemmas.

In this book you will hear a lot about:
+ The right amount of preparation
+ Effective improvisation
+ Emotional self-care
+ Suspending judgement of your participants
+ When to cut and run

It has given me a lot to think about before my next field work project.
Profile Image for Jess.
71 reviews64 followers
February 6, 2017
This book was really enlightening for me. It helped me realize there are many opportunities for things to go awry in field research.

Most of my UX research experience is with remote sessions or in-person sessions. I haven't experienced many of the situations in this book because I haven't done much work in the field.

I look forward to applying what I've learned from this book to the field research I do in the future!
Profile Image for Vicky.
38 reviews18 followers
September 30, 2017
Compilations of stories often run the risk of being nothing more than just talking heads. However this book gets around this by carefully theming the sections, and digging into very real problematic situations - the stories that are worn likes badges of honor. It's a must read for user researchers if only to hopefully help them head off their own stories by learning from others.
Profile Image for Ananda Nadya.
40 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2021
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” - Ira Glass

Majoring in Psychology, I used to dream of being a Psychologist due to my interest in learning human behavior. Little did I know, I ended up being a Researcher, and I absolutely like being one. My profession allows me to have close interaction with other human beings, and through the experience, I too, learned more about what it means to be a human. Therefore, I am very surprised upon knowing that there’s a book consisting of researcher’s war stories. I hopped on it and finished it in a week.

For me, this book is an entertaining light read. I even find several stories that I can relate into. I especially like the chapter 5, which titled “Gross yet strangely compelling”, which consists of stories of researchers in disgusting situations. The stories are very cringey and hilarious to be imagined, but also teach on how researchers should learn to overcome their discomfort so that they can eventually emphatize with users.

What makes me give this book three stars is the fact that I wished the stories can be curated to be more comprehensive — some stories are just too simple and short that I can’t gain insight or learn anything for it.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
105 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2021
I enjoyed this book. But, I expected it to focus more on HCI than market research.
16 reviews4 followers
July 7, 2017
Insightful, Fun, and Extremely Important for Product Development!

DoorBells, Danger and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories was an absolute delight to read. The book starts a new type of conversation beyond typical readings related to this industry (e.g. the “hero story” of providing insights that inspired a successful product or design; and “tips and tricks” for researchers). Doctors, lawyers, accountants, electricians -- some professions you grow up being told about over and over. They perhaps then become obvious choices of professions to consider as a career. I am a user researcher and I stumbled upon this career through the world of industrial design. It is wonderful to shed light on user research in this meaningful way for the good of product development and as career choices for unique minds with a sense of adventure! As a user researcher myself for over 10 years, Steve Portigal’s book is the first time that I'm seeing published evidence of the vast, rich world behind interview protocols and card sorts.

There is so much pressure to be “right” as a consultant or in the corporate world but the world is messy and the best ideas and insights don’t always come from “being right” or “perfection” - this book is so human because it is a wonderful collection of stories of things that didn’t go as planned! The contributing authors of the war stories are putting themselves out there - putting aside their pride to share for the benefit of the collective. It is so refreshing. When conducting research for product development many things can go wrong - humans and travel are both unpredictable things. Sometimes you end up better off than anticipated, sometimes you have a setback, but no matter what you end up with a great story. Portigal has not only collected a wonderful set of war stories, but his insights and takeaways which tie the stories together are so thoughtful, poignant, and creative.

I recommend this book to anyone who is a (or works with) user researcher(s) in product development, and I especially recommend this book to those who are in product development but haven’t had the opportunity to work with user research. By reading this book you’ll get as close to first hand knowledge as possible about the discipline of user research, its many subtleties, and it is great importance in product development.

One of my favorite chapters has to be Chapter Four "Cracking the Code" because it is all about appreciating cultures even in their most subtle ways. One of my favorite byproducts of fieldwork is getting to learn about subcultures you never knew existed before those interviews.

Profile Image for Corina.
133 reviews6 followers
January 23, 2017
Firsthand stories from intrepid user researchers about the wide range of challenges and unexpected situations they find themselves in. An "on-the-ground" look that people usually aren't exposed to, and a good reminder of what real, quality user research entails--the skills, courage, and enormous empathy required. It's a nice companion book to Steve Portigal's Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, which is a must-read for anyone building, designing, or thinking about products.
Profile Image for Lindsey.
166 reviews
November 29, 2021
I was expecting a collection of research stories that were a bit more in-depth. Although some of the stories were funny to read, I was looking for a book that would teach me more about conducting UX research. Instead, I got a collection of short antidotes that ranged from humorous to somewhat redundant.
17 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2017
If you want to learn how real-life user research is done, the highs and the lows, the successes and failures, go get this book.
Profile Image for Grant Baker.
45 reviews9 followers
March 23, 2017
Steve Portigal's latest book is an interesting look at sharing "war stories" around user interviews. The real story of the book comes from combining all the submitted stories into sections that gives the reader an excellent picture of when things don't go perfectly well. I'd recommend this book for anyone in research who interviews people. It is a book that makes you think about your own processes and how you might react given similar circumstances. Great book, and a fast read.
Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews

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