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The Evolution of User Research with Steve Portigal
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The Evolution of User Research with Steve Portigal

The Evolution of User Research with Steve Portigal

Kritika Oberoi
August 10, 2022

Few people have worked in User Research for as long as Steve Portigal, and even fewer have been so successful at advocating for the field.

Author of ‘Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries’, and ‘Interviewing Users’, Steve Portigal sat down with us to talk about how the User Research field has evolved over the last two decades and what he sees in its future.

20 years of User Research in 3 Phases

In the last 20 years, Steve has witnessed a dramatic evolution in the field of research, from the dark ages, to the age of empowerment:

  • Phase 1 - Research Consultants (aka the Caveman era): The first cohort of User Researchers in the field were primarily consultants—think IDEO, a particularly successful example emerging at this time. But while research consultants could be hired, in-house researchers were still a rare sight.
  • Phase 2 - Individual Contributors: As organizations started to realize the power of research, the function began to emerge within companies. But although there were individual contributors running research, they weren’t empowered—no big titles, not a lot of access to senior management, and a limited ability to influence crucial decision-making.
  • Phase 3 - Empowered Research Practices: Today we’ve entered the third phase—a phase where Research leaders have titles like Head of Research and Director of Insights. These leaders are empowered to build practices—hiring their own teams and influencing their peers in senior leadership to make decisions based on actual user insights.
    And while every organization may not be at the same level of maturity, Steve sees the field as a whole headed in the direction of greater empowerment and influence, driven by hunger from verticals like Design & Product.
Also, read: How to Democratize Research with Gregg Bernstein

What has driven this explosion in User Research?

Two major drivers have led research as a field to grow rapidly in recent years:

  • #1 Consistent evangelization by industry leaders: Over the last 20 years, industry leaders have been advocating for research, demonstrating the impact of the practice, and teaching others their trade along the way. This consistent advocacy—speaking, writing books, organizing conferences, and so on—has helped organizations understand the value of research and learn how to run it themselves. Of course, the work is far from complete, but it was definitely effective.
  • #2 The rise of Design: UX Design has grown rapidly over the last decade, and Design leaders understand the need for research. Design teams have opened the door for Research inside companies, hiring talent and building a practice to enable better decision-making.

Some of these changes have moved incredibly fast within companies. For one company Steve consulted with, a new Design leader hired Steve to bridge the gap between the organization & its users. 1.5 years on, the company had built a 15 person research team to drive insight-based decision-making!

What are the risks for researchers who are new to the field?

Even though large numbers of researchers are being hired across the industry, the current explosion in demand is not without its risks.

Steve points out that researchers new to the field are often hired and not provided with any guidance or mentorship to support their work. If this lone soldier fails to provide the results management expects, it can lead to the organization writing off research, or at least that individual researcher.

If you’re new to the field and joining a company, make sure that they have set up the support & guidance from senior leadership that you need to succeed!

Don't Miss: The Newcomer’s Guide to UX Research Careers

At what point does an organization decide to build its own research practice?

When you think about the journey of a new company, it often starts with a vision—a vision of a single founder who believes things should be different. And for a time, the founders’ insights can guide decision-making, especially if these leaders are industry experts themselves. But pretty quickly, gaps start to emerge between the company’s vision and what users actually want and need. At some point in the journey, the reliance on vision instead of insight leads to a major failure—maybe a feature release epically fails, or an unexpected competitor that starts to grab market share.

It’s when the inherent confidence of the organization transforms into a crisis of confidence that a tipping point is reached and research emerges to bridge the gap between the company and its customers.

How does Steve feel about the future of the industry?

In one word—hopeful. While the immediate future may hold its ups and downs, Steve looks at the trend ahead and sees more and more organizations believing in research as an essential function.

So hold on folks—it’s going to be a fun ride!


Evolution of User Research
Steve Portigal
Product Development
Design Process
UX Design
User Research
User Feedback
Research Methods
Design Thinking
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