The Evolution of User Research: past, present and future with Steve Portigal

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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:

What has driven this explosion in User Research?

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

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!

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!

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