Interview with Steve Portigal

by New Idiom


photo by Miguel Cervantes

Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting, led a workshop at DRC entitled “Did you notice that? Tapping into your super-noticing power”.  For the workshop, participants were instructed to take photographs of things they noticed and thought were interesting and bring them in.

This is Steve’s first DRC appearance since frequenting the conference in its earlier days as “about, with & for”. I had a chance to catch up with him after the workshop and we spoke about ethnographic techniques, the challenges of working with clients, and his computer science background.

What was one of the photographs that was brought in?

Someone showed a picture of someone sitting in Daley Plaza. There was apparently a lot of seating available, but there was someone sitting facing into this fountain and his feet weren’t in the water but he was sitting with his feet kind of over the edge, where there were other seats elsewhere. She was really struck by the fact that this person chose to do that, when there was this system that allowed you to do something, but he chose an alternative approach.

The way she described it was really great. “Was he antisocial? Is he trying to get away from it all? What was the reason that he was doing that?” And, in terms of process in order to take his picture, she asked his permission to take his picture and ended up asking this person about his behavior. He revealed that he found it very peaceful over there and that it was a way to kind of get away from everything.

People took pictures they had to submit to me, and they had to write them up. So, in doing that, I think they found that the story came out after. They saw things in their pictures that maybe weren’t there at the time when they took the pictures. They didn’t conscientiously process that.  That sort of thing ends up being some of what we learned about: What goes on in the moment of noticing? What are some of the ways we can build those muscles up?

Do you usually ask permission to take pictures of people when you’re in a public space?

No, but I also try to take their pictures so that they don’t see me! I heard a story about a photography class at ID years and years ago. The assignment was to stand there on the street and to shoot people as they are coming at you in order to train you that that’s okay to do. I take a lot of signs… they’re artifacts, things in the environment that are interesting or curious.

Do you think as designers, we should have this “noticing” mentality turned on at all times?

At the workshop there were a bunch of people that talked about this.  One person said, “For me as a design researcher, that’s always on. That’s something I can’t turn off.” People started laughing and saying their partners don’t understand why they’re always doing that. “Hurry up. Stop doing that! Why are you taking that picture?!” They were sort of enjoying the fact that [being at the workshop] was like being in AA because there were a lot of people that had that in common.

But not everybody’s wired that way. In classes I’ve taught and in workshops like this, I talk about building those muscles because not everyone is a born “noticer.” But the noticing skill- this predilection to just capture stuff- that may take practice. And, I think part of what’s good about an exercise like this is to take a picture that’s interesting and don’t worry about what you’re going to do, why you’re taking it, what you’re going to fix. Just do that. That gives you permission to do it and the sense of a discipline.

When I’ve taught classes, I’ve said every week you have to take a picture. At least one little story, very micro, but you do it on and on until it becomes habit for you. So if you’re not someone that always has it on, you can become one of those people.

What techniques do you use in addition to photography?

Photography is an easy one to do, logistically. I think there’s a good correlation between people that like to do photography and those doing this stuff anyway.  When I’ve done this as a class assignment, they can do whatever they want. They can write a blog or keep a journal. I think it’s more about some small story that you have something to say about with some regularity.  For me, that’s photography, but I also write a lot. I’ll take a picture, and then I’ll write a story about what I saw.  There are so many good tools for ethnography that make it so easy.

What are you excited about now in design research?

It’s interesting to listen to some of the talks [at DRC]. This is an event where people talk to their peers professionally.  In some ways, that’s a conversation that I don’t get into that much.

So much of my world involves explaining and facilitating these processes to people who aren’t designers. I’m more about trying to talk in the language of “Here’s your development process. Here’s how these tools are going to help you support that.”

That’s an area I’m excited about: being a better consultant and understanding more about how people that have business responsibilities think, talk, decide and communicate, and making what my group does more useful and relevant to them.

So while it’s really provocative to hear the latest techniques in our language as a profession, it’s also a little alien to me. It’s good to hear other people talk about it that way.  I think, for me, the frontier that I want to explore is being a better consultant.

How much of your time working in a consultancy is spent getting clients to understand what design is?

I think that it’s almost like a philosophical underpinning. From the time someone approaches us and says, “Can you help us do X?” to have a conversation and say, “Yes, we can. What is it you want to do,” it’s not my style to say, “First of all, the question you’re asking is wrong, and here’s what we will do.”

I’d rather start working with someone and try to steer them more gently. I feel like “Show them rather than tell them.” Get the relationship, build trust, get them involved in the process, and understand what it is they do and don’t understand- and what they’re great at. [Understand] how they view their product and process, their own internal culture, their customers, and what design means to them.  [Getting people to understand what design is] colors everything, including little tactical things like, “Who do we involve in the fieldwork? Do we arrange to meet with them beforehand or afterward? How do we help them take something away from the process?”

Do the clients come in wanting help for a specific problem or do they have this idea that, “Oh we need designers because everyone in BusinessWeek is talking about design?”

I’ve thought a lot about that in terms of how we go after clients and how they come after us and what do those engagements mean.  You’re right. What they start with is what you’re going to work with.

I think we’ve been painted with the brush of being, “Well, we have this problem we’re going to solve with ethnography. We need an ethnographer. Those Portigal people can do that for us.”

I don’t spend a lot of time saying the word “ethnography” back at [clients] all the time. I talk about what we’re going to do and what it’s going to take. Our brand is not around design. It’s probably more around ethnography than everything else. So, I’ve gone back and forth between never saying that word and using the word as an entree because of BusinessWeek and everything else.

You have a computer science background, which is intriguing because ID is a school that is half comprised of students with non-design backgrounds.  How did you end up in the design field?

My third year of computer science, they gave us Baecker and Buxton’s Readings in Human Computer Interaction, a classic tome at the time. There was a story about the LA Olympics in ‘84. IBM developed this kiosk for a multilingual phone base for all the athletes. I remember it was the first human centered product development ever.

Suddenly, computer science wasn’t just algorithms. It was about people making things that were innovative and changing what could happen, and there was this human element to it. I discovered HCI and I thought it was just this really amazing thing.  I ended up going to graduate school more as kind of an immersion into a way of thinking and not a design program with a portfolio.

I came out of graduate school when design in interfaces was just pre-web so it wasn’t quite taking off yet; it was still small. There weren’t people in software design that were coming out of design school yet- it was still too early- they were coming out of various places: tech writers, computer science programs. I was lucky to get a job in a design consultancy.

I ended up working at this consultancy to do software interfaces, which I soon discovered were extraordinarily detail oriented- which is not my bent- but we were dabbling in ethnography being applied to product development and industrial design. So, I got in in the early days of that being developed.  I learned through that experience and was in the right place at the right time. I found that this is the thing that is sort of a culmination of all this exploration that you’re doing discipline-wise and profession-wise. This is how my brain works, this is how I think.

Fast forward a few years later to Portigal Consulting.

I worked for that agency for about seven years, and they folded in the age of the “Dot Bomb” era, and I started my own firm about seven years ago.

Is this your first DRC?

I was at “about, with & for” many times- I think I spoke at four of those.  I have really fond feelings about this conference that I feel like, in my world of Portigal Consulting, one of my professional debuts was being invited to speak at the first “about, with, & for.”

I have this network of friends and colleagues still that date back to the first time I came out here to be at this conference, so it’s been maybe a few years since I’ve been here since the new name. So, when they approached me to come and speak, I was thrilled because this has been an important place for me professionally and socially.