Steve Portigal is an independent user research consultant. He is the author of Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. Steve was previously on the show last year, talking about research skills. This conversation is a bit different: both of us have written new books, and we thought it’d be fun to compare notes about the process. We decided to split our conversation into two parts. This episode focuses on the motivations for writing, and the second part will focus on processes.

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Jorge: Steve, welcome to the show. I should say welcome back to the show, right?

Steve: All right. I’m a return guest. Great to see you. Great to have another conversation.

Jorge: I always enjoy our conversations, and I’m very excited to be able to share this one with our listeners. I can’t imagine that there are many people, at least in the design space, who don’t know who you are, but can you do a very brief summary of your career, who you are, and what you do?

About Steve

Steve: I was born in 1967. And, yeah, I’m an independent consultant. My focus is on user research. I do user research; I’ve been doing it for a very long time. And it’s a big category. I think my focus is on qualitative work, which means interviewing people. Before the pandemic, I was someone who always went out to the world and saw what was going on out there, helping people learn things about their customers, my clients, that inform their decisions or their strategy or just overall how they even think about who it is that they are building for or could be building for.

As part of my career, I also teach people how to be better at research at conferences and workshops and help organizations build up their practices so that they are making the most out of the skills they have and how they’re structured. And as part of that, and I think, to feed into today’s conversation, I’ve written two or three, we’ll have to figure out how many, what the actual number is, books about user research.

I know we’re going to talk about that as part of our conversation today.

The New Edition of ‘Interviewing Users’

Jorge: Yeah, I’m glad you bring that up. You have a new book. It’s a new edition of Interviewing Users, right? Was that your first book, Interviewing Users?

Steve: Yeah, the first edition was ten years ago, 2013. That was my first book. And then, I think it was 2017, I wrote a book called, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. And it’s a book about the kinds of experiences that people have doing fieldwork. It’s stories from all kinds of other researchers about just what goes down when you go out into the world. Then, 2023, the year that we’re in right now, is the second edition of the first book from 2013. So I don’t know if that’s two and a half books or three books or two, two with an asterisk. I don’t know. Yeah, it is a new book.

Jorge: Yeah, absolutely. Doing a new edition of a book is a lot of work, right? I’m hoping that this is part of what we’ll talk about. To bring in folks on what we’re going to try to do here, this is a somewhat unusual conversation for us. Normally, when I have someone on the show who has written a new book, the focus of our conversation is the subject of the book.

And in this case, we thought we’d do something different. Because you have this new edition of your book out, and I have a book coming out in a few weeks. So, rather than have it be about the subject of the book, have it be about writing a book. So this is going to be like a dual interview where I’m going to be asking you questions about your book, and you’re going to be asking me questions about my book, but not so much about the subject of the book, but about the process of the book itself. The first question that I have for you is, what compelled you to write this book in the first place? I’m talking about the first edition.

Writing the First Edition

Steve: Right? So, going back to 2011 or 12, when this all kind of started for me. Yeah, I think there’s a meta question that we can explore now, which is tied to your question, I think, which is like, why write books? Like, why would anyone choose to do that? Which is a good question. And because I don’t know, I talk to people, and they say they want to write a book or they don’t want to write a book.

I think after a certain point in your career, like in our field, we will have a lot of peers who write books. It’s like a thing that people do. And I think way back when, just looking at what I saw, yeah, my peers — people that maybe were further along in their career or more successful by whatever subjective measure that is — I saw people doing two things, teaching inside something more formal like teaching in an academic environment and writing and publishing a book. Those seem to be milestones that put you at another level.

It’s funny because, as a kid, I always thought I would be an author, but a fiction author. I always thought that was in my future somehow. And then, you actually get a career and start doing things. I didn’t even pick up fiction again until two years ago. But yeah, so anyway, I’m getting off of your question. It seemed like it just was out there as a thing that I should do.

And I had probably, I don’t know, three or four half-hearted failed attempts. I used to blog and contribute to other blogs. And one day a book agent approached me out of the blue and said, “Hey, we can come up with a proposal and I could shop it around to different publishers based on, I don’t know, my takes about stuff.”

And it was a really open-ended next step for me, and I never really… like, I just abandoned it. Like, I wanted to do it. It was very cool. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I couldn’t structure a proposal or come up with anything, and I just… eventually, it evaporated. I think I had a shared Google Doc with somebody who was another researcher where we were, like, gonna write something, and we started outlining again; we didn’t know what we were doing. We were just self-starting, and we both were living on opposite coasts and didn’t really have a vision or any guidance. And so that, that dissipated after a while.

Then, there was a point at which I finally met Lou Rosenfeld, and we talked about some needs. And I wrote a proposal for him, and it was turned down. And Lou is very kind; he says, “Do you want to hear why you want to have a call? I’ll talk to you about why we turned it down.” And I was not as gracious as Lou, and I just said, “No, you’re not going to do it; I don’t want to know.”

And a year or so later, there was just, I don’t know, like a convergence of things. Like, the absence of a book about user research from Rosenfeld or from anybody, it was really clearly absent. And I think I was the… There are many people talking about user research now, but there were fewer back then, and I was maybe the most prominent or noisiest or something like that.

Lou and I started talking again; we had lunch at a conference. We met with another person who’s a UX researcher/author to see if it is going to be a co-authored book or if it is going to be Steve or something. At the same time, I was getting these emails from people who, like interaction design community leaders and voices saying to me, “Steve, we need that. We need a book about user research. And I saw Lou Rosenfeld, and I told him we need this book and I told him you should write it,” which is the nicest thing that could ever happen. I’m not trying to make fun of anybody.

So, yeah, I guess what made me do it, what made me want to do it, it was there as this aspiration, and I had all these sorts of false starts, and I think there was this convergence of demand and encouragement and asking for it and a relationship with a publisher who’s going to help me get it done.

The Evolution of Writing and Publishing

Jorge: It sounds like there are a couple of things there. I sketched a little Venn diagram here in my notebook, and the two circles say ‘thought leadership’ — somehow this notion of, “Hey, you’ve been writing in your blog, and people are reaching out and saying, maybe this should be more formalized somehow.”

And I have to say, you and I have several parallels here. One is the most obvious one: we share the same publisher, Rosenfeld Media, which publishes both of our books. But the other parallel that we have is that we’re both independent consultants. And for an independent consultant to be perceived as a thought leader, it’s helpful.

The other circle in the Venn diagram, though, which I think is very interesting, is that you and perhaps third parties, noticed a gap in the space, this notion that there was stuff in the world that was worth putting into the form of a block that just hadn’t been done yet, right? So, you recognized that opportunity.

There might be a third thing there, which is hearkening back to this idea that it sounded to me like you had a book in you since you were a child.

Steve: Right. That’s like an aspiration without any path towards it. The way I have often thought about Interviewing Users was — and I hope this isn’t too arrogant, a comparison — but that idea of the rock band that plays bars just forever and ever and ever. And finally, someone sees them and says, “Hey, we want to pull you into the studio.” And they come up with this amazing debut album. The history of rock music, at least, is filled with so many incredible debut albums. And often, follow-ups don’t live up to it, and that’s because they’ve got ten years of material.

Again, it’s a little self-aggrandizing to compare myself to a Van Halen or whomever you want, but I was writing blog posts, articles, columns, teaching, and doing workshops.

How We Got Into Writing

Steve: I had a lot of material that was in all these forms that I’d been doing for years and years. So when there was an opportunity to change the form of it, it was like the right place, right time. But also, there was a book in me, not from childhood. I think there was an aspiration from childhood, but the book was in me from that sort of that period of my career. It wasn’t in text form, but it was in all these other forms.

Jorge: That also parallels my own trajectory. My first book project was the fourth edition of the Polar Bear book, the O’Reilly information architecture book. And the way that I became involved in that is that I, too, had a blog. I had been writing about information architecture, and one of the blog posts I wrote was about the need to think about information architecture beyond the World Wide Web.

If you remember the first three editions of the Polar Bear book, the title was Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. The point of this blog post was to say that information architecture is useful for more than just the World Wide Web, despite what the title of the book says. And that blog post led, I think it was Mary Treseler at O’Reilly, to reach out to me and say, “Hey, we’ve been talking about doing a fourth edition. And this sounds right about, about in the direction of where we want to go. And Lou and Peter would like to engage a co-author.” And one thing led to another, and that’s how I ended up becoming involved in that project. So that was my gateway into becoming an author, part of my identity as well.

Steve: Was that something that you… that opportunity came to you, but did you have aspirations or hopes to do that?

Jorge: As a child, I hadn’t thought of myself as an author, certainly not of fiction. But like you’re saying, I had been writing in my blog, which is a way of publishing. And one thing that is also worth acknowledging here, and this is another parallel between us, is that I think that you and I are almost exact contemporaries. We are about the same age, we’ve been in this industry for about the same length of time.

And I think that’s significant because I suspect that we come from an era where books held a position of cultural import that may not be the same for someone coming up through the ranks today. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’ve always had a very high esteem of books and thought of books as the vessels in which certain important ideas become formalized so that you can study them and point to them. It makes them somehow more real.

For someone who was there when the World Wide Web started getting popular and then all the revolution around blogging, all of a sudden, it felt like the floodgates were opened when it came to sharing ideas with the world. Anyone could set up an account in Blogger or whatever and start posting. And it’s interesting that we both came into it through that medium.

But the reason I’m bringing this up is I’m wondering if that is also true for folks coming up through the ranks today. I don’t know that people who are getting started now would hold books in the same regard as they did back when you and I were kids and eventually got into the profession.

Steve: Yeah, it makes me think about… The desktop publishing revolution put software in the hands of everyone, where they could make graphic design and zines or flyers and posters. And there was some hand-wringing over that because there’s a lot of crap.

We just keep having these cycles of democratizing access to certain kinds of communication or certain kinds of technology. And blogs meant that everyone could write and whatever. I don’t know if it’s LinkedIn right now or TikTok, which makes everyone like a video influencer, and it seems like we get more and more content, but you’re like, whatever the number of blogs versus the number of TikTok posts per hour. Now, I’m guessing it has got to be much higher than blog content posted per week in the era of Blogger as a platform. But I don’t know.

We live in a world with a lot of content, a lot of access to content, and a lot of democratization, but curation is super important. And I think of books as being. Somebody, even if we can publish them ourselves, there’s a higher barrier to… even if you’re self-published, you still have to hopefully design, edit, create a, get it into the self-publishing platform. There is something about that.

And I don’t know. I haven’t thought about this too hard, as you can hear how dumb my ideas are. But, like you, the podcast that we’re on right now, you do this with a very regular cadence. So even though you talk to somebody different, it’s an ongoing conversation, right? It’s a soap opera. It’s a serial, right? There’s something that kind of keeps happening. But a book is more frozen in time.

And both of us have done second editions, right? There is that. I don’t know. This isn’t a question you’ve asked, but writing a book in 2013 and revisiting it in 2023 and taking out all the dated stuff or as much of it as you can makes you hyper-aware of “everything that I say now in this book has to be more evergreen because it’s going to be revisited for the lifespan of the second edition.”

We’re getting way off on anything that you asked, Jorge, but it changes how you think about… it’s a forcing function, right? I’m not going to list software programs as much as I might have… you know, the stuff gets dated. You and I have talked about this. Talking about things that are changing rapidly, like AI, poses a real challenge. It goes in the book. How are you going to talk about it when things are changing so rapidly every week? I don’t know.

Writing Books for a Changing World

Steve: Sorry, Jorge. But I want to hear about… I want you to talk about maybe revision. Revision or two questions for you: revision in a sense of a changing world or just writing in a sense of a changing world. Your current book is very contemporary. How did you think about that?

Jorge: Revisions are super important. It is highly related to what you were talking about just now, this idea that books are a particular medium, and one of the implications of putting out a book is that it is a snapshot of a set of ideas in time. And the expectation is that they’re not going to be as malleable as something like a blog.

Or there’s this notion now of digital gardens, right? I had Maggie Appleton on the show talking about hers. And I loved the structure that she has on her website where she publishes ideas, and she has a taxonomy to indicate the state of the idea. And I forget the exact labels of the categories, but it’s something like they go from being seeds of an idea to being a fully developed essay. And she tags the things she posts to indicate the state of the idea, and she keeps building on them over time.

You can’t do that with books. To your point, books are a much more fixed thing. The process of writing a book, particularly a book about technology, is a little harrowing in that regard. And I experienced that with working on Duly Noted in that, as opposed to the previous book projects that I’ve worked on, this one did deal with some particular software technologies.

There was one case in particular where I had a section explaining how you link things using Apple Notes, and then Apple announced the new version of Apple Notes, which completely changed how you link things. And I had to scrap that and think about how I was going to do that differently.

And the book was written with the understanding. And I think I acknowledge this in the book, that some of the things that You’re going to read about, they are going to change. Because I’m writing about things like AI, which, by the way, the day that we are recording this, I think either today or yesterday, it’s been a year since ChatGPT came out. And it feels like a lifetime; there’s so much that’s happened.

So I can’t imagine… Well, I can imagine, because I’ve done it, write a book where you’re trying to address the impact of these tools on something like note-taking when it’s a fast-moving field. But the flipside to that, though, is that the process of having to think about what is going to stand the test of time about these things is a certain discipline that changes the character of what you put into a book. And that changes what you read in a book.

The other thing I will say is that there’s another aspect in which books impose a certain discipline in that they’re a commercial product; even like an academic book, they are in some sense a commercial product in that you have to pay for it. I mean, not all books; some books are given away for free for other reasons. But the type of books that we are talking about are books that are put out into the world as things that you pay for, which is not true of blog posts, right? I don’t charge for my blog. You can read Maggie’s website for free.

And I promise I’m going to circle back to the editions thing, but the idea that you’re going to put out something into the world that is going to be subject to the feedback that you get from somebody deciding to actually put hard-earned cash into the ideas, I think it changes the nature of the writing, and it changes the nature of the choosing what you’re going to write about. And when I see a book like yours that is going into a second edition, that to me is a strong signal that the ideas in that book have…

I’ll talk about a second edition. Yours is a second edition. The polar bear book is in its fourth edition. When you cross the threshold of going from a first edition to a second edition, I think that is a signal that the market has deemed this set of ideas told in this way — so it’s the ideas in the book and also the voice that you bring to it, the way that you’ve explained them — the market is sending a signal that this is good, this is working for us.

And in the case of the Polar Bear book, four editions, that, to me, is a strong signal. That book first came out in, I believe, 1998, the first edition. So, at this point, that’s a pretty strong signal in the market that the ideas in that book have validity in a way that you don’t get with these lower-threshold publishing media like blogs and podcasts and TikTok videos or whatever, right? Those are meant to be more snackable and of the moment. And the benefit of that is that they are more flexible. You can respond to current things, and you can change directions more quickly.

But the flip side is that in some way, books — especially books that have gone through several editions or that have been in print for a long time — at least to me, the signal they send is these ideas have been useful to a lot of people over time because this thing is still somehow seen as valid and not just seen as valid, talking about it: people are plunking down money to say, “ Yes, I believe this is valid.”

Steve: They are, in some ways… they are brands like the Polar Bear book. The way that we even talk about it is, it’s nicknamed, based on its image, and it’s almost… you could say it’s like a franchise, the Fast and Furious whatever. There’s 27 of those movies, and different people are in them, and different people direct them, and there’s still a through line. The Polar Bear book can incorporate new authors who can tell that evolving story.

And so that’s further endorsement of the importance of those ideas, that the package that they’re in, or the label that we put on that package, can uphold multiple voices, and it can morph and grow and still be true to itself, in some ways that sounds like an awesome responsibility to be given. That’s your first writing project, getting on board something that has a lot of momentum and a lot of history and trying to bring it into a new era. That’s not trivial.

Jorge: Oh, it was incredibly intimidating working on that book. That book was very important to me in my own development as a professional in this space. And you do get the sense that you are making an intervention in something that a lot of people consider to be important. You have to go about it very mindfully.

I was just going to mention that another one that comes to mind is About Face. Alan Cooper, I forgot the co-authors. I should look this up. But that’s gone through several editions as well. Alan Cooper and Robert Reimer. Yeah. And they brought in David Cronin, right? I don’t think David was there from the beginning.

But anyway, there is this notion that the ideas have served people, and there’s proof of that because there’s a market for a second, third, or fourth edition eventually. The trick then becomes how you determine what those ideas are that have served people well and expand upon them to make them more relevant to people working today without losing the essence of what the thing was, right?

Steve: Yeah. Don’t wreck it.

Jorge: Yeah, don’t wreck it. And, very specifically, in your case, what’s new about the new edition of Interviewing Users and how did you decide on what to bring forward, what to add, and maybe what to cut out if you did?

Writing a Second Edition

Steve: Yeah. So, I had a conversation with Lou Rosenfeld, I don’t know, let’s say, a couple of years ago. “Would you want to do a second edition?” And I laughed. I’m like, “Why? The book is still doing well. And I stand behind all the ideas in there. It’s this thing about people to people.” So, in my mind, that’s evergreen. Like, how you ask a follow-up question doesn’t change. And so, I had this kind of knee-jerk reaction. “No.”

And then, I was coming up on the tenth anniversary and feeling like… and I think we’re kinda getting at this like these are significant professional milestones for us as first-time authors. And, like personal and professional, it changes a lot if the book is successful, and it really changes a lot for the author. What am I going to do for the ten years? This really has changed my life. I want to do something about it.

And someone said to me, “Would you ever do a second edition?” Like, in a professional chat. And I had one of those moments where that “no” was still ringing really loud in my head, but when they asked it, it opened it up for me. I’m like, “Oh, like now it makes sense to do it.” And so, I just sat down, I didn’t open the book. I didn’t do anything. I just said, “What would I want to talk about?”

Because I’ve been living with this book for ten years, and I have been teaching other things and just my stuff that I’m interested in, and you realize what gaps there are. And I just sat down, and without thinking about it too hard, I’m like, what are the… in my mind, they would be chapter headings or topics. And I came up with six things, and don’t ask me what they were because that was about a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago. And so, that was proof to me that, oh, there’s stuff I do have, stuff to say without even thinking about it. I know what that would be.

And that sort of started that process. And once we got going, we had planning meetings to talk about what that would be. I think I started a document where I took the old outline, marked it up, added new chapter headings, added stuff, and then, eventually, I opened the book. And even at a high level, identified other topics.

And then this goes back to why I blog and write books. Like, I went back to my blog, I went back to LinkedIn, and just chronologically scrolled and liked things that I had cited, and points that I had made. It was just a scanning of past stuff. I’m sure if I was better at using a second brain tool, I would have better access to that. But yeah, I do use Obsidian, and I went through that, and then I opened up my super set of workshop slides, like the biggest one that I had.

And you have a workshop that mirrors the book, and you iterate. You can see all the stuff that I’ve added to it since then, and definitely, stuff that I’ve taken out as well. And so, I started producing a superset of content that wasn’t structured or hierarchy or anything like that. But you start to see, “Oh, there’s a lot of stuff that I want to talk about.”

Jorge: That’s really interesting because it’s a little different from how I approach… I’m thinking now specifically about Duly Noted as well, and how I went about that, and one thing that I heard there, which I want to emphasize. by Rob Fitzpatrick called Write Useful Books that has been really useful to me, and I have recommended it to people who say that they want to write nonfiction. One of the things that Rob says in this book is that you should teach the material before you start writing about it.

I think that’s really important because, at least for me, whenever I’ve written a book — and Duly Noted is my third book project, so I did the fourth Polar Bear book, Living in Information, and now this new one. And in all three of those cases, I came into the project with a set of ideas, and like you were saying, it was messy. I had a big brain dump of ideas. And then, I take a first pass at the ideas, trying to structure the best way to talk about them. How am I going to string these together in a sequence that makes sense to the reader?

And the point is that that initial structure is a hypothesis. Like, it might make sense to me, but I’m not really going to know if it makes sense to others until I start exposing other people to that way of talking about it. And that doesn’t really happen until you’ve either written the book and put it out there or actually shared these ideas with other people in other ways, right?

And teaching something like a workshop or a course is certainly a lower-effort way of doing it than writing the book, right? Like you want to, write the book after teaching the material for a little while.

Steve: What’s the context in which you were teaching? You have been teaching the Duly Noted material. How have you been doing that?

Jorge: Specifically, Karl Fast and I did a workshop on the materials in the book at the 2022 Information Architecture Conference. That was an opportunity for me to put out some of the ideas in the book and get feedback on what was resonating or not.

The other for me — and this was true in both Duly Noted and Living in Information is that I shared a lot of the ideas on my blog and through social media before putting them together into the book. What the book does is it actually packages them. But the ideas I’ve often shared either by blogging about them or by talking about them in the podcast, at least certainly the ideas that have gone in Duly Noted.


Jorge: What I want to do, Steve, because I’m just cognizant of the fact that we’ve been talking for a while now is that we have more to discuss here. I’m really curious about your writing process, and maybe we can compare notes on that. And what I think we’re going to do is wrap this conversation here and pick it back up in the next episode of the podcast. But before we leave, where can folks learn more about you and, especially, where can they get the new edition of your book?

Steve: So you can find me on my website, which is my last name, You can find me on LinkedIn; it’s a good place to… I don’t talk about this stuff and anything else in the larger scheme of what we’re all working on. And the best place to buy the book is from Rosenfeld Media, and that’s And we do have a discount code, which comes from the name of this podcast, INFORMED. There’s no the in the code. INFORMED gets you twenty percent off for a limited time if you buy the book from It sounds like I’m on a K-TEL advertisement here.

Jorge: That’s very exciting. I’m grateful that you’re extending that discount to our listeners. And I want to encourage everyone to get this book. Your book is one of these that I think transcends its original context. You are within the UX research realm, but I think that the skills that this book helps you build are helpful in more than one area of life. It’s not just for doing UX design research. So, I encourage you to check out the book regardless of whether you are a designer or a researcher or not. And thank you, Steve. We will talk with you again in our next episode.

Steve: Looking forward to it.