Image of a pencil breaking

Exploring Design Research War Stories

After nearly two years spent gathering war stories about the unusual, comic, tragic and otherwise astonishing things that happen in fieldwork, Portigal Consulting has amassed a compelling archive about the user research experience. Steve Portigal came to Portland last week for CHIFOO’s monthly meetup to share some stories he’s collected and to muse with CHIFOO members on the deeper value that a war story can bring to its teller and the broader community of listeners.

As Steve writes in his preamble to Epic FAIL: Takeaways from the War Stories Project, “While it’s common for the members of any group to share stories of their adventures, the user research community hasn’t supported this well. For a practice that feels misunderstood by others, there’s pressure to only share successes. Yet the confidence to share the honest and human messiness of this work can help develop the skill and even prestige of the community.”

The war stories project is about the researcher, Steve summarizes, not the subject or the client. It struck me that the war story project is about the openness the ethnographer needs to invest in the moment and follow the experience. The ethnography of ethnographers.

Characteristic elements of war stories

Steve and the audience asked some important questions about war stories, some of which took the conversation into a literary realm.

  • How do you know a war story when you hear it? What makes a war story?
  • Do war stories follow the same arc?
  • Do stories and anecdotes get detached from their context and therefore get dismissed? Are war stories resonant because they remain tethered to the teller?
  • Are all war stories about something uncomfortable? Do they all involve a power balance shift and subsequent discomfort?
  • How can we get more value out of our war stories?

War stories share essential structure with other stories; they need a beginning, middle, and end. They must have a conflict point; the fork that turns an everyday story into a war story. Interestingly, war stories don’t need a lesson or a moral. They are complete in and of themselves, and I wonder if we can surmise that a war story is a heroes’ journey. It is the tale of the adventure, pivoting around the storyteller.

Attendees sharing their own design research war stories. From left to right, Steve Sato, Doug Cooke, Rachel Shadoan, and Jon McNeill.

Attendees sharing their own design research war stories. From left to right, Steve Sato, Doug Cooke, Rachel Shadoan, and Jon McNeill.
Photo by: Amy Santee

Live war stories

Members of the audience came up and shared war stories, and a memorable one was from Jon McNeill, principal of Hunter. During a stint of research for a luxury car brand, Jon and his client experienced a night of surprises while interviewing a participant. The night included a strip club, alcohol, lap dances,  and high speed driving,  rather than the expected interview in the living room and tour of residence!

On Steve’s website dedicated to the war stories project, Jon reflects on this story and mistakes he felt he had made that night, “…often those mistakes and faux pas were the keys to unlocking some heretofore hidden cultural truths. And I think that night was no different, although I don’t think the cultural truths that were unlocked for me were necessarily about luxury automobiles.”

Stories as a culture-changing catalyst

“Stories are a powerful way to move culture. In fact they could be the only way to move culture”, noted Steve. I would have to agree. In the customer research and interviews I’ve conducted I have consistently been amazed at the power of telling a story to provide catharsis and comfort, and to provide clarity and acceptance of other points of view. Not to mention that much learning and teaching follows the oral traditions of storytelling, and is still the most impactful way to communicate a message.

A little more background on Steve. Steve Portigal (@steveportigal) is the author of the Rosenfeld Media book Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, and is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers.

  • Hi Barbara,

    The image you have in your article (of the four War Stories
    participants) is one that I took at the CHIFOO event. Here is the original source link:

    I don’t see that you have cited me anywhere as the creator of the image. You are welcome to continue using it as long as you provide proper credit. If not, please remove it from the site.

    Thank you,

    PS I’m leaving a comment here because I couldn’t find another way (Twitter, email, etc.) to get in touch with you.