Building a Group Mind with Steve Portigal



It's always such a pleasure to get to sit down with one of your heroes...and it's especially wonderful when they are just warm, wonderful people. Steve Portigal is a prominent author of two excellent books on user research ( Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories) and Steve also speaks prolifically on the conference circuit. And while he maintains a solo practice on the west coast, he somehow makes time to also give a lot of his knowledge away, blogging, podcasting...When I was coming up in the design world, Steve's writing was always clear and helpful. And when we first met, he was approachable and human. Steve is a model for the kind of design thought leader we need more of!

Sitting down with Steve for this episode was an interesting risk, though. We ran into each other in SF and talked about the possibility of an episode grounded in a topic Steve is an expert in, but indirectly. Let me explain. Steve is a User Researcher, heart and soul. And he talks and writes about it, fluently. Facilitation is something that he *has to do* in order to bring people together. He's an extremely reflective practioner  about research, but about facilitation, less so. For me, it's fascinating to see that divide. I think there are a lot of people where facilitation is a means to an end.

Steve illustrates something I coach people on often - you have to be your own kind of facilitator. I can be theatrical and energetic. Steve is more introverted and centered. My way of solving for group work isn't Steve's : he's adapted his own approach that feels natural and gets the job done.

There are a few key insights I got out of this conversation that I want you to look out for:

Treating Workshops as a series of games with clear rules and goals

Steve breaks his time with groups up into "beats" or "scenes" just like an improv person would. Each scene has a focus, an outcome and rules. It breaks the time up and keeps energy moving.

Narrow Ranking

0, 1, 2: If you're going to get participants to rank things solo before comparing, make the structure simple. 0 is meh, 2 is awesome. 1 is good. That's it. Too much granularity confuses things.

Direct vs indirect facilitation

Steve talks about comedic scolding of groups, pushing teams but using humor, vs letting them do their own thing, watching and listening…and stopping the room to call attention to something worthwhile that group is doing. One way might be called extroverted or direct facilitation  and the other introverted or indirect facilitation. Steve says that the extroverted practice of calling people out, using names is "not in my energy." Facilitation is about using what feels natural to you.

Being conscious of your choices as a facilitator

What are you doing, when? And is it working for you? Why or why not? What to absorb or drop? I know that facilitation is a means to and end for most people, but taking time to reflect on your practice can provide significant dividends

The "chef's roll" of facilitation

Bringing what you really need into the room. The tools make it go smoothly. Some people love 3 X 5 stickies, others want black, or manage color in other ways. I hate pop-up notes with an undying, smoldering passion. The tools matter.

Insights generate energy and clarity by making things simple

Steve tells a story about how one woman's insights infused the room with energy and clarity. My feeling is that insights pull multiple threads together, grouping complex behaviors into a simple narrative core. Is it the management of too many mental/narrative threads that's exhausting? And the reduction of threads that gives cognitive release?

Expand the frame of your work

Steve is a researcher, but he doesn't let his work stop there. He knows nothing will happen with the research unless he pulls the work forward into the org. Running ideation or concepting workshops can tip the energy of the team forward and shift the momentum


Steve on the Web

Steve on Twitter

Steve's Podcast: The Episode with EBay's Pree Kolari

Interviewing Users

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories

Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies on WikiPedia and the App I use! (android)

DSchool Facilitation Guide

The McDonald's Theory