Design 2.0: Steve Portigal

Design 2.0: Steve Portigal

Our second speaker was Steve Portigal, the founder of Portigal Consulting, “a boutique firm that brings together user research, design and business strategy”. Not only was Steve’s talk full of marvellously dry humor, but it also made a number of interesting points.

Wired for stories

Human crave stories. Stories are essential for our emotional, mental and spirititual health. At a neurological level, our brains are built to imagine stories from the facts we observe. As any creative writing course will tell you, setting influences character and behavior. Transposing this to a product viewpoint, context is the setting, and our goal is to tell a compelling story.
2 books recommendations:
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, on comics and the art of storytelling
99 ways to tell a story: Exercises in Style, by Matt Madden, on how one story can be told in many different ways (inspired by Exercises de Style, by Raymond Queneau).

Defining context

Context informs design, design creates context. Even the simple questions who, when, where can lead to surprising insights.
Who A snow-shovel won a number of awards because the designers figured out that women were the principal users and thus needed a smaller handle.
When The words we use reveal the frame of reference: horseless carriage, cordless phone.
Where The ‘third space’ between office and home requires new designs. In doing research for a laptop design, a team found a guy editing videos sitting in a tree in a park. Not a common case for sure, but people are constantly using objects in unusual situations.

Discovering cultural context

The idea is to identify cultural norms – what is normal? For example, handsfree headsets led to a lot of ‘people talking to themselves’ jokes, but this has now become common enough that it isn’t jarring anymore. Another example is the play “A Number” which recently closed in San Francisco, in which one actor has to play three different people. In the UK production, the actor used accents to differentiate the protagonists, but that wasn’t possible in the US because accents have a different connotation here. Once you have identifed the cultural norms, you need to look for overlaps of different cultural contexts that can lead to new and surprising ideas.


As a sidenote, halfway through Steve’s talk the banner on the stage collapsed with much drama. Not only did all speakers escape unharmed, but the powerbook even survived the six foot fall. Way to go, Apple design!