16 tips to get the best out of user interviews

In user interviews, you’re essentially sitting down with a complete stranger, asking them personal questions about their lives, and hoping they’ll answer honestly and openly enough that you can use what they say to design your product. You’re fast-forwarding a relationship in a few minutes, from the handshake to sharing life truths. How do you get there? Below are a few pointers to guide you through the process.

  1. To begin with, don’t usher users into a brightly lit conference room with cameras and tech gadgets all cabled up. This reminds them more of an interrogation than a space where you’d be comfortable opening up. People often behave according to the environment they’re placed in and on whether they’re being observed or not. People try to fit into these unnatural settings by trying to please their counterparts by saying what they perceive to be the right things, thereby leaving a positive impression and coming across as smart. This isn’t going to help you in any way. Ideally, you would meet your users where they are and see for yourself how they use your products in their day to day lives. If that isn’t possible, try and meet them in a neutral space. Be it a neighborhood coffee shop, a nearby park or any other public place where they can potentially spend some good time using your product.

  2. I’ve often found paying attention to what clothes you wear that day makes a difference as well. The more your clothes reflect your audience, the better. A semi-casual attire is always a safe choice.

  3. Consciously invest time and energy into building rapport, from the moment you greet your interviewee. Face them, make eye contact, avoid crossing your arms and fidgeting. To make them feel comfortable, use non-verbal cues. Don’t offer them a glass of water. Pour them one, put the bottle next to them and let them serve themselves. Make them feel at home. Explain how the interview will work. Give context about your work and yourself. This way you give the respondent an idea of what’s going on, so they don’t feel lost through the interview. Stress upon the fact that there are no right or wrong answers. Make sure they understand you aren’t testing their ability to do something, but rather your hypothesis about the product’s potential to be useful and easy to use.

  4. Before you dive right into the questions, try and find out what they’re enthusiastic about. Here you’re trying to ignite some spark of enthusiasm for the conversation in the respondent. A great way to do this is to get them talking about a subject they're interested in. Maybe start by asking them what the last thing they watched on TV is. Or, something about the town they grew up? But there’s a caveat. You have to be interested in what they’re saying. When you ask “So how did you get into teaching?” and then jot down the answer while they’re speaking and go ok, good, ticked that one off in your head, that defeats the purpose.

  5. There’s a fine line between engaging in a conversation and directing the flow of an interview. You shouldn't be conversing much at all. However, you should be engaging enough to not come across as a researcher. For instance, it comes across pretty odd if the respondent speaks for a good minute or two about the show they're watching on TV and you reply with “Ok” and proceed to the next question. It’s more natural if you reply with, “I love that show too, can’t wait for the next season.” Engaging a little with them is okay.

  6. Try not to ask questions that could be answered with a “yes” or “no. Yes/no questions rarely make for good conversation starters. In fact, such questions often lead to dead ends. You’re more likely to get better stories and more information by asking open-ended questions that start with what, when, who, why, where, and how. Don't go for questions that begin with would you, is it, did you and such.

  7. Ask the users about particular instances in their past. When they recollect specific moments in the past, the answers become less generic and more accurate. Sometimes users will give you use cases that you’ve never thought about. For instance, rather than “Tell me what you feel when shopping online,” go with “Tell me how you felt while shopping online during the Christmas sale.” The first question asks about the user’s experience in general. The second question gives the user a particular context to hold on to when answering your question, thereby increasing chances of getting genuine, insightful data.

  8. Phrase your questions keeping in mind the extremes. When you interview somebody about a product, asking them how they would use it on a regular basis, without taking into account any issues they may face on a regular basis, they'll speak about an idealized interaction. You can get more useful and interesting feedback by asking people to recall specific instances when something worked perfectly well or in which they faced a particularly tricky case. These extreme cases are often more vivid in users’ minds. This information will help you reveal the user’s pain points and delights.

  9. Clarify when in doubt. Ask them for a clarification, when you’re not quite sure exactly what a participant is talking about. Don’t leave it for the end. After a session, it’s too late to go back and figure out what someone was talking about.

  10. Don’t ask leading questions. Leading questions are questions that frame the interviewee’s mind about a particular answer. This happens when a part of the answer is accidentally contained in your question. Here you’re subconsciously directing the participant to answer in a certain way by inserting your own opinion into the questions you’re asking. Take the question “What’s wrong with this?”  This is a standard example of a question where you’ve squeezed in your views, expecting the user to confirm it. Or “How pissed were you when your bank transaction failed?”  This question draws the respondent’s attention around a single emotion (anger). “Would you rather stay on your current version or use this improved version of the product?”  When you say “improved” you're inserting your own opinion and bias people into the answer you’re looking for. Next time instead of phrasing a question as “Do you think this design is cutting-edge?” rephrase it with, “What do you think of this design?”

  11. Be open to going off-topic. Often, when you stray off the map is when you start to expand your knowledge about the subject you’re talking about. Only by actively listening and keeping in mind the moderator guideline at the same time can you do this. The benefits of following unexpected paths far outweigh the drawbacks. If it’s interesting enough, you can build it into the next round of research. Using “topic maps” instead of relying on formal interview scripts will help you here. This gives the conversation more freedom, and you stop scrambling when things go “off script.”

  12. This might seem like an obvious tip, but often when we work within a field so long we forget that specific terms that have become common to us are jargon. This applies not only to UX jargon but also to industry jargon. Have somebody, outside of your project team review your questions before you start with interviews. Look for someone who matches the user persona. The phrases and words they catch might surprise you.

  13. Don’t draw attention to specific issues. Bringing attention to particular issues that you care about can make people change their behavior and focus their replies on the issues you emphasize. Especially during user interface design discussions, this problem is prevalent. When you ask people about specific design elements like the color for a primary call-to-action button, they notice it far more thereafter than they would have otherwise. This leads to situations where participants will talk about something that doesn’t matter.

  14. Don’t fill the silence. Most people find silence uncomfortable. They will itch to fill it. This lets you glean more information from users. If your respondent finishes talking, but you think there’s more to say, don’t reply. Let the silence hang. Few participants can resist a silent pause and an interviewer’s curious expression. Verbal cues like an ‘hmm’ makes the respondent feel like you’re listening and encouraging them to continue talking.

  15. Quit taking notes during interviews. You should be recording the conversation either way and when something interesting comes up, jot down the time on the recording so you can go back to it later. It’s best to record user interviews in text by having a team member join you to take notes verbatim, onto a Google doc. This way it’s searchable and copy-pasteable for when you jump into synthesizing insights later. Recording video might prove to be a waste of time since rarely do people find the time to rewatch a user interview. Effort spent on filming might be effort wasted unless you’re sure you do have time.

  16. Never ask why they’ve bought your item. The customer will give you rational answers that had nothing to do with their buying decision, and you’ll never truly understand the motivation. We love asking interviewees questions like, “Would you use the product? Would you pay for it?” Remember, they don’t know that yet. That said, it is tempting to ask. Ask for feedback on particular solutions at the end of an interview, if you must. Until you feel like you got as many insights into the problem first, don’t mention any solutions to their problems.

Relaxing and treating your user interviews more like conversations doesn’t mean you throw away most of what you’ve learned up until now. It’s still important to ask storytelling questions, not to ask leading questions, not to make assumptions, to give them space and all the other techniques you've learned. The hardest part here will be ensuring you keep aside enough time to get to the big questions that need to be asked and overcoming the expectation that natural conversations should involve equal contributions from both members.

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