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The Art of the User Interview

Springboard – Medium | Nick Babich

Everything you need to know about conducting useful user interviews

Creating products based on your own needs is easy — if you’re building something just for yourself, you don’t need to talk to anyone else because you know what you want.

It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever design a product for yourself. If you want to make a product that will be used by other people, it’s essential to talk to them to discover their wants, needs and, experiences.

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people” — Dieter Rams

Interviews help you gain a deeper understanding of people’s behavior and their reason why they do what they do. This article is intended to help you get the most out of user interviews.

Step 1: Prepare for the interview session

There are a few things you need to do before the actual interview.

Have a clear goal

This might sound obvious, but it’s important that you know why you want to conduct the interviews and what you’re trying to get out of them.

For example, you might want to learn why 60% of your users leave your mobile game app after the first 10 minutes of play.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What do I need to know about our users?
  • How will that knowledge improve our product and inform our design process?

Select an interview method

Interviews can be conducted in a variety of ways. The two most common methods are in-person and remote (via phone or web-based video). In-person interview is preferable because it provides much more behavioral data than remote. You’ll gain additional insights by observing body language and listening for verbal cues (tone, inflection, etc).

Step 2: Prepare a discussion guide

Interviewing users requires effort. You might spend several weeks preparing for the sessions, several days talking to your users, and several days analyzing results. You want to make sure all that effort won’t be thrown away. That’s why it’s essential to spend time to properly plan your questions.

The questions should be selected according to the learning goal. A wrong set of questions can not only nullify the benefits of the interview session, but also lead product development down the wrong path.

The questions you select for the interview will be a core part of your discussion guide. The guide is a set of questions that you intend to ask and get answers to (including follow-up questions). It serves as a guideline to ensure the consistency throughout your interview process.

Discussion guide typically contains of two sections of questions — intro questions and product-specific questions.

User intro questions:

  • What does your typical day look like?
  • What are some of the apps and websites you use on a regular basis?
  • Ask any lifestyle questions that are related to your topic / product.

Product specific questions:

  • What is the biggest pain point related to [task]?
  • What’s the hardest part about [task]?
  • What are you currently doing to make this [task] easier?

You can find more questions for your discussion guide in “Starter questions for user research.”

Keep the following things in mind when preparing a question script:

  • Keep the script reasonably short. If it takes more than 10 minutes to read the script, it’s probably too long and you should rework it.
  • Interviewees can’t retain a lot of information in their short-term memory. Thus, it’s recommended to keep questions under 20 words.
  • To make questions clear to your users, avoid jargon, slang, abbreviations, geek-speak or terms are that unfamiliar to the user.
  • Interview questions may fail when you’re trying to ask people to remember how something happened in the past. Human memory is fallible and when people can’t remember the details of how they used a product, they often tend to make up stories in order to fill the missing picture (usually, by rationalizing whatever they do remember and trying to make the story sound logical).
  • Users can’t predict the future. They typically have no idea how they might use a new product based on a description alone. Thus, it doesn’t make any sense to ask a question like “Would you use this product?” In most cases, people simply don’t have any idea but they would be happy to answer “yes” just to make you feel better.
  • Don’t forget that scripts are just a guide. Do not stick to your questionnaire too rigorously. If you find something interesting taking place in an interview but it’s not covered by your script, explore it anyway and pursue fruitful new lines of conversation. Adapt the questions according to the direction the conversation is heading.
  • Iterate your interview guide. Improve the guide based on real interview sessions.

Set up a team

It’s best to conduct an interview accompanied by a partner. The ideal user interview takes place with two UX researchers and one user. The first UX researcher asks questions and guides the interviewee through the interview, while the second takes notes.

Conducting an interview together with a partner means not just that it’ll be easier to facilitate and lead the interview, but also that you’ll be able to share each other’s thoughts and impressions after the interview. It also means that you have two sets of notes (ideally) and are less likely to miss anything.

A team of two (an interviewer and a note taker) is ideal for the interview

Always try to record the session

Video or audio recording an interview can be a good way to collect all important information. Obviously, recording should only be done with the permission from the interviewee. Be prepared to abandon recording if your interviewee is uncomfortable or reluctant.

When possible, it’s best to record the conversation so you can refer back to it later.

Step 3: 15 thing you SHOULD do when interviewing people

“Converse like a talkshow host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist and have a ear like a musician” — Lawrence Grobel

A skilled interviewer makes users feel comfortable, asks questions in a neutral manner, listens well, and knows when and how to ask for more details. Good interviewers don’t just interview people, they have a conversation with them.

1. Put yourself in the mood

Before you greet an interviewee take a deep breath and smile. Smiling will make your voice and attitude more positive. And since positive mood is contagious, participants will likely improve their attitudes too.

2. Provide a warm welcome

The quality of the interview and the data you’ll collect will suffer unless you put users at ease and earn their confidence. Thus, try to create an atmosphere of trust right from the start. Always provide your interviewee with a helpful introduction: Greet them by name, offer drinks, and initiate friendly small talk before transitioning into your interview. While it might sound obvious, a lot of interviewers forget about this step.

3. Build an arc

From the moment you greet your interviewee, consciously invest time and energy into building rapport. Use non-verbal cues to make them feel comfortable: Face them, make eye contact, avoid fidgeting, and crossing your arms.

Describe a little bit about how the interview will work: Give context about yourself and your work. The point of this is to give the respondent some idea of what’s going on, so that they don’t feel confused through the interview.

Learn a little bit about your interviewee. Ask questions like “Tell us about yourself” and let them freely talk about their job, education, things they like/dislike. These questions are ice-breakers and at the same time, they will help you get some context about your interviewees, their life, and activities relevant to your research (such as technology habits). This will ease your way into the more important questions.

Questions:

  • What do you do for a living?
  • Can you tell me about your hobbies?
  • What does your typical day look like?
  • What products/apps/services do you use on a regular basis?

4. Explain that there are no right or wrong answers

Let your interviewees know, right from the start, that there is no right or wrong answer. Make sure they understand you aren’t testing their ability to do something; you are testing your hypothesis about a product’s ability to be clear, useful, and easy to use.

5. Start off with the easy questions

Start the session with softer questions. Ask the interviewee 3–5 simple, lightweight questions before diving deep into the topics you want to uncover. In general, these warm-up questions should be related to the broader theme of the session.

Questions:

  • When did you last use service X?
  • Do you have experience with similar services?

6. Ask interviewees about specific moments in the past (references to real-life examples)

When interviewees recall 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.

Questions:

  • What would you do in situation X?
  • Would you perform this action in real life?
  • Can you give me a few examples of real situations when you would do this?

Example 1:

From: “Tell me what you feel when shopping online.”

To: “Tell me what you felt the last time you shopped online.”

The first question asks about experience in general. The second question gives respondents a specific context to hold on to when answering your question, which increases the chances of getting genuine, insightful data.

Example 2:

From: “What do you consider as a negative online shopping experience?”

To: “Tell me what went through your head the last time you tried to buy something online and the purchase failed.”

Similar to the previous example, the second question is a context-based question asked about specific experience.

7. Prioritize open-ended questions

Avoid asking questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” Lots of yes/no questions usually don’t spark great conversations. In fact, such questions often lead to a dead end.

You’re more likely to get more information and better stories by asking open-ended questions that start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Try to avoid questions like: Is it…? Would you…? Did you…?

Questions:

  • Why did you…
  • How did you…
  • What did you…

Example:

From: “What was the last thing you bought online?”

To: “Tell me more about the last time you purchased something online.”

The first question asks about the particular product while the latter asks about the experience in general.

8. Ask follow-up questions

Be eager and curious to learn as much as you can about user’s experiences and perspectives. Don’t settle for the first answer you get. Always dig deeper when talking to people by asking follow-up questions. Follow-up questions give you a lot of insights into what has really happened. People often can’t clearly state their motivations without prompting. A simple well-timed follow-up question usually prompts a more thorough explanation or valuable examples.

Questions: Try following up with:

  • Why? When? How?
  • What’s an example of that?
  • Complete-the-statement question (“So when that happened, you. . . ?“) paired with silence.

Illustration by Igor Kopelnitsky

Tip: Use the ‘Five Whys’ technique. Don’t give up questioning early, keep digging to get to the core reason why someone does or thinks something.

The technique is called ‘Five Whys’ because you literally ask “why” five times to understand the core reason why someone does something. E.g. ‘Why do you use this coupon app?’ ‘To save money.’ You can stop here, but you won’t have the whole story. In fact, without asking ‘why’ again, your assumption about interviewee motivation might be incorrect. Maybe a user is saving money to purchase a house, or maybe she’s interested in customer loyalty program? The only way to know that is by asking another “why?”

9. Ask for extremes

If you interview people about a product and ask them how they use it on a regular basis, they’ll describe an idealized interaction without common problems they face on a regular basis and deviations that characterize a real interaction.

You can get more interesting and useful feedback by asking people to recall specific instances in which they faced a particularly difficult case or when something worked perfectly well. These extreme cases are often more vivid in users’ minds. This information will help you reveal user’s pain points and delights.

Questions:

  • What did you like most about…
  • What did you dislike most about…
  • Tell me about a time you were really frustrated by…
  • Tell me about a time you had a fantastic experience with..

Tip: You can go further by asking people to recall where exactly they were when they had that experience — little things like that are actually powerful supplement that brings memories flooding back.

10. Ask to observe behavior

The only proper way to assess whether a user can use a product is to watch them actually using it. Thus, if possible, ask to observe behaviour. For example, if you’re asking how an interviewee uses an app, ask them to show you.

Observe behavior

11. When in doubt, clarify

When you’re not quite sure exactly what a participant is talking about, ask them for a clarification. Don’t leave it to the end of the interview session. After a session, it’s too late to go back and figure out what someone was talking about.

Questions:

  • When you said …, did you mean … ?

12. Keep an eye on the time

It’s very easy to switch to more interesting conversations but unfortunately, in most cases, it won’t help achieve your goal. It’s a good idea to point out in the introduction that time is limited, and you have a lot of interesting topics to cover, and to ask the participant not to feel bad about you skipping between topics.

13. Minimize note-taking

This might sound strange, but there’s a logical explanation for it: It’s almost impossible to pay full attention to your interviewee and take notes at the same time. If the interviewer asks questions and takes notes at the same time there’s a good chance that the interview will become hard to manage. Not to mention that it’s just plain rude to bury your head in your notes all the time. Thus, try to focus on the conversation and not on note-taking — maintain eye contact, keep the conversation flowing, and record the interview on video rather than getting lost in note-taking.

14. Watch out for non-verbal clues

Face-to-face interviews provide great opportunity to capture verbal and nonverbal cues, such as facial emotions and body language. A lot of the feedback users give come in a non-verbal way. Look for changes during the session. Do interviewees seem bored or nervous? If so, try to cheer them up or reassure them (“This is really helpful”, “You’re doing great”). Do they feel discomfort with the questions? If so, avoid similar questions. Don’t hesitate to ask what made them roll their eyes, laugh, frown, smirk, etc.

15. Finish with a wrap-up summary

At the end of the interview, you should give your respondent a sense of closure. Don’t just stop the conversation when you finish the last question in your script. Ask the interviewee if they have anything they’d like to add or ask. Engage them in some casual small talk, this might give you the chance to get some extra information. Take a minute to summarize a few key points from a conversation. After that, thank your interviewees for taking their time and point out the value of their presence.

Questions:

  • What do you think overall about what you saw today? I want to hear your own personal thoughts.
  • How does this relate to your life?

Step 5: 7 thing to AVOID when interviewing people

1. Don’t ask leading questions

Leading questions are questions that frame the interviewee’s mind around a particular answer. This often happens when:

  • A part of the answer is accidentally contained in your question.
  • You’re subconsciously directing the participant to answer in a certain way by inserting your own opinion into the questions you’re asking.

Don’t use questions like:

  • “What’s wrong with this?” — This is a prime example of a question where you’re inserting your opinion (‘it’s wrong’) and expect people to cooperate and confirm your opinion.
  • “How angry were you when your bank transaction failed?” — This question focuses the respondent’s mind around a single emotion (anger), and it unlikely that respondent will talk about other emotions such as anxiety or shock.
  • “Would you rather use this improved version of the product or stay on your current version?” The word “improved” is a way to insert your own opinion and bias people into the answer you’re looking for.

The purpose of conducting an interview is to get real, truthful answers to questions that you have. Thus, don’t ask questions that will influence the answer. Next time you want to ask something like ‘Do you think this design is cutting-edge?’ rephrase it and ask, ‘What do you think of this design?

2. Don’t fill the silence

Most people find silence unbearable and they will want to fill in the gap. You can use a simple technique: After your respondent just finishes talking, but you think there’s more to say, don’t say anything, just let the silence hang. Keep looking at them. You may combine it with a subtle gesture like raising your eyebrows. Few participants can resist a silent pause and a interviewer’s curious expression. Most probably, they’ll add more interesting details.

“Let people speak in paragraphs” — Steve Portigal

3. Don’t draw attention to specific issues

Drawing attention to specific issues that you care about can cause people to change their behavior and focus their answers on the issues you emphasize. This problem is particularly common during user interface design discussions: When you ask people about a specific design element (such as a color for a primary call-to-action button), they notice it much more thereafter than they would have otherwise. This can lead to the situation when participants will talk about something that doesn’t matter.

4. Don’t ask if they’d buy your product

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying it again: Don’t ask people about the future. Product developers love asking interviewees questions like “Would you use the product? Would you pay for it?” Remember, they don’t know that yet. What you should do instead is to ask questions that reveal their intent to use it/purchase it.

5. Don’t answer user’s questions

Answer questions with questions. During the interview, participants will certainly ask you some questions. These might be questions related to your product or business model. Resist the temptation to tell them all about it! Ask them a question right back. It’ll reveal a lot.

Questions:

  • Q: How does this work? A: Well, how would you like to see it working?
  • Q: Why do you find this feature important? A: What do you think?

6. Don’t judge, teach, or educate your interviewees

Your interviewees are here to teach you something, not the other way around! It’s counterproductive to judge users or try to educate them during the interview. Your goal is to elicit as much information as possible in the time you have and to try to understand it all from their perspective. You’ll have plenty of time later to reflect on it.

Tip: Not just your words, but your body language should reflect the fact you are sitting there to learn as much as possible from your interviewee.

Hands-clenched position is a frustration gesture, signaling that the person was holding back a negative attitude. Image credits: Examjoin

7. Don’t express your own opinion

Make sure you control your reactions, even when you receive negative feedback about your product. People will criticize your product. That’s pretty normal. But if they sense you are being defensive about the feedback they’re giving, they’ll stop giving you honest answers and this can defeat the purpose of interviewing them in the first place.

Conclusion

Like any skill, your interviewing will improve with practice. Don’t try to apply all techniques from this article all at once. Just pick a few to focus on during your next interview. As those become habits, start using others.

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