Tips For Conducting User Research Interviews

Jaclyn Perrone

You have an idea for a product but don’t know if it would be useful for your target audience. In fact, you’re also not sure if the audience you’re targeting is the correct one. Sounds like it’s time to go out and do some user research! You’ve found some willing participants, but you’ve never interviewed someone before. You don’t know where to start or what to expect.

While you might be experiencing some anxiety, remember that interviews can also be stressful for the other person. They don’t know who you are or what questions you’re going to ask. They might be meeting you with all sorts of questions, assumptions, and anxieties swirling around in their head: “Will I know all the answers? What if I say something dumb? Will I make a good impression?” Chances are they have never been interviewed before, so making them feel comfortable is your top priority. The more comfortable they are, the more likely they are to open up.

While that first interview can be nerve-wracking and sweat-inducing, there are ways in which you can make it a more comfortable experience for both you and your interviewee. Here are some guidelines to help you conduct an effective and enjoyable interview.

Have an intro prepared that covers key points

  • Say who you are and why you are interviewing them.
  • Let them know they will be kept anonymous.
  • Tell them there are no wrong answers.
  • Ask for permission to record them and what you’ll use it for.
  • Tell them they can skip any questions they don’t want to answer.
  • Check out this great example of an introduction from Google Ventures.

Give them a brief rundown of what to expect

  • Talk about your time together as though you are moving through a narrative: “First I will be asking some questions about your background, and then switch over to questions about your typical day and workflow.”
  • Tell them how long it will take, and stick to that time.
  • Be generous with your time estimates. Structured interviews (ie. 5 min: intro, 10 min: background questions, 20 min: prototype) are not realistic, and are rarely kept. If you are going to ask background questions, allow yourself the freedom to ask follow-up questions.

Have a conversation

  • Have a script or list of topics you’d like to cover, but know that you likely won’t ask every question or cover every topic. They should be used as conversation starters. Go off script and let the conversation evolve organically, as if you were having a conversation with a friend or relative.
  • Ask about behaviors, not feelings. Learning that someone likes or dislikes a feature “just because” is not very helpful in your research. Feelings will naturally come from their stories about what they expected to happen, what actually happened, and what they did in response to it.
  • Ask open-ended questions and have them tell you stories. Train yourself to start questions with “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How”, rather than asking anything that can be simply answered with “Yes” or “No”.
  • Ask follow-up questions based on the last thing they said, even if you stray from your script a bit. It keeps it conversational and gives you a chance to dive deeper.

Don’t lead the witness

  • Avoid filling silence by following your questions with examples: “How do you share research with your teammates?…Do you meet in person? Send emails, or…?” Giving examples forces them to think within the parameters you created, which prevents them from interpreting your question in their own way. And their interpretation is a finding all on its own.
  • Give them time to think about the question and figure out their own answer.
  • If they don’t understand the question, take a moment to rephrase it. Think about the problem your question is trying to uncover, and ask them how they address it in their current workflow.

Play dumb

  • Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. Especially ones that you think you know the answer to. Oftentimes your assumption is incorrect and you’ll get an answer you didn’t even expect.
  • If there is something you don’t know or something you’re confused about, just ask. Take advantage of this opportunity to get your questions answered.
  • Paraphrase their answers back to them to clarify any confusion you might have.

Be an active listener

  • Actively acknowledge, listen, and react to what they are saying. Being a captive audience encourages them to keep elaborating.
  • Give them nonverbal cues that show you understand. A little head nod goes a long way.
  • Don’t type your notes as they talk. Either record them, use a pen and paper, or bring someone to take notes for you. Typing on a laptop is distracting, and requires you to glance at your screen or hands. It’s best to stay focused on the person in front of you, rather than on a third-wheel laptop.

After the interview

  • Give yourself some time to decompress, especially if you are going to do another interview soon after.
  • Synthesize your notes and start capturing common themes. Get into the habit of talking about your findings in the broad, general sense. It will make them easier to share and learn from.
  • Use your findings to prepare for the next interview. Tweak questions or shift focus if needed.
  • Send the participant a thank you email to show that you’re grateful and appreciative for their time.

If you only take away one thing…

Remember to focus on the participant. Sounds simple right? It can be surprisingly tough if we are stuck in our own heads, worrying about our own ego and how we come across to the other person. But the best interviews happen when the interviewer is able to capture information that is free from their own biases. When you shift the focus away from yourself and focus on listening, you’d be surprised by how much the other person will open up.