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Conducting Difficult Conversations During Interviews and Usability Tests

Guiding thoughts

  • Consider if there are alternate, less direct methods to get the kind of information you need. Surveys, census data, and inquiries to nonprofits all can provide valuable quantitative information.
  • Understanding is not necessarily agreeing. Remember that you are here to listen and collect insights, even if you find them disturbing.
  • Be cognizant of your physical actions. If conducting the interview session in person, or with a webcam, make sure your body language communicates involvement. This includes cultural considerations around eye contact, hand gestures, etc.
    • If pausing to jot down a note or review the script, inform the participant what you are doing and why.
  • Be a switch. Try to behave as either a sender or a receiver of information, but not both at any given moment. This will help to inform and reinforce the conversational dynamic, especially that you are participating in active listening.

The space

  • Be mindful of who is in the room or attending the call.
    • Strive to minimize who is present. Too many people present may make a participant feel uncomfortable, like they are being observed instead of listened to.
  • If conducting an in-person interview, prefer going to a space the interviewee is comfortable in.
    • If conducting it in person, arrange the space so that the participant has a clear view of the door, and is able to see who is coming and going. Position yourself so you do no block the exit.
    • If conducting interviews in person, disclose that the interviews will be sensitive (during standup, on Slack, etc.), but do not discuss particulars. Place signage outside about an interview being actively conducted. This will help prevent people from entering a room to check to see if it is actually being used.
  • Make sure tissues, water, etc. are also present.

Running the interview


  • Acknowledge up-front that it is sensitive content.
  • Indicate that the interview is voluntary, and discuss what we are attempting to learn and why.
    • Consider awarding the participant immediately upon joining and communicating that fact. For some, even joining the call may be a hurdle. This may also help remove the feeling that a participant must stay throughout the entire session to receive compensation, despite being told otherwise.
  • If there is a traumatic experience that will be discussed during the interview, also acknowledge it.
  • Consider acknowledging situations where the interview dynamic may make it awkward or uncomfortable for the participant (e.g. a male interviewer talking with a female participant about women's health).

Gathering information

  • Proactively end sessions where a participant clearly cannot continue. Thank them for their time and do not try to force them through the remainder of the script or glean any last insights.
  • Do not ask for specifics or details unless it is absolutely necessary to the problem you are trying to solve. Even then, consider if there are alternate, less direct methods to get this kind of information.
  • Periodically ask how a participant is doing, and offer them opportunities to leave the session early.
  • Prefer open questions to get additional detail about a narrative. Examples could be "Tell me about…", "What happened next?", "What else do you remember?", and "And then what happened?"
  • Do not "piggyback" on a participant's shared experience as a tactic to create a feelings of empathy. An example of this could be someone sharing a traumatic event their child went through, and you sharing a what you would consider to be a similar, if not identical experience in turn. Be aware that piggybacking can also occur with shared positive experiences.
    • Instead, thank a participant for sharing the information. Also consider re-stating a shortened version of what they communicated with you, to demonstrate you are listening.
  • Silence may mean there is more a participant wishes to communicate, but is thinking about the best way to express or process it. Utilize pauses before responding, to allow the participant the opportunity to fully express themselves.
    • Consider asking a neutral question like, "Is there anything else on your mind?" if you feel a participant has more to communicate.
  • Small affirmations and acknowledgments can help communicate you are paying attention without taking focus from the interviewee.
  • Emotions, both positive and negative, are natural. For example, instead of consoling someone with language such as, "Please don’t cry. It will be okay." allow them the space to freely express whatever they are feeling.


  • Provide time for the participant to ask questions to the interviewer. If the participant does not take the interviewer up on the offer, it is okay if the session ends a little early—it is better to have that time for honest, direct communication about the interview than to not.
  • Respond with gratitude and thank the participant for sharing their experiences, even if you disagree or feel threatened by what they communicate.
  • If a participant discusses wanting help, support, or counseling, consider following up with links to relevant, vetted support services.
    • Do not offer these services unless a participant asks, doing so may make assumptions about their history, mindset, or circumstances and may be triggering.
    • Also resist the temptation to offer advice unless specifically and directly asked. Even then, present your ideas as possibilities, not prescriptions.
  • Be aware of who has access to what information. Consider anonymizing personal details for documents that can be shared or printed.
  • Take care of yourself. Reach out to your manager to let them know about your emotional state and if you feel you need to set up support such as counseling.

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