10 Tips To Master User Interviews

10 tips to master user interviews

User Interviews are a powerful tool to get a better understanding of your target audience, their needs, desires, and pain-points. This is the most common user research method that designers utilize, mostly because if it’s done right, it could provide powerful insights.

Conducting an interview can give you a plethora of data, but it’s what you do with that data that matters more. I’m going to give you some important tips to have the most successful user interviews.

1. Write an Interview Script With Awesomely Crafted Questions

planning is essential to mastering user interviews

It’s always a good idea to be as prepared as possible before showing up for an interview. There is a lot of strategies needed in user interviews if you want to get the best possible user data. The best way to prepare is to construct an interview script. A script helps you think about the flow of the interview, what the main topics should be, and how to ask the questions in a way to squeeze out the most information without letting bias creeping in. You should always have a library of questions that you know work well to choose from.

Control Questions

When developing your script, you should ask yourself what the main control questions should be. The control questions are the ones that you keep consistent across a certain number of interviews in efforts to minimize varying contributing variables to your study. The control Questions should be able the main topics that you prioritize in your study.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Once you have prioritized the topics you want to cover, it’s time to develop the questions. It’s important to phrase questions in a way that drives out the most information. It’s best to say away from yes and no questions because the response only confirms or denies your assumption and doesn’t give you the logic behind their opinions or decisions.

You want them to spill all the beans, so ask the question in a way that the quietest introvert would have to form complete thoughts to respond. Instead of asking, “Do you like working at ____?”, you could ask, “Can you tell me about your experience working at ____?” The user will have to think about how to respond. With longer explanations, you can pick up on body language, mannerisms, and related information that is relevant, but not something you originally anticipated. You can also get some awesome quotes to include in your findings report!

Avoid Leading Questions

Oh, the dangerous waters of leading questions. This is tricky territory because this is how bias seeps into your study and threatens your data. Bias is the enemy to your data. It has the potential to come in and shred every once of your credibility if you are not careful!

Leading questions are questions that include a flare of your opinion, your assumptions, or directs the user to respond in a certain way. The human brain is more susceptible to the power of suggestion than anyone wants to admit. When you ask questions like, “What do you like about blah blah blah?”, you are assuming that they like it. “Do you think this is the best solution to do blah blah blah?” is leading the user by suggesting an opinion. Instead, it’s better to leave emotion at the door and ask questions in a way the gives the user to express their own opinions and emotions.

Have a Set of Follow-Up Questions

You have a set of control questions, which is great, but you should also have a set of follow-up questions that allow for the opportunity to dig a little deeper, to guide the user to elaborate and to clarify subjects that seem a little nebulous and fuzzy.

These questions are also great when users didn’t quite get the question the first time you asked, or if you can sense that there is more information lurking around the corner if you nudged them in the right direction. It also facilitates more conversation for the really shy users that do not like to talk much.

An Interview Script is a Guideline & Shouldn’t Box You In

Some researchers are sticklers about their interview scripts, but I’m a member of the camp that believes that interview scripts are a guideline and shouldn’t be read verbatim. I feel that if you read interview scripts verbatim, you are doomed to have a super dull interview that uncomfortable and stale.

I get the need for consistency, but people tell you more information when you gain rapport with them and if they are having fun. You don’t want to sound like a droning robot. You want your user to feel like they are dishing the deets to their best friend. You want to keep it light and fun.

If you ask open-ended questions, sometimes you will end up deviating from the script because the user will say something that you won’t expect. You end up going down a couple unexpected but relevant rabbit holes. The script is there to help you get back on track when those deviations happen.

2. Pair Up With Someone

pair up with someone to master user interviews

I think having at least one other person in an interview is super helpful. I like to have a dedicated note-taker when I facilitate user interviews. If you are interviewing, it should feel like a conversation, which means you don’t have time to take notes. It’s okay to job a detail down from time to time, but as the facilitator, your focus should be on the user. Let the note-takers write down the majority of the details.

Assign Roles & Make Sure the Roles Are Clear

Only one person should be the interview facilitator. Why? Oh man, there are so many good reasons for this…

  • It is super hard to ensure a good interview flow if more than one person is asking the questions
  • It can make the user confused and overwhelmed when there are questions flying at them from multiple directions
  • Multiple people asking questions increases the risk of compromising the data by the introduction of bias
  • You want to ensure that there is consistency across interviews
  • Transcribing the recording later become a huge pain!!!!

Those are just some of the reasons why it is important to have one facilitator.

The note-takers are there to take notes and help synthesize the data afterward. It’s inevitable that they too will have burning questions because let’s face it, designers are always full of questions. I handle this by telling the note-taker to write their questions on a sticky note and pass it to me. I remind them that I will ask the question if it fits into the flow at the moment, but if I do not get to it immediately, I will give the opportunity for open-floor questions at the end of the interview.

3. Give a Great Introduction That Breaks the Ice & Creates a Light Atmosphere

good vibes only to master user interviews

Interviews sometimes feel invasive, awkward, and sometimes very uncomfortable to users. How can we blame them for feeling this way? We are asking them to take time out of their busy day to sit with us and pour out their thoughts, struggles, and feelings. This sounds especially nightmarish to introverts!

It’s Okay to Have Some Comic Relief About the Awkwardness

I like to acknowledge the elephant in the room straight away. I tell the user that I understand that these things can be a bit awkward and that I’ll do my best to not make it feel like an interrogation. I let them know that I am genuinely curious about their needs because I want to make their life easier.

Tell Them That You Want to Hear “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”

I let them know that it’s totally okay to tell me that my baby is ugly (which makes people laugh) and that their honesty is the only way things can improve. “Give it to me straight, ___! I want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly!” I promise that I won’t hold any of their opinions against them and that the recordings will only be for me.

Remind the Users That You Are Testing the Product & Not Them! This is NOT an Interrogation

If it’s a usability test/interview, I remind the user that the best-designed products require little explanation, so if things are confusing it’s more of a reflection on the designer than the user. This exercise is a test of my skills as a designer and not an IQ test. I tell them to not be afraid to tell me when things are confusing, or if they wish information was presented in a different way.

Have them talk aloud about their thought processes as they go through different actions/tasks. This will help illuminate their logic and feelings (especially if they find something frustrating and confusing).

4. Ask For Permission to Record

recording the interview is helpful to master user interviews

Let’s face it, even the best note-takers can’t capture everything. Also, some things may not be understood properly, or a mishap happens and you can’t interpret what was written. Mishap happens because life happens and we are all human. Having a source of truth is super helpful, which can be a recording of the interview.

A recording lets you relive the interview by listening to your questions and the user’s responses. You can gain the following from listening to the recording:

  • Insight on the success of your questions and whether they should be tweaked.
  • The intonation used in user responses
  • Evaluate whether you let some leading question slip in
  • Ability to fill in missing details in your notes
  • Ability to synthesize information from the recording if you weren’t lucky enough to find a note-taker

Let the user know the reason why recording is important to you, ask them if they consent to record (if required, get them to sign a consent form), and then start the recording.

(PRO TIP: If you have more than one person helping out in the interview, it helps to have multiple people record, because batteries die or sometimes the recording doesn’t start, etc.)

5. Play Dumb & Ask Them to Explain

pretend to be a child eager to learn to master user interviews

Even if you know a ton about the domain or subject, it’s best to play dumb. A lot of people take pride in their jobs being complicated and therefore they will likely describe it in a very complex way. This comes from an innate want to be important or be viewed as intelligent. When people do this, they use a ton of subject-related jargon and get into the weeds about the subject.

It’s really hard to gain insights from these types of explanations and the best way to remove this obstacle is to pet the person’s ego. It helps to be slightly self-deprecating and say things like, “That was completely above my head and sounds very complicated. Could you dumb it down for me so that I can understand better?” They will typically relish in becoming the teacher and will gladly explain things more simply.

6. Embrace Awkward Silence

shhhhh... awkward silence will unleash more answers and will help you master your user interviews

It’s natural to want to fill the awkward silence, but sometimes this can be your enemy when you are trying to squeeze useful information out of an interview. Let your user be the one that feels the need to fill that awkward silence and they will give you way more juicy information. It’s okay to make moments between questions an opportunity to see if they are inclined to break the silence by dishing more information. So wait and let the user be the person that breaks the silence.

7. Avoid Assumption & Ask Dumb Questions

Asking dumb questions is helpful when trying to master user interviews

I learned that assumptions were dangerous very early in my research career, trying things that you think won’t work sometimes leads to surprisingly positive results! I won DoD project of the month by trying something that theoretically shouldn’t have worked! “Do not make assumptions,” has been a motto of mine ever since.

Even if you feel that you are a subject matter expert, or that you know a subject very very well, you should ask the basic questions. Is it possible that these questions aren’t as basic as you initially thought? Perhaps the user will respond with an answer that surprises you? Maybe you don’t know the subject as well as you thought you did?

Asking dumb questions can make your user relax. Once you ask simple questions, they do not feel that they have to prove that they know more than you do. The user will relax and will feel like they are teaching you and that you are truly a curious person. Making your user feel comfortable to share information with you is the ultimate goal, so don’t shy away from those dumb questions, it keeps the atmosphere fun and light!

8. “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again!”

you got this, being persistent is crucial to master user interviews

In every single interview, users respond to questions in a way that makes you head tilt in curiosity because their response doesn’t make it seem that they listened to your question at all. This happens every time because people hear what they want to hear. Do not fret and don’t just skip to the next questions! You asked that question for a reason because you want specific information. However, you should be careful about how you rephrase your questions because you don’t want to make your user feel dumb or insecure about not responding correctly.

I like to say, “That is all very useful information, but (rephrase the initial question)?” Typically they will answer your intended question, but if they don’t there is a limited number of times you should do this, otherwise, it can make things very uncomfortable. If they don’t answer by the second attempt, abort and try again later on in the interview to avoid creating an awkward environment.

9. It’s Okay to Ask Direct Questions!

one way sign. Being direct can lead to the answer you seek. This will help you master user interviews.

Users are always tiptoeing around telling you that they don’t like something. Why? Because it is uncomfortable to give negative feedback even if it’s meant to be constructive. How do you remedy this? Ask them, ” I know nothing is absolutely perfect, so what are 3 things you don’t like about ____?” They could still say nothing, but most people will give you an honest answer. Sometimes I also remind them that “we can’t improve without their honest feedback and that’s it’s okay to call my baby ugly.” *wink wink*

Don’t shy away from being direct when you have to be. Phrase questions in a way that focuses on the main information you desire to receive.

10. Open the Floor for an Open Question Session at the End

If there are other people participating in your interview besides you and the interviewee, chances are that they have been behaving but are burning with questions that are waiting to be unleashed. I like to open the floor up for open questions so that everyone at the table feels like they have a voice that is worth hearing. They may even ask questions that you didn’t even think of.

The other side of the coin is that the user now has an opportunity to ask you any questions. I like to say, “Now that I have finished drilling you with questions, do you have any questions for me?” They might surprise you with what they may say.

Just to ReCap:

There are the golden rules to master user interviews:

  1. Write an Interview Script With Awesomely Crafted Questions
  2. Pair Up With Someone
  3. Give a Great Introduction That Breaks the Ice & Creates a Light Atmosphere
  4. Ask For Permission to Record
  5. Play Dumb & Ask Them to Explain
  6. Embrace Awkward Silence
  7. Avoid Assumption & Ask Dumb Questions
  8. “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again!”
  9. It’s Okay to Ask Direct Questions!
  10. Open the Floor for an Open Question Session at the End

Do you have any tips to share?

These are some of my favorite tips to master user interviews, but do you have any that you would like to share with me? Comment below and share some knowledge. Remember, sharing is caring! Check out my other posts on my blog!

Here are a few relevant articles that have a few additional tips:


Hannah Coley

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