User Interviews

Three sides to every user interview

Getting the most out of our moments up-close with the user requires healthy doses of planning, patience, and review.

Updated May 24, 2019

Throughout the research process, as designers, we are continually adjusting our perspective in an attempt to discover and better understand the problem we are attempting to solve.

As we zoom in and out to study an issue, eventually we reach a point where it is just a single user and ourselves. While we might have a grasp on what we’re solving, we don’t have a great deal of information regarding how users perceive the issue and to what extent they are impacted. It is in the user interview that we have our best chance to shift perspective away from ourselves and probe those who deal with the problem firsthand.

In this chapter, we’ll work through some of the best practices for conducting user interviews.

Pre-interview

Prepare an outline

No two user interviews will be the same, but establishing a baseline of information collected in all discussions is helpful when it comes time to compare the participant responses later. Having an outline of questions available as you work through your session will increase the likelihood that you don’t forget to ask critical questions while also allowing you the freedom to let the participant drive the discussion.

The questions you ask should be open-ended to encourage participants to answer in their own words. This means explicitly avoiding yes/no questions. Asking a participant to select from a set range or providing a set group of choices to choose from also blunts the impact of your subject to express themselves adequately.

Determine how sessions will occur

Before you begin recruiting anyone, you need to nail down how and where you plan to conduct the interviews as this will be the first logical question that most of your participants will ask.

Should you be able to meet in-person, pick a location that isn’t overly distracting. Loud coffee shops aren’t a great place for user interviews as you have very little control over the environment. A conference room at work or a co-working spot with private rooms that can be reserved are far more suitable options.

Conducting remote user interviews definitely has benefits that are simply unavailable with an in-person session. From having a broader base of participants to recruit from to making it easier for all parties to attend the meeting, remote user interviews certainly make sense.

A service like Zoom, BlueJeans, or Google’s Hangouts Meet is ideal for this purpose, and most offer the ability to record your session, but always ask for permission from all participants before recording!

Beware of the pitfalls of relying only on remote sessions. Having a screen between you and the user might not seem like a big issue, but it becomes far harder to pick up on non-verbal cues when you aren’t in the same room. Also, you give up some level of control regarding the environment when the participant is in control of selecting where they will conduct the session.

Find an assistant

Just like product testing, user interviews benefit from a tag team approach. Nothing ruins the connection with a participant like extended breaks that you need to take important notes. Whoever you recruit to be the assistant doesn’t need to be on your project fulltime, but they have to be available when the interviews are to take place.

Sorting people and behavior

User interviews aren’t much without users, so a fair amount of time will be spent sorting your database of potential interview candidates generated from the user survey exercise. Ultimately, you’ll have to determine whether talking to a particular person or a person who exhibits a particular behavior is more important.

As discussed in the chapter on Observational Research, demographics help us focus on specific attributes of a group of people while psychographics allow us to focus on the behaviors exhibited by that person.

Leaning toward psychographics can help you also avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes, but if you absolutely have to talk to a specific group of people then demographics may be the only way to achieve your goal.

Work with your assistant to help protect against selection bias and compile a list of potential candidates to reach out to.

Additional participants

If your prior work didn’t generate a large enough group to recruit from, there are a number of services that will deliver user interview participants to you for a fee.

Sites like Optimal Workshop, Usability Hub Panel, User Interviews and Respondent provide services for recruitment. If you’re on the fence about these services, many offer the ability for you to participate in someone else’s research process which gives you a peek behind the curtain on someone else’s budget.

Scheduling should be easy and immediate

When you find participants that qualify to take part in your user interviews, you want to make scheduling the interview super simple.

Being that you will have to account for the availability of both yourself and your assistant, set up a Calend.ly account to manage the schedules.

Calend.ly can generate a table of possible options when you connect your Google Calendar. Do this for anyone on your team that will be helping administer user interviews to create a more accurate set of possible options for participants.

Once complete, grab the link provided by Calend.ly and insert it into your invitation email. Instruct participants to select a time that works best for them from the options that Calend.ly provides.

Finally, all communication should indicate that the user must schedule their interview time by the end of the day. This will help deter stragglers from attempting to set up sessions with you a week later.

During the interview

Adequately preparing for a user interview can minimize adverse outcomes, but it can’t protect against everything. Take these additional steps to ensure success.

Be early

When you arrive on time, you don’t have time to set up your working environment or shift to a different platform if there is a technical issue. Give yourself an extra five to ten minutes before every user interview to ensure you have what you need.

Keep it on schedule

When a user agrees to meet with you, respect their time. If the participant is really expressive, that’s great, but you still have to balance the flow of the interview. If you let them dominate on a single tangent, you may lose your opportunity to cover the other areas you’ve outlined in the time allotted.

If you have an assistant, instruct them to keep track of time so you can focus on the interview itself. This is particularly important if you have user interviews scheduled back-to-back, which is a great reason to schedule a buffer between sessions.

Focus on listening

The worst way to blow your allotted time is to dominate the conversation. You will need to guide the participant from one area of inquiry to the next, but you want your side of the conversation to be minimal. The more they are talking, the higher your opportunity to glean useful information out of the interview. Interjecting and sharing your similar stories might feel great in a social setting, but that approach can derail a discussion.

Remember, people like having an audience — focus on providing that, and you’ll have a willing participant to answer the questions you are asking.

Silence is golden

Most user interviews are somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour in length. Your goal isn’t to fill that time with non-stop conversation. There will be gaps in the discussion, and if you are listening carefully, you’ll discover the difference between a user is finishing their answer, and when that person is processing their thoughts.

If you want more, just ask

Conducting an interview is more than merely reading off a prepared list of questions and collecting the information provided. You will need to process what the subject has said and then determine whether to propel the conversation into a new direction or whether to probe deeper into the last answer provided.

Rather than spending time rephrasing what the participant said, simply mention the item that you want to know more about and ask for greater detail.

“You mentioned (competitor, feature, issue). Can you tell me more about your experience with that?”

Have their contact information nearby

If your running behind or you need to shift the meeting place or the platform used, it is crucial that you contact the participant as soon as possible. This is really bad for physical location moves, but it impacts remote participants as well as you won’t often know if they received your message in time. Minimize the gap in communication by having their email or phone number in an easy to find location.

Post interview

Gather and compare notes

While your assistant had the luxury of observing the entire discussion, you were in the midst of it as the guide. The moment the interview is over, you should take five minutes to jot down any observations you made during the session before those details are lost in the fog of memory.

Once you have that task completed, gather with your assistant, and compare what you observed. There will be areas that you both agree but pay close attention to the areas where you saw something different. Remember, you couldn’t fully see as the person conducting the interview. What did your partner catch that you missed?

Documentation party

Once you’ve compared notes, it’s time for you and your assistant to write a summary of your overall observations from the session. This will likely be the top-level information delivered back to the team for use during affinity mapping and user persona exercises.

Kindness matters

Regardless of the quality of the interview, people always remember the ending of an event with more clarity. Win over the user with a short thank you note before the end of the day. You never know when you might need to reach out to that participant for follow up questions and they’ll be far more likely to make themselves available if they feel good about their experience.

Further reading

Source Author(s)
Interviewing Humans Erika Hall
User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them Kara Pernice

Exercise

As illustrated in this chapter, quality user interviews require a bit of effort but done well they deliver so much high-quality information for you to work with.

To successfully complete this exercise, you should do at least the following:

  1. Construct an outline of questions to guide your interview.
  2. Set up an account for a remote conferencing tool.
  3. Set up Calendly for scheduling.
  4. Contact at least five participants from your research panel (previously constructed from the surveys exercise.).
  5. Conduct at least 3 user interviews.
  6. Record the session or recruit an assistant to help with note-taking.
  7. Thank each participant with a follow-up email.

As mentioned in the chapter, you’ll be on a tight deadline, so it is crucial that you set a deadline for these interviews to be no more than 48 hours after you send your initial request.

Also, if you’re interested in recruiting an assistant, it is often helpful to offer to be an assistant for another student. This helps you also see how someone else performs the task, and you can provide pointers to one another.

Once complete, update your Program Journal with links to any assets produced in this exercise. Post your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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