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December 06, 2016

5 Tips for Conducting User Interviews

6 mins read

As a new UX professional, performing a user interview can be a daunting task. Your job is to gather as much valuable information as possible from a representative set of users, and use that information to inform design decisions. There are many aspects to user interviews – there are entire books dedicated to just that – but here we’re going to focus on five high-level tips you should always keep in mind when performing user interviews.

1. Identify What Information You Are Looking to Find Out

The quickest way to derail a user interview is coming in unprepared. While the point of the session is to learn as much as possible about the user, you need to ensure you’ve done your homework beforehand: know what type of information you want to find out. Are you looking to find out why the average person uses an application? How they use it? Do you need an understanding of any current systems to appreciate the context of the answers they provide you? These are homework items you should complete before the actual interview. This helps you come up with appropriate questions so you get the most out of your interview.

2. Prepare Well Thought Out Questions

The questions themselves require an equal amount of preparation. You want your questions to be non-leading and open-ended. The more opportunities you give a user to expound on a question, the better chance you have of getting information you didn’t know you wanted. You also want to be cognizant of how you frame your questions. Do you want to know how they think about something, or how they feel about it? For example:

  • Tell me how you feel when systems work slowly.
  • Tell me what you think when systems that work slowly.
  • Recall a time systems worked slowly. Tell me about that experience.

While similar, each question elicits a different response. The first question focuses on their emotional response. The second, their intellectual response. The third leaves it neutral, and you’re allowing them to determine their take on their experience. You may have a good reason to specifically frame a question in one of these three ways, but realize you are influencing the response based on how you ask the question. It’s critical to remember that language matters in user interviews.

3. Give Context

Putting your user at ease from the start helps set the tone for a productive interview session. If a user has never participated in a user interview before, it’s likely they will feel on edge initially. They may feel like they are being judged, or afraid they will say something that will get them in trouble. As the interviewer, it’s your job to explain who you are and what your purpose is. Clearly stating what types of information you are looking for, that everything said is confidential and will not be attributed to them (as long as this is true), and that you are looking to gather knowledge and not judge, is critical to help gain their trust. While not all users will immediately open up after this, it’s important to do everything possible to alleviate any potential concerns your user may have. Users who are comfortable are more likely to open up, which leads to a more successful interview.

4. Have Two Interviewers

Interviewing is not a passive activity – while you may not be doing the majority of the talking (at least you shouldn’t be), you need to actively drive the conversation. While asking your pre-prepared questions is important, you may decide to go off script and explore a topic based on something the user said. You also need to take notes on what the user is saying, their body language, vocal inflection, and environment. That’s a lot for one person to pay attention to, and often you won’t be able to take a video or audio recording to supplement your notes. That’s why it’s helpful to have a second person participate in the interview as the observer and scribe. The primary interviewer focuses their attention on interacting with the user and creating a rapport. The observer takes notes on what the user is saying, what they are doing, and how they are acting. You should explain their role at the beginning of the interview, but they should be a silent participant so the user knows who to focus their attention on.

5. Ignore Conversational Norms

Ok, so don’t ignore all conversational niceties – you don’t want to be rude – but there are some that have no place in a user interview. Filling the silence and agreement are the two big niceties you’ll want to throw out at the start of a user interview. It’s human nature to try fill silence or gaps in conversations – silence makes people uncomfortable. That’s something a good interviewer uses to their advantage. Instead of rushing to fill the silence after a user stops talking, pause. Let that silence hang in the air for a beat or two longer than you usually would. Chances are, that user will become uncomfortable, and do what humans have been socially trained to do – fill the silence. This is a useful tactic to get a little bit more information from a user without them feeling like you are pressuring them.

We also have a tendency to validate what others are saying. This can be by simply agreeing with a statement, or by agreeing and then providing a similar story of your own. You want to refrain from any sort of agreement or validation when interviewing a user. You are risking skewing your results if you start to show too much enthusiasm or validation after different statements your users make. They will pick up on this, and may consciously or subconsciously change the way they answer your questions to gain your approval. For your research to be worthwhile, their responses need to be as unbiased as possible. For instance, instead of saying “Great, let’s move on to the next topic,” you’re better off saying “Ok, thanks, let’s move on to the next topic.” The latter sentence is a more neutral transition and likely will not get confused for validation.

Interviewing users is not easy – it requires thorough preparation, active listening and observing, and careful language choice. You need to create an environment where the user is comfortable, and you as the interviewer are focused on your goals. Following these five tips will help you structure and perform your user interviews so you get the most out of your time with your users. While it may feel unnatural at first, the more interviews you perform, the easier and more natural interviewing will become.

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