6 tips for effective user interviews

User interviews are a great way to generate ideas, and pinpoint issues. These tips will help you get a bit more out of those sessions.

Designers can be a funny bunch. We’re always banging on about audience needs. And yet, it feels like we rarely take the time to speak with these people.

Mind you, I’m not excluding myself from this. We’re all busier than we’d like to be. Budgets often feel a bit too stretched, and other tasks end up taking priority. This means that opportunities for in-depth discussions with users are few and far between. This makes them really precious, and not to be wasted.

When we do get the chance to interview users, we’ve got to get the most out of them. Here are six tips we swear by at Pixel Fridge, to get the most out of our interview sessions.

1. Know who you’re talking to

When it comes to design, context is always king.

Who a person is can have a big effect on the information they give you. Different stakeholders have different priorities, and these can often conflict with one another. By understanding the background and motivations of who we are talking to, we can make sure to get all sides of the story.

For example, let’s say we’re designing a company intranet. We might interview different users across the organisation, asking what they think the most important feature of the intranet should be.

  • Someone in IT might say it’s the ability to request tech support.
  • Someone in legal might say it’s being able to easily find policy information.
  • Someone in marketing might say it’s the functionality to book a meeting room online.

These opinions are all valid, because they’re driven by the specific person’s needs. Understanding a person’s background gives some context for the answers they’ll give later. It also helps us to find the commonalities (and conflicts) between different people’s goals.

Open every interview by asking who the person is. Understand their relationship with the product or service you’re designing, before diving into specifics. Taking time to figure out who you’re talking to means you can ask better questions, and understand the answers.

2. Make yourself impartial

People are great. When a person is willing to give up their time for an interview, it means they want to help you out. They’re eager to please.

That’s really lovely, but it can also be a problem. When users are worried about hurting your feelings, they might not answer questions honestly. This is especially true if they know it’s a product or service you were involved in creating. A person may not reveal issues that have been driving them nuts, because they don’t want to upset you.

From the outset, position yourself as being impartial.

When I open the interview, I make a point of introducing myself as “an outsider, coming in with a fresh pair of eyes”. I explain that I’ve not been involved in the design of the current product. This means they don’t need to worry about hurting my feelings.

I say this even if it’s not quite true. It’s a little white lie. It removes the risk that users will hold back to try and please me. Flattery is good for the ego, but it’s not going to provide the insights we need.

3. Remember the ‘five whys’

This is a classic interview technique. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘irritating toddler’ method. The five whys are :

  1. Why?
  2. Why?
  3. Why?
  4. Why?
  5. Why?

Asked in that order.

Basically, we keep asking ‘why’ until we drill down to the root cause of a problem.

  1. “The meeting room booking system is terrible”. Why?
  2.  “…It’s always saying that the meeting rooms are full, when they’re actually empty”. Why?
  3. “…People book meeting rooms, but don’t actually show up”. Why?
  4. “…Because meetings often come up at the last minute. People want to have a room available to use – even if they don’t end up using it”. Why?
  5. “…Because there’s no penalty for not showing up, so you might as well…!”. Got it.

By repeatedly asking why, we force the user to take a step back from the symptoms and think more about the cause. This is much more useful for us as designers. Understanding the source of an issue means we can come up with a more effective design solution to solve it.

Effective user interviewing takes practice and discipline - but it’s not rocket science.
Effective user interviewing takes practice and discipline – but it’s not rocket science.

4. Silence is golden

Silence is a powerful tool when used correctly. We humans are social creatures. We’re trained to fill silences. When conversation comes to a halt the weight of silence can feel unbearable.

This is a slightly devious use of social psychology, and you can use it to your advantage.

Users will often give you broad or open-ended answers. If you’re too quick to ask for clarity, you may rob the question of it’s impact or (worse still) influence their dialogue with your follow-up question.

Instead, try pausing for a little while. Hold off on saying anything for a few seconds after they finish answering. It might encourage them to dig a little deeper, and share something else with you.

5. Avoid leading questions

This one I can’t stress this one enough. Confirmation bias is the biggest pitfall in all UX research. It’s when we specifically seek an answer to confirm our existing beliefs. Whether consciously or not, our biases can creep into our questioning. They influence answers, and steer the discussion away from any unexpected curve-balls.

This kind of behaviour is only natural. In our brains we’ve already started forming potential design solutions. It’s much easier to have these validated than go back to the drawing board.

Leading questions subtly prompt the user to answer in a specific way.

Going back to our intranet example, we could ask the user “What are the biggest issues with the meeting room booking system?”. But this questions is problematic. By suggesting there’s a problem with the meeting room booking system, we’ve already planted a seed in their minds. We’re prompting them to focus on criticism, and hinted that a negative view is the answer we want.

Leading questions aren’t just unethical. They’ll give you bad information in the long run. This can take you down the wrong track in your design, and result in the wrong solution.

Instead, we’d prefer to ask “How do you feel about the meeting room booking system?”. The answer can now be much more open ended. The user can focus on the positives – or the general way that they use it in their working day. This is in addition to the usability issues.

Remember that even things like your tone and body language carry implications, and can lead people. Try to stay as neutral and stoic as possible. Keep questions free of judgement. Remove biases, and don’t lead users to a specific answer.

6. It’s about them, not you

For egotistical maniacs like me, it can be tricky to stay quiet. Users could say something provocative, and you’ll instinctively want to leap on it. To make your own comment agreeing (or disagreeing) with what they’ve said. You must resist!

Don’t hijack the interview to talk about your own opinions. This session is all about being attentive. Really listen to what the user has to say.

Concentrate and pay attention. You’re gaining information when you listen, and add nothing by filling the session with your own ideas and opinions. Save those for your teams and clients.

Effective user interviewing takes practice and discipline – but it’s not rocket science. Be mindful of these tips in your next interview. I promise you’ll notice the benefits in your findings.

Chris Myhill

Chris Myhill