Using Paired Interviews to Understand the Current and Future Perspectives of Teenagers
Published: June 3, 2013
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to conduct user research to understand the world of teenagers from different angles. In this column, I’ll describe the challenges, successes, and lessons that I learned from this experience, focusing on a new method that I’ve added to my toolkit: paired interviews.
The goal of the research project was to discover key directions, requirements, and design opportunities, as well as to develop an understanding of what it means to design for younger audiences. To achieve this goal, I decided to concentrate on exploring the following topics:
- teenagers’ daily lives—whether in school, at work, or on weekends
- life changes from middle school to high school to college
- the evolution of social groups and communications
- time management
- access to technology and digital devices
- family relations and parental support or restrictions, according to age and gender
- their communication needs and the tools they currently use to fulfill them
- what they follow—what is on their radar
- their life expectations, dreams, and ideals
- community building and belonging
- events they attend
- products they like and use—brands they follow
- their general needs and behaviors
I wanted to learn about these topics from the teenagers’ viewpoint. To address the challenges of conducting user research with this age group, I decided to leverage my expertise in doing user research with both children and adults and developed an approach to paired interviews that I thought would be suitable for conducting research with teenagers.
So I conducted paired interviews with a group of four girls, between 15 and 18 years of age, who were close friends and lived in the same area. A local mall served as a neutral location. It was a place that all of the participants visited frequently, so made them feel at ease. The entire session lasted for two hours. In addition to the paired interviews, I conducted semi-structured interviews and video self-reporting exercises.
Paired Introductions and Interviews
I invited the girls to have lunch in an open area of the mall. I opened the session with paired introductions. We started with the researchers introducing each other to provide an example, then asked each girl to introduce one of her friends, describing
- her name
- what she’s good at or what she likes
- a funny fact about her
- what she will be like in the future
The paired interviews research method  inspired this activity. It applies the concepts behind the pair programming of agile software development practice.  The introductions lasted for 15 minutes.
For the next 30 minutes of the session, I used a variation of the paired interviews technique: paired video interviews. We combined elements of paired interviews with the principles of a research method that is commonly used with children: friendship pairs.  For this exercise, I asked the girls to interview each other and recorded the interviews with a video camera. These interviews occurred in the presence of the entire group, and the girls were at liberty to ask any questions they wanted to ask, as long as they centered on the topics that I had mentioned earlier.
Challenges, Successes, and Lessons Learned
This was a very outspoken and expressive group, and the participants greatly enjoyed talking about their current lives and future aspirations. The fact that they were all having lunch in an open space in the mall made the participants feel comfortable and relaxed. The first introductory activity provided a few funny moments, making everyone laugh, and helped the researchers build rapport fairly quickly.
The group interview was very successful in terms of encouraging an in-depth conversation about teen life, with all of the girls avidly participating and providing their personal views. However, it soon became apparent that, even though there was only a three-year difference between the oldest and the youngest participants, keeping all of the girls interested in the same subject at once was a challenge. The older girls were either finishing high school or had already entered university life, so had very different experiences and points of view in comparison to the younger girls, who were just finishing middle school.
The paired interviews were highly successful and provided research artifacts relating to the teens’ thoughts and aspirations, narrated in their own words and based on their own priorities. The researchers did not intervene in the paired interviews, but quietly listened to the kinds of questions the teens were asking each other and the responses they offered. The insights that we collected from this exercise were quite different from those that we got from the researcher-led group interview.
I had initially planned to take a similarly dynamic research approach during the sessions that we subsequently conducted with a group of four teenage boys. However, after our first 15 minutes of conversation with the boys, it became clear that the paired interviews method that we had used with the girls was not going to work with the boys. Even though the environment was equally familiar and relaxing, the boys were less outspoken and more self-conscious than the group of girls had been, especially when talking about their future aspirations, dreams, and personal relationships. By grounding the interviews in a topic that was highly interesting and common to all of the boys—for example, music—we were able to more easily build rapport with them. This also enabled the boys to be more open during the discussion.
Based on this experience, I recommend using the paired interviews method with teenagers under the following conditions:
- when you are working with natural affinity groups such as groups of close friends or family members
- when you are working with groups of teenagers who are outspoken and opinionated
- when you are working with teenage girls between 13 and 18 years of age
- when you are working with teenage boys who are in a younger age range and are extroverts
Project Limitations and Conclusions
The nature of this research was purely exploratory and generative. Therefore, the samples that I worked with were small and highly heterogeneous, and the research design was not completely balanced across all conditions. However, we took user experience research approaches that we had designed expressly for understanding teenagers from various perspectives, as well as to provide an optimal experience for the teenaged research participants.
The overall research project was successful, not only in terms of meeting our research objectives, but also in providing a variety of lessons learned that will contribute to larger-scale research designs for this audience.
 Lohm, Davina. Sometimes It Can Take Two - Paired Interviews.” PhD Dissertation, Session 70, Monash University. Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
 Williams, L. “Integrating Pair Programming into a Software Development Process.” Proceedings for 14th Conference on Software Engineering Education and Training. Department of Computer Science, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, 2001. Retrieved May 18, 2013.