A user interview—including one that occurs during usability testing or user observation—is a relationship between two people—the interviewer and the interviewee—in which emotions, fears, and judgments come into play. Thus, my training and practice in psychotherapy have greatly enriched my technique in doing user interviews, because they have helped me avoid or minimize certain biases when eliciting and interpreting users’ verbal comments.
Inspirations From Psychology
The following psychotherapeutic and psychological approaches have inspired some of the ideas in this article:
- person-centered approach of Carl Rogers—Developed in the 1940s and 1950s, this approach belongs to the humanistic school of psychotherapy. Its core concepts include empathy with patients’ emotions and perspectives, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard.
- Colette Portelance’s creative nondirective approach to psychotherapy—Developed in the 1980s, this approach was inspired by both Carl Rogers’s humanist approaches and Lozanov’s suggestology. Its core concepts include empathy, genuineness, and acceptance of our own emotions, needs, and defence mechanisms.
- psychological types and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)—Jung’s psychological types correspond to the MBTI functions: introvert (I) versus extravert (E), intuitive (N) versus sensing (S), thinking (T) versus feeling (F), and judging (J) versus perceiving (P). The dominant orientations in an individual define his personality type—for example, ENTP. The MBTI is one of the most widely used personality tests.
- shadow of the personality—According to Jung, the shadow of the personality represents unconscious parts of our personalities that we have repressed—because we either don’t accept them or pass judgment on them—and tend to project onto others. For example, a person who doesn’t accept the emotion of anger tends to judge himself each time he feels angry and might judge other people who express their anger easily.
To help you get more out of users’ verbal comments, this article will provide ten guidelines and various interviewing techniques I’ve learned from experience. These techniques work best if they are used with genuine empathy for users. If users feel that you are not genuine—even if you are not aware of it or try to hide it—these techniques won’t work. I’ve described most of these techniques within the context of usability testing, but some techniques are also applicable to other user research activities—such as field studies and task analyses—and to stakeholder interviews.
1. Be aware of your own judgments and projections.
It’s easy to say you’re not judgmental, but it’s not so easy to achieve that in reality. And if you want your interventions to be effective and users to be comfortable speaking as freely and honestly as possible, you must actually be nonjudgmental. It is useless for you to say there are no good or bad answers to your questions if your behavior says otherwise.
So, for example, be careful about saying “Excellent” or “Good” or any word that implies a positive judgment following a user’s answer. Saying an answer is excellent might imply that a user’s answer could be good or bad and that you are judging the user’s performance. Instead, depending on the context, you might say something like “Got it” or “I understand.”
In user interviews, as in all relationships, you’ll meet all kinds of people—both people with whom you feel comfortable and those you don’t, whom you might tend to judge. Unless you are careful, you might let your first reaction to a person color an entire user interview. It’s natural for you to be uncomfortable with the personalities of some users, but you must be conscious of your feelings and overcome them if you want to get the most out of an interview.
Observe your feelings about each user. Take note of any fear you feel or judgments you make. We often negatively judge others because they remind us of aspects of our own personalities that we do not accept. This phenomenon is called projection, according to Jung’s shadow theory. Observing your own feelings will help you to become less judgmental, which will, in turn, make users feel more comfortable with you, letting them speak more openly. This will enable you to get more useful information from your user interviews.
A Real-World Example
During a usability study, I met a woman whose manner was harsh. I felt uncomfortable and intimidated. My first tendency was to judge her: “She is rude.” Her frankness made me fear her judgment. Unaware of my own feelings, I thought she was actually judging me, but she was not. She was simply a direct person. I was projecting my own fear of judgment onto her and also my prejudices against harsh people. To compensate for my discomfort, I was overly nice to her during the interview. I was also very subtly judging and undervaluing her comments. After a while, I realized my own feelings were biasing my perceptions of her. I was imagining things that were not real. This helped me to stop judging her, and our interactions became easier.
We all tend to judge others. It’s human. By becoming aware of and taking responsibility for your judgments about users and the feelings that you project onto them, you can go beyond these and become more empathic.
Of all the guidelines I’ve given in this article, this one is actually the most difficult to apply. Doing so requires self-observation and a willingness to overcome your biases and defences. However, being nonjudgmental has a huge positive impact on your relationships with users.
2. Be genuine and transparent.
The more your behavior aligns with your words, the more users will feel comfortable with you. Being truly transparent about your interview process or anything unusual that happens during an interview helps build users’ confidence in their relationship with you. If you are genuine and open, it will encourage users to be the same with you. Don’t pretend that everything is okay when users can sense that something is not. Any disconnect between what you say and what you do will make users feel insecure, and they’ll be less open with you. Here are a couple of scenarios to show you how this works.
Problem: A user tells you something, but you were distracted or were thinking of something else and lost some important information that you need.
Solution: Let the user know that you were mentally absent. Say “I missed what you said. Would you please repeat it?”
Problem: You want to follow a specific process during the interview or need to move quickly from one question to another and want only a user’s first impressions.
Solution: Let the user know before you start that you will move very quickly from one question to another.
3. Adapt to each user. Do not ask users to adapt to you.
It is easy to fall unconsciously into the trap of expecting a user to adapt to your way of communicating rather than trying to adapt to the user’s.
After a usability test session, you might find yourself saying, “Oh, this person wasn’t a good test subject.” He was too something—perhaps too shy or too talkative. It’s possible that the comments a particular user made were not very helpful—no matter how hard you tried to get valuable information from him. However, to make the most of each user interview, you must ensure that you are doing your best to adapt to the user’s rhythm and personality. Otherwise, you risk losing important data.
A Real-World Example
In a usability test session, a user was answering one of my questions. Once he finished his sentence, he did not say anything for a little while. I thought he had finished speaking, so I went on to my next question. He suddenly interrupted me, giving me a very interesting and thoughtful response to my previous question. At that moment, I realized that I had misinterpreted his silence. He had not actually finished answering. He was thinking about his answer. After this, I gave him more time to answer my questions, and I received very relevant comments I would have missed if I had not respected his rhythm.
This example reflects the differences between introverts and extraverts, as defined by Jung’s psychological types and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Extraverts usually tend to think and speak at the same time, whereas introverts usually tend to speak only once they have thought through what they want to say. You should give people enough time to think before answering your questions—especially introverts.
It also shows how easily we can misinterpret users’ behavior. You must stay objective. If a user is not talking and there is an extended silence, don’t assume you know the reason for the user’s silence. Instead, observe how quickly he answers your first few questions and adapt to his rhythm. If he takes some time before answering, but gives detailed and thoughtful answers, be sure to give him enough time to answer your questions.
This example illustrates how different people can be and how important it is to be aware of their differences to make the most of user interviews. Learning about Jung’s psychological types can help you become aware of the diversity of personality types and how they can affect your relationships with users. This understanding will also help you to be less judgmental when confronted with a user whose personality is very different from yours.
4. Be conscious of the way users are interacting with you.
Even though you’ve carefully explained to users that they are not being tested, you’ll often encounter users who feel they are being tested and are afraid of giving a wrong answer. If a person is nervous throughout a test session, even though you’re being empathetic and nonjudgmental, it is useless to try and change his or her feelings. Regardless of how hard you try, it won’t change anything. Even worse, a user might become irritated by your mothering behavior.
Observe carefully how users interact with you, and take these observations into account when interpreting your findings.
A Real-World Example
During a usability test, a user continually asked me whether his answers were good. After observing him for about thirty minutes, I realized that this user was very concerned about the quality of his answers and wanted to make a good impression on me. Sometimes he was even showing off. At one point, when I asked him whether he had seen a link, he very quickly answered “Yes” in an overly confident tone that made me feel very uncomfortable. I had difficulty believing him. My previous observation of his behavior backed up my intuition that he might be lying and eyetracking confirmed that the user, in fact, had not seen the link. Based on these observations, I was very careful when interpreting the results of this session.