Developing Your Interview Skills, Part II: During the Interview

February 7, 2011

In Part I of this series on interviewing, I considered preparatory steps you can take before doing interviews for qualitative research to ensure their success. Immersing yourself in the problem space, getting access to the right people and preparing them for their interview, finessing the interview setting, and honing your script’s structure and phrasing are crucial to creating a conducive interview experience. A successful interview depends on characteristics of both the interviewer and the research participant. Now, in Part II, I’ll address how to manage an interview to ensure it starts on the right track and stays there. This article also touches on some ways to develop your interviewing skills throughout your career.

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Be in the Moment

Perhaps you’re on day three of your study’s schedule, and you’re doing the fourth interview of the day. You’re tired from concentrating diligently and summoning the energy it takes to engage meaningfully with strangers. You’re starting to hear patterns in participants’ responses and draw conclusions about potential solutions to some design issues. It is very tempting, at this stage, to go into interview autopilot and close yourself to the possibilities the remaining participants might offer.

Instead, before each interview, quiet your mind and mentally prepare for an hour of concentration, observation, and alertness. Recall the hypotheses that you’re investigating and the big questions your client needs answered. Assuming this mindful state prepares you to expect the unexpected and be nimble and flexible in your questioning. When you’re alert and open, you notice more and avoid bias in both your inquiry and interpretation.

Build Rapport

First, you need to build rapport with the stranger you’ve just met. The first few moments of an interview set the stage for the rest of your time together and can make or break the interview. If you don’t connect with participants at the beginning of an interview, they may not be as thoughtful and forthcoming as you need them to be. Plan how you’ll open each session and what you’ll say to make participants comfortable. Here are some things you should do:

  • Identify yourself while giving participants a firm handshake.
  • Welcome and thank each person for participating in your study.
  • Ask participants what the recruiter or client has told them about the session. If necessary, reset their expectations to get them in the right mindset.
  • Acknowledge participants’ potential nervousness.
  • Reiterate that you’re not testing them—rather you’re focusing on the performance of the product’s design.
  • Remind participants about confidentiality.
  • Mention your agreed-upon schedule and their ability to discontinue the session at any time.
  • If you’re not the designer or are not from the client company, let participants know.

Think about your behavior during the first moments of the interview, too. Reinforce what you say by how you say it. You want to exude warmth and confidence to start building trust, so do the following:

  • Be confident and respectful, but not deferential.
  • Smile.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Read participants and consider whether they need coddling, complimenting, or a professional approach to make them feel comfortable.
  • Start sensing participants’ communication style, vocabulary, and cultural and personality differences, then reflect these back, matching participants’ energy level.
  • Don’t take notes. Instead, maintain eye contact and establish a connection.

Throughout your interviews, you’ll need to continue reading participants, so you can adjust your style as necessary.

Control Your Body Language

At least 55% of communication is nonverbal. Be conscious of the body language you’re displaying through your face, arms, hands, torso, feet, and legs. Be aware of any cultural differences in body language—for example:

  • How acceptable is it to touch another person to show friendliness?
  • How do you show curiosity or indifference?
  • How much eye contact is appropriate? Is staring commonplace? Where’s the line between your appearing to avoid eye contact versus your not wanting to make the other person uncomfortable by staring?
  • Do people interpret silence as agreement, disagreement, or a failure to communicate?

In Australia, where I come from, people would expect you to do the following:

  • Sit erect, with an open, alert posture, fully facing participants and leaning in slightly.
  • Make expressive gestures within the frame of your body.
  • Display welcoming facial expressions, nodding, and smiling. No yawning.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Do not swivel your chair to face an exit, window, or clock.
  • Talk with an even tone that is consistent in volume and at a moderate pace. Do not whisper.

At the beginning of an interview, be conscious of how you’re presenting yourself; then, once the interview is underway, periodically check your demeanor. For instance, you might make a point of checking this at each transition between tasks or topics of conversation.

Read Participants’ Body Language

You also need to read participants’ nonverbal cues to see how they’re reacting to you and to what you’re discussing. Are participants confirming, enriching, or contradicting what they’re saying? Here are a few things to tune into

  • loudness of speech
  • tone
  • animation
  • pace
  • inflections
  • gestures
  • posture
  • facial expressions

There is real skill in reading whether participants are saying one thing, but thinking another. Sometimes, in usability testing, we hear people say they think a product is fine, while having an incredibly sceptical look on their face; or insisting they understand something, while they’re leaning forward looking entirely puzzled. Participants might complete a task successfully, while their body language shows it was a frustrating and harrowing process for them. You need to capture both what people say and their demeanor when saying it to accurately assess a design’s performance.

Researchers Eva de Lera and Muriel Garreta-Domingo have developed a useful approach to identifying and explaining emotional cues during a design evaluation. They have documented this approach in their paper “Ten Emotion Heuristics: Guidelines for Assessing the User’s Affective Dimension Easily and Cost-effectively.”PDF

During an interview, if you see any of the ten emotional cues Figure 1 shows, you should note it, and you may want to probe what a participant is thinking and feeling further.

Figure 1—Ten emotion heuristics, from Eva de Lera and Muriel Garreta-Domingo
Ten emotion heuristics, from Eva de Lera and Muriel Garreta-Domingo

Listen Actively

Being a good listener doesn’t mean you should just sit there and be quiet, but it does require measured responses. “People can hear you’re listening,” states Phil McKinney, host of the highly regarded Killer Innovations podcast. Have you ever been on the phone and gotten a sense that the person at the other end has switched off? Obviously, it’s even easier to pick up on this when you’re in the same room.

During interviews, you do have to endure silence rather than filling the void. It’s important not to overwhelm participants or overdirect them. People need thinking time. Your job is to show empathy, listen as a receiver rather than a critic, and resist the temptation to think about the next question while they’re responding.

By practicing active listening, you’ll be better able to pick up on participants’ body language cues and probe effectively for more detail. When you’re really paying attention, you’re able to ask insightful follow-up questions that get to the heart of the matter rather than eliciting superficial responses.

One method of following up is using a laddering technique like that Michael Hawley outlined in his column, “Laddering: A Research Interview Technique for Uncovering Core Values,” as shown in Figure 2. In laddering, your subsequent questions get a little deeper and end up revealing how someone’s values drive their behavior—as Means End Chain theory describes.

Figure 2—Using laddering to reveal core values
Using laddering to reveal core values

Keep It Together

Carolyn Snyder has suggested that there are three roles a moderator needs to assume during a research session:

  • flight attendant—Establish a relaxed atmosphere and ensure participants feel comfortable and safe.
  • sportscaster—If observers can’t see what participants are commenting on—or can’t hear participants—provide play-by-play commentary when necessary.
  • scientist—Follow protocols responsibly to ensure the data you collect is well managed and analyzed.

When interviewing research participants, there are many things to juggle in the heat of the moment—and practice is the best way to become a master juggler. Over time, you’ll learn not to fake attention when you become bored, as well as to

  • get rid of or ignore distractions around you
  • ignore distracting characteristics of the participants themselves—such as accents, voice quality, and mannerisms
  • concentrate for long periods
  • be assertive enough to take and keep control of your interviews
  • be comfortable with all sorts of people, so you won’t suppress your personality and intuition

Opportunities for Improvement

With interviews, you are the research instrument. You can tune this instrument in your day-to-day office dealings, in real life, and through all of your research studies.

Review Your Interviews and Evolve Your Skills

Here are some pointers for reviewing and continually improving your interview skills:

  • Be a participant yourself. Get someone to interview you, using your script, so you can feel what it’s like. Putting yourself in the place of a participant opens you up to cues the interviewer gives you, missed opportunities, and ideas for better approaches. Put yourself in the hot seat and see how well your script works. On the flip side, when you run a pilot interview, check whether your guinea pig is interpreting your questions as you thought people would. Once you see how a participant might respond to your questions, if necessary, tweak their order and flow.
  • Ask for feedback from colleagues or get a mentor. Have someone watch you do interviews with the express purpose of evaluating your interviewing skills or your use of specific techniques. Organize an in-house training day where you all do interview sessions and observe and critique each other. Include interviewing-style feedback as part of your regular interview debriefs.
  • Make video recordings of your interviews and review them. Observe and note any weaknesses in scripting, building rapport, body language, or asking probing questions. When you conduct an ineffective interview, pause and analyze what went wrong instead of just dismissing it.
  • Consciously practice just one interviewing technique during each session. You may have a wish list of interviewing skills you would like to develop, but you can’t take all of them on at once. For each interview, pick one skill to focus on—such as active listening or reading people’s emotional cues—and concentrate on that.
  • Keep up with qualitative research and other UX literature. Be open to new methods and variations on old methods. When delving into qualitative research literature, if you want to go deeper, expose yourself to human information processing and basic cognitive psychology.

Practice Wherever You Are

As with any skill, practice makes perfect, so you should take advantage of every opportunity to practice your interviewing skills. You can also do the following:

  • Observe people who interview well. Journalists can be exemplary models for body language, building rapport, and tone, as well as their sequencing of questions. When watching or listening to an interview, note what is working and why.
  • Practice mindfulness and awareness in your day-to-day work. Each day, set aside a period of time during which you can enter into a heightened state of awareness to develop your concentration span and perception. In meetings, practice talking less, and instead, listen with your eyes by closely observing people’s body language.
  • Do micro-interviews when you meet new people. Meeting someone new is a perfect opportunity to practice building rapport quickly, asking closed and open questions, and reading people.
  • Do improv. Improv theatre is all about thinking on your feet, recognizing cues, and controlling your responses. Doing improv may improve your confidence and comfort level with strangers, as well as your listening and observation skills.
  • Record and take notes in a meeting. This exercise involves recording a meeting—perhaps on your phone and always with permission—and during the meeting, taking notes about its content; then after the meeting, comparing what you wrote down with the recording to determine how much you picked up. It can be surprising what you’ve tuned out and missed, misinterpreted, or glossed over.
  • Eavesdrop on conversations between others. Trips on public transport provide prime opportunities for doing this. Analyze what you’re hearing and whether the speakers are displaying good or poor listening skills.

There are many occasions when you can practice the characteristics and skills being a good interviewer requires. As with so many of the professional-development challenges for UX professionals, developing your interpersonal skills and self-awareness bring about the greatest improvements in your interviewing skills.

To get more out of every interview, every time, the three key areas on which you should focus are honing your question phrasing, taking time to build rapport rather than rushing in, and observing and responding to participants’ nonverbal communication. Mastering these three essential building blocks of interviewing delivers results in the form of the research insights you need to make better business and design decisions. 

Freelance UX Design Consultant at MM Communications

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Mia NorthropMia has over 10 years of experience designing digital user experiences. She applies her passion for finding the sweet spot between user needs and business objectives, working for clients as diverse as Medibank, NAB, RMIT, eBay, Telstra, Ford, Merrill Lynch, Coles Group, EMC, and ANZ. Formerly, Mia worked for a who’s who of Australian Internet companies, including Fairfax Digital, Sensis, and SEEK, as well as the interactive agency Razorfish and the consultancy Symplicit. Her favorite part of UX projects is conducting UX research that illuminates the ideas that make the biggest impact on design.  Read More

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