Getting Inside Your Users’ Heads: 9 Interviewing Tips

September 2, 2014

The simplest approach to learning about users’ needs and challenges is to talk with them. In this article, I’d like to share with you some of the approaches that I use that lead to successful interviews with users.

Planning and Preparing for Interviews

Some of the things that set you up for success happen before your interviews even begin.

1. Pinpoint the issues and topics that you need to explore.

Ask your team, your management, and other project stakeholders for their input on the types of people to whom you should be talking and the questions you should ask. Crafting a single statement that encapsulates your interview objectives will help you and your teammates to stay focused and make good decisions about which questions to cover. You should limit the number of topic areas that you’ll be covering, so you can explore each topic in depth without worrying about going over schedule. This is especially true if you are new to a subject area or your goal is to give research participants the opportunity to provide rich, unique insights. You may need to run a few pilot interviews to help you gauge the number of topics that you can handle within the time that you have available.

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2. Choose the right participants.

Define the characteristics of your most important types of users. For example, if you need usability feedback on an app for caregivers, your key users might be adult children, home health workers, and general nursing practitioners. You should talk with people who either potentially would or actually do use your product. Create a separate set of recruiting criteria for each distinct type of user that you want to include in your study. Make sure that you interview people who match clearly defined personas and are representative of your users. Also, be sure to follow the UXPA Code of Professional Conduct in both your recruiting procedures and the way you work with the participants in your study.

Use the recruiting process as an opportunity to build trust and rapport with participants. During the initial screening, once you’ve determined whether people are a good fit for your study, make sure that they fully understand the nature of the interview and why you are inviting them to take part in the study. In addition to going over the logistical details with participants—such as time, place, and duration—let them know whether you’ll be recording the interview, whether other people will be listening in, and any other details that would paint an accurate picture of the interview situation. You need to put participants at ease, so they’ll arrive at their interview session relaxed, in a cheery mood, and ready to share their ideas and experiences with you.

3. Talk with internal staff who deal directly with users.

You might be amazed by how much knowledge about users already exists within your or your client’s organization. Customer Support, Training, Professional Services, and Sales deal with users and their issues every day. By talking with internal staff while planning your interviews, you can learn how to group different types of users and what issues you should discuss with participants. This leads to your asking participants better questions and having more productive interviews.

Review the customer-support logs and talk with support representatives about the most common issues that prompt people to call Support. You can ask trainers about what aspects of the products confuse the people who are learning to use them. Talk to salespeople about the features that resonate most with customers. These conversations will give you a more realistic understanding of the product and how users react to it. They will also provide a framework that will help you to absorb and organize the knowledge that you’ll gain as you carry out your interviews and analyze your findings.

4. Consider whether your interviews should be in person, by phone, or online.

While it is always best to talk with users in their natural surroundings, this approach can be costly. Consider interviewing people virtually, whether over the phone or using a Web conferencing product. When using Web conferencing technology, you can ask participants to tell you how they perform a certain task, while they walk you through the way they actually use the software. These online sessions also let you check out participants desktops and virtual habitats. Current technologies even let you do remote interviews for mobile products.

5. Invite your teammates to listen in and help you to capture data.

Observers provide unique and valuable perspectives on the issues that users bring up, especially when they are from different parts of your organization. Your teammates can take notes on what participants are saying, allowing you to concentrate on interviewing the participants. If the interviews are in person, plan to have observers listen from a separate room to avoid intimidating participants. Schedule interviews so you have at least half an hour between interview sessions. Use this time to debrief your team, discuss people’s observations, and give yourself a little time to relax and prepare yourself for the next interview.

Conducting Interviews

Now, here are some tips for conducting successful interviews.

6. Keep your interviews structured, but conversational.

The best interviews are guided conversations—never rigid Q&A sessions. Try to learn as much as you can about participants before you meet them—particularly as relates to your product—by reviewing recruitment notes and visiting their LinkedIn account. This knowledge will help you build a rapport with them, as well as to think of unique questions that you can ask them. To help you stay on track, create a discussion guide that is based on your objectives, with a list of topics that you want to cover during each interview.

Each interview should follow an hourglass format. At the beginning of the interview, focus on building trust and rapport with the participant. Start the interview by explaining its purpose, the types of questions you’ll be asking, and what you’ll do with the results. Find out whether the participant has any questions about the overall interview. Ask general questions at the beginning, then more detailed questions once the conversation gets rolling, and finally, taper off to general questions at the end. Use your discussion guide to keep the conversation flowing.

If the focus of your interview is an interactive product, during the interview you might ask the participant to walk you through a single workflow or a small set of tasks. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • What do you need to do before and after performing each task?
  • What information and feedback do you need to perform this task?
  • What do you find easy?
  • What is difficult?
  • Where do you tend to make errors?
  • With what other people do you need to interact to accomplish your task?

Phrase your questions as open-ended questions, focusing on the here and now, not on what a person would like or might do in the future. Set up your interview session to ensure that you collect both quantitative and qualitative information. For example, you might include a brief survey or a few closed-ended questions, for which the participant chooses a response from a finite set of responses. Above all, don’t worry about perfection. Just connect with participants by being genuine, making eye contact, using body language, and by listening well.

7. Let the participant lead the conversation.

If you've recruited the right types of users, have established good rapport, and are asking great questions, your participants will likely take the conversation into unanticipated areas. As long as the conversation serves your research objectives, let them talk! Your results will be much richer. A sign of a good interview is when the participant answers your questions without your having to ask them.

People are usually flattered that you have sought them out for their special knowledge and, if they trust you, they will share what they can with you. Your goal should be to learn something unique and valuable from each person who you interview, even when you’ve reached the point where the information is becoming repetitive. When things do become repetitive, that is your cue that you’ve accomplished your mission and can end your study!

8. Record your interviews.

Whenever possible, record your interview sessions so you can share the best snippets with your entire team and the rest of your organization. These recordings provide physical proof of why talking with users is a worthwhile investment. Using a Web conferencing product makes it easy to record your interviews.

9. Share insights with teammates.

After each interview, spend about half an hour debriefing your team about what they’ve just observed. Once your interviews are complete, invite all of the people who observed them to a meeting, during which you can discuss your new insights and their implications.

Prepare a report that begins with a one-page executive summary that encapsulates what you’ve learned, then go into detail on each of your key findings. Make your report easy to scan by using lots of headings, subheadings, pictures, charts, and graphs.

Keep in mind that, for a typical user research study, you’ll have an audience comprising a wide range of stakeholders. So you’ll need to present your findings with the needs of each of them in mind. For example, Product Managers typically want to know how to make a feature more relevant to their target customers. UX Designers often want to know about users’ mental model of the product domain or, or for an existing product, the product itself; plus, they want to learn about users’ key tasks and how they perform them. Developers often have a general desire to know more about the people who are using the product and how they might adapt the technology to enhance user satisfaction. Trainers want to know how to address gaps in user understanding by providing instructional material.

Once your report is ready for distribution, set up a meeting with your team to review the findings and talk about what you want to learn in your next round of interviews! 

UX Consultant and Trainer at Usability Resources Inc.

Bedford, Massachusetts, USA

Kay Corry AubreyWith over 20 years’ of experience as a UX consultant and trainer, Kay has worked independently through her own business, Usability Resources, since 2002. She has helped organizations such as iRobot, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Broad Institute maximize their competitiveness by evaluating and optimizing the usability of their products. Kay is Editor in Chief of QRCA VIEWS Magazine. She has a Master’s degree in Information Systems from Northeastern University, where she teaches a class in Usability and UI Design within the Healthcare Informatics program. She also has a Masters in Social Work from Boston University and a BA from McGill University, in Montreal. Kay has written many articles on qualitative research for technology and has spoken on this topic both locally and throughout the United States.  Read More

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