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My Best Advice for Conducting User Interviews

In a previous life, I was a Professional Writing major and part-time journalist. I contributed to my school’s student newspaper, as well as the faculty and staff newspaper, and almost every week for two years, I wrote an arts column for the Pittsburgh City Paper — Western PA’s leading alternative newsweekly [read my old clips].

As a result of all that reporting, I became adept at interviewing people to get a good story. That skill has certainly served me well as a user experience designer, and now unsurprisingly, conducting user interviews is my absolute favorite part of this wonderful job.

I’m in the thick of user research on my current project for House Party, and along the way I’ve been reminding myself of all sorts of best practices to squeeze out the most evocative insights from my participants.

Perhaps the maxims that work so well for me will make you a more effective interviewer, too.

Set the schedule yourself

When scheduling interviews, suggest a date and time for each participant instead of making the meeting request open-ended. Giving something specific for people to respond to reduces the number of back-and-forths required to agree on a time, prevents you from double-booking, and will also give you greater control over your own schedule. I list out time slots across multiple days and pre-assign participants to them, send each one a meeting request for that time, and then wait for the acceptances to roll in.

Be cognizant of the time zone they’re located in so you don’t ask them to be available at an unreasonable time, and be sure to include the time zone on the meeting request!

Factor in breaks

Give yourself an hour between sessions — to digest what you heard, drink some water, use the bathroom, rest your hands, ears, and eyes. You don’t want to still be thinking about what the last person said when you’re listening to the next person, or you might miss something.

Interviews can be exhausting, mentally and emotionally taxing, and particularly overwhelming once they all start to bleed together. Just because you can speak to seven people in a day doesn’t mean you should, so take it easy to ensure you’re at your best.

Recruit more participants than you need

Participants will always drop out. Don’t feel bad, it isn’t you. But things come up, schedules shift, and people need to cancel. Or heck, something might even come up for you. A good rule of thumb that works for me: for every 4 participants you want, recruit 5. Even if people seem gung-ho to help during your initial conversations — and even confirm the meeting time! — they can still flake. Just be prepared to use up an unexpected hour or two with some housekeeping or administrata (my word) if someone is a no-show.

Record the sessions

While it might seem like recording your interviews is a hassle, the benefit far outweighs the cost. You’ll be able to take lighter notes, concentrate on what’s being said, and supply evidential proof if someone challenges your findings. You can use a digital voice recorder, a Skype recorder (like Vodburner) or screensharing recorder (like iShowU), or even a LiveScribe Pulse Pen (what I use!).

Whatever you choose, it’s crucial that you inform the participant ahead of time that you’ll be recording them, and give them the opportunity to opt-out if they feel uncomfortable. It’s better to have a conversation off the record than no conversation at all.

Be casual and conversational

A formal, mechanical Q&A session is not the way to get the goods. The questions you prepare should only be used as conversation starters, and as a checklist of topics you want to cover.

I have two great tips to help your participants feel more comfortable, and make them more willing to answer honestly and in-depth:

  1. Memorize the questions. This will allow you to not keep referring back to the page, and makes conversation much more fluid.
  2. Don’t number your questions. Putting numbers before each question implies, if only to you, that there’s a predetermined order in which you need to ask them. If you don’t number them, you won’t worry about going out of order, and you’ll be more likely to ask the question at the appropriate time in the conversation — when the participant naturally brings up the topic.

This helps to convey how much you actually care about what the person is saying, and that you’re not just trying to get through the interview.

Ask open-ended questions

When a cute guy asks me, “Do you workout?” my answer is always Yes. But if he asks me how often I work out, he’ll get a much clearer picture of reality.

Always start your questions with Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a Yes or No. Never start a question with, “Do you…” and expect to get more than a three-word answer. A better way to phrase it would be, “To what extent do you…” or “Tell me more about…” That opens up the conversation, gets the ball rolling, and forces people to really think about their response. As the interviewer, you need to be an archeologist, digging for the truth at the very bottom of a pile of dirt. Open-ended questions will help you get there a lot faster.

Ask the question, then pause

This is one of the hardest things for me to do. I’m a New Yorker; I have a natural tendency to fill the gaps in a conversation. But even at the awkward moments when the participant doesn’t seem to understand your question or maybe doesn’t want to answer, that’s when something critical is going to come to light.

Ask your question, and then shhh. Let them answer, even if it takes a moment. Stop yourself from offering up answers for them to choose from, like “Where do you do most of your shopping? Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target?” They’ll grasp on to one of the options you’ve provided and never mention the Farmer’s Market down the road with the freshest herbs in town.

Ask about behaviors, not feelings

People have a really hard time talking about their feelings, especially to strangers. I conducted 39 user interviews for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum project, and not a single one of them got emotional. We were talking about one of the most traumatic, devastating periods in all of history, and even still feelings didn’t much enter the equation. Motivations, yes. Attitudes, of course. But I didn’t find those out by asking, “How did that make you feel?”

Asking, “How do you feel about XYZ?” is only going to reveal the smallest piece of the puzzle, just a momentary, fleeting emotion. Not what triggered it, and not what resulted from it. Instead ask, “What did you expect would happen when you…?” and, “What actually happened when you…?” and then most importantly, “What did you do next?” That tells the whole story of what the person actually experienced on both the inside and out.

Play dumb

In order to challenge your assumptions and uncover hidden truths, you’re going to have to check your ego at the door. While interviewing people, it is not your goal to demonstrate how much you know, but instead to find out what they know, how they think about it, what they call it, and how they think it all works.

On a recent call, a participant said, “I upload all my photos to Shutterfly, and then I email them to family members.” The easy assumption would be to imagine that she copies the album URL in Shutterfly and pastes it into an email. But I don’t make assumptions, so I asked, “How do you email photos?” A seemingly dumb question coming from a techie like me.

Her response: “Oh, I just attach the photos I like to the email.”

She’s uploading the photos to a photo-sharing site, but then she’s sending the photos as attachments via email. Isn’t that curious? Might there be something worth exploring there? YES YES YES!

“Help me understand…” and “I’ve never done…” puts the participant into the teacher role and you into the learner role. And everyone loves to teach what they know to people who seem to know less. That gives you a unique opportunity to discover their mental model, and an opportunity to help design a product that better adheres to it.

Don’t judge their answers

You might be shocked by what you hear, but try to do your very, very best to not show it. You are there to learn about real people and real situations, not to form opinions or evaluate their answers. That’s for later, in the privacy of your own office ;) While conducting the interview, be neutral, and even-toned, and accepting. If someone says something that really knocks you off your chair, you might even try showing some sympathy and compassion –– no matter what you really feel. Their next comment just might shock you even more, and completely change the face of your product.

Paraphrase what you heard

Trust me, the above cartoon is not as uncommon as you might think. Communication is hard, especially with someone you’re meeting for the first time. Things get lost in translation even when you’re both speaking the same language. So as you’re going along in your interview, take the time to summarize a key learning and repeat it back to the participant. This gives them the chance to confirm or clarify, and will keep you from going down the wrong path later on.

If you’re wondering, ask

In most cases you get one shot to spend some time picking this person’s brain. You’re already in the zone, building a rapport, so don’t keep your questions to yourself. If the participant uses a term you’ve never heard before, ask them to explain it. If you think you misheard something, ask them to repeat it. If one of their responses makes you think of something that isn’t on your list of questions, ask it anyway. This is where the gems are hiding. Let the conversation go where the participant is taking it, and don’t allow your shyness or preconceived notions to stand in the way of true discovery.

Be grateful

Say please, and thank you. More than once. Thank the person for their time before you begin, and when you end. Then thank them again soon after in an email. Whether or not you’re paying them an honorarium for their participation (which is not always necessary to do), they are still taking valuable time out of their day, by and large for your benefit. Sure, what you learn might end up benefitting them in the long-run, especially if they’re already an existing user of the product, but they’re not likely to recognize that or even care. Go out of your way to make the participant feel appreciated and valued. You’ll make them feel like a partner in the process rather than just a subject of study, and that will lead to more honest feedback, deeper answers, and just general good karma.

Good luck. And report back.

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