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Tutorial 5: How To Conduct Effective User Interviews

Tutorial 5: How To Conduct Effective User Interviews

“Hi there! 💁 I’m Jaye—you’ll recogize me from the previous tutorial on UX research tools. I’m going to take the baton from Korina’s earlier tutorial on research methods and dive deeper into user interviews. Enjoy!”

What are we going to do today?

Hi there, and welcome to tutorial five—you’re powering through your UX research short course! Throughout the previous tutorials, we’ve built up a solid overview of user research, touching on a variety of methods and techniques. As promised, we’ll now focus on two specific techniques in detail, starting with user interviews. In this tutorial, we’ll consider why and when you might conduct user interviews as part of the research process. Then we’ll set out a clear step-by-step guide, covering everything from goal-setting and logistics to writing effective interview questions. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll be ready to plan and conduct your own user interviews.

We’ve broken up the lesson as follows:

  1. What are user interviews?
  2. When is the best time to conduct user interviews?
  3. A step-by-step guide to user interviews
  4. User interview tips and best practices
  5. Practical exercise

Ready to master the art of user interviews? Let’s go.

1. What are user interviews? 

A user interview is usually a one-to-one session during which you ask the user questions and record or note down their answers. Within the context of UX research, user interviews are more than just a casual conversation; you’ll need to have a clear objective in mind and ask a carefully prepared set of questions.

As you’ll remember from previous tutorials, different research methods are used to gather different types of data. A user interview will give you qualitative, self-reported data. In other words, the user will be telling you how they perceive a certain concept or how they feel about a particular experience. When conducting user interviews, you’re relying on the user’s words rather than observing their actions. So, through user interviews, you’ll gain an understanding of how your target users talk about the product or service you’re designing. This is an excellent technique for uncovering user attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs. For example: What problems and pain-points do they mention? What do they say they want from the experience? What do they currently enjoy about the product and what could be improved?

User interviews can be conducted in person or on a remote basis, and are useful at various stages of the design process. Now we know what exactly a user interview is, let’s consider when might be the best time to conduct user interviews.

2. When is the best time to conduct user interviews?

As with most UX research techniques, user interviews can uncover valuable insights throughout the design process. You might choose to conduct user interviews:

  • At the start of a design project, when you’re developing a new concept or still deciding which direction the design should take. Speaking to your target users one-to-one will help with things like defining user personas or deciding which product features to include.
  • Once you have a concept or design to hand. Further along in the process, user interviews can help you to gather people’s opinions about an existing product or design.
  • After usability testing. User interviews can be used as a follow-up to other kinds of user research, such as usability testing (where you’ll observe a user interacting with a product or prototype). In this case, a user interview will add verbal, self-reported data to the actions and behaviours you’ve observed—helping you to paint a comprehensive picture of your users in relation to the product you’re designing. 

Overall, user interviews are ideal for learning more about your target users and exploring a specific topic in more detail. With that in mind, let’s get down to the logistics of user interviews.

3. A step-by-step guide to user interviews

As a UX designer, you’ll need to master the art of planning and conducting effective user interviews. In tutorial three, we set out a general guide to planning a user research session. Now we’re going to adapt this guide specifically to user interviews, providing you with an exact plan to follow.

When it comes to user interviews, there are four key elements to consider: Setting goals and objectives; recruiting participants; finding the right location; and writing effective interview questions. We’ll go through each of these steps now.

1. Set goals and objectives

First and foremost, you need to set clear research objectives. This step applies to any research technique, and is especially important for user interviews as the goals you set will inform your interview questions.

So how do you go about setting a meaningful goal? Think about what you hope to learn from each round of interviews, and consider speaking to product stakeholders to determine what insights they are keen to uncover. At the same time, always bear in mind what stage you’re at in the design process.

Let’s imagine you’re designing a language-learning app. You’ve got a vague concept in mind, but you’re keen to flesh it out before you start designing. Your user interview goal might be to find out what features users desire in a language-learning app. This overarching objective will guide you when it comes to writing your interview questions, so make sure it’s specific enough to steer the interview in a distinct direction.

2. Recruit interview participants

With a clear objective in mind, the next step is to recruit some interview participants. You’ll remember that we outlined an in-depth strategy for recruiting research participants in tutorial two, so we’ll just reiterate briefly here. When recruiting interviewees, it’s important to make sure that they represent your target audience. So, for your language-learning app, you might look for users who are interested in learning a new language and who have used a language-learning app before.

To find suitable participants, you can either tap into an existing customer base or advertise your study via social media. User interviews are more time-consuming than some other research methods, so you’ll want to focus on recruiting around five participants who fit your target criteria.

3. Choose your location

Next, consider the logistics of the interview. When choosing a location, it’s important to think about how the surrounding environment might influence the user. If they’re sitting in your office surrounded by the brand, will they feel compelled to say positive things? Most probably! Try to conduct the interview in a relaxed, neutral setting—be it an unbranded meeting room or a location of the user’s choice.

You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to record the interview. As the interviewer, you must be completely engaged and tuned in to what the user is saying, so you can’t be distracted by taking notes. It’s a good idea to have someone with you taking notes, or to record the session—just make sure you get the user’s permission to do so.

4. Write your interview questions

Now for the most important part: Writing your interview questions. It’s your job to steer the interview in the right direction, so you want to guide the interviewee and encourage them to open up—without making them feel like you’re looking for certain answers. It’s quite a balancing act!

The questions you ask and how you ask them will have a huge impact on the success of the interview, so spend some time preparing your interview questions beforehand. The key to a successful user interview is to ask open, non-leading questions—two concepts which we’ll explain now.

  • Open vs. closed questions

A closed question requires a simple “yes” or “no” answer, while an open question prompts the participant to go into more detail. Instead of asking the user “Do you like using apps to learn a new language?”, you might ask “How do you feel about using apps to learn new languages?” Can you see how the second question invites the user to elaborate?

  • Leading vs. non-leading questions

A leading question implies or hints at a desired answer, prompting the user to think and respond in a certain way. Leading questions can result in biased or false answers, and may prevent you from uncovering valuable new insights—so avoid them at all costs when conducting user interviews!

To stick with the language-learning app example, let’s imagine you want to find out what approaches people take to learning a new language. You could ask “What apps do you use to learn a new language?” However, this assumes that they do use language-learning apps, and steers them to focus their answer purely on apps. A more open, non-leading question might be “Can you talk me through your approach to learning a new language?”

Preparing your questions in advance will help to avoid unintentionally leading the user during the interview. Try to prepare more questions than you think you’ll have time to ask, and have some follow-up phrases ready, too. You can prompt the user to elaborate by saying things like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Can you explain this in more detail?”

While writing your interview questions, it’s also a good idea to prepare a brief opening statement. This can be as simple as a few lines introducing yourself and explaining the purpose of the interview. For example:

“Hi, I’m Jaye. I’m conducting research as part of my project to design a language-learning app, and I’d like to ask you some questions about your experience of learning a new language. You don’t have to answer any questions you’re not comfortable with, and there are no right or wrong answers! Do you have any questions before we begin?…OK, let’s make a start.”

This is a nice way to ease the user in and give them an opportunity to ask any questions. Your opening statement is also a good time to ask for permission to record the interview, although it’s worth informing your participants of this in advance, too.

So far, you’ve got a clear research goal, a handful of participants, a suitable location, and a good set of open, non-leading questions. All that remains is to schedule your interviews! If you’re looking for a handy scheduling app to help with this, refer back to our tools list in the previous tutorial.

4. Tips and best practices for effective user interviews

The most successful user interviews are those where the participant feels at ease and is comfortable enough to talk openly, giving you, the researcher, those valuable insights you need. Taking up the role of interviewer can be tricky at first, so we’ve outlined some tips and best practices to help ensure your interviews run smoothly.

  1. Make the user feel heard. As the interview facilitator, it’s important to engage with the interviewee and really listen to what they’re saying. Make frequent eye contact, nod along, and acknowledge their answers. Avoid taking extensive notes—this is extremely distracting for both you and your research participant. Let the recorder do its job while you give the user your undivided attention; they’ll feel much more comfortable. 

  2. Take your time. If the interview feels rushed, you won’t get the kind of long, detailed answers that you need. Allow the user plenty of time to think about each question, and don’t be afraid of short silences. While it’s tempting to break the silence by repeating the question, you’ll just be putting the interviewee under pressure, so hold back if you can.
  3. Avoid industry jargon. Don’t assume that the person you’re interviewing will be familiar with UX terms. For most people, words like “user flow” and “information architecture” don’t mean anything, so keep your interview questions jargon-free.
  4. Debrief the interviewee. Once the interview is over, it’s important to debrief the participant. Thank them for their time and ask them if they have any questions or anything else they’d like to add. A quick, general chat at the end may reveal further insights that didn’t come up during the session. Finally, let them know what you’ll do with their interview and how you plan to use it. 

User interviews may feel awkward at first, but you’ll find that practice makes perfect. Over time, you’ll get a feel for what works best and start to develop your own interviewing style. If you’re new to the world of user interviews, it’s worth practicing with friends and colleagues before the real thing.

5. Practical exercise

That brings us to the end of tutorial five, which means it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice.

One of the key points covered in today’s lesson was the art of writing open, non-leading interview questions. Based on what you’ve learned, can you rewrite the following questions, making them suitable for a user interview? Remember: The trick is to formulate your questions in such a way that encourages the interviewee to elaborate, without biasing their answers.

  1. Do you like listening to music via streaming services?
  2. What are your favorite music apps? 
  3. What annoys you the most when online shopping?
  4. Do you use your smartphone for banking? 
  5. Would you recommend wearing a fitness tracker?

The kind of insights you gather from your user interviews will largely depend on how you formulate your questions, so this exercise should serve as good practice. For more interview question inspiration, take a look at these user interview example questions.

It’s a wrap!

Today we’ve established a clear step-by-step guide to conducting user interviews. In the next tutorial, we’ll take an in-depth look at card sorting—another extremely popular user research technique. See you then!

If you’d like to learn more about user interviews for UX, check out the following:

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