6 tips for effective user interviews

Getting quality, unbiased insights from user interviews can be tricky. These tips will help you get a bit more out of research sessions.

We UX designers can be a funny bunch.

We’re always banging on about audience needs. We often call ourselves ‘the voice of the user’.

And yet, most of us rarely take enough time to speak with these people. You know, the ones actually using our stuff.

Mind you, I’m not excluding myself from this.

The opportunities I get to speak to users always seem few and far between.

  • Perhaps the client has a tiny budget?
  • Maybe we’re on a tight deadline, with limited research time?
  • Are the audience super niche, and hard to track down?
  • Or it could it be that I’m just “far too busy”?

Whatever the excuse, opportunities to have in-depth conversations with users are rare.

This means they’re also really precious.

When we do get the chance to interview users, we’ve got to get the most out of them.

Effective interviews are a bit of a learned art. It takes a certain mindset. Here are six tips I’ve developed to get a bit more out of my user interviews.

1. Know who you’re talking to.

In UX, context is always king.

Who a person is can have a big effect on the information they give you. Different users have different priorities. Understanding the background to these is important.

Let’s say we’re designing a company intranet. We might interview different users across the organisation, asking what they think the most important feature should be.

  • Someone in IT might say it’s requesting tech support.
  • Someone in legal might say it’s getting policy information.
  • Someone in marketing might say it’s booking a meeting room.

And so on.

Understanding a person’s background gives some context for the answers they’ll give later.

Open every interview by asking who the person is. Understand their relationship with the product or service you’re designing, before diving into specifics.

Take time to figure out who you’re talking to so you can ask better questions, and understand the answers.

2. Make yourself impartial.

Contrary to most news reports, people really are very nice.

When a user is willing to give up their time for an interview, it means they want to help you out.

They’re eager to please.

That’s very lovely, but it can be a problem.

When users are worried about hurting your feelings, they might not answer questions honestly. This is especially true if you’re talking about a product or service that already exists. Users may not reveal issues that have been driving them nuts, because they don’t want to upset you.

From the outset, position yourself as being impartial.

When I open the interview, I make a point of introducing myself as “an outsider, coming in with a fresh pair of eyes”. I explain that I’ve not been involved in the design of the current product. This means they don’t need to worry about hurting my feelings.

I say this even if it’s not quite true. It’s a little white lie.

It removes the risk that users will hold back to try and please me. That sort of thing might be good for my ego, but it’s not going to give me the insights I need.

3. Remember the ‘five whys’.

This is a classic interview technique. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘irritating toddler’ method.

The five whys are :

  1. Why?
  2. Why?
  3. Why?
  4. Why?
  5. Why?

Asked in that order.

Basically, we keep asking ‘why’ until we drill down to the root cause of a problem.

  1. “The meeting room booking system is terrible”. Why?
  2. “It’s always saying that the meeting rooms are full, when they’re actually empty”. Why?
  3. “Everyone books meeting rooms, but doesn’t actually show up”. Why?
  4. “Because meetings often come up at the last minute. People want to have a room ready - even if they don’t end up using it”. Why?
  5. “Because there’s no penalty, so you might as well book… or someone else will!”.

And now we understand.

When asked, people will initially answer in broad and superficial ways.

By repeatedly asking why, we force the user to take a step back from problem. Eventually, we get to the cause. This is much more useful for us as designers, so we can plan a solution.

4. Use the power of silence.

This is a slightly devious use of social psychology… But hey, it works.

Silence is a powerful tool when used correctly.

We humans are social creatures. We’re trained to fill silences. When conversation comes to a halt the weight of silence can feel unbearable.

Use it to your advantage.

Users will often give you broad or open-ended answers. If you’re too quick to ask for clarity, you may rob the question of it’s impact or (worse still) put words in the user’s mouth.

Instead, try pausing for a little while. Leave a few seconds of silence after they finish answering. It might encourage them to dig a little deeper, and share something else with you.

5. Avoid leading questions.

This one I can’t stress enough.

We can all fall guilty of confirmation bias. It’s the biggest danger in all user research.

Confirmation bias is when we seek to confirm our existing beliefs. Whether consciously or not, our biases creep into our questioning. They influence answers, to avoid any unexpected curve-balls.

This kind of behaviour is only natural.

In our brains we’ve already started forming potential design solutions. It’s much easier to have these validated than go back to the drawing board.

Leading questions subtly prompt the user to answer in a specific way.

What are the biggest issues with the meeting room booking system?

By suggesting there’s a problem with the meeting room booking system, we’ve already planted a seed in their minds. We’re prompting them to focus on criticism, and making them aware of how we want them to think.

Leading questions aren’t just unethical. They’ll give you bad information in the long run. This can take you down the wrong track in your design, and result in the wrong solution.

What do you think about the meeting room booking system?

That’s a bit better. Remember that even things like your tone and body language carry implications, and can lead people. Try to stay as neutral and stoic as possible.

Keep questions free of judgement. Remove biases, and don’t lead users to a specific answer.

6. Listen, don’t talk.

You’re here to interview the user. It’s all about them.

For egotistical maniacs like me, it can be tricky to stay quiet. Users could say something provocative, and you’ll instinctively want to leap on it. To make your own comment agreeing (or disagreeing) with what they’ve said. You must resist!

Don’t hijack the interview to talk about your own opinions. You can do that on your own time.

This session is all about being attentive. Really listen to what the user has to say.

Concentrate and pay attention. You’re gaining information when you listen, and add nothing by filling the session with your own opinions.

Effective user interviewing takes practice and discipline - but it’s not rocket science. Be mindful of these tips in your next interview. I promise you’ll notice the benefits in your findings.

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer who heads up Just UX Design

Chris Myhill

Chris heads up Just UX Design with 10 years of experience creating digital products and managing design teams.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

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