How to conduct the perfect user interview

Experience design begins with user empathy

The thoughts, goals and opinions of users will inform the decisions and direction of a successful design project. User interviews usually take place early on in order to provide insight and enrich your personas, keeping the team closely focused throughout a project. When interviews are conducted as well as an online survey, it gives you a bigger picture plus data to complement the more detailed responses.

Talking to users may sound time consuming and costly, but to get a wealth of valuable insight, you only need to talk to a handful of people. You could use as few as 4-6, as long as they are carefully chosen to represent different segments of your audience. It’s particularly important to get a good mix of internal and external viewpoints, in order to get a balanced perspective. If you need to be flexible or save on costs consider a phone interview of video call, it doesn’t need to be face-to-face.

Consider who is asking the questions. Having someone external to your organisation running the interviews is beneficial as the participant is more likely to share honest feedback. Getting more critical comments is actually very useful for outlining problems for the project to tackle, defining a clear set of aims and generating new ideas.

Whichever way you choose to conduct them, here are some tips to get the most out of your user interviews:

Encourage openness

Starting the interviewing by ensuring confidentiality and letting the participant know that honest answers, even if they’re not positive are the most helpful.

Set the tone

You want your participant to feel as relaxed as possible in order to get full and insightful answers. Make sure you keep your language conversational and give a short introduction to yourself and the purpose of your questions. Ask them to introduce themselves and start the conversation in a relaxed way in order to build some rapport. Just thinking of it in terms of a conversation, rather than an interview, can help you set the right tone.

Ask open questions

Make sure the questions you ask are as broad and open as possible, to elicit the most useful information. Try not to encourage a yes or no answer unless of course you need to clarify a point. Ask questions that start with “Tell me about…” or “How do you..” to prompt detailed and insightful answers.

Prompt expansion

Don’t be afraid to nudge your participant to expand on their answers. Often a little bit of clarification will produce a much more meaningful response that can be fed into your user experience. Also asking them to expand might uncover areas that you had not considered when you planned your questions.

Be informed

Do some research around the relevant topic areas before you go into the interview, as this will help you to ask probing follow-up questions. You don’t need to become a subject matter expert overnight, but knowing some background will help you build trust with the interviewee.

Don’t stick to the script

You’ve written down some questions, but this doesn’t mean you have to rigidly stick to them, as this will make you sound very wooden and will stifle any natural rapport. Instead think of the questions as your guide and be flexible about asking some that might naturally arise in response to the user. As well as adding questions, you might need to skip over some, as asking something they’ve already talked about will make them think you’re not listening.

Silence is your friend

However uncomfortable it might feel, give participants time to answer and allow silences to occur if necessary – it’s often in these natural pauses that something useful is added. Don’t feel tempted to finish their sentence for them, or ask follow up questions that point them in a particular direction.

Round up by letting your participant know how helpful your conversation has been and thank them for their time. After interviewing all the participants, you'll have the insights you need to make the user-centred decisions necessary for your project to succeed.

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