10 Smart Tips for Conducting Better User Interviews

Getting the most out of user interviews is an art, not a science. Start with these 10 tips for conducting better user interviews.


Interviews are a critical tool in user research to help companies better understand what their target audience wants and to get insights about how to take their products and services to the next level. Research participants can be a wealth of knowledge and offer valuable information, but it takes some skill and practice to conduct successful user interviews.

After all, we are dealing with human beings that can be nervous, forgetful, insecure, and inarticulate, and all of these things can reduce their capacity to give you the information you want. The good news is that you can enhance your interview skills and improve your preparation to make sure your interviews are as productive as possible. Start with these 10 tips for conducting better user interviews.

1. Use Respondent to Find Quality Participants

Productive and helpful interviews start with high quality participants that are knowledgeable about the subject at hand. But how do you find these people and weed out people that just want to make a quick buck but have nothing helpful to tell you? Respondent is a powerful tool that does all the hard work of verifying and classifying research participants and then makes it easy for you to recruit a pool of candidates that have the knowledge and experience your project needs.

Are you looking for graphic designers that have extensive experience with specific software? Are you looking for Gen Z women in Texas? No problem. Respondent makes it easy to connect to the people you want to talk to and verifying that the participants are who they say they are and have the knowledge they claim to have. Once you post your project on the platform, you can even review short video intros from the participants to get a feel for the kind of insight they can offer your project.

2. Create an Interview Script

You have a limited time for each interview, so it’s important to think carefully about how you will use that time and what questions you are going to ask. The preparation that you put into writing your script will have a huge impact on the overall quality of the information that you get from your participants. Brandon Hickie, the marketing manager of pricing strategy at OpenView, advises market researchers to consider their audience and their backgrounds as they write questions. 

Questions should be engaging and use a conversational tone and avoid too much jargon or a robotic feel. Another key component of an effective interview script is to make sure all of your questions relate directly to your objectives for the project so you don’t waste time collecting irrelevant data.

3. Start with a Welcoming Intro that Explains the Project’s Goals

A good first impression during an interview is important because it is your chance to show the participant that you are a warm and trustworthy person who is open to hearing their honest opinions. Start out by introducing yourself, your role, and what you want to learn from them. Also make sure to tell participants that what they tell you will be confidential and that all information you relay to stakeholders will be anonymous. If you do plan on recording the interview, make sure you ask their permission during the intro.

Remember that this may be a participant’s first market research interview, so they might not know what to expect. If they know the basic format of the interview and the goals of the project overall, they will be more prepared to talk about their experience and what they may be looking for in the product or service you are researching.

4. Help Your Participants Feel Comfortable

Interviews can be nerve wracking even in low stakes situations when there isn’t something like a job on the line. Anxious participants aren’t as helpful as they might otherwise be, so small efforts on your part to make participants feel comfortable and at ease can go a long way towards helping you get the most of your interview.

Start by showing your participant that they are talking to an actual human by introducing yourself, using their name often, and referring back to things they said so they know you are listening. Also make sure they understand that you want to hear about their stories and their experiences, and that there are no wrong answers to your questions.

5. Ask Questions that Will Get You the Information You Want

If you’re a parent who has ever asked your kid “how was school today?” you know exactly why you should avoid asking questions that can be answered with one word. If you want to hear anything beyond “fine,” it’s important to ask open-ended questions. Jaclyn Perrone, the Design Director of thoughtbot’s Boston studio, says “ask about behaviors, not feelings. Learning that someone likes or dislikes something just because is not very helpful in your research.”

She advises asking questions that start with who, what, why, how, and when. Rather than asking someone if they would use a product, ask them when they would use the product or what kinds of situations would make them want to use a product.

6. Be Prepared with Backup Questions

Sometimes participants may have trouble remembering details about a topic you want to know about. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have good information to share, they may just need some help from you to jog their memory. Kara Pernice, senior vice president at Nielsen Norman Group, recommends preparing different versions of questions that elicit the same information in case the first question leads to “a dead end.”

She gives the example of a project that seeks to understand how people choose vacation destinations, and the participant cannot think of an answer to the prompt “Think for a few moments about when you booked a trip online.” Rather than just moving on and missing out on the information that the researcher wants to know, researchers can ask the question in a different way to help jog the participant’s memory. For example, “Can you think of any places you travelled to in the last year.”

 7. Silence Is Golden

Silence can be awkward for sure, and a common mistake of newbie interviewers is to rush participants or to move on too quickly before the participant has a chance to formulate their thoughts. Experts says that one of the most common pitfalls she sees from researchers is “filling up the silence with examples right after you ask the question.”

A researcher making this mistake might say something like: “How do you plan your monthly budget? [2-second pause] Do you use a spreadsheet? Do you use a budgeting app?” Perrone warns researchers to just ask the question and don’t add examples to fill the silence.  

 8. Let the Conversation Flow Naturally

Some of the most helpful data that comes out of interviews often happens when you just have a conversation with the participant. Don’t be afraid to go off script when you find areas to dig into. When you respond to things your participants say, ask for clarification, and compliment thoughtful responses, you will make them feel more comfortable and their ideas will flow more naturally.

9. Record Your Interviews

Influencive.com highlights several key benefits of recording your interviews. First of all, it frees you up to listen more attentively to participants and engage them in a productive conversation. If you are busy taking notes, you will be less present and less able to ask good follow-up questions that will dive into the insight the participant is offering. Plus, it is easy to miss key data that would be valuable to the project if you are relying on notes.

10. Review Your Performance

If you record your interviews, you can look back to find ways you can improve as an interviewer and see if you’re implementing best practices. Did you ask leading questions? Did you miss an opportunity to ask a follow-up question or help jog a participant’s memory? It can be hard to analyze your performance objectively in the moment, because you have other things to worry about. However, reviewing your performance as an interviewer will help you get more out of each interview.

Conclusion

Getting the most out of user interviews is an art, not a science. Every participant you interview is different and every project you work on is different, but as you gain experience implementing these strategies, you will be able to adapt on the fly. Practice makes perfect, so continue to finetune your abilities so you can get the valuable data you are looking for from everyone you interview.

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