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Conducting User Interviews: Lessons Learned

Happy World Usability Day!

In honor of this holiday, I’m paying homage to the most important part of usability and user experience — user research! — by sharing some things I’ve learned about conducting user interviews (and stakeholder interviews).

Assemble Your User Interview Toolbox
First things first. Before a user interview, think about what kinds of things you’d want in a hypothetical user interview toolbox. What tools do you need to have honed and ready to go with you? And which things would be best left behind?

To me, the best things you can have with you during a user interview are:

  • Curiosity: a desire to understand and explore further
  • A well-developed observing ego: the ability to listen objectively without judgment
  • Concentration: the ability to be attentive (no glazed-over eyes)
  • Confidence: the ability to build trust and to make people feel comfortable with you

And the best things to leave behind during a user interview are:

  • Assumptions
  • Judgments
  • Distractions
  • Arrogance

In addition to mentally preparing with the checklist above, there are a few other personal credos I follow when interviewing.

1. Create an Interview Guide
For me, creating an interview guide serves three purposes:

  • It eases the minds of the execs in charge on the client side by showing them you are prepared, making them more comfortable with the idea of letting you talk with their people.
  • Sharing the guide (or, really, a condensed/light version of it) with interviewees prior to the interviews does a lot of work to eliminate nervousness and aversion upfront, before an interviewee gets in a room with you.
  • Creating the guides allows you to mentally prep for the session.

That being said, interviews are conversations, not interrogations. The guide is not a strict list of questions that must be asked in totality and in order. Let the interviewee’s answers guide your discussion.

2. Practice Active Listening
Active listening is listening without judgment. During interviews, I like to put on what I call my “No Judgment Face.” I try to check any emotional responses and judgment at the door and keep them from showing up on my face or in my body language. If you react emotionally to something an interviewee says, he or she will sense it, and it will affect the rest of the interview. If someone feels judged by you, that person will stop sharing.

To practice active listening, call on your “observing ego” in order to maintain a state of pure observation, rather than one of reaction:

“The observing ego is that part of the self that has no affects, engages in no actions, and makes no decisions. It functions in conflict-free states to merely witness what it sees. It is like a camera that records without judgment. It is never weighing any thought, gesture or action on the scale of right and wrong, sane or insane, good or bad.”

Your goal is to understand, not compare. Focus on displaying attention and encouragement.

3. Assume Nothing
Think you know the answer to a question? Ask anyway. You may have your own ideas about the answer, but chances are you don’t know this particular person’s perspective on what you’re asking. Encourage the interviewee by asking follow-up questions even if you think you already understand what he is saying. Create a situation where it’s obvious to the interviewee that he has valuable knowledge, and you are there so he can help you understand it.

4. Remember that Silence is Golden
There’s no such thing as an awkward silence. Silence more than likely means your interviewee is reaching for the right words to say something more, not that he is waiting for you to speak. Resist the urge to fill every break in conversations with more words. What you have to say about your opinion isn’t important right now. Ride the silent wave out. Many times, just when I’m about to move on to another question, the interviewee comes out and fills that silence with something golden. If the silence feels like it’s dragging, simply encourage the interviewee to elaborate with a little “Oh, really?” or a “Tell me more about that.”

5. Dig
The interviewee will show you the safe. It’s still your job to find out how to crack it open. How? Ask questions. Then ask lots more questions, based on those questions. Your goal isn’t to be able to simply walk away with a list of observed processes and behaviors; it’s to dig deeper and discover the why’s—the causes and the results—of those processes and behaviors.

6. Make Time to Decompress
Out of the goodness of his or her well-intentioned heart, your client contact will likely try to jam as many people as possible into your interview schedule. Fight the urge to fill up every minute of every day. You need time to decompress, review notes, and make any adjustments to your methods between each interview. And give yourself an extended break during the middle of the day to let your mind rest. Interviews are mentally exhausting. Don’t make the mistake of overcommitting yourself.

7. DO NOT Invite Client Project Leads to Interviews
What I mean is this: Do not allow your client contact (i.e., the person in charge of the initiative on the client-side) to sit in on your interviews. Along the same lines, do not put direct superiors in the same room as their employees during an interview. This construct negatively affects the interviews. A variety of things can occur: The client lead can get defensive about something the interviewee says; the interviewee may feel intimidated and not freely express himself in front of a superior; and finally, the client lead may interrupt the interviewee at key moments. There has been more than one occasion, when, just as the person I’m interviewing is about to say a great insightful quote that would be perfect qualitative support, the client lead has interrupted and finished the interviewee’s sentence, making me want to scream: “I can’t quote YOU, man! Let him finish!” If at all possible, avoid these headaches.

Further Reading
For an insightful and ultra-readable deep dive into interview methods and techniques, check out Steve Portigal’s “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights.”

Also, for more on stakeholder interviews, check out the video below where my colleague Erin Craft and I discuss the value of stakeholder interviews in person.