JournalMay 2015

7 best practices for better user interviews

Interviewing users can be tricky, whether it’s for market research or for usability testing. But no matter whether you do it in-person or over the interweb, there are a few rules which will help you run far better interviews. I’ve collected together the 7 best practises we’ve found most useful.

Encourage storytelling

Once you succeed in encouraging storytelling, you can get far better insights into the problems your users are facing. Storytelling allows the user to talk about her feelings—which is great for understanding her deeper motivations. The more detail she can provide, the more information you will have—and the better the design decisions you will be able to make.

Avoid a fixed set of questions

It’s a conversation, not an interrogation. Just as the best type of job interviews should be, anyway. You’re not trying to test the person—you’re trying to understand as much as possible about them. Learning how to drive a conversation and build empathy with the user is not easy. There are a lot of good examples of this in the book by David and Tom Kelley of IDEO: Creative Confidence, which talks about design thinking.

Don’t ask people what they want

There is a huge amount of literature that explains why this is a bad idea. Avoid speculative questions: they are not going to tell you much about the user’s real needs and goals. People can’t tell you what they want and they are mostly unable to spot their struggles and difficulties too. They can tell you what they are trying to achieve and what their goals are. And that’s enough for you to design solutions for their problems.

Don’t make the user a designer

Avoid asking the user to draw screens for you. If he or she suggests modification to the design, gently ask what the reason for this modification is, and what problem it would solve. This allows you to understand your user’s motivation and thought process more deeply and to figure out the best design for their needs.

Avoid leading questions

All of us have hypotheses and assumptions. These should be left far behind. You need to make sure you are not suggestive with your questions. This would result in false results, which are really harmful. Try to ask open-ended questions so you can avoid accidentally suggesting an answer.

Instead of asking “How difficult do you find it to use feature X?”, ask “What’s your impression of using feature X?”

Don’t go into too much detail

User interviews should be about the user and their goals. Going into details might sound like a good idea at first, but it will typically just lead to endless conversation. It is also the perfect way to turn the user into a designer and get them to avoid storytelling–which is exactly the opposite of what you want! Just make sure you take one step back, whenever you find yourself getting too deep into the details.

Pay attention to body language

Some people might find it hard to express themselves, so paying attention to their body language is a great idea to get more insight into how they feel. If you can recognise discomfort or tension on your user’s face, or in their body language, you can ask better questions. If you are unfamiliar with body language, I’d recommend reading The Definitive Book for Body Language, which is a great start.

Hopefully these tips will help you to run more effective interviews! If you’re looking for some deeper reading, I’d also recommend the following resources:

Photos by Orin Zebest, Jim Pennucci, Juhan Sonin, Quinn Dombrowski

Posted by
Zsolt Kocsmárszky

Zsolt was a UX designer in the team until 2017; when he co-founded Hanno’s remote user testing platform, PingPong.