What is it?

A user interview involves a study administrator asking questions and a notetaker recording responses from users. They are largely used to examine the user motivations, thoughts, and their point of view. When conducting interviews, you will also be able to read body language and ask for further clarification when needed.

Purpose of user interviews

User interviews are a great way to capture your participant’s thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and motivations based on what they say. When taking notes you will want to identify:

  • what was memorable to the user
  • motivations
  • triggers that led to the decisions that were made
  • senses: what the user thought, heard, felt, saw, smelt, said
  • pain points (what the user struggled with)
  • successes
  • themes and patterns
  • quotes and anecdotal stories
  • body language

Planning your interviews

Leading up to the day of the interviews, you will need to think about what users you want to focus on and how many interviews you need to conduct.

You will need to prepare a script with the different questions you want to ask and estimate how long you think the interview will last. When writing your interview script, here are some helpful tips:

  • have clear roles and responsibilities for everyone. Each member participating in user research will have specific roles and responsibilities.
  • explain why you are doing the interview. Introduce yourself and the team prior to starting the interview, explain the purpose of the interview, and what you plan to do with the insights that are collected.
  • ask unbiased questions. Avoid leading questions. A good interviewer will focus on what the participant wants to express rather than leading, imposing or implying certain views onto the interviewee.
  • use the script as a guide. Having a script should only be used to help guide the conversation when necessary. A guide can help you cover all the areas necessary within the limited amount of time you have with the participant.
  • watch your time. You typically want to keep your interviews within an hour. It can be difficult for you and the interviewee to stay focused for long periods of time.
  • leave room for follow up questions. This gives you the opportunity to ask follow up questions and uncover insights that you may have forgotten to ask about.
  • leave time between interviews. Interviewing can be exhausting. They require a lot of concentration and focus on your part. Give yourself time between interviews to take a small break.

Asking questions

When designing questions to ask, it is helpful to consider user need and organize topics around the need. For example, imagine you made a new web portal for people seeking financial support. You might organize topics around:

  • point of entry: how does your user typically seek financial support services?
  • frequency of use: how often do they imagine they would use the new online service?
  • features: what do they expect to find, or expect to be able to achieve with the new tool?

There are several types of questions that can be asked during user interviews, it entirely depends on the situation and what you are seeking to get out of the interviews.The following are few questions that can help guide you.

Ask to uncover root cause

The 5 whys method. You repeatedly ask ‘why’ to reveal the root of a problem. Here’s an example of how it is used:

  • problem: people aren't adopting the new financial support system
  • why? Because people don't know it is available to them
  • why? Because people cannot seek what they do not know
  • why? Because people are overwhelmed with government paperwork that confuses them
  • why? Because their caseworkers don't have the time to explain everything
  • why? Because the caseworkers themselves are spending too much time figuring out confusing forms on behalf of the users

From this, we may wish to design more intuitive forms that help alleviate some of the confusion which is undermining program adoption.

You may ask ‘why’ for more than five times if you feel that the root cause is still not identified. However, in general, the fifth ‘why’ leads you to the root of the problem.

Ask for clarification or explanation

  • Ask for clarification. “When you refer to “that” what exactly are you referring to?”
  • Ask for specific examples. “What did you mean by ___? Could you give me an example?”
  • Ask about emotional cues. “Can I ask why you laughed when you mentioned ___?”
  • Probe directly. “You mentioned you weren’t too sure what this sentence meant. Can you tell me what you thought it meant?”
  • Probe without presuming. Avoid direct questions. For example, instead of asking “What do you think about Facebook? Or “Do you like Facebook?” ask “Some people have mixed feelings about Facebook, what is your take on Facebook?”
  • Teach another. “If you had to ask a friend to use this, how would you explain it to them?”
  • Explain to an outsider. “Let’s say I am not familiar with this product, how would you explain to me the difference between this and another similar product?”

Ask for relationships

  • Start with general questions. “How do you work with a new stakeholder group?”
  • Ask about organizational structure. “Who does the team report to?”
  • Ask about process across organization. “What happens after the script gets signed off from content team?”
  • Ask about expectations. “When you submit a draft to your manager for review, what happens after your manager reviews the draft?”

Ask for comparison

  • Compare processes. “What’s the difference between this, that and those?”
  • Compare to others. “Do other teams also do it that way?”
  • Compare across time. “How have your family photo activities changes in the past five years? How do you think they will be different 5 years from now?”

Ask for details

  • Ask about sequence. “Can you describe to me your typical workday. What do you do when walk into work?”
  • Ask about quantity. “How many forms did you have to fill out to get to what you want?”
  • Ask about frequency. “How many times did you have to call to get your question answered?”
  • Ask about lists. “What do you usually pack when you travel?” You can ask a series of questions to clarify. For example, “anything else?”
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