Get better data from user studies: 16 interviewing tips

Photo by pasukaru76

One of my favorite parts of my job is interviewing a huge variety of people about their habits, needs, attitudes, and reactions to designs. I like the challenge of quickly getting strangers to talk freely and frankly about themselves, and to try figuring out new designs and products in front of me. User research shouldn’t be like the boring market surveys they read from clipboards in the mall. Great research interviews should be like listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air — engaging and insightful. That’s what I aim for. Here are some tips and techniques that have helped me get the most out of user interviews.

1. Get into character >>>

Before I conduct usability studies and research interviews, I take a minute to consciously shift myself into my Researcher Persona. It helps me suspend my usual critical, skeptical, judgemental, know-it-all attitude, which — for some reason! — can interfere with my gathering useful info from participants. It helps me keep my interviews friendly, casual, and conversational.

2. Smile

Before I greet a research participant — even for phone interviews — I take a deep breath and smile. I want to appear friendly and welcoming from the start. Smiling makes my voice and my attitude seem friendlier and more positive. (Researchsupports my own experience.) And since smiling is contagious, participants usually smile back, improving their attitudes, too.

3. Be fascinated

Like a good host, my Researcher Persona also strives to be fascinated by whatever participants have to say. Act (and be!) eager and curious to learn as much as you can about their experiences and perspectives. Your body language and expression should reflect that. Face the person, make eye contact, don’t cross your arms and legs, look awake, don’t furrow your brow or raise your eyebrow(s).

4. Be neutral and encouraging

Try to remain neutral and encouraging. A simple “mmm hmm” or “uh huh” tells users you’re actively listening without a comment or facial expression that leads them or indicates approval or disapproval. Don’t get defensive when someone criticizes your product. (And they will criticize your product. That’s kind of the point!)

5. Don’t judge or dismiss

It’s counterproductive to judge users or to dismiss their feedback during a session (Don’t think, “This user is an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”). Your goal is to elicit as much information as possible in the time you have, and to try to understand it all from their perspective. You’ll have plenty of time later to reflect on it.

6. Build an arc

The quality of the interview and the data you’ll collect will suffer unless you put users at ease and earn their trust and confidence. From the moment you greet your interviewee, consciously invest time and energy into building rapport. Start with friendly small talk before transitioning into your interview. Start slow and easy with simple, easy-to-answer questions before delving deeper into personal experiences or more involved tasks. Then, as you approach the end of a session, make an effort to surface gradually. Like in any conversation, an abrupt ending or dismissal when time’s up can seem rude. I often take a minute to summarize a few key points from our conversation before I effusively thank (and pay) participants.

7. Ask WWWWWH questions

You’re more likely to elicit more information and better stories by asking open-ended questions that start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Lots of yes/no questions usually don’t spark great conversations. So try to avoid questions like: Would you…? Did you…? Is it…?

8. Ask follow-up questions

Don’t necessarily settle for the first answer you get. A simple well-timed follow-up question usually prompts a more thorough explanation or valuable examples. Try following up with:

  • Why? When? How?
  • What’s an example of that?
  • Silence or a complete-the-statement question (“So when that happened you. . . ?“) Few participants can resist a pregnant pause and a researcher’s curious, expectant expression.

9. When in doubt, clarify

When you’re not quite sure exactly who or what a participant was describing or referring to, ask to be sure and to avoid any misunderstanding. (“When you said ___, did you mean. . . ?”) After a session, it’s too late to go back and figure out what someone was talking about.

10. Answer questions with questions

At the beginning of usability sessions, I warn users that I’m trying to learn how they would do things, and that I’m going to try not to help them or answer their questions unless they get really stuck. Then, when they inevitably ask me questions about the product, I gently, reflect them back by asking questions like, “How do you think that would work? What else might you try? How might you get assistance to figure this out?”

11. Keep it personal and concrete

Help users avoid hypotheticals and generalizations. (“People think. .. “ “Everyone wants. . . “ “I always. . .”) Ask for recent, personal examples.

12. Watch the time

When you plan your interviews, budget your time to prioritize what you want to cover. Then obey your schedule during your interviews to make sure you cover everything you need to. But, as a good host, don’t let your interviewees see you looking at your watch or the clock. Place a clock or your phone somewhere you can glance surreptitiously. I wear my watch on the inside of my wrist so I can easily see it without making the universal “I’m bored and checking the time” gesture.

13. Don’t pitch

The goal of a research study is to observe and listen to users’ frank feedback — not to convince them your product is wonderful as is. When I’ve encountered product managers who can’t keep themselves from trying to sell users on a product, I encourage them to observe remotely.

14. Shut up and listen

Check in occasionally to confirm that you’re hearing your interviewee — and not yourself — doing most of the talking.

15. Watch facial expressions, body language, and tone (yours and theirs)

Use your non-verbal cues to make interviewees feel comfortable, interesting, helpful, and listened to. Face them, make eye contact, avoid fidgeting and crossing your arms. Focus on the conversation, and don’t scribble or type notes during the interview. Watch their body language, too. Look for changes during the session. Do they seem nervous? Tentative? Bored? If so, try restore your rapport and reassure them (“This is sooo helpful”), and check your own body language again. Don’t hesitate to ask what made them roll their eyes, sigh, laugh, frown, smirk, etc.

16. Practice!

Like any skill, your interviewing will improve with practice. Don’t worry about applying all of these techniques immediately. Just pick a few to focus on during your next interview. As those become habits, start incorporating others.

What other tips and tricks do you use in your interviews? What good techniques have you seen other researchers wield?

Michael Margolis is a user researcher and a UX Research Partner at Google Ventures.