5 Tips for Interviewing Users

Moderation and interviewing are hard. Bloody hard. Conversations in life can be difficult enough, but it’s especially difficult when you need to build rapport with people you’ve never met before from all walks of life and in the space of an hour. I interviewed over 160 people in my last role alone and yet some user testing sessions still do not go as planned. Asking the right questions, in the right way, keeping the conversation flowing and not being creepy can be overwhelming. Even after your 200th user.

1. Make a good first impression

So, let’s start from the beginning. Moderation starts the very moment you meet your participant. Their first impression needs to be positive, otherwise your session is going to be awkward. Don’t skip the small talk and ask meaningful and sincere questions. Start before they’re even in the testing room. Make sure they’re comfortable, offer them a refreshment and give them time to settle in. If you have an interesting office, why not offer them a quick tour? Asking questions about their travel provides you with an opportunity to appreciate and thank them for making the effort.

2. Learn your welcome spiel off by heart

Now let’s imagine you have your user in the room and you’re ready to begin the session. You’ve done the small talk and you need to get into the flow of the scenario. The easiest way to do this is to know your introduction off by heart. Knowing what you’re saying puts you at ease, makes you look confident and that you know what you’re doing.

After you’ve done the same spiel a few times it becomes second nature; you don’t even have to think about what to say. You can then use this time to plan what to say next that’s related to the testing.

3. Use small talk to make tasks realistic

Getting time with users is expensive, so you want to make sure they user is as emotionally invested into the scenario as possible. During introductions listen out for things that they say like “partner”, “I travel with my dog” or “I need to buy a birthday present for my niece”. Use these variables in your scenarios to make the tasks more realistic. Here are a few tasks which you could change given what your user’s telling you:

Generic task: Could you show me how you would find a gift on this site?

User specific task: Could you show me how you would find a gift for your niece, on this site?

Generic task: Could you show me how you would share this page with a friend?

User specific task: Could you show me how you would share this page with your partner?

Generic task: Could you show me how you would find a hotel room?

User specific task: Could you show me how you would find a pet-friendly hotel?

This provides personal motivation to complete the task. It’s a God send when a user arrives actually needing to do what you’re asking of them in real life. So, use this information in your tasks to make them more meaningful.

4. Keep questions open, non-leading and neutral

My next piece of advice to keeping conversations flowing is by asking open, non-leading and neutral questions. Poorly worded questions can quickly alienate someone, make them think they’re not being helpful or they’re different to the other people you must have interviewed before them.

Open questions are great because they provide room for interpretation and users can’t simply answer with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. You get so much more information this way, which enables you to keep the conversation flowing and probe further. Answer these questions yourself with the bare minimum information possible and see which gives you the most insights.

“Do you buy clothes on a mobile?” [closed]

“Tell me how you shop?” [open]

If users then say they buy clothes themselves, then hone in on asking “How do you buy clothes?”.

Users are people pleasers. The whole reason they’re with you in the first place is to be helpful (incentives helps too). They will try to bend their truth to any assumptions if that’s what they think will give you the answers you want. Leading questions are the ones where assumptions start to sneak in your questions which can impact how your user answers.

“How do you use Amazon on a mobile?” — unless the user said they use the Amazon app on mobile, then including it in the question is an assumption

Asking “Which devices do you use Amazon?” allows you to explore mobile, TV, tablet — so many more devices!

5. Pause for 3 seconds after replies

My last trick is a goldmine when it comes to getting amazing tidbits from users. You’ve got to remember that users don’t naturally talk through their actions, so they’re not used to it. Plus train of thoughts are never linear. You stop talking and realise you have something else to say. We’ve all thought of the comeback to end all comebacks 10 hours after the situation. It’s the same with your user. Every time they finish a sentence, wait. Just pause for 3 seconds to allow them to collect their own thoughts. Even if they’re looking at you for the next question. Sometimes it’ll be awkward because they’re genuinely done. But learning to read people comes with experience of meeting different types of people and it’ll be easier.


But if you take one thing away from this blog, it should be this. Remember you are a human. Yes, you are a researcher but you are a human being first. The same goes for your user. The word user arguably removes the empathy that we try so hard to build. The reality is users are weird and the realities of being a researcher need to said more often. Users will need to dash out to the toilet, arrive sick, say nothing or say everything. They’ll be excitable or bored, maybe even drunk or possessed. These tricks of making a good first impression or asking the right questions are just the beginning.


Originally published at echesters.co.uk on January 31, 2018.