The Real World of Interviewing Users

Casey Hald
May 25, 2017 · 8 min read
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“ … I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you...” ~ Neo (before seemingly blasting off into space without considering the implications of a human randomly flying off out of a phone booth, most likely scaring the shit out of a bunch of people).

Cue Rage Against the Machine.

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Alright, so what I’m about to tell you is the truth; the truth about interviewing users in an actual work environment…

and also shamelessly stealing knowledge from Steve Portigal.

Okay, maybe I stole a lot of knowledge from Steve, so you should totally buy his book!!1!

Now that we got that out of the way, I want to tell you immediately that I don’t always get the chance to interview our users. I am very fortunate to be on a team full of badasses that are much more adept at conducting user interviews than I. Also working completely remote for four years makes you lose some social skills, so I’m best behind a keyboard building prototypes and steering clear from the general public if at all possible.

But — just like the real world — that’s not how everything always pans out.

Priorities change. Projects drop. Fire drills happen. Coffee gets spilled on your lap. You get switched to multiple projects where the only user stories are a series of emails ending with; “…By the way, this is needed by the end of the month. Did I say month? I meant week. ASAP. Thanks!” And before you know it you end up with a couple user interviews on your lap.

Real companies won’t just let you perform a single variation of your job without assisting in fire drills, because frankly, that’s not how the real world works. Your team is your greatest asset, and they will most likely help you out when you need it—so it’s your responsibility to help them out as well, which may not always be a task that is in your forte, so to speak.

Interviewing users can seem scary, but it really shouldn’t be. There’s no better information you can acquire than from the very users that interact with your company’s products as part of their daily job. It should be an amazing opportunity to learn everything wrong (and everything right) that’s going on with your product.

So, anyway—This is for you; procrastinating your real work to read this silly medium article. Here are some things I learned about conducting user interviews.

Shut the hell up

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It’s hard not to say something when you see a user falsely navigating your prototype. It’s even harder when you witness the cursor orbiting the very button you simply need them to push.

You think since that’s only one of two buttons on the entire layout that there’s a fair chance they’re going to click the button—the button that saves you from head-butting your expensive thunderbolt monitor and flipping your desk like the Hulk flips a car.

But, alas—they don’t click the button, and you’re left with existential dread and the thousand yard stare.

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Alright, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but everything in your power is going to make you want to say something, or at least hint them to the right direction.


If they’ve lost track of what they’re doing or where they are in your prototype, there’s probably a reason for it.

Design is a fickle thing. Sometimes just when you think you’ve made something simple and direct enough that you charge into user interviews with blind confidence, and become baffled when your user becomes hopelessly lost.

Every moment in a user interview is a teachable moment. Write down where the user gets lost, and afterward go back to the board and iterate.

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  • Maybe you placed the button in a spot that isn’t apparent enough.
  • Maybe the button isn’t the focal point of the design.
  • Maybe your button doesn’t look like a button.
  • Maybe you didn’t use a good call-to-action as the button’s value.

Whatever the case may be, the user could not execute the goal, and whether or not you think of their capability, they are still a user—and in the world of design, everything you do should be in favor of the user.

Ask Questions

It’s not enough to just shut the hell up, either. There’s a thing about being too quiet as well. You don’t want the user to think you’re not paying attention, because remember; you asked them to blindly click around your prototype, when they could be using that time in their day to get work done, or walk their dog, or watch Judge Judy—anything but click around a seemingly ambiguous buggy prototype. No one wants to feel like a mouse in a science experiment.

The best way to show them you’re engaged is to ask meaningful questions.

Ask things like;

“I noticed you couldn’t find what you were looking for, what did you expect to happen next?”


“What do you think happens here?”

Asking questions is the best way to show the user that you are indeed paying attention and engaging with them. Asking questions can also follow up to other insights about your design that you maybe didn’t consider initially when you set up the design interview.

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It can seem obvious to be prepared beforehand, but trust me, user interviews can easily go astray from the original goal.

You want to prepare a script for yourself.

You don’t want to just start the interview right away without first introducing yourself and what you do for your company. Remember you’re not just representing your design to the client—you’re representing your company as well. Have your introduction in your script, but please make sure the client can’t see it. You don’t want to seem crazy like you need to remind yourself daily who you are and what you do for a living.

Ask them about themselves. See what it is they do in their day to day job. See what their current gripes are. Get a sense for their attitude.

See if they can guess why it is you’re interviewing them about your product. Maybe they have some hidden insights that you haven’t even considered yet.

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  • What do their coworkers think about their jobs. Remind them they can be honest.
  • Ask them what they think of their time management, and where they spend most of their time performing their job.
  • See what it is that makes their job a pleasant place to work.

Thank them for their time in the beginning, and let them know that their feedback is invaluable, good or bad. Make the user feel comfortable to say whatever is on their mind.


If you don’t remember anything else, remember to record your interview with the client, regardless if it’s in-person or over a conference call. Yeah, you can take notes, but recording the session in it’s entirety is paramount to making your user interviews as useful as possible.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to old user interviews to find out why something just doesn’t seem right in a design I’m working on.

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If you need to add some fuel to the fire to make the argument that more time needs to be spent on a certain design or feature, break out some old interviews and use them as ammo when talking to higher-ups. Nothing makes big-wigs listen better than hearing what their clients have to say, because at the end of the day, clients are what bring in the $$$.

Make sure to inventory the good feedback as well.

On top of the subject of making your superiors listen to you, nothing motivates them more than hearing good feedback from clients.

Good client feedback is the ultimate validation for any designer.

Want a raise or move up the ladder or make your department look amazing? Keep an inventory of the good things clients have said about your designs.

The reality is, though, no company spends enough adequate time interviewing users.

Departments like to work off of assumptions because in their mind, time is money—and time spent interviewing users instead of creating content is time wasted.

When deadlines are tight and fires are lit, no one up the ladder cares to invest more time conducting user interviews. Everyone wants to meet their timelines, regardless the implication of how they do it. It’s just a reality of business.

Sure, we can all pretend that everyone wants to just interview users all day every day to make sure our designs perform the way we expect, but to convince your company to spend it’s resources on what they sometimes see as a tertiary task can be difficult to say the least.

They say a picture says a thousand words, which could be thought of as a design mock-up, but I think user’s feedback says one-hundred thousand words about your design.

It’s all of our jobs to make user interviews as paramount to the design process as creating prototypes, or mockups, or sending cat gifs to coworkers, or this silly-ass Keanu Reeves video.

❤ ~ @caseyhald

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