Actionable Tips to Unearth User Insight Gems

The hard-learned tips that would’ve made a better product, faster.

Every user has valuable insights to share. It’s your job to help unearth those gems.
There’s a skill chasm between how well you think you run a user interview vs how you actually run a user interview.

I had dozens of saved audio files, all 20–40 minutes long. I didn’t want to listen and transcribe them since it’d take forever. But one day, I decided to start binge listening to my own interviews. And I discovered a ton of points for improvement.

My Insights

My takeaways may be differ from your own, so I highly, highly encourage you to sit down, listen to your interviews, and really think about how to improve them. With that said, here’s the insights I’ve rediscovered from reviewing my own experiences.

Pre-Interview Preparation

General Ground Rules

  1. Empathy: If your interviewee doesn’t feel like you care, then they won’t BE HONEST with you. And you won’t get the insights you need. Think user first.
  2. Body Language: Exercising body language can be a powerful way to show you care and build empathy. Nodding, leaning in, and movement mimicry demonstrate you CARE about your interviewee.
  3. “Foot-in-the-door” principle. Generate easy questions, then ramp up the question difficulty. Build trust and rapport before asking difficult questions. (“So what do you do on a day to day basis?” is easier to answer than “What’s your biggest frustration with your analytics software?”)
  4. Risk Identification: Identify your biggest source of risk and generate questions to tackle it.

Coming up with Questions

  1. Question Audit: Determine if you ask as many open ended questions as you think you do. We have a bias to underestimate this number.
  2. Avoid Leading Questions: Anchoring open-ended questions will create biased responses and potentially faulty data. (“What are scenarios you feel a little uncomfortable in, for example, the office, the lunch room, etc.”)
  3. Use their words: Review commonly used phrases from previous interviews and incorporate those into your questions. People give better answers when your language resonates with them. (Case study: interviewees reacted better to the words expectations and assumptions than misconceptions)
  4. Concrete Questions: Avoid aspirational/hypothetical questions. People answer with what their ideal self does. Go for concrete questions embedded in experience. This gives you what they actually did. (“How do you generally use X” -> When was the last time you use X? Can you walk me through your experience?”)
  5. Break down themes: Identify your question themes and break them into manageable sub-questions. (“Why do you shop online?” = vague answers — > “What were the last items you bought online?” = more specific content)
  6. New Perspectives: Question phrasing and reframing can impact the quality of response you receive. (“What does this enable you to do” vs “Was there anything you couldn’t do before that you can now”)

In the Midst of Action

Frameworks to Discover Insights

  1. Feature Request Abstraction: Identify feature requests and follow up on their importance. This prevents you from wasting time building the wrong features. (I really want an export to excel feature. Why? Because I want to use excel to sort the prices…etc.)
  2. Finding Inconsistencies: Seek inconsistencies between what people do and say. These indicate gaps where you can provide value. (“I want to buy new clothes BUT they’re too expensive right now.”)
  3. Problem Mapping: Always seek out the origin of a problem with WHEN did you first notice this was a problem? This provides you valuable context. (“When did you first starting noticing X was a problem? What steps did you take to resolve it?”)
  4. Push + Pull: Incorporate “push + pull” into the interview to really understand a interviewee’s fears, motivations, desires, and other strong emotions. (“What are the consequences of X? How would you life be improved if X were solved?”)
  5. Compare/Contrast: Use the principle of compare/contrast to understand trade-offs. That way you understand what people truly value.(“How does X compare to Z?…Oh, so X is faster and easier to use but more expensive, so you chose X because it was more affordable?…)
  6. Launch Points: Leverage their shared problem examples as a launch point to find similar problems. Ah, so you mentioned X is a problem. Any other instances X is a problem?

Tactics to Clarify Meaning

  1. Clarify Definitions: Clarify adjective definitions into functional design specifications. This informs design. (Easy? What’s an example of an app you find easy to use?)
  2. Summarize: Summarize to clarify and confirm interviewee motivations if you’re uncertain. But don’t overuse or it sounds like you’re not listening. (“So X is important because of Y?”)
  3. Provoke: Provoke the interviewee by summarizing motivations (slightly) incorrectly to find unexpected insights. (“So X is important because of Z?…Oh, so it’s important because of more Y and less Z”)
  4. Question Follow-Up: You can ask close-ended questions, IF you follow up with them.
  5. Question Follow-Up: You can ask biased questions, IF you follow up with them. (“What do you most dislike about X? … Got it, so what are the consequences of X? …. None really?”)
  6. Dig Deep: Dig deeper into the root reasons with the 5 WHYS. (I personally believe “WHY” is difficult to answer. I reframe WHYs with WHATs. EG “Why do you shop online” -> “What do you shop online for” Then you can reverse engineer why they shop online.)

Fallbacks when you run out of questions

  1. Bread Crumbs: Follow the bread crumb trail of emotionally charged words. Emotional words indicate areas people really care about. (“So you LOVE when you finish that workflow? What makes you LOVE finishing that workflow?)
  2. Different Perspectives: Leverage different perspectives with 5 Ws and H to keep things going. (“When did you?… What did you?… How did you?…”)

Extra Tips

Things NOT to do

  1. No Hypotheticals: Don’t ask them to hypothesize about other people’s actions or how systems they’re unfamiliar with work. You’ll get made-up answers. (NO: “So how do you think X works?” if they haven’t worked with X)
  2. No two-in-one: Never ask 2 questions in one question. Make it easy on the interviewee. (“So what’s your favorite part about this and what makes this better than X?” -> “So what’s your favorite part?… What makes this better than X?”)

Small tricks to get extra bit of insight

  1. Silence: Create an uncomfortable silence to encourage more interviewee sharing by waiting 2–3s. People will feel compelled to share more to break the silence.
  2. New Leads: Near the end, ask “Is there anyone else you recommend I speak to?” You’ll often get new leads for interviews.
  3. The Catch-All: Ask “Is there anything I should’ve asked but didn’t?” at the end as well. If you’ve missed something important, the interviewee will speak up.
  4. Always Find the Gems: Don’t assume you know everything. Every interview has something new…if you really listen.

That’s it for now! Hopefully one of these tips will provide you some inspiration to try something new. Test them out, mix and match, and really empathize with your users.


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