How to salvage a “bad” user interview

You’ve formulated excellent questions, created the perfect interview guide, and practiced your “why”s. So why does this interview feel like it’s tanking?

No matter how prepared you are, not every user you speak to is going to be a forthcoming, hyper-articulate interviewee with a perfect recollection of his daily tasks and insightful, fully-formed thoughts about why he does the things he does.

It doesn’t mean you can’t learn from him. But you may need to adjust your approach. Here’s how to course-correct when you feel like an interview is going off track:

1. When it feels like you’re pulling teeth

(Yes. I don’t know. Umm…)

  • Keep them confident. Remind them there are no wrong answers and that you’re just the researcher — they can’t offend you.
  • Keep it moving. Trust your questions and be assertive. Don’t mirror their uncertainty.
  • Keep it concrete. Reference previous instances or examples that have already come up, or info from a screener or survey.
  • Keep digging. “Tell me more. What do you mean by that?”
  • Keep trying. “How would you explain this to a 5 year old?”

2. When you’re talking to a people pleaser

(Everything’s great! This is awesome!)

  • Encourage honesty. Remind them you didn’t make it. “You won’t hurt my feelings”
  • Get them back to the task at hand. If showing designs or a prototype, repeat the scenario or goal.
  • Dig deeper. Ask how or why a feature is useful, when or where it would fit into their process, or how it would change a previous scenario they’ve described.
  • Force them to prioritize (and then ask why). “If you could only have one..? If this page were loading really slowly…what would be the first thing you want to see? If you only had the budget for…”

3. When they’ve got an axe to grind

(Everything sucks.)

  • Let them vent. Be sure to time-box it.
  • And actually listen. Tell them you’ll pass it the feedback along, then refocus.
  • Stay neutral. Thank them, but don’t take sides either way.
  • Get them back to neutral. Now that they’ve mentioned negatives, ask about a positive experience they’ve had.
  • Refocus. “We value your opinion, so how about we talk about xyz.”
  • Preempt. If it’s an issue that’s been coming up a lot, acknowledge briefly at the start of the interview and say it’s being addressed.
  • End early if necessary.

4. When they’re a little spacey

(Yeah… well… so, last time… that must have been… uh… March… my sister was in town, and…)

  • Remind them of the overall objective (mentioned at beginning of interview) and why their opinion is so valuable.
  • Instill structure. “The first of 3 scenarios I want to walk you through is…”
  • Remind them the task at hand. “Remember, you’re trying to find a gift for your friend.”
  • Use body language. Glance at your notes/questions, start setting up the test…
  • Cut them off politely. “That’s really helpful. I want to switch gears to talk about X.”
  • Reference the time: “Since we only have x minutes, there are a few more things i want to get your thoughts on…”

5. When they’re not your target user

(I don’t have a smartphone. I never XYZ. That’s someone else’s job on my team.)

  • Don’t force it. Their answers will unhelpful and even misleading.
  • Make the most of it. Is there anything else you can explore that might be useful to your team, another team, a previous or upcoming sprint, etc.?
  • Cut it short if you need to. Reassure them they’ll still get their incentive. Don’t make it feel like it’s their fault.
  • Refer them to another team. (And do it!)
  • Ask for referrals. They may know someone else who is in target.

6. When they start solutioning

(You should make an app that…It would be awesome if…)

  • Ask why. Not just once! Keep asking why until you’ve gotten to the heart of the problem.
  • Ground it in specifics. Ask when and how something like that would be useful. Ask how it would change a previous scenario you’ve discussed.
  • Don’t belittle them. Encourage their thinking by probing, don’t just shut them down or tell them it’s not their job.
  • Don’t take their idea verbatim, either. It’s tempting to say “users said they wanted X,” to justify building something. Make sure you’ve dug into the why’s behind their suggestions first.

7. When you have no idea what they mean


  • Repeat what they said verbatim and pause.
  • Probe. “Tell me more about that. Is there something that makes you think that? How do you mean?”
  • Clarify. “What do you mean by XYZ? Who is Bob?”

8. When you have a million follow-up questions

(Talking so fast! So many nuggets!)

  • Don’t interrupt them (even if it’s tempting!)
  • Jot down key phrases as they’re speaking so you can bring them up again (verbatim if possible).
  • Triage. Decide what’s most important to dig deeper into now and what can wait till the end, a follow-up email, your own google search, etc.
  • Slow it down. “Just a sec. I want to make sure I captured everything you said.”
  • It’s ok to jump around a bit. “A little bit earlier you mentioned XYZ. Can you tell me more about that?”
Have more tips and tricks? Leave a comment, tweet @talisa or shoot me an email:

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