The Ins & Outs of Remote User Interviews

The Goal

A user interview is one of the most crucial design research methods where a researcher asks one user about a topic of interest with the goal of deep learning about that topic from that user’s specific perspective. Since user interviews are one-on-one sessions, the key is to practice active listening and let the user’s insights guide your research.

Here is how it works:

  1. Center your problem & stakeholders to set a goal for the interview
  2. Prepare an interview guide with open-ended questions.
  3. Write a formal message to be distributed to potential participants (optional: make a flyer of your team so people can put a face & background to the names)
  4. Create personal connections and ensure participants understand the expectations with pre-interviews and email communication.
  5. Schedule your meeting ahead of time and send the invitation to the group members as well as the interviewee.
  6. Come to the interview 5–10 minutes early to open up the virtual room.
  7. Have good lighting with no distractions in the background.
  8. Make the user feel heard and seen by taking notes, nodding, frequent eye contact, open body language, sitting up straight, and offer acknowledgments, and repeating the words the interviewee has mentioned.
  9. Be authentic. Show empathy by asking related and follow-up questions.
  10. Do playback the interview and write down insights on stickies right after the interview.
An example of an interview guide my design capstone class did for three different stakeholder groups.

Tools Utilized

Remote user interviews are typically conducted by at least two people in the team with video chatting tools like Zoom and Google Meet. These tools have allowed users and interviewers to both be present and share their screens as necessary to the interview flow. For notes recording, you can use any note-taking tool ranging from pen and paper to typing on Google Docs, but it is crucial for you to transfer the notes to stickies either with the physical sticky notes or a virtual tool like Miro/Mural.

An example of my design capstone team’s playback using Miro stickies for an interview we conducted
An example of my design capstone team’s playback using Miro stickies to form and organize insights from an interview we conducted.

Advantages:

Some benefits to conducting virtual interviews include:

Diversity → Virtual interviews allow for a more diverse pool of participants by giving us access to non-local populations.

Convenience → Remote interviews require less of a time commitment on behalf of participants and allow more time for the actual interviewing.

Disadvantages:

Some setbacks to conducting virtual interviews include:

Unpredictability → There are many things that could go wrong with technology, especially when tools like Zoom and Wi-Fi can become overloaded and slow during the pandemic

Disconnection → Non-verbal cues and body language might get lost in translation. Trust and personal connection might be harder to be established over video conferencing.

Why Do User Interviews?

Interviews unlock insights into what the users think and feel about any specific subject (e.g. a process, an app, a product, a setting). They are incredibly helpful in the sense of providing an in-depth narrative of how they interact with the world around them, pointing out what is working or not working for them, and giving ideas for improvements. I recommend using user interviews in the following situations:

  • Exploration Phase: before you have a design, to inform personas, journey maps, problem statements, pain points, and workflow ideas
  • Enrichment Phase: to gain a deeper contextual understanding
  • Ending Phase: at the very end of the design process where you want to learn how you can improve on an ideated prototype or product

Recommendations:

There are notable challenges in conducting research remotely, but there are also exciting opportunities to be explored. As researchers, we need to be flexible and creative while maintaining the integrity of the interviewing process. It is critical that we can utilize technology to its fullest potential to unlock human insights by understanding the nuances of remote interviews.

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