How to run a Design Research Interview

Matt Cooper-Wright
Jun 19, 2015 · 6 min read

Rules to live by when
interviewing participants

There are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when interviewing participants in a one-on-one interview. The in-depth and quantitative approach to research is all about getting to know individuals in detail, finding nuance and ultimately getting inspired to design better things for people.

I’ll assume that you’ve lined up someone to talk to, and you have a design challenge that is guiding your questions. Perhaps you’ve got a set of questions prepared, or maybe you’re still developing your script or discussion guide.

So, what should you think about when running your interview?

Start broad

Give you and your participants time to get comfortable with the format of the interview. Open the discussion with broad questions, you’ll narrow in later.

Where do you live, what do you do for a living, what are your hobbies.

Not only do questions like this put people at ease, they will also reveal areas for further questioning. If you’re talking to a professional ask them about their role and responsibilities, ask them what they did yesterday. If they say “yesterday wasn’t very typical”, that’s great. Ask them how it was different and ask them why it was different.

The world through your participant’s eyes

It’s vital to put aside your perceptions and biases when talking to people, you want to see the world though their eyes. This isn’t easy. It’s natural to want to fill the gaps in understanding when you talk to people — this is good behaviour in a conversation, but an interview isn’t a conversation. Hold back, don’t finish their sentences, let them explain themselves.

Whatever you do, don’t correct them. If they say something you disagree with or think is wrong note it down, but don’t set them straight. These gaps and misunderstanding are opportunities for design.

Ask open ended questions

If your questions can be answered either yes, or no, they aren’t working hard enough. It’s tougher than it sounds to ask open ended questions, but it’s a skill that can be improved with practice.

Learn more about how to structure questions on my other article: The Importance of How and Why in this Design Research Methods collection.

You’re just designer,
the participant is the expert

Your interviewing someone because you need their help. They are experts, they have more knowledge than you, remember this at all times.

You are just the designer.

Try not to lead the conversation and hold back the temptation to suggest answers Each interview is the fuel for your design process and you should treat each answer as a valuable resource. When you have this mindset suddenly everyone is very interesting.

Interview with a partner

We tend to interview in pairs, with one person leading the questions and the second taking notes. While it’s possible to take notes and ask questions, it’s difficult and the conversation will be fractured as you stop to scribble things down. It’s impossible to maintain eye contact if you’re head’s in your notebook, and eye contact is vital to building a raport. You’re also more likely to pick up on nuanced body language.

If you’re in the secondary note-taking role you should be capturing quotes, facts and ideas. You should be writing everything you hear. If you have a specific question you should certainly ask it, it will give the interviewer a chance to regroup.

Two interviewers (one questioner and one note-taker) and one participant works very well. A ratio of more that 3:1 interviewers to participants runs the risk of making them uncomfortable. If you have three interviewers have one sit further back and ask minimal questions.

No laptops, iPads or iPhones

Technology in interviews can be a huge barrier. Apart from the fact that a laptop is literally a barrier between you and the participant, iPhones and iPads send subconscious signals that you’re mutlitasking. Even if you’re not.

Equally your digital devices will be buzzing and bleeping with notifications which are distracting and can throw people off.

Never respond to a text message or phone call. Apart from being very rude, it again signals that there are more important things than the interview, which should never be the case.

Photos and audio recording, with consent

In contrast to the previous point, documenting session with photos and audio recording can work when the participant gives consent. When you hold an in-depth interview in someone’s home or workplace they will often show objects to illustrate an answer, ask permission and take a quick photo to help you remember it.

Audio can be useful if you want to be sure that you’re capturing everything, but try to keep it out of the way. Most participants are comfortable with a dictaphone or and iPhone acting as a recorder.

Lean on your discussion guide

You should prepare your questions in advance in the form of a discussion guide or script. This will help you structure the discussion and make sure you cover the areas you need to.

It can help keep you on time too: if you’re still on the first question after 15 minutes it’s probably time to move things along.

It’s difficult to lead a discussion, come up with questions and be responding to a participants questions at the same time. The discussion guide should mean you spend less time thinking up questions.

Build in activities

There many ways to involve an ‘activity’ into an interview, we ask people to draw what they’re thinking or to sort a list of features based on their priorities (see card sort exercise). A physical activity can be a good change of pace in an interview, it also often reveals things you might not have planned for.

As an example, if you were asking a participant to sort a list of features for a new app, make sure you have blank cards so they can add features you might not have thought of yourself.

Accompanying people during their daily routine can also reveal a lot. If you’re designing something in the world of retail see if you can go shopping with someone. They’ll reveal much more than they would in an interview when they are in a different context.

Get comfortable with silence

The final point is one of the hardest.

Your conversational instincts will make you want to fill the awkward gaps between questions and answers. But hold back. Leaving space for the participant to fill often reveals a lot. It’s in these gaps that people reflect on their instinctive response, they question their own answer and sometimes give a more honest reply.

This is definitely a skill to refine. I often pretend to take notes for a few seconds longer than is comfortable. Just as you sense the uncomfortable gap, they will too. Most people feel the gap and fill it themselves. Let them.

Good luck with your interview!

Design Research Methods

Matt Cooper-Wright

Written by

Design Director @ideo, Industry Leader @hyperisland, mentor @techstars, ask me about: Interaction Design, Data in the design process and Design Research.

Design Research Methods

Practical steps to do great Design Research

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