7 Tips for Your Next User Interview

Jannis Hegenwald
Dec 5, 2018 · 6 min read

User interviews can be intimidating. They’re one of those design methods that seems simple but is surprisingly difficult to master. However, at their core, user interviews are just about having a good conversation. An interviewer’s main task is to ask good questions, and to make their participant feel comfortable and safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how to get the most out of interviewing users, so I figured I’d write down a few tips and tricks to share with everyone. Here are 7 simple practices that I’ve found helpful interviewing users:

1. Prepare the interview

This seems almost superfluous to mention, but it’s too important to exclude. A lot can be lost by not preparing well for an interview, regardless of how good of an interviewer you are. At the same time, you don’t need to write an entire dissertation before you conduct an interview, either. Here are three tips:

  • Define clear goals: what are you trying to learn and why? What info do you need to make your most important decision with confidence
  • Develop a conversation guide, not a protocol. An interview is rather an open-ended conversation than a Q&A session.
  • Get a partner in crime to take notes for you and record the session (video if you can).

A good indicator of your preparation is whether or not you can summarize your goals and the reasons behind them in one sentence. It’s even better if you can summarize them in layman’s terms without jargon or technical language.


2. Establish rapport

Similar to preparing the interview, establishing rapport with your participant is critical. But since people are different, there’s not one single way to build trust and open up the conversation. Generally, though, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success:

  • Before the interview, try to put yourself in a positive and curious mood. Take some time for small talk, get to know the participant, and don’t immediately rush into the interview.
  • Take your time to walk them through the setting. Explain the consent form, discuss photos and recording, and let them ask questions.
  • Set expectations about what’s going to happen. For example, you can talk about the structure of the interview, that you’ll be mostly asking them questions, but that they can also ask questions back, that there are no right or wrong answers, and that they won’t hurt your feelings by being honest. If you are conducting an in-person interview in a closed room, it’s good to remind them that they can stop the interview at any time if they feel uncomfortable or unwell.

While the heavy lifting of establishing rapport with your participant tends to happen in the beginning stages of the interview, it never really stops. A big factor in maintaining good rapport with your participant throughout the interview is your body language. Make sure you sit comfortable, upright, and don’t close up too much (crossing your arms, leaning back, etc.). Try to look at your participant, but avoid intense eye contact or staring at particular features. A great way to demonstrate that you’re paying attention to your participant is by maintaining a soft gaze and nodding every now and then in reaction to what they’re saying.


3. Start out with open-ended questions

User interviews are a qualitative research method—they help us learn about how our participants see the world and why they do the things they do. To get to that kind of deeper understanding, we need to ask open-ended questions, because they open up the conversation and invite our users to share a bit of their world with us.

Open-ended questions start with ‘why’, ‘how’, or ‘tell me about…’. Try to avoid opening with questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as these often lead to dead ends in the conversation.


4. Ask about specific moments

A great way to learn about your participant is by asking about specific moments in their past. When interviewing people about Trello, I try to start with something the participant recently did in Trello. For example: “Tell me about the last time you archived a board in Trello.”

If I want to take this one step further, I ask about extreme moments, as in the ends of a spectrum: best/worst, first/last, most/least surprising. For example:

  • What is the best part about Trello for you? Why is that the best? What is the worst part?
  • When in the past year did you use Trello the most? Why? When did you use it the least?
  • What is the most surprising thing about Trello for you? Why is that surprising to you?

Asking about specific moments in the past is a great way to elicit stories from our participants, and stories offer us a deep look into our participants’ lives and mental models.

On the contrary, I would caution to be careful with future-oriented questions. As humans, we’re not great at estimating our own behavior—predicting future behavior is even more difficult and unreliable.


5. Ask follow-up questions

Whenever you ask a specific, open-ended question or whenever your participant makes a statement, try to ask a follow-up question to make sure you understand why they’re saying the things they’re saying. The classic example of this is the 5 Whys techniques (asking why five times in a row will reveal the underlying problem or motivation).

However, literally asking why 5 times in a row can be odd and make for a jarring conversation. It’s great to mix things up, so here are some alternative phrases you could use:

  • Tell me more/Say more about that.
  • Could you expand on that?
  • What do you mean by that?

While it’s good practice to follow up on all relevant statements that a participant makes, there are other things that are easy to miss but can make for great stories and conversations. For example:

  • Listen for unusual terms, jargon, and metaphors, as these can spark conversation and reflection.
  • Look for body language. For example, when people raise their hands, do specific gestures, or show strong facial expressions.

6. Don’t fill the silence

A lot of times in interviews, we’ll ask our participant a question and they won’t immediately know what to say. Or they’ll start a sentence and pause. It’s so easy and tempting to jump in and ask another question, share our own thoughts, or finish their sentence. After all, we’ve worked on the problem for a while and think we know what they’re going to say. We might as well jump in…

But in order to make user interviews work and get to great stories, we need to do exactly the opposite: We need to avoid filling the silence and listen with intent. The counterpart to asking great questions is opening up the space for our participants to respond. And that means sitting back and letting them do the talking.

The way I do this is by counting at least 3–5 Mississippis in my head, often more. However you do it, make sure you maintain positive body language while you wait for your participant to finish their thought.

Disclaimer: If you’ve never done this, I’d encourage you to try it out. The silence can feel weird at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll be amazed how much more you get out of an interview by being quiet.


7. Wrap it up

One of the things that’s often overlooked is the final part of the interview, the wrap-up. It’s important to not rush through this because it can be really valuable for the interview and the following analysis.

Interviews are intense and a lot of times participants feel relieved once they get to the end of the interview. But as you inform them about next steps (incentives, etc.), there’s often a little more small talk we can engage in. Because of the feeling of relief, participants often open up a little more and shed more light on what you discussed before.

The other important part of the wrap-up is to do a quick debrief after every interview. This shouldn’t replace your analysis, but it can be valuable to document the feeling of the moment and what stood out. I usually take 10–15 minutes to write down similarities and differences to the other interviews, as well as surprises or stories that resonated with me.


Try it out

And that’s it, 7 ways to get the most of your next user interview:

  1. Prepare the interview
  2. Establish rapport
  3. Ask open-ended questions
  4. Ask about specific moments
  5. Ask follow-up questions
  6. Don’t fill the silence
  7. Wrap it up

Give these a try and let me know how things worked out for you. I’d love to hear what’s missing, what else should be on this list?


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Designing Atlassian

Jannis Hegenwald

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Design at Trello/Atlassian. Interested in all things behavior, design, and future.

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