Image from Daniel

Three tips for great research conversations

At Atlassian we have researchers across the business, but our researchers aren’t the only people speaking to our customers. Our designers validate their designs in usability tests, our product managers talk to customers to better understand their problems, and our content teams regularly touch base with our users to ensure we’re meeting their information needs in a way that’s supportive and easy to understand.

We engage in research frequently and incrementally, in many different ways. The core thing that all research has in common is that it’s based on us having a conversation with our customers.

Effective research is like a good conversation. It requires you to open yourself up and empathise with the person you’re speaking to.

Here are my top three tips for having really great research conversations.


You need to listen closely to customers to make sure you’re getting as much information from them as possible, and to show respect. Out of everything they could be doing, they’ve chosen to spend their time with you. We call this active listening.

Active listening is hard. It requires you to remain constantly engaged, and not drift away thinking about what to cook for dinner, or what question to ask next.

A great way to show that you’re listening is to reflect what your customers have said back to them. For example:

Customer: “…and my 11am cup of coffee is a must.”

Researcher: “It sounds like it’s really important for you to have that 11am coffee.”

Repeating their sentiments back to them shows that you’re listening to what they say. This is similar to what therapists do, using reflection to unlock more information.

Not thinking about the next question while your customer is talking can take practice. Here are a few of things that can help:

1) Have a concise script

This allows you to get fully absorbed in what your customer is saying without worrying about missing anything important, because you can always fall back on the questions that you’ve already written down.

The script should act as a guide. Use it to prompt the conversation, but allow yourself to naturally dig into interesting areas as they come up.

2) Don’t take notes during the session

Only write down words that will remind you of areas you would like to discuss further. This allows you to concentrate on keeping the conversation flowing (rather than making sure you have written everything down!)

Instead, either ask someone else to take notes for you, or record the session for later.

3) Don’t be afraid of silence

Remember, this isn’t a normal conversation, and pauses are fine. They give you time to collect your thoughts, and they also allow time for your customers to think. Often the best insights arrive after you’ve been sitting in silence for a few seconds, and suddenly the customer says something.

A good way to get into the habit of creating silence is to count to three before you talk, which is something you can practice in all your conversations.


In daily life there are loads of non-verbal cues that people share. You need to be looking at what a person’s body language is telling you, as well as what they are saying to you, to get a true picture of what they think. Let’s say your customer is saying they love your website, but they’re avoiding eye contact, have their arms crossed, and are fidgeting. Chances are, they might not be telling you the whole story.

But be careful: body language isn’t black and white.

Here are some things about body language to look out for:

1) Positive body language

Positive body language is ‘open’. An easy way to visualise this is thinking about a combat situation. In a combat situation a person with positive body language is more easily defeated, as they have their body open and exposed. (Their arms aren’t crossed in front of their chest, for instance.) In a research situation, open body language suggests the customer trusts you and is more likely to share what they really think.

2) Negative body language

In contrast, negative body language is ‘closed’. Again, if you think about a combat situation, someone displaying negative body language is protecting their body. People often take this stance when they are in a new or uncomfortable situation.

Customers will sometimes have this negative body language at the beginning of a session.

Unblocking negative body language

A great way of unblocking negative body language is to sit the customer at a computer or a desk (it’s very hard to use a mouse when you have your arms crossed). You can also ask them to fill in a form, or hand them something, forcing them to open their body language.

The two images below show negative body language, and mimicking to signal they are feeling the same.

Image from Rene Van Wijck
Image from Ed Yourdon

Your body language

Body language is a two-way street. Your customer is telling you a story with their body, and you are telling them a story with yours.

To build rapport quickly, try mimicking the other person’s body language. You can see this in the wild (so to speak) when people are both thinking alike. It’s the body’s way of saying ‘I’m like you’. You want to put your customer at ease, and mimicking their body language is your way of telling them they can confide in you.

Don’t be too creepy with this. If your customer sits crossed-legged on their chair, it might look funny if you do the same. Cross your legs instead.

Be careful about mimicking closed body language, and always be open in your stance. Something like showing the inside of your wrists can be a good way to show trust. In a combat situation you would protect this vulnerable part of your body.


Let’s have a quick recap of open and closed questions. An open question invites a more nuanced response, while a closed question can be answered with a simple yes or a no. It’s important to use a mixture of open and closed questions.

1) Open questions put people at ease

At the beginning of an interview it’s useful to start with a few open questions to get the customer comfortable with speaking, and feeling confident in their own point of few. At Atlassian we often ask “Where do you work?” “What do you do?” or “Describe how you X”.

2) Closed questions make good follow ups

They allow you to show the customer you are listening (remember active listening?) and soundbite their thoughts. For example, “So what you are saying is that you like bananas because they are yellow, is that right?’ It can also help when you have a customer who’s going off topic!!

They also help you find out important information. For example, “Have you used this system before?”

It is really easy to lead a customer with a closed question, so if in doubt use open questions.

Turning a closed into an open question

Instead of saying;
“Do you…” ask “How do you…”
“Have you…” ask “Describe how you…”
“Do you like this design” ask “How do you do this task”
“Would you use this” ask “Show me how you would do this”

3) Questions help you learn the customer’s language

Open questions are also a great way to learn a customer’s language. We often ask a customer to describe something — either a new design, how they complete a task, or their thoughts on a system. Whilst they are describing this we learn what words they use for certain concepts. This isn’t only useful for us to know (think labelling, documentation), but it also means we can use their terminology in that research session, and fit what we’re showing them to their existing mental models. Adapting our language to match theirs, reduces their cognitive load.

Image from Adja Fong

What to do when someone shuts down

If a customer isn’t opening up to you, asking them why can help. Don’t be afraid of asking why several times. We use a great technique called 5 whys, where you ask why five times to truly understand the root of an issue.

For example:

Customer: “I don’t like this design.”

Researcher: “Why?”

Customer: “It just feels a bit dated.”

Researcher: “Why?”

Customer: “I think the colours remind me of my grandma’s living room.”

Researcher: “Tell me what you mean by that?”

Customer: “It just feels a bit old fashioned.”

Practicing good conversation

Now that we’ve discussed active listening, watching body language, and asking good questions, we can pull it all together. As with many things, practice makes perfect, so here are some scenarios where you can practise these research skills.

At home

Next time you’re speaking with your partner/children/friends, breathe, and practice listening. When they are talking to you, simply focus on what they are saying. Don’t think about what you are going to say next, or other things.

It might be easier to do this when you are sitting down, and there are no other distractions around.

At work

Next time a colleague comes over for a quick water cooler chat, see if you are able to learn something new about them. Using open and closed questions, can you discover a hidden talent or passion?

You could start the conversation with something off topic, for example: “What was your favourite hobby growing up?”

Predicting the future

With your body language skills, you should be able to understand what people are feeling, before they say anything. In your next meeting try and predict who will have the outcome they were hoping to get, and who won’t. Can you predict that at the start of the meeting before anything is said?

Start by scanning the room and see who has positive body language.

Practice makes perfect.

There are lots of different personality types out there, and each will respond to different nudges. Practice these skills as much as possible, in any context, and you’ll be able to fine-tune them.

Research is a skill — and, some might argue, also an art form!

Massive thank you to Claire Mahoney for her help in writing this.

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