Exploratory Design Research Interview

How to do interviews in the earliest stage of Design Research

Know the stages of Design Research: Explore, Generate, and Evaluate. In the Explore stage, we’re looking for the earliest insights in understanding the people we’re designing for, which could help us come up with opportunities for solution. The Generate stage is optional, as it’s needed for deepening our understanding beyond the needs to include the dreams of the people, having them envision the solution to their problem. In the Evaluate stage, we have a design artifact (the solution’s prototype), so the research activity is performed repetitively (for each prototype version) as needed.

Source: (PDF file) paper by a Design professor on design education

There are many design research methods, but there are many articles written about the methods in Evaluate stage, usually by usability or UX researchers. Therefore, in this article I’d like to address interviewing in the Explore stage (with methods listed in the left-most circle above).

Design Research is Wider than UX/User Research

  1. UX/User Research is part of Design Research. That’s why it’s called User Research, because by the evaluative stage we already have users (people who use the design artifact or the implemented system).
  2. As tech companies operate mostly in the evaluative stage for incremental product improvement, most interaction designers are used to be involved in UX/User Research. The ones working with innovation team (if existing within the company) do get involved in exploratory stage and may call themselves design researchers.
  3. While many user researchers are savvy in interviewing, most of them perform usability studies. In addition, interviews performed in the evaluative stage have a different purpose from the ones in the exploratory stage. Learn to recognize the difference.
  4. There are many good beginner tips to interviewing that’s freely available online (e.g. UX Matters and Userfocus). Only recently, I got to browse the inside of the book Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal. The title contains “users”, which I ignored at first. It turned out the book provides a lot of practical advice for Design Research beginners! I really suggest you to get the book.

Design Research is not Social Science Research

  1. Interviewing is just a tool, or I’d rather call it “have conversations with people”. It’s borrowed from Social Science, and we can use it in various methods e.g. Design Ethnography, Contextual Inquiry, or Usability Testing. Adapt the tool to the purpose of each method. Note that all forms of Design Research include behavior observation, because we create design artifacts to be used by people, implying usage as behavior. Therefore, the interview technique is adjusted based on the observation type.
  2. If you’re doing Design Ethnography, interviews are very open ended, because there is no expectation of certain behavior. You can also include Cultural Probes (eliciting stories from people interacting with artifacts you provide). In Contextual Inquiry, there is a focus on a certain behavior, so interviews are more structured and people also describe what they do (self-report). The purpose of Design Ethnography is to discover the problem, while the purpose of Contextual Inquiry is to understand how the problem can be solved.
  3. Don’t talk to traditional social scientists to find out how you can use their research methods. You will lose focus from the purpose of interviewing for Design Research, because the purpose of Social Science is to tell stories. They try to get the details of the story right, while designers try to extract as much insights as possible from the story. Instead, ask your social scientist for the practical tips in interviewing or getting feedback on your interviewing skills (ask them to watch you perform interviewing).
  4. If you’re coming from Social Science yourself and looking to use your interviewing skills in Design Research, start by understanding Design. The purpose of designers trying to understand people is to help them come up with solutions to their problems by creating artifacts. Therefore, the insights obtained from interviewing is used for finding paths toward the solution and then derive a solution’s concept. If you’ve worked in Market Research, learn to stop asking about future behavior. Why? The purpose of Marketing is to gauge how people decide to adopt the product (future), while the purpose of Design is to gauge how people use the product (experienced). Marketers want to sell the product, while designers want to improve the product. Do make the switch to Design mindset first.

The Interviews: Practical Do’s and Don’ts

Usually an interview session is led by an interviewer and observed by many people. Observers can be anyone from the research team, but can also be representatives of the stakeholders of the project. It’s actually advised for stakeholders to directly observe and hear from research participants instead of trying to understand them from the research results.


  1. Always pilot. Test your interview questions with people who are in the same group as your research participants. If the group you’re studying is very difficult to find (e.g. sufferer of a rare disease), don’t be afraid of piloting with the very first few participants (remember this is the exploratory stage). This means that you start with open-ended questions and try to get more structure or add more specific questions for the next participants.
  2. Relax! Participants are there to help you understand their life. If you find them nervous at the first time, don’t get nervous with them. You’re the master of the interview session. It’s natural that they’re nervous, because many research participants think that interviewers are there to judge them and they try to answer with something that would make the interviewer happy. Assure them that you’re actually trying to learn from them and you’re happy to listen to whatever secrets they learn to solve the problem that they mention. Assure them also that there’s no common or weird answers, because everyone is unique.
  3. Empathy. Sometimes we claim that we practice empathy during usability testing, but during interviews — especially with people who encounter a burden in life — empathy needs to be really in action. Refrain from mentioning evaluative (judging) words. Instead of trying to evaluate what they say on the spot, try to appreciate that they’ve said it by describing how it helps you understand their situation.
  4. “Experience comes with practice” is especially true for interviewing, because it’s an energy play. Get in the flow. A beginner interviewer might need a list of all questions to be asked. Bring it if you need one. An experienced interviewer only needs a debrief guide (a list of topics to be discussed in the interview). A beginner interviewer might find it difficult to include questions from observers in the middle of the interview (agree with your observers on a break between topics so the observers can ask during the break). An experienced interviewer welcome questions anytime as long as it’s not in the middle of a dialogue.
  5. Don’t take notes. It will shift your attention away from responding appropriately to the participant’s answer and break your interview flow. Immerse yourself in the conversation. The only notes you need to take is to write keywords / phrases on your debrief guide for which topics are covered and which items need follow-up.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use probing questions. Interview participants are really varied. Some are quiet and respond in short sentences. Some even start talking even before you ask anything. Most are naturally conversational, because by deciding to participate it means they want to be heard. Probing is especially tricky with participants who are opinionated. Instead of telling a story on how they deal with their problems, they would tell an ideal solution or even give lectures on how designers should improve it. Accept that, but say that you want to learn what they really did in that particular situation. Probe Why / What / Who / Where / How until you get a story from them.


  1. Be quiet and don’t try to make comments. Don’t take the participant’s attention away from the interviewer. If there’s only one observer, both of you and the interviewer can be involved in the conversation. Follow the tips for Relax (#2) and Empathy (#3) above.
  2. Take as much notes as possible, because you have all the time to observe the participant while the interviewer is keeping the flow. Write observations instead of judgments. Describe behavior and stories as they are, not as your perception toward them. In the debrief session after the interview, you’re expected to be the ones who pour insights into the discussion. This is where you can share your judgment and perception.
  3. Don’t shoot your questions in the pauses between sentences. Possibly a dialogue hasn’t ended yet. That would break the interview flow, which might ruin the energy of the interviewer or distract the participant’s focus. Karen Holtzblatt in her book Rapid Contextual Design warned about having multiple interviewers: less intimacy, disconnected and competing conversations that confuse the participant or frustrate the interviewer. Therefore, work with the interviewer about the signaling to ask questions, so the interviewer knows you need to follow-up before his/her next dialogue. You can raise a little object such as your pen, or you can write it on a little post-it note and give it to the interviewer. When interviewing in another language that you don’t understand, you can give your question verbally to the interviewer (as long as the participant doesn’t understand your language, too). When working with a beginner interviewer, write down your questions (you have all the time to take notes) to follow-up later in the agreed breaks.
  4. It’s possible that you miss a detail and ask a question that has been answered by the participant. Ask away. Don’t be afraid. The second time the participant answers might be insightful, because they might do it differently.
  5. It’s possible that the interviewer asks a question that you know the answer of. Don’t try to answer it! If you’re a stakeholder observing in an interview session real time, it’s possible that what’s discussed by participant is something that you’re planning for your product, or it’s about your business partner. Don’t try to answer it for them. What we’re interested in is how the participant explain it. We want to get their perspective instead of “the right answer”.


  1. You hire a researcher to do the work for you. You might not have the patience to interview so many people for days. Understand that people are unique. Don’t try to to change the interview structure just because you get the same answer from a number of participants. It’s possible that you don’t know how to do a qualitative analysis, while the researcher is the master of the research method. Share your concern with the researcher and work together to find what insights you expect to get. Additional questions are always welcome in order to get the extra insights. Read #6 under interviewers above about probing questions.
  2. It’s possible that you get too excited after hearing a participant’s answer, that you drag the interview session too long by asking a train of questions. Be careful not to turn the interview session into a technical support session. Remember, you’re interested in understanding how the participant is trying to solve their problem. You’re not trying to solve their problems on the spot.
  3. It’s also possible that your participant is a user of a competitor’s product that you’re aiming to level your game with. Learn from the participant about the product, but don’t try to suggest anything that the competitor doesn’t have. Use probing questions in response to their behavior in using the product instead. For example, your product has a credit card payment option. Don’t ask “How about credit card payment?” Instead, ask “I see that you always use bank transfer. What is nice and what is difficult about this method of payment?” and work toward finding the other payment method they would like to have.

If you’re a research manager, you can turn the above do’s and don’ts into a guideline for all observers and stakeholders. If you’ve managed design research projects and written guidelines for all participants, you’re welcome to share more tips, experience, and feedback to my tips in the comments section. Thank you!

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