Ask Better Questions
Simple steps to conduct great user interviews
Summary: By treating user interviews as in-person surveys, we may miss important feedback from our research participants. This article explains how asking open-ended questions can uncover new insights and build trust with your users.
In Daily Life
Running into an acquaintance or former coworker at that popular hipster cafe is almost always an awkward exchange. From personal experience, the fastest way to kill these conversations is often a one-word answer.
Quintin: Hey Phil! How’s it going? Still working at Slack?
Phil: Good! And yep, still at Slack.
Quintin: Do you like the projects you are on?
Quintin: … Let’s catch up sometime!
Phil: Definitely. I’ll text you.
Awkwardly exit stage right
If you can answer a question in one or two words, it’s probably close-ended:
- Do you prefer an aisle or window seat?
- Who do you work for?
- What flavor is this cake?
Alternatively, open-ended questions lack a specific answer and leave space for further explanation:
- Why do you like your new phone?
- How does your team communicate with each other?
- If you could change any part of the software, what would you change and why?
As designers, we won’t always have the perfect, comprehensive set of questions to ask our participants. During our field research or qualitative interviews, our lists of questions should be viewed as starting points, and not a checklist.
That’s why we use open-ended questions to ensure that our participants are encouraged to keep talking. Answering open-ended questions requires more thought and effort than a single word response. They also give space for the participant to add important contextual information. We’ll even get answers to questions we didn’t think to ask.
Do’s and Don’ts
When sitting down with users, we use a few different techniques to ensure we are asking open-ended questions.
Do Say Show Me
Often, small linguistic changes can greatly affect how our participants respond during research sessions. For example, if you want to know what software they use to manage their work you could ask it two different ways:
Close-Ended: Do you use software to manage this process?
This question has a binary response, and doesn’t encourage your participants to expand on their workflow.
Open-Ended: Can you show me how you manage this process?
You not only get an answer for your initial question of the software and tools they use, but you’ll get significantly more context. Plus, participants will also add ideas and feedback on their job as a whole.
Don’t Let Them Off the Hook
Use phrases like Tell me more about that… and Could you expand on… when a user answers questions without much explanation. This affirms you care about what they have to say and help prompt them to continue sharing.
You can follow up one-word answers with Why? or How do you do that? to ask for further clarification and examples.
No one likes an awkward silence, and many participants will fill any void in the conversation with additional details and examples. Pause for a few beats before jumping into your next question or a new topic. I’d always recommend waiting for 2–5 seconds beyond what you would feel comfortable with before moving forward.
Open-ended questions are not only invaluable for designers and researchers. Our users feel like they are part of the design process when the interview is a discussion and not an in-person survey. You’d be surprised how simple lexical changes can profoundly impact your results and your relationship with your users.
Quintin Carlson researches and designs for Flexport — the first internet powered freight forwarder and supply chain logistics provider. Every Wednesday, the Flexport design team will breakdown user experience research techniques so you can apply them in your own design process.
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