Numbers to Interview By

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
Nov 11, 2019 · 4 min read

A few figures to jumpstart your first ethnographic interviews

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Interview, but make it natural.

At the heart of good design is a good story — whether it’s a touching tale of romance or a rollercoaster ride of pain points. To get to the these stories, designers have to learn to have intimate conversations and ask really good questions. As researchers, you may have heard it all before: prepare a list of questions, practice active listening, nod your head, say “mhmm”, lean towards your user, ask “why?” (many times!).

For the first few interviews though, in the middle of shifting your body or sneaking glances at your questions list, you might get lost and panicked (I know I did!). You wonder: why is active listening so hard? This “cheat sheet” is for the numbers-driven amongst us who want some anchors to hang onto when your palms get sweaty.

These numbers are by no means standard practice — just figures that I’ve picked up from my teachers, mentors, and my own research experiences that I keep in mind when in the field. Again, these are simply goal posts that reminds me what to do in the interview.

One of the first guidepost I learned in my needfinding class is how to structure active listening. We can start with this: let the other person speak for 90% of the conversation while you use your 10% to ask questions and follow up. I found it difficult at first to hold back my affirmations (“yes, I feel that way too!”) and sharing my own extensive stories (“I feel you! This one time in bandcamp…”). After a while, it becomes clear that leaving space (read: staying quiet) for others to share is a powerful way to get stories out of someone. At the end of the day, you are trying to get know their stories — not to tell them yours, no matter how relevant.

Just like a job interview, you don’t want to go into a user interview cold. One way to prepare for interviews is to develop an interview guide — a set of questions that can help you 1) build rapport with your users and 2) get them to share stories that are (somewhat) relevant to your topic. As an exercise, brainstorm a few questions to get the conversation off to a soft — yet relevant — start (say for a project on the future of work, you might ask: “Can you tell me about your current workplace?”) before asking for specific experiences (“When did you last feel like you wanted to quit? Why?”) and diving into their emotional stories*.

You can easily brainstorm 20 questions but aim to ask no more than 3 to 5 questions and instead listen to interesting threads and follow-up with questions like: Why do you feel that way? Tell me more and [insert your favourite classic deep empathy question here]. This doesn’t mean that you stop the interview at 5 questions — rather, it means you should focus on your most interesting questions first and on really, really listening.

You might ask: why have a guide if you’re not going to follow it? As my good friend and co-contributor to GetSalt Yuri Zaitsev reminded me: it’s good to have a structure in your head of where you want to your conversation to go, but leave some room for unexpected exploration — because good insights sometimes hide in plain sight.

*This empathy guide is an excellent summary of how to approach an interview guide, amongst other empathy-building tools

Time is precious, no matter who your user are. While there is no “good” length for an interview, there is no substitute for time when it comes to building trust and rapport with a stranger. In a videography class, I watched short (we’re talking 10 minutes max.) documentaries about peoples’ day-in-the-life, their highs and lows, that our professor worked on. He said it takes about 1.5 hours for people to open up in a conversation to his team and that’s when he starts getting really revealing narratives.

In reality, we might not always have the luxury of time. So above all else, 1.5 hours is a reminder for you to take time. Be patient when having a conversation with your user, there is no need (indeed: it is not effective) to force someone to share their stories.

Side note: you may think that interviewing people you already know is a good idea to skip the rapport-building and get straight to the emotional stories. Beware! As the ‘user’, your friends may want to please and tell you what they think you’d like to hear (response bias) or they may not be as willing to share as strangers might.

Aim to have at least 2 interviewers present when conducting an interview with 1 user. The idea is simple division of labour: if one person is assigned to asking questions and following up while the other takes notes, then you — as a team — will likely be able to unearth more interesting stories and capture them more effectively.

If you are the only one available, you can ask to record in audio or video to prioritize the role of the active listener. If there’s three of you (or more), split the roles but make sure that the user doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

Parting Thoughts: Reminders by Numbers

These numbers are — as I repeated many times in this writing — at best an anchor to guide you in the first few user interviews. There are not milestones to reach or surpass, but numerical reminders of the mindset that you should be in when conducting design research: that the only stories matter is what your users are willing and able to share.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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