How to Conduct a User Interview

I have one more week before I compile April’s user interview results, but I wanted to fill the gap between last week’s and next week’s blog with a post on exactly how to conduct user interviews.

I’ve talked about user research methods and why I decided to conduct individual interviews, so I won’t be covering any topics expressed in those posts except for the section on “the how” in the latter post.

Goals

Once you’ve decided you want human information from your users and you’ll be conducting individual interviews, you’ll want to clearly define your goals. You want to know very clearly what you’re looking to gain from conducting this user research. For example,

What do you want to learn from your users?

What specifically do you want to talk to them about? What do you want to focus on? What kind of information do you need about and from them? What information is going to improve your product or service?

How many interviews do you need?

The true answer to this question is that you should never stop interviewing. You may go through a period of intense scheduling and interviewing, but don’t ever stop talking to your current and new users. As life and people change, so do their expectations of things, which means your product yesterday may not be what they want today.

However, for the sake of the question, I think you should set a tough goal to reach. For example, I am striving for 50 interviews in the 3 weeks of April that I have available. To be honest, I’m probably not going to make it unless a few companies come back with multiple interviews (which they may), but this long-shot of a goal has kept me hungry and focused on getting as many interviews as possible.

Question Sets(s)

Once you’ve defined your goals, especially any related to what you want to learn, you should build out as many question sets you need. You may, or may not, want a unique question set for each persona you’ll be interviewing. For example, I have two question sets, because I don’t want to ask the same questions to very experienced designers and developers as I do to junior.

Tips

I recommend structuring your question sets in a specific way. The reason why is whenever you talk to someone you’ve never met or spoken to you’re a little hesitant and cautious about opening up, so you don’t want to be asking very personal questions right off the bat.

For example, I start my interviews off by allowing them to tell me what they do professionally, how long they’ve been doing that, how old they are, and when they have free time throughout the week. This is a good way to break the ice, introduce yourselves, and get an understanding of who you’re talking.

Following Up

Although I’m not finished conducting interviews, I’ve noticed that the most human, valuable, and unexpected information has come from asking a follow-up question. I suspect this is for two reasons:

  1. It shows interest.
  2. People dislike silence and follow-ups let them continue speaking.

It may be hard until you’ve begun to summarize the types of responses people have to specific questions, but you should try to plan a few follow-ups into your question sets.

Dependent Questions

I may have coined this term; I may not have. A dependent questions is a question I ask depending on the quality and value of feedback of my interviewee.

For example, I was interviewing a consultant a few days ago and it was going too well. I was understanding what she was saying; I was able to easily interact with her; I valued her feedback. So, I asked her a dependent question. In this situation, I asked her if she’d be interested in working with us in the future.

Basically, a dependent question is a question you don’t want to ask everyone, because it only suits a small percentage of those you may interview. My dependent questions are personal and risky enough I don’t want to ask very many people.

Data Sharing

The information you gather from your interviews should be shared where people can access it.

For example, let’s say I’m conducting user research via individual interviews on how people shop for groceries to improve my grocery list web app: squashtomato. Although this project is private and stored in a private repository on GitLab, I may eventually open it up to a set of individuals to manage and improve the project more efficiently, but if those individuals don’t have the information I gathered from my interviews they will most likely not understand the direction I think the web app should go in.

For Hack It Hour, we use Trello for everything sharing. Take a look at our user interview board and an example interview card:

(I have permission to do this :D)

Trello User Interview Management
Trello User Interview Sharing

So, share it somewhere and make sure all involved parties can access it.

Pre-Interview

PPPPPR. Piss poor planning gets piss poor results. Something to live by. I set a reminder 15 minutes before each interview to give me proper time to setup my recording software, get organized, and review my goals.

Software

Tools. Everyone loves tools, because tools make things easier and this is how to make your user interviews easier.

Screen and Audio Recording: OBS

Simply, create a new scene and apply all the sources you need (more = more CPU intensive). Hit record.

Recording User Interviews with OBS

Please read! You must ensure you’re recording your audio output (computer audio) as well as your audio input (your microphone or audio source). If you do not recording your output, you will not have any sound of the interviewee. Now, to record audio output, download and install Soundflower. It’s not difficult and it will allow you to setup a new audio device to record your system audio (audio output). Once you install and setup Soundflower, you’ll need to select it as the audio source for your audio out. If you have issues, reach out to me on Twitter at @chrisjohnsoct.

Notes: Use whatever you like to take notes, but try to use something that supports Markdown syntax, such as Trello.

Organization

Someone is giving up their time to benefit your product or service, so be organized and focused going into interviews.

Get rid of distractions on your desk, in your office, or in your home. Hell, if you have to go somewhere else to get rid of distractions, go somewhere else.

Close down extra browser tabs and minimize any open applications. Set your notifications and devices to silent. The interview is about the user, not whatever is on your desk or computer.

I recommend having your video or call display on one half of your screen and your note taking software or web app on the other. Once you start recording, your recording software can be minimized.

Review

Before you begin your interview, I recommend you take a quick look at the goals you defined at the beginning of this process. Remind yourself of what you’re trying to learn and focus on that.

Interview

Interviewing is not hard.

Goals as the Interviewer

Although contradicting to what I’ve been saying, if you’re interviewing a user, your primary goal is not to obtain the information that will satisfy the goals we’ve been speaking about. Your goal is to create a human, comfortable, and open channel of communication between your user and yourself. Without this channel, it doesn’t matter how great or planned out your question sets are, because your user won’t be openly and personally answering them.

Attitude

You’re getting a chance to talk to someone who uses or could potentially use your product or service. This is a huge, tremendous opportunity! Be excited that for your job you get to talk to your users; you get to improve your product or service for free, and you get to build a connection and relationship with those who use your product or service.

Attitudes are contagious, so make sure your user catches your cold if you know what I mean.

Tips

I’m not a psychologist, but interviewing can be taken to the next level with a few basic concepts of psychology.

  1. Don’t cross your arms during the interview. This closes you off from your user.
  2. If you’re distracted, your user is distracted.
  3. Smile, ask follow-ups, get personal, be human.
  4. and have fun! It will make a huge difference in our experience, your user’s experience, and the information you gather.

Post-Interview

While the interview is fresh on your mind, you should capitalize on a few things, but first:

Take a Break

I know. I just said “while the interview is fresh on your mind,” but it will still be fresh ten minutes from then. Get up, walk around, breathe, go talk to your coworkers about the interview, and relax. You’ve been sitting down and focusing intently for an hour. You need a break.

Store the Data

Put your notes somewhere that people can review. Add any notes that you may think of while doing this and then pass on the information to anyone who needs it.

Review

Well, how’d it go? Did it go as expected? Do you need to change anything? Was that the right type of person you were looking for?

Ask these types of questions. Your answers will improve the experience for the next user and the next and the next.

Thanks guys! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. Please share, like, and comment below. If you want to reach out to me, drop a tweeeeeeeet on Twitter at chrisjohnsoct.

Chris Johnson, Frontend Surgeon and CEO of Hack It Hour, LLC

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