7 easy tips to improve user interviews

User interviews are tricky affairs.

On top of coming up with good user interview questions, conducting the interviews themselves often prove to be yet another mentally draining experience. And it’s made worse if you’re doing it without prior experience, or without anyone to guide you along.

Sure, you’ll get better with practice. But you’ll also wanna avoid rookie mistakes and score easy wins, as soon as possible.

That’s what this post is about.

I’ve conducted over 15 interviews now (which, to be fair, isn’t a lot), and I’ve tried a bunch of things that are meant to help me conduct better user interviews. Some of them worked well for me.

They could, for you, too. Here’s 7 small things that helped me get better at conducting user interviews:

1. Pair up with someone.

This is hands-down the best way you can get better at user interviews. There are 2 key benefits of pairing up:

  1. Your partner can take notes for you, which means that you can focus on asking the questions and probing information out of your participant.
  2. Your partner can also observe you as an interviewer, and give you feedback on areas of improvement. They could tell you whether you’ve asked leading questions, whether your facial expressions or actions were inappropriate (like frowning when your participant didn’t say what you wanted them to, or involuntarily laughing when your participant didn’t understand what you said), whether the flow of the interview was too rigid, and so on.

Your partner doesn’t necessarily have to be another user researcher; they just have to be able to take down notes, and be sufficiently observant to detect awkward moments and leading questions (that’s about anyone).

2. Use a topic map.

Topic maps are mind maps that outline the various interview questions that you’re going to cover.

Here’s a hand-written, fake topic map that I never really used. But you get the point.

I know, this sounds kinda lame. I, too, was very skeptical when a senior suggested this to me.

But trust me, they’re helpful.

You can keep track of all your interview questions, without needing to rummage through pieces of interview question scripts. And because you’re able to quickly scan through the various topics, you can transition smoothly to questions, whenever your participant raises a related topic. This makes your interview flow a little more naturally, and makes it feel a lot less like a face-to-face online survey (which it shouldn't).

But topic maps only serve to jog your memory of the interview questions; you’ll still need to get familiar with the questions, before they’re effective.

3. Exchange contact numbers before the interview.

This sounds trivial, but it’s quite a common rookie mistake, especially if you’re arranging face-to-face interviews via email. Having your participant’s contact number means less time is wasted locating each other (if you’re not meeting at either of your offices), and more leeway to communicate last minute changes.

My colleague once forgot to get his participant’s contact number, and it was dreadful, because he arranged to meet at a cafe, and didn’t know how she looked like. He had to communicate his arrival via email (which was slow and impractical), and had to run about the place to look for her, when she didn’t turn up on time. The whole thing felt like a less-than-romantic blind date.

User interviews already take a bit of focus, so the last thing you want is to have to divert it to something as silly as finding the participant.

4. Make your participant feel appreciated – even if you realise they’re not in your target group.

Sometimes, you’ll make the mistake of scheduling a interview with someone who’s not in your target group. That’s ok.

If you’re lucky, you’d realise this before the interview, and be able to cancel it. If you’re not, then things get a little tricky. Cancelling is likely out of the question.

When that happens, try not to look disappointed or discouraged – your participants can tell (duh), and they’ll in turn feel unappreciated. Wasting your time on them is bad enough; you don’t have to make them feel like their time is being wasted too.

Turn on “damage control” mode, and try to cut the interview short. But do so tactfully, by skipping some questions and probing less.

And always, always thank them for their valuable time and input.

5. Record the audio of the interview.

Having an audio file to refer back will help clear up fuzzy memory and messy shorthand notes. It also allows you to extract direct quotes from your interview, which are useful for reports, slide decks, or any other kind of research artefacts.

Do ask for permission before recording, though.

6. Realise that silence is ok.

People need time to think and articulate themselves. Let them.

If you feel that they’re silent for too long, try asking what they’re thinking. As much as possible, avoid the urge to give them prompts; you don’t want to skew your data.

7. Be prepared to answer questions.

You’re not the only curious person around.

At the end of an interview, your participant might want to know more about the research you’re doing, or ask you about the product that your company sells. Be prepared to answer those questions.

If you don’t have answers off the top of your head, you can tell them that you’re not sure about the details, and will get back to them via email (just remember to really get back to them).

In summary,

  1. Pair up with someone.
  2. Use a topic map.
  3. Exchange contact numbers before the interview.
  4. Make your participant feel appreciated — even if you realise they’re not in your target group.
  5. Record the audio of the interview.
  6. Realise that silence is ok.
  7. Be prepared to answer questions.

Let me know if there are other small things you’ve done to improve the user interviews you conduct!