3 things every Designer should know before talking to users

Getting Started with User Research — Part 3

It’s that [critical, challenging, dreaded, fun, exhilarating, anxiety provoking, long] moment of the project. Don’t know how you would define it, but personally, I fell I cannot describe it with only one word. Maybe if I would really need to, I would say: ever changing. Ok, I am not a person to stick to only one word, never have, never will (and I also don’t like math). That’s why I like stories.

There are so many things to say about your first user interviews, but no matter how versed you are in Design, you might always find something new in this part of the research process. Something new about your users, something new about yourself. Every experience is different, it depends on the project, problem space, but after I`ve interviewed my first users as part of my first Mento Design Academy project, here is what I found most helpful.

Enjoy the silence

I remember reading an article from NN group regarding filling intentional silence in interviews. I hate feeling awkward with a strange person, I hate it when I can`t find something interesting to say. And probably most of us feel the same.

There is one practical tip I remember that I applied from my very first interview: taking a glass of water with me and taking a sip if there is an uncomfortable silence. That way, you are not prone to fill the silence with random information and puts the other party at ease and gives them time to think.

Most of the times (mostly indicated by expression or body language), users can take a bit more time to remember a certain detail, or decide on how to phrase something more abstract. Interrupting their chain of thought might make you lose valuable insights, as they will shift their focus, in order to react to your next move (be it an additional question, or impatient fidgeting).

It worked perfectly for me, especially with interviewees who really liked to think about what they are sharing, who started telling a story. Whenever I felt someone was taking a bit longer to continue, but their expression was telling me that they are still thinking or reminiscing, I would just focus on my glass of water, instead of staring at the person in front of me. It`s a great way to offer comfort to both parties, allowing them to take a few seconds and rearrange their thoughts.

I will definitely recommend this to anyone — even if the interview is perfect and you don`t need it, at least you can get your water intake for the day.

Source: NN Group -The Science of Silence: Intentional Silence as a Moderation Technique

Stop helping your interviewee

Even if you get to master the intentional silence or just get comfortable with it, there is something else that happens when we feel exposed, uncomfortable. When is our chance to talk, we talk to much, explain ourselves, give examples (in one word, ramble).

You might have an interview guide prepared, you know what you want to uncover so you are impatient to receive the answer. If the person in front of us takes a while to start responding, what do we feel the need to do? To help, to give examples. It`s our way of saying: “sorry to put you through this, I know this is a hard question, here are some examples so you can start telling me something”.

You trusted this person with your time, they offered to help, why not trust them to figure out your question? Even if they don’t, don’t underestimate the thing they will tell you, you might not know what new path or new feeling you might uncover. Be flexible and trust your conversation partner, don`t be impatient for a response.

Looking through my interview transcripts, I noticed the massacre of open questions. We say we are helping the user, but actually we are leading them. It`s like reflecting your own expectations on them, getting them back.

Don`t panic if you land off script

80% of my interviews didn't stick to the script, they were a collection of stories. One person even started sharing interesting stories, just immediately after building rapport. "Do you have any questions before we start?" resulted in 5 different stories about the topic, I didn`t even have time to start recording or ask for permission. I completely abandoned the structure, took my notepad and started listening.

For some users I needed a lot of follow-up questions, for others none at all. Ever changing.

In my first interview, we started with a structure, but the user was a great storyteller. I became fascinated, I was happy the recording was going and I was getting so many insights. At a certain point, he finished his story, so it was my turn to ask. So I asked the next question, and realized as my mouth was moving, that he already covered that — extensively — in his previous story.

What can you do if you land in such a situation?

As soon as I realized this, I played the validation card and used probing questions. It would be something like “I understand from you that you enjoy this, is there anything else you have in mind?”

As I kept interviewing people, I got more and more familiar with adapting my interview guide and focusing on active listening.

I remember my interview when I managed to take a mental note during a story the user was telling me, then circle back to it afterwards. I was so proud I managed to do that, instead of jumping to the next question from the guide. I felt it took a bit of concentration the first time, but after that it somehow became natural. They key is — like always — practice.

Look for the window of opportunity

I know I told you to trust your users, but there is a situation in which you shouldn't. When they tell you: I don’t think this is interesting or helpful", that’s the time a great insight is about to come out. Don’t let the interviewee get away with it, encourage them to talk.

In all my first interviews, I got great insights every time someone started with this phrase, and I`m happy I offered them the space to share.

Of course, it might not always be like that, it might just be something that`s not that helpful indeed, but at least you will offer your interviewee the courtesy of speaking their mind and respect their story.

Adjust your enthusiasm

You know how exciting it is when you meet that person who shares the exact same views, who can express your thoughts exactly? How exciting is this? You feel the urge to confirm, to speak your mind, right? To let them know as soon as possible that you feel the same way. I know, it happens to all of us.

While in normal life expressing enthusiasm with someone`s thoughts is perfectly fine, in an user interview, it might not be that great. Especially if you are working on a topic you are passionate about, chances are you will recruit some people who feel the same way.

It happened to me on my first project, in one of the interviews. The person in front of me, a complete stranger from a different country, who I recruited via the screener survey, was expressing the exact opinions I have, and at some point, even managed to put into words the very nature of my research and the purpose of my project. It was uncanny.

All in all, the interview went quite well, I managed to get a lot of insights, BUT: 1/3 of it was just me validating my interviewee`s opinions and getting excited about concepts, or both of us just nodding along affirmatively with a smile on our face. I noticed this when I was going through the transcript, realizing I was in danger of:

  1. Wasting time that could have been used to let the interviewee tell another story;
  2. Leading, biasing them and revealing the exact purpose of the research;
  3. Interrupting the user`s chain of thought, by zooming in, then zooming out, then back in again;
  4. Miss important queues for follow-up questions, by simply focusing on the incredible insight I just got.

While I don`t have experience yet, this can apply to the opposite side as well. What if we talk to someone who has completely different opinions than us? It goes without saying that you never pick up a fight in a middle of the interview.

We might be more prepared to deal with this kind of negative situations by exercising empathy as Designers, and also because they might uncover a lot of pain points that we can work on solving, but the first, positive one might sneak up on us, especially since it`s masked by a layer of positivity and approval we are all thirsty for.

Ok, so there were 5 things I`ve learned, not 3, but I warned you from the beginning — I am really not good with math or with limiting my words.



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Raluca Maria Angelescu

Raluca Maria Angelescu


UX/UI Designer .Everyone deserves a better designed world! Starting with the morning coffee cup and all the way through digital interfaces.