User interviews done better

Noticed how I said “done better” instead of done right? Or perfect? That’s because as much as we try to make them perfect, the truth is human interactions never are. But the least we can do is to be consistent in trying to get better at them day by day, and as closer to perfection as we can.

It’s been a while since I conducted my first discovery user interviews. I’ve done a lot of testing since then, in all of it's forms, but initial interviews had a special flavor. More personal, tend to be more unstructured, harder to quantify, but definitely fun!

I wrote about my first user interviews here and then even more here and I am happy to say that what I’ve applied then is still relevant. But I still felt the need to share even more, in the hope that this will help as many Designers as possible to ace one of the most intimidating parts of the process.

Use layers

As designers, we are used with the concept of layers pretty much everywhere (from our go-to hoodies to Figma layers). Why not use them here as well? if you struggle to find a structure for your first discovery interviews, think about layers. We don’t want to go into a user interview and start asking very tactical questions right away, we want to understand who this person is. It also helps the participant feel more at ease and focus, instead of being overloaded from the beginning. I like to compare it to having a date, it makes it more fun. Would you ask the person in front of you about their family as soon as you sit down in the restaurant? Probably not. You would start with their name (hopefully). Only then, we want to understand what they prefer, what are some of the brands that they like and why. It’s like starting to discover someone by asking about their hobbies and preferences in terms of food. We want to have a top-down approach, starting with the most general things, then moving into details. After we discovered a bit who they are and what they prefer, we can move into discovering behaviours, activities, mental models and perceptions. Without the first part, those might not even make sense.

I apologise for the picture below, but I though it would keep the layer concept much more vivid in memory.🍰

Stop explaining too much

I’ve learned a lot about open question and how important it is not to bias your participant. It’s rule number 1 from the interview book, so it’s nothing new here. But even having this knowledge, I still find myself ruining the open questions more often that I would like to admit. So like any well-behaved designer, I tried to get to the root cause. 😅

If you find yourself giving too many examples of how the answer to your question should look like, it can mean too things, at least from my experience so far:

  1. The question is not that well formulated and it’s too vague (and deep down you know it and try to compensate with examples)
  2. You want to hear what you need for your research and try to steer you participant a bit.

No matter the context you are in, take a look at your questions one more time if you feel something is not going well and try to be honest with yourself: what would I respond to this if I were asked? Make it general enough not to bias your participant, but specific enough to avoid any interventions from your side. Still in doubt? Ask the question to a friend and see how they react. Once you really feel comfortable with a question, it will tell in the way you adress it: with confidence.

Show interest in your participant

Most of the times, especially if we conduct semi-structured interviews, we know a bit about the person in front of us. We also recruit people via a screener survey to make sure we talk to the right people, so there should be information there. Before starting an interview, take 2 minutes to look at the answers of the person you are interviewing. Seems easy and quite intuitive, but you will be surprised how far this will be from your mind when stressing on what questions to ask.

When building rapport and getting to know the person in front of you, make sure you take into account what you already know: it gives them the confidence that what they wrote in your screener has been actually read and processed by a human being, showing ultimately respect for their time and insights.

Let’s say you are working on an investment app and someone tells you in the screener that they have been investing in stocks for 5 years now. If you want to find out more about that, don’t start with something generic like: what is your experience with investments?. Nobody likes double work or repeating themselves. You can say something like this instead: “I know you wrote you already have quite some experience investing, can you tell me more about that?”.

Simple, right? 2 minutes max spent reading before the interview can save you a lot of awkward moments and offer you valuable insights.



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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.