User Interview Etiquette

Dan Ebeling
MyTake
Published in
5 min readOct 9, 2019

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User Interview Etiquette

User interviews are an incredible resource for teams to learn firsthand from the user. However, there are a few rules and guidelines to follow to ensure everyone has a good experience and we gather unbiased data.

🛑 This is NOT an article about how to conduct an interview. This is for anyone participating in an interview.

Let’s dive in!

Be Present in the Interview

Silence your cell phone, avoid messing around on your computer, and stay focused on what the user has to say. If you are going to use a device, use it to take notes. Consider taking notes in the “how might we” framework (e.g., “How might we visualize student usage data?”).

Silence your cell phone

If the interview is being conducted face-to-face with the customer, it is best to write your notes down in a notebook or a pad of paper. Studies have shown that interviewees feel more comfortable and are less distracted by handwritten notes.

Hold Your Questions Until Prompted

Often the interviewer will use a script of the questions and tasks. Allow the interviewer to lead the conversation with the user and hold your questions until prompted. This helps the user stay focused and prevents confusion.

When Prompted, Ask the Right Questions in the Right Way

Asking the right questions takes some thought. Here are some guidelines to make sure the right learning is coming out of the interview

Ask the right questions

1. Don’t Ask Leading Questions
One of the most important rules to follow is to avoid asking leading questions. Leading questions bias the user and therefore makes it difficult to learn from the participant. Leading questions include or imply the desired answer to the question in the phrasing of the question itself. Focus on making your questions neutral and unassuming of the user’s experience.

Bad question: “I saw you were having difficulty with the navigation. What happened?”

Good question: “What was easy or difficult about getting to the content you wanted?”

Read this article for more context: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/leading-questions/

2. Avoid Jargon of any Kind
Jargon is unnecessarily confusing and can make the user feel embarrassed. Think of how to pose the question in more simple or general terms. If a user answers with unfamiliar jargon ask them to clarify.

Bad question: “Which information should we query from the data lake?”

Good question: “Which information would you use to answer [question]?”

3. Keep Reactions Neutral
Giving positive or negative reactions to a user’s answer to a question or task can bias the user. This may seem somewhat cold, but people want to tell you what you want to hear. Once the user is completely finished answering the question simply thank them for their feedback.

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Awkward Silences
If the user does not immediately answer the question give them time to think and allow for silence. Provide clarification only when the user asks for it or when it is clear the user did not understand the question after their answer.

5. Don’t Interrupt the User
If the user is talking, do not interrupt them. This may seem like common sense but we often interrupt others without noticing. Interrupting the user is especially bad if you try and say what you think they are trying to say for them. This aggravates and biases the user’s response making any data gathered from the interview unreliable.

With this said, feel free to ask clarifying questions when appropriate (if you are the interviewer).

6. Allow Users to Struggle
Allow users to struggle with interview tasks and questions before providing help or looking help the user with their answer. Once the question has been answered completely you can provide support.

Allow users to struggle

Don’t Pitch Ideas

We’ve witnessed test observers interrupt users to pitch ideas in an effort to change their mind on a topic. Not only is this bad practice — it defeats the purpose of getting user feedback — it can be perceived as defensiveness. When participants see a team become defensive, they are less likely to give honest feedback, and may even feel intimidated. User research is the team’s opportunity to receive customer feedback, not to give it.

User research is the team’s opportunity to receive customer feedback, not to give it.

Don’t Become Defensive

Team members can sometimes become frustrated when a user struggles with something they have helped create or disagrees with an idea that they came up with. It’s important to keep your reactions neutral. The point of user research is to increase our knowledge and provide better solutions for our customers. It is critical that we approach user feedback with an open mind and that we have the humility to allow users to teach us.

Don’t Blame the User

It is common for observers to blame participants when participants do something unexpected, uncover a potential flaw in a solution, or don’t understand an idea that has been proposed. Observers may even question participants’ intelligence, and refer to them in derogatory terms. Any such negative undercurrents are deeply unprofessional and completely unacceptable. User research is not conducted to prove that your ideas are perfect; to the contrary, we talk to users so we can poke holes in our logic and proposed solutions. Conversations should always be focused on what is wrong with the solution or the interface, not on what is wrong with the user.

Conversations should always be focused on what is wrong with the solution or the interface, not on what is wrong with the user.

Minimize Disruptions

If you are participating in an interview in person, it is important to keep the number of observers in the room to 3 or less. Participants will feel uncomfortable if they are drastically outnumbered. If you are in the room, try to position yourself outside of the participant’s direct line of sight. If there are already 3 observers in the room, consider using Zoom or an online meeting tool to observe from outside the room.

If you are observing an online interview, please turn off your camera and mute your microphone until prompted to ask questions. Movement and background noises are highly distracting to participants.

Minimize disruptions

Conclusion

User interviews are invaluable sources of data that help us refine our ideas, solutions, and products. Their purpose is to understand the user and their problems, not to offer solutions. The way in which we participate in research directly influences the quality of the data that we derive from these sessions. Following the above guidelines will help us to maximize our research efforts.

Additional References

http://www.designkit.org/methods/3
https://www.nngroup.com/articles/team-members-user-test/

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Dan Ebeling
MyTake

I'm a full-stack product designer, casual philosopher, and passionate baker based out of the Salt Lake City area.