12 Tips for Successful Guerrilla Interviewing

Because it’s time to get out of the building

What would you need to know if your boss asked you to buy a gift for someone really important? You would need to know more about the recipient. Age? What does he/she do for work? For fun?

Context and detail are necessary to thoughtfully complete this mission. The odds of finding the right solution are slim if you choose a gift fit for the CEO and your boss intended it for her mother.

As a product designer, “someone really important” means your customer and “buy a gift” means designing a solution to meet their needs. Understanding people’s needs is crucial for designing something impactful. Asking questions is one way to remove the blindfold and see important information about these people to help guide your process. Interviewing is one of my favorite parts of the design process, because this first-hand research often reveals unexpected results.

What is guerrilla interviewing & When to do it

“Guerrilla research is a fast and low-cost way to gain sufficient insights to make informed decisions,” according to UX Magazine. Interviewing is a research tool best used when “you want to explore users’ general attitudes or how they think about a problem,” says Jakob Nielsen. Put them together and you have guerrilla interviewing, a great technique for learning from real people who have a different perspective.

Guerilla interviewing is unsophisticated by definition, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. You can either walk away from an interview with a story or walk away with nothing, to paraphrase design researcher Paige Bennett at her talk “What UX Research can Learn From Journalism.”

I’ve interviewed my fair share of strangers. Before becoming a product designer, I worked as a CPA, traveling to client offices and auditing their financial statements. That means I’ve been asking hard questions for over 7 years and I’ve compiled some tips and examples from real guerrilla interviews that will improve your chances of learning valuable insights from people in the wild.

  1. Recognize that you are not the user

See value in gathering information from people different than yourself. “Get yourself out of the building and experience the world…. If you’re going to be an experience designer, you have to have experiences,” says Adam Williams, user experience designer at IBM’s Bluemix Garage.

2. Find the best interview site

During a recent client project, my team needed to find low-income individuals to learn about their housing situations. Drafting a provisional persona helped us identify some environments where we might find relevant perspectives. We used our own assumptions to outline the behaviors and activities of the people we wanted to interview. We identified a residential neighborhood saturated with SRO units. We targeted a public square nearby where residents would likely spend their free time.

Not sure where to go? Try a food court at a local mall or a public park on a weekend. Target heavily populated areas where people spend their leisure time.

3. Choose the time and day wisely

Be mindful of the particular day of the week or time of day you approach people. Sure, coffee shops are a great place to find good-spirited people with a few spare minutes. But don’t expect anyone to give you time at 9am on a weekday.

Get creative: We knew we’d find people who matched our persona at the public library. We learned that it was off-limits to interview people inside the library. My team strategically arrived at the library twenty minutes before it opened and interviewed individuals waiting outside for the doors to be unlocked.

Pro tip: If you want to perform an interview inside a business, be sure to ask permission from management first.

4. Prepare a discussion guide

Consider what you hope to learn from talking with people. Generate a purpose and a hypothesis. For example, we wanted to test and (in)validate our provisional persona. Further, we wanted to test our hypothesis that, “People who would benefit from the government voucher program are either unaware of the program or unable to apply because it is too impractical.”

Craft non-leading, open-ended questions to test the hypothesis. Sequence the questions in a logical progression on a sheet of paper. Print and reference this guide during each interview. This will keep each discussion somewhat consistent and remind you to ask important questions.

Pro tip: Run a pilot interview with someone you know. The purpose of this is to say the questions aloud and see if the flow makes sense. You’ll also get a sense for how long the interview may take.

5. Incentivize

If you feel awkward asking people to volunteer their time, throw some money at the situation. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee. Keep five dollar bills in your pocket. Generally, you won’t need to offer compensation. People are nicer than you think. People want to help.

I once had someone turn me down and then return ten minutes later to volunteer her time. She said she realized she had the time after all and wanted to help.

6. Recruit and screen

The hardest part of guerrilla interviews is recruiting. First, identify who you want to interview.

Pro tip: Scan the area for people who are sitting. I know this sounds silly, but people who are sitting would have to stand to walk away from you. You will have better luck recruiting people who aren’t on the go or who can’t easily avoid you.

Make eye contact and politely get it all out in the open. “Hi, I’m doing research on people who share rooms while traveling. Would you mind giving me 15 minutes and answering some questions to help me learn?” That quick, direct request helped me recruit people at a hostel lobby.

Confidence is key here. If you feel awkward, they feel awkward. If you act sheepish, they sense it. Go boldly and gently. Share why you’re asking for their time. Set an expectation of the time commitment and flow upfront.

“There’s a lot about that person you don’t know that may or may not bias your results. Ideally, incorporate some screening questions into your interview protocol so you have good background information,” suggests Microsoft design researcher Stephen Hicks.

7. Breathe

They’re just people. They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you do. Strangers are only strange until you get to know them (for the most part).

Me interviewing at a local mall. Photo credit: William Bee

8. Take someone with you

Ideally, you’ll have someone with you to take notes and/or record the session. At the very least, ask if the individual is ok with you recording audio of the interview (the Voice Memo app on iPhones works great) so you don’t have to take frantic, detailed notes. This will free you up to be more engaged during the interview.

To take it one step further, ask permission for your partner to take some snapshots of the person, any artifacts they share with you, and their devices. These can come in handy later when sharing research findings with others.

9. Build trust

I spotted a man sitting on a public bench during a guerilla interviewing excursion. He was a soft-spoken gentleman that lived in a nearby homeless shelter. He fit my team’s provisional persona and agreed to answer my questions. I introduced myself and extended my hand to shake his.

I sensed right away that he wasn’t used to speaking with people and perhaps wasn’t used to being acknowledged. “May I sit next to you?” was my first step at building trust with him. As the interview progressed, he began to tell stories and even unzipped his backpack of belongings to show me items as he mentioned them.

Of all the interviews we performed that day, his comments were the ones that impacted us the most. He gave us a perspective we could only have (inaccurately) imagined.

Take away: Be open. Be compassionate. Be kind. Be human.

10. Follow-up on general statements

Asking follow-up questions will lead you to buried insights. These insights will illuminate the path of your design process.

Listen. Ask for examples. Ask for feelings. Repeat. Dig deeper. Ask the five whys. Shut up and let them tell you.

Don’t be afraid to deviate from the discussion guide when something “new” develops in the conversation. If necessary, gently interrupt and nudge the conversation back on track to ensure you get the data you need.

Pro tip: When you aren’t sure how to ask for more without leading them, simply say, “Tell me more about that.”

11. Respond to their cues

If you are in the beginning of an interview and they say, “maybe I’m not the right person to talk to,” this might just mean they need reassurance. Make sure they know how helpful their feedback is to you and your project.

If someone is uncomfortable answering a question, move on. If you notice they are checking their watch, start wrapping up. Respect them and their time.

If you asked them for 15 minutes and you’re about to blow past that, ask if they need to leave. Be concise. Be considerate. Remember that they are doing you a favor.

12. Leverage the relationship you just sparked

Besides the obvious, “thank you for your time today,” ask if they know someone else that you could speak with. This is a great way to find additional people with relevant perspectives.

Consider asking if they’d be willing to participate in future research sessions. If they say yes, great! Request their phone number or email address to contact them.

What tips do you have for guerrilla interviewing? Please share below in the Response section.


More about me: I am Product Designer in San Francisco. I’m a creative problem solver fueled by empathy for other people’s pain points. You can follow me on Twitter or see my work here.