This article is focused on one methodology of user experience (UX) research: the interview. UX research has commonalities with other kinds of research, but it is distinct. At its heart, UX research tries to uncover user needs revolving around a digital product like a website, a mobile app, or a desktop app. But UX research also explores experiences and attitudes outside of the product in question because those often reveal the motivations behind user behaviors.

At Four Kitchens, we engage with all kinds of clients—some of whom have conducted UX research before hiring us—and they share the research with us when we begin a project. From my experience, I can tell you that this is a huge bonus for our team. As a UX strategist, this shows me the client is thinking about the user and is interested in finding out who the user is and what they need. In the best cases, the research informs me about the user in a way that rapidly speeds up my information gathering process. So don’t talk yourself out of it! You can do it.

Catch up on the first article in this series

Tips for Conducting Your First UX Research Interview

Assumptions:

  • I assume that you have ready access to users. This article does not discuss methods of recruiting participants. Maybe I’ll write that article next? Let me know if you’d want to read that!
  • I assume that you don’t face complicated ethical standards when it comes to engaging with your users. In some industries (medical, financial, etc.), regulations and protections make it more complicated to conduct a user interview. Please know your own limitations.

Write a plan (include goals)

Before you do anything else, write a plan for your user interviews project.

A common situation: Your company or department website is outdated and everyone knows that a redesign is somewhere on the horizon. In order to accelerate the project, you want to get real user feedback circulating. In cases like this, it’s valuable to write a plan. A plan keeps you focused while also lending legitimacy to the research for anyone who wants more information. Your plan doesn’t have to be long, but should include vital details: 

  • Clearly lay out the purpose of the research with stated goals.
  • Explicitly state the expected benefits of doing the research. 
  • Describe the methodology for finding participants, and the research methodology (in this case: 30- or 60-minute one-on-one interviews).
  • Provide the forecasted costs (time and materials).
  • Develop a research timeline.
  • Write down a few sample interview topics or questions. This will set the tone and further illustrate the benefits of learning from your users. 

A documented research plan can be shared with anyone who wants to understand what you’re doing, and can also be a document you revisit to stay on track and focused as the research gets underway.

Focus the research goal

A generic or a broad, unfocused interview is ineffective on many fronts; mainly it yields little to no actionable findings because it often leans too heavily on general customer perceptions of your website, or the brand and organization. UX research needs to focus on a specific feature or a user activity, such as why are customers canceling/leaving? Or what caused the customer to decide to convert?

If you are indeed preparing for a website redesign RFP, you could focus on specific aspects of the website in your interviews, such as the ease in which users can find specified information. If you are truly stuck on what the focus of your interviews should be, spend some time with internal stakeholders asking them what questions they would have for users. You’ll probably see a trend appear and can zero in on as your research focus.

Dig into available data to prepare for interviews

An effective way to identify goals for your user interviews is by uncovering user behaviors in existing data. Gather foundational knowledge about current user behavior in the data your company collects, such as website analytics, chat logs and call logs or tickets, or anecdotes from your sales team. Use this data to inspire questions to ask users. What calls-to-action are most clicked upon? Where are people bailing in the purchase process? What are the three most popular reasons people contact your customer service? What are the 10 most searched keywords on your website? All of this reveals where your users are feeling pain or feeling appreciated. Use it to shape your research goals and line of questions.

Anticipate time for scheduling interviews

In conducting one-on-one interviews, scheduling can be tedious. So allow for back-and-forth time with your participants while dates and times are agreed upon. At Four Kitchens, our researchers use Calendly, which allows your research participants to schedule themselves onto your calendar. Such a time saver!

Tools: Keep it simple

Simply conduct a conversation with users. Now is not the time to attempt your first prototype or usability study, or using complicated testing software. I would even advise against trying to manage a group of people. Stick to one-on-one interviews. Get your interviewees into a room, into an online meeting space, or on the phone and just talk to them. 

Suggestions for tools:

  • If the interviews are in person: Download a free audio recording app on your mobile device. For iOS I’ve used Voice Recorder & Audio Editor, and Voice Record Pro. But there are many.
  • If the interviews are online: Zoom and GoToMeeting both have robust features and allow you to record sessions. (Both services offer recording transcription as well, but may require a paid plan.)
  • Print out your interview script so you don’t have to look at a computer or browser window. Plus, keep a pen in hand for scribbling ideas or notes occasionally.

I’ve been conducting research for more than 15 years, and everyone appreciates being asked about their lives, their needs, and their opinions. You’re not bothering them. So take a deep breath, and have a friendly conversation.

Write a script

If you continue doing research and become more experienced, your research guides may become looser, but as a beginner, an interview script with specific questions provides the confidence of training wheels. The script can steady you if you get nervous or if a user takes you off track.

Be prepared with 10 questions minimum and 25 questions maximum, on a variety of topics that fall within your previously established research goals. The truth is, you could run through 20 questions in under 20 minutes, or one single question could fill half-an-hour. It depends on how your questions are constructed and how verbose the interviewee is. Expect your interviews to vary in engagement levels and length of time; this is normal.

Bonus tips for interview scripts: 

  • Avoid asking yes/no questions. If you naturally find yourself writing these kinds of questions, simply reconfigure them to force longer explanations. Example: “Were you able to find the ‘sizing chart’ button?” vs. “Can you explain to me how you decided which size to select?”
  • Avoid asking a user to predict future behavior or predict the behavior of other people. Only ask about them (not others), and try to ask about past behavior as much as possible. A user’s past behavior is a far better predictor of future behavior than their own imagination. Example: “Do you think people would chat with a live assistant when selecting a shirt size from our website?” vs. “Have you ever chatted or called an online retailer in order to select the correct shirt size?”

Listen (really listen)

Listening deeply to users as you interview them is challenging, especially when you’re new to conducting research. So don’t get frustrated if your nerves get the better of you and you get distracted at first. But as you calm down, focus on what users say to you. It will build a connection with the person, and help them trust you more. They may say something that takes you in a valuable and unexpected direction, and you want to be present enough to catch it and grab the opportunity to improvise.

Don’t rush. Don’t be afraid of pauses or quiet spots. It definitely feels awkward, but my ability to sit and wait a beat or two has ended up yielding some of the most valuable user feedback of the entire interview, when the person gets a chance to reflect and offer additional thoughts. 

Bonus tip: One of the best pieces of research advice I’ve ever received is to always remember that your users are the experts, not you. In an interview setting, they hold all the answers and you are in need of that information. Approach every interview this way: You’re about to interview an expert.

Reduce bias and practice empathy

When you’re an insider, it can be hard to detach yourself from how emotionally invested you are in the product or website. But there are tricks to doing it. Some researchers like to work in pairs (don’t work alone). In software development, engineers sometimes do pair programming, where they work as a pair to reduce errors and increase quality. Sharing the research responsibilities with another person will increase the quality of your work and reduce biases.

Secondly, refrain from asking whether users “like” something. This may encourage their need to please, or their need to avoid hurting your feelings. Conversely, if the user has criticisms, explore them by asking for further details. This is empathy. Don’t try to solve the user’s problem; you’re not the help desk. Just try to understand the source of their pain so that you can fix it later.

Record the interview, or have your research partner take exceptional notes

It is very difficult to listen when you’re taking notes. Therefore, either record the interview or ask a coworker to sit in and take notes. This is an enormous relief that frees your mind, your eyes, and your hands during the interview and also ensures that you capture the feedback more accurately than you could on your own.

Get out there and interview someone!

So, you’re not a UX researcher. That’s OK! My hope is that these guidelines help you get the confidence and the know-how to move forward with customer research and conducting your own UX interviews. Bringing real user thoughts and attitudes directly to your organization can help everyone move toward a customer-centered design approach, and that’s a positive thing as your design practices evolve and move into the highly competitive future.