How to Conduct a User Interview That Actually Uncovers Valuable Insights

User interview

When you start working on a new project, one of the first things you need to do is to answer the question, “Who are the people who will use this product?” If you don’t have a clear answer to this question, chances are you’ll end up with something completely unusable.

You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.

Dieter Rams, German Industrial Designer

User interviews are a tool that can help you get this understanding. When an interview is conducted properly, it can give you an in-depth knowledge of your users—their goals, perceptions, and experiences. Poor interviews, on the other hand, can give you inaccurate information that can take your design in the wrong direction.

You need to take into account a lot of different factors to conduct an interview properly. In this article, we’ll look at the foundational principles of strong user interviews.

When to conduct a user interview

While user interviews can be helpful during any phase of the product development process, there are three particular times when interviews are especially valuable. These times are:

  • At the beginning of a project, before a clear concept has been defined. You interview people to get a better understanding of your potential users and their wants and needs. The information you collect during the interview will help you start thinking of a solution.
  • During the early stages of product development. When a product team has an early model of their concept, showing it to users can provide valuable feedback.
  • After the product has shipped. Interviews can be conducted in combination with observation. Such interviews are called a contextual inquiry, and are conducted in the context of using a product. These give users an opportunity to show you how they interact with your product.

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How to conduct a user interview

There are three steps in the interview process: preparation for the interview, conducting the interview, and analyzing results after the interview. Below, we look at how you should conduct each step of a successful, insightful interview.

Step 1: Before the interview

Some people believe that conducting an interview is just like having a conversation with other people, and that it doesn’t require a lot of preparation. But while interviews obviously share similarities with everyday conversations, a good interview requires significant preparation. Otherwise, your chances of getting valuable insights are limited.

Below are the six things you should prepare before conducting a user interview.

1. Set a clear goal

It’s crucial to start each new interview project with a clear understanding of the purpose of your research. It’s vital that you know why you want to conduct the interviews and what you want to get out of them. For example, you might want to learn why 50 percent of users who reached the product checkout phase in your ecommerce app abandon the checkout flow.

The following questions will help you formulate a goal for your interviews.

  • What do I need to know about our users to make our app better?
  • How will that knowledge inform our design process?

Tip: Involve the key stakeholders in the process of defining a purpose for your research. You’ll add more weight to this activity by getting buy-in from them.

2. Make sure the interview is the right tool for the problem you want to solve

Interviews are not a universal answer to all design challenges. It’s vital to know when an interview will work best and when it’s better to use other tools. For example, an interview might not be the best tool for finding what color scheme you should choose for your app. It’s much better to use user testing for this purpose.

3. Decide who to recruit

Recruitment is a vital part of the interview process. It’s essential to recruit a representative sample of your target audience. Start with your user personas and try to find interview participants that match them. Decide whether you want to have only one particular group of users or users from many different groups.

When it comes to the number of people you should interview, there are no hard and fast rules. You can apply the principle established by Jakob Nielsen for usability testing, and start out by interviewing five participants. If you notice that by participant number five you’ve stopped getting any new insights, you probably don’t need to recruit any more participants.

4. Design your interview questions

If you want just one piece of advice for your interview, this is it: don’t start an interview without a prepared discussion guide. A discussion guide is a document in which you formulate the questions you want to ask your participants. Your discussion guide should be closely tied to the purpose of your research, and the questions should be selected according to your learning goal.

"If you want just one piece of advice for your interview, this is it: don’t start an interview without a prepared discussion guide."

At the same time, just because you have a discussion guide doesn’t mean you need to ask all of the questions in it during the interview. Think of it more like a reference document, a “skeleton” for your discussion, rather than a script. During the interviews, the guide should serve as a reminder of the questions you want to ask or topics you want to cover.

Discussion guides typically consist of two types of questions—general and product-specific. General questions are questions you ask during the introduction part. These might include:

  • Could you tell me about your habits?
  • What apps/websites do you use on a regular basis?

Product-specific questions are focused on getting specific details about user behavior. These questions might include:

  • What’s the hardest part of [the task]?
  • What can we do to make [the task] easier?

Keep the following tips in mind when preparing a question script:

  • Keep the script reasonably short. Write down all your questions and read them out loud. If it takes more than ten minutes to read through them, your script is too long, and you need to cut it down.
  • Write clear questions. Don’t use terms in your questions that might be unfamiliar to the user.
  • Avoid long questions. The questions you ask should be relatively brief and easy to understand. People can’t retain a lot of information in their short-term memory, so avoid long sentences with a lot of details.
  • Don’t ask questions about the future. When you ask questions like, “When we release [product] on the market, will you purchase it?”, people are likely to say yes just to make you feel good. In reality, they simply don’t have any idea.
  • Test your discussion guide. Conduct a trial run for your interview with one of your peers, and ask them the questions from your guide. This will help you understand whether or not you can get valuable insights based on the answers you get.
  • Iterate your discussion guide. Refine the guide based on results of real interview sessions.

5. Create a good environment

When it comes to in-person interviews, the physical space you choose to use for the interview will have a direct impact on the results of your interview session. People often behave according to their environment. 

Just imagine an empty room with white walls, two chairs, a table, and a mirrored wall which shields the observers on the other side. Such a room looks more like a place for interrogations rather than a place for discussions. It will be hard for an interviewee to relax in such an environment.

6. Don’t conduct the interview alone

It’s best to conduct an interview with a partner. There are three significant benefits of having two people facilitating the interview together:

  • Distribute responsibilities. One person can ask questions while the other takes notes.
  • Support each other in real time. The person who takes notes can also think about any questions that the first person forgot to ask, and remind them about it.
  • Gain even more valuable insights. When two people conduct an interview together, they can share and discuss their thoughts and impressions after the interview.

User testing: A woman sits taking notes with a pen in a notebook on her lap.

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Step 2: During the interview

Once you’ve prepared, the next step is to ensure that the actual user interview goes according to plan. Below are 14 steps to take to ensure that you get the valuable insights you’re looking for.

1. Put yourself in a positive mood

Before you step into the meeting room, take a deep breath and smile. It’s a proven fact that smiling creates a more positive attitude, and since positive attitudes are contagious, your interviewee will likely feel better, too.

2. Stick to the semi-structured interview format

When it comes to selecting a format for interviewing people, there are two extremes:

  • Completely structured interviews. This is an interview where all questions are prescripted. Such interviews look very much like a survey.
  • Completely unstructured interviews. This is an open dialog between people, and which rarely brings valuable insights. As Steve Portigal, author of the book Interviewing Users says, “To learn something new requires interviewing, not just chatting.”

To learn something new requires interviewing, not just chatting.

Steve Portigal, Author of Interviewing Users

Semi-structured interviews lie between the two extremes. They’re a type of interview where you prepare a set of topics you want to cover (recorded in your discussion guide), but where you can change the order of questions depending on how the conversation evolves.

The semi-structured interview approach has two significant advantages:

  • It feels natural to people. Unlike a scripted interview, the semi-structured interview doesn’t create the feeling of a police interview.
  • Flexibility for topic flow. It gives the interviewer an opportunity to explore topics that they had not previously thought relevant. It’s possible to gain additional valuable insights by elaborating on answers and asking follow-up questions.

3. Build rapport with interviewee

The quality of the interview will suffer if you aren’t able to put the interviewee at ease and earn their confidence. That’s why your goal at the beginning of an interview is to make the interviewee feel comfortable. It’s not that hard to achieve this goal. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Make them feel welcome. Greet your interviewee by name, offer them a drink, and initiate friendly small talk before moving to the main topic of discussion.
  • Learn a little bit about the interviewee. Ask questions like, “Can you tell me about yourself,” and let them freely talk about their background, lifestyle, or technology habits. Such questions are both ice-breakers and a great way to get some context about your interviewees. The information you get might be helpful for the future analysis.
  • Use positive body language. Use non-verbal cues to make them feel comfortable, such as maintaining eye contact and smiling. Watch your body language for negative cues, such as fidgeting or crossing your arms.
  • Explain the purpose of the interview. Describe what you are trying to achieve and explain how you plan to use the results. The point of this is to give the interviewee more context about why you want to speak to them, and what sort of questions they might be asked so they don’t feel confused during the interview.
  • Keep it about the product. Make sure the interviewee doesn’t feel like they’re being tested in any way. If you plan to test a prototype of a product during the interview, make it clear to the interviewee that you're testing the prototype, not them.

4. Resist the urge to judge or educate your interviewee

The foundation for conducting a good interview is to keep an open mind and be truly curious about the participant’s perspective. Your interviewees are there to teach you something, not the other way around! It’s counterproductive to judge your interviewee or try to educate them during the interview. You have a limited amount of time for the session (usually, no more than one hour) and your goal is to use it effectively. Elicit as much information as you can during this time.

5. Ask permission before audio or video recording

While the most common form of data collection during interviews is note taking, audio or video recording can also be an excellent way to collect information. Of course, any time you want to record your participants you need to ensure that they are okay with that. Always ask for permission before starting the recording, and be ready to abandon it at any point during your interview if your interviewee feels uncomfortable.

User interview: A woman is video recorded on an iPhone while speaking.
Recording the interview session will allow you to refer back to it later.

6. Start off with the easy questions

Start each interview session with simple questions. These might be three to five lightweight questions from the general section of your discussion guide that you ask before moving to the main topics you want to cover. 

Such questions are intended to act as a warm-up for the interviewee, and make it easier for the interviewer to create a connection. But make sure that the questions are relevant to the broader theme of the session.

7. Prioritize open-ended questions

Open-ended questions allow the interviewee to respond in their own words and allow them to share richer, qualitative details. Closed-ended questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” It’s hard to imagine any great discussion that only consists of closed-ended questions. You’ll have a better chance of getting valuable insights by asking open-ended questions. Such questions start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Here are a couple of examples to help get you started:

  • What was your experience with [product]?
  • Where did you get stuck?
  • How would [product] fit into your workflow?
  • Who did you turn to when you needed help? Why?

8. Ask follow-up questions

Don’t settle for the first answer you get. Always try to dig deeper to understand the interviewee’s point of view. Try to ask follow-up questions when users describe a particular case or problem.

Tip: Use the “Five Whys” technique. This technique is called “Five Whys” because you literally ask “why” five times to understand the interviewee’s intention or point of view. For example, imagine you ask a question like, “Why do you like this ecommerce app?”. Your interviewee may respond, “Because it offers the products I need.”

You can stop here and mention product range as a primary reason for using a product, but you won’t have the whole story. In fact, without asking “why” again, your ideas about the interviewee’s motivation might be completely incorrect. Maybe a user likes a specific type of product that she can find only in this particular app, or perhaps she loves the price on products. The only way to know the right answer is by asking another “why?”

User interview: The Five Whys interview technique expressed as a flow chart. When you get to the final "why," it shows the real reason behind an original answer is found after asking why five times.
The “Five Whys” technique.

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9. Use the critical incident method

It's a well-known fact that people are really bad at recalling situations that happened in the past. Human memory is fallible, and people are notorious for adding details to make the story more compelling. But when you need to collect accurate information about user experience, the critical incident method can help.

The critical incident method is to ask users to recall a specific situation from the past in which they faced a terrible or excellent experience. Unlike general situations from the past that the user might easily forget, the extreme cases are often more vivid in users' minds, meaning they can remember some specifics that will be valuable for you. This is why the critical incident method is especially great for exploratory interviews.

10. Avoid leading questions

Leading questions are questions that frame the interviewee’s mind around a particular answer. It’s essential to avoid or at least minimize the number of leading questions you ask, otherwise the results of your interview sessions will be too biased and you’ll hear only what you want to hear.

“How often do you watch Netflix?” is an example of a leading question. By asking such a question, you assume as fact that your interviewee is an active Netflix user. It’s much better to ask questions in a neutral manner.

So, if you want to know about user preferences regarding video streaming services, you can start with asking a question like, “Do you have any experience with any video streaming services?”

11. Clarify interviewee responses in real time

When you’re not quite sure what an interviewee is talking about, ask them for a clarification. Don’t leave clarification questions to the end of the user interview session, because it’ll be hard to recreate the original context. Don’t be afraid to ask interviewees to elaborate on their responses. This pairs well with asking follow up questions.

12. Minimize note-taking

Written notes are one of the common artifacts we get from an interview session, and they are extremely valuable in analyzing the results of an interview. So it might sound strange to suggest minimizing your note taking. But there’s a good reason for it—it’s almost impossible to pay full attention to your interviewee and take notes at the same time.

If you ask questions and take notes at the same time, there’s a good chance that you’ll have a hard time managing the interview. Also, when you focus too much on note taking, such behavior creates a strong sense of an authority interview, not a regular conversation. Try to note only the most important information or questions you want to ask for further analysis. This is why it’s a great idea to have an interview partner taking notes and managing any recording devices while the other person is conducting the interview.

13. Don’t be afraid of silence

When you conduct an interview, try not to fear silent pauses in the conversation. It’s natural for people to fill the silence with words, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to fill the pauses yourself. Instead, give the interviewee the opportunity to provide additional information.

14. Finish with a wrap-up summary

At the end of the interview, you should give your respondent a sense of closure. Don’t just stop the conversation abruptly when you reach the last question in your interview guide. Instead, give an interviewee an opportunity to ask questions. After that, thank your interviewees for taking their time.

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Step 3: After the interview

Once you’ve completed your interview, it’s time to analyze your responses. This is when the insights from your interviewees will become especially clear. Below are three steps you need to take.

1. Conduct a retrospective

Ideally, after each interview you conduct, try to reflect on how well you managed it and what you can do to improve the quality of your interviews in the future.

2. Structure the information

The next step is to analyze what your users have told you. You’ll probably have a massive amount of data—dozens of notes, video recordings, and personal impressions. Most of this data will be qualitative rather than quantitative. As a result, it might feel overwhelming.

Hopefully, two common tools can help you structure the data:

  • A report with specific sections. The goals you stated at the beginning of your user interview project and the discussion guide you prepared can be good foundations for your reports—they will help you filter through the key data.
  • Mind maps. This type of diagram can help you structure and present your data in a visual and easily accessible format. It can help you to quickly identify links between topics and spot connections that may not have been obvious before.

3. Combine interviews with other techniques

After analyzing the interview results, you might feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what you need to do with your product, and it might be tempting to start implementing your insights right away. But it’s better to resist this temptation, because it’s essential to first validate your results.

The great thing about user interviews is that they can be combined with other research methods, such as usability testing or user surveys. By combining interviews with other techniques, you’ll be able to either validate or disprove your hypothesis while also gaining additional insights about your objective results.

Get user interviews right for the best insights

User interviews can be an informative and helpful way to see what the world looks like from your users’ perspective. But that only happens when interviews are conducted properly.

If you just started to conduct user interviews, you probably won’t get everything right the first time. But don’t worry! The great thing about interviewing is that it's a skill, and similar to any other skill it can be learned. All you need to do is to keep practicing and analyzing your results.

How have user interviews helped you build excellent products? Share your experience in the comments below!

Conducting an Interview FAQ

How do you conduct a user interview?

  1. Prepare an agenda: Before your user interview, it’s important to create an agenda that outlines the topics you want to cover. Make sure the agenda is tailored to the specific user you are talking to in order to get the most relevant information.
  2. Conduct a warm-up: Make sure to start the interview with some small talk to help the user feel comfortable.
  3. Ask open-ended questions: Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer. This will help you get valuable information and insights from the user.
  4. Listen actively: Listen carefully to the user's responses and ask follow-up questions to help get to the root of the issue.
  5. Take notes: Making notes during the interview will help you remember important details and make sure you don’t miss anything.
  6. Follow up: After the user interview, don’t forget to thank the user for their time and follow up with any questions or information they provided.

Why do we conduct user interviews?

User interviews are conducted in order to gain a better understanding of user needs, preferences, and behaviors. By collecting qualitative data from users, you can identify areas for improvement, uncover new opportunities, and create a more user-centric experience. User interviews can help you better understand user motivations, needs, and frustrations, as well as provide insights into how products and services can be improved.

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