Lessons from Being A User Interview Noob

When I first started in product design, interviewing users was one of the most intimidating parts of UX Research, and I screwed up — a lot.

The most important thing I learned? If you’re going to take up half an hour or more of your user interviewee’s time, space, and mental energy, you better be prepared.

Here are five ways to make sure you make the most out of every user interview.

1. Prepare a guide.

A snippet of my discussion guide for a product about the creator economy.

Always prepare a Discussion Guide with the set of questions you want to ask and other details you need to say, like introductions or notices about confidentiality and recording.

It should also include 2–3 Research Objectives that look something like this:

  1. Learn more about our users and their experience doing ____.
  2. Identify user’s goals as ____.
  3. Discover user behaviors in ____.
  4. Uncover their motivations and pain points in ____.

These research objectives will be the guiding light for the insights you want to uncover. It’s surprisingly easy for an interview to go off-focus, so these statements serve as anchor points to which to reel back the conversation.

In practice, it also helps to continously ask yourself:

  1. Have I satisfied my objectives?
  2. Is there something else that I still don’t understand?
  3. Why does the user think this way?
  4. Where is what they’re saying coming from?

2. Focus on your interviewee.

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a noob interviewer was trying to take notes or juggle other tasks while interviewing.

The thing is, interviewing sounds simple, but it’s a bunch of different tasks happening all at the same time. There’s:

  1. Listening to your interviewee
  2. Showing them with your body language that you’re paying attention
  3. Thinking of what you want to dig deeper into
  4. Staying aware of your time and objectives
  5. Anticipating the segue to the next question

and more.

Trying to note-take on top of that will end up taking your focus away from your interviewee. It might also make your interviewee feel distracted by your lack of attention or the clacking of your keyboard.

Instead, ask someone to take notes or just record the audio of your call to transcribe later. You and your interviewee will both feel the difference.

3. Avoid multi-layered questions.

You might have already heard of avoiding leading questions, which bias your user to give one answer over another.

However, another common mistake I always made was to ask multi-layered questions like:

What are your long-term and short-term goals as a content creator?
Where do you usually go when you have problems, issues, or things you want to get feedback for?
When and where was the last time you used our platform, and why?

These questions might all look like a single sentence, but they each have two or three subquestions nestled inside.

This increases the burden on your user to try and remember all of them, which means that they might not go deep on the details anymore.

Instead, make your questions short, simple, and slightly open-ended.

Why do you make content?
What do you do when you need advice on a problem?
Tell me about the last time you used our platform.

The way that your user answers these kinds of questions will tell you more about their motivations and behaviors than if you try to overload them with context at the start.

4. Dig deep for stories.

When I was interviewing for my UX University case study, I realized that some questions encourage people to give more shallow answers. For example:

How did you like the platform?

Questions like these lead the user to try and view the platform as a distant observer rather than a direct user. For that reason, it’s much better to phrase questions like:

Tell me about the last time you used the platform.

With this phrasing, the interviewee is far more likely to dive into their own real lived experiences. Stories like this provide much more insight into their true motivations, behaviors, and frustrations with your product.

5. Fake it ’til you make it.

Spot me smiling through my nerves in this Swarm user interview.

Finally, if you go into your interviews looking nervous or afraid, your interviewees will sense that and respond in turn. Believe me. I’ve lived it first-hand.

Instead, always come into your interviews with a boost of confidence and a smile. You can even make some small talk before the interview proper to put both of you at ease.

From there, channel your natural curiosity about your interviewee and the problems they face. Pretend you’re catching up with a friend you just haven’t seen in a while, and let them tell their story.

That way, you’re far more likely to make your interviewee feel comfortable as they share their experience.

✨ In summary:

  1. Prepare a guide.
  2. Focus on your interviewee.
  3. Avoid multi-layered questions.
  4. Dig deep for stories.
  5. Fake it ’til you make it.

With these tips, you’ll be a pro interviewer in no time. Good luck! 🐝

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