Guide On User Interviewing Techniques

August 2, 2023

In one of my favorite movies, Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is depicted as a mind thief, the absolute best in the art of extraction, revealing valuable secrets from the deep subconscious. I like to allude this process to user research, especially the interviewing methodology, as an art of extracting information, the underlying thoughts and emotion to better understand participants’ behaviors and needs. While interviewing is a powerful method for delving into the depths of why’s and how’s, it’s not an easy technique. It is more than just asking questions and getting answers as it also involves dynamically engaging and establishing relationships with the participants. In this post, we’ll explore the art of interviewing and list some tips on how to to do it effectively.

1. Use the introduction as a time to build rapport and trust

  • When conducting interviews, providing general information such as introducing yourself and the purpose of the study, can be conceived as a mere laborious checklist to go over before diving into the actual conversation. However, this early introduction can very likely set the tone and direction of the entire session. Besides the basic introduction, it’s important to thank the participants for showing up and how valuable it is to hear their feedback.
  • Give participants a sense that they’re contributing to the product development by sharing how their honest feedback will help shape the product. Participants will be more motivated to help out and share candid feedback throughout the session.

2. Keep the conversation grounded on real events

  • It’s important to ask open-ended questions that encourage exploration. Asking binary (yes-no) questions likely leads to closed loop and discourages participants to share details. A simple approach I take is to begin every question with how or why instead of do you… to have the participants fill in the details.
  • Moreover, maintain balance by fostering a neutral environment where participants can comfortably express their thoughts. For example, when evaluating a newly released feature, it can be easy to ask leading questions to get confirmation and positive feedback. Make sure to ask for both sides of their opinions by probing what they like and dislike.
  • Grounding the questions to real life events makes their comments more relevant and easy to follow up. Instead of asking “how useful is this feature?”, ask “when was the last time this feature could’ve been useful to you?” You can then follow-up with questions and anchor the discussion on truly understanding the context of how the new feature could be useful for the participants.

3. Engage with active listening and body language

  • When conversing with the participants, I tend to intervene minimally as possible to keep the stage focused on the participants. As a general rule of thumb, I consider that I am listening 90 percent of the time, and would ask clarifying questions only as a way to guardrail the direction of the conversation. Let the participants speak and share their stories while I absorb their words and emotions.
  • Follow-up with questions to clarify or rephrase what you heard. This not only helps fill in any gaps or misinterpretations, but also makes participants feel that they’re being heard. Showing that you’re actively listening will slowly build up trust between you and the participants.
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues like facial expressions, posture, or body language. Follow-up with questions addressing some of those behaviors, such as “I noticed you were frowning as you shared your experience…” It shows you are paying close attention and help you better empathize with the participants.

4. Save time at the end to exhaust last minute thoughts

  • In addition to taking the time to thank the participants for their valuable insights, ask for their last minute thoughts. Use this time to exhaust any lingering thoughts or comments that they might have. It can be surprising how insightful the last question can be as they share ideas and suggestions that haven’t been covered in the original research plan. An example that I like to use is: “today we looked at better understanding behaviors of [customer profile] and improving the experience. In regards to that, do you have any last minute thoughts you want to share with me or the team?”

Interviewing is more than mere data collection sessions. It requires experience and skill for the moderator to extract the essence of participants’ thoughts and emotions. By conceiving the session as a way to establish relationships with the participants, keeping the conversation grounded to real-life context, and engaging with active listening, moderators can build connections that foster a deeper understanding of users. Do you have any tips or comments regarding user interviews? Please share them to me at jin@hubble.team

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of questions should I ask during a user interview?

Use a mix of open-ended and specific questions to understand users' experiences, challenges, and expectations. Start with icebreakers, delve into specific tasks, and conclude with broader reflections to capture a comprehensive picture.

What tools can I use for remote user interviews?

Popular tools for remote user interviews include video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams.

How can I ensure participants feel comfortable during interviews?

Establish rapport at the beginning, explain the purpose of the interview, and assure participants that there are no right or wrong answers. Use a conversational tone, listen actively, and avoid judgmental reactions.

How do I ensure confidentiality and privacy during interviews?

Clearly communicate your data handling practices and obtain informed consent from participants. Anonymize data during analysis, and store information securely. Adhere to ethical guidelines and regulations regarding user privacy.

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Jin is a UX researcher at Hubble that helps customers collect user research insights. Jin also helps the Hubble marketing team create content related to continuous discovery. Before Hubble, Jin worked at Microsoft as a UX researcher. He graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from U.C. Berkekley and an M.S in Human Computer Interaction from University of Washington.

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