Never Underestimate User Interviews

Never Underestimate User Interviews - Sam O'Hara, Seattle UX Designer
I’m a big fan of user interviews. Depending on how well they’re conducted, they can reveal insights that shape the entire direction of your UX design process. They’re a great tool, you just have to know how to extract the meat from each user conversation.

Surprisingly, that doesn’t mean asking pointed, specific questions or scheduling an excessively long interview to dig into the user’s mind. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

Scripts: To write or not to write?

Should you write a script? The jury’s out on that one. On the one hand, a script can help keep you from forgetting anything in the moment of the interview – but unless you’re willing to memorize it, choosing to read word for word off a sheet of paper can make you seem stiff and disinterested (even when you’re not). I’ve found that developing a simple bulleted list can help you remember the salient points if you get lost. Just remember to practice a few run-throughs so you’re comfortable with the content. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your interviewee will feel (a must when looking for genuine responses).

Leading the witness

Court in Rhymes with Orange by Hilary Price on User Interviews

This guy doesn’t get it.

A while back, I was conducting a focus group as a team project for a marketing class assignment. My teammate and fellow MBA cohort, in the middle of listening to college students talk about what their local dining experiences looked like, suddenly burst out with his favorite restaurant, and asked them if they liked going there. He was convinced that they probably loved the place as much as he did, even though he was a decade older. The topic derailed, but we managed to find the flow again without too much trouble.

So, yeah, you’re the UXpert, you’ve done all the research, but you are not the authority in why these particular users choose to do the things they do, and what motivates them. This is why you conduct qualitative investigations, asking folks for the things you can’t get from looking at analytics or researching the competitors. So, let go of your leading questions. You need to be like those quirky beach dudes with metal detectors – always paying attention, and being open to whatever treasures come along (even if they’re not exactly what you were hoping you’d find). Ask open-ended questions, don’t be too quick to move on to the next topic, a when in doubt, try not to fill the silence with your opinions. Allowing interviewees to use the space can get you a more authentic answer.

Where does it hurt?

Sample User Interviews Pain Assessment Tool

Sample User Interviews Pain Assessment Tool.

The wonderful Laura Klein, in her book UX for Lean Startups, says “…talk to your users and potential users and find out what causes them pain when they are trying to solve a problem.” She goes on to liken her Pain-Driven Design methodology to a doctor’s visit, during which the doctor asks you about where you’re hurting. He doesn’t ask you to explain, in detail, what disease you think you’ve got, and why WebMD has convinced you that you’ll be dead in a week.

…talk to your users and potential users and find out what causes them pain when they are trying to solve a problem.Laura Klein, UX for Lean Startups

He asks you about your pain points, and then uses his education and experience to help ease your suffering. So, ask your interviewees how they solve their problems, and keep an ear out for frustrations and pain along the process. High emotional states help solidify things in people’s minds, so pain points are sometimes the easiest things to remember.

Document, record, observe

Great, you’re getting the hang of it! No matter how much of a rockstar you become at user interviews, though, there’s no way you’re going to remember everything afterward. Especially if you’re conducting multiple interviews in a day. So set that camera up, download that audio recording app, invite a teammate to observe and take notes – just make sure that you have an abundance of data to review later, because you’re the one who will be extracting those delicious insights. Also, make sure the interviewee knows they’re being recorded. Pretty sure it’s illegal, otherwise, and who needs that hassle?

Diminishing returns

At some point, you’ll find that the more time you spend with your subject, the less you get out of each minute. Try to keep interactions under an hour – years of attending educational institutions have taught most people that an hour is a good amount of time to focus on a subject, and their minds will start to wander toward the next thing if you go much past that. Remember, user interviews might be a part of your job, but it’s not their job and they’re taking time out of their day to meet with you. Don’t abuse their expectations, and they’ll be more open with their responses.

User interviews conquered

Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcom in Jurrasic Park, telling us how it is with user interviews.

Now you have my thoughts on conquering the user interview.

Of course, each new collection of user interviews helps refine your process, so my greatest advice is just to get out there and do it. You’ll figure out your personal pain points along the way, and soon you’ll be writing about your own experiences. Let me know what you discover!

About the Author

Sam O'Hara

Facebook Twitter

Sam O'Hara is a Seattle user experience designer, currently working for Pacific Lutheran University. When not UXing, she loves traveling with her husband and daughter, shooting and editing film, most geek culture, and a great craft cider. She once named a cat Tendency. He didn't seem to mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *