How to do effective user interviews?

A few years ago, I did a really useful online class on user interviews, which was instructed by Julie Blitzer. Julie is an experienced UX designer/strategist who shared some great learnings and tips on how to best do qualitative user interviews. This is the main thing that I learned from Julie’s session:


Yes, you guessed it right: LISTENING is everything when it comes to interacting with (target) users. Julie talked about the importance of listening and not asking leading questions, and I’ve been able to put both lessons in practice since.

However, having just started a new job as a product manager at Beamly, I thought it would be good to refresh my knowledge of user interviews and to look for new, practical tips that I could benefit from:

  1. What do you want to get out of the user interview?  A key part of the effectiveness of user interviews is in the preparation. I believe that there are two critical aspects to the interview prep. Firstly, defining the more strategic outcomes that you would like to get of the user interviews. What is that it that you want to learn from the user? Which user or business assumptions do you wish to validate? You can use these kinds of questions to formulate the goals of your user interviews. In his book “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love”, product management expert Marty Cagan outlines how one can utilise user interviews (or other product discovery techniques) to help answer some important product questions (see Fig. 1 below). Secondly, preparing all the different practicalities involved in user interviews is just as crucial an aspect of user interviews as the way in which you run these sessions. I’ve listed some practical things in Fig. 2 below which you might want to consider.
  2. Avoid leading questions – I’ve learned to refrain from asking users questions such as “You probably won’t get all the information that you need out of this landing page?” or “This is probably not the best way to navigate this app?”. Questions like these almost constitute a cardinal sin when it comes to generating true customer insights since you’re leading the user in a certain direction, giving him/her the idea that there’s a specific response that you’re looking for.
  3. Keep it open ended – I’ve learned that it’s better to leave the questions fairly open-ended and to avoid leading questions or ones that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Better questions are in my view the ones that encourage users to explain their thinking or experiences. For example: “What about this landing page do you like? “What don’t you like?” “How do you typically find out about new music?” As part of the introduction to the session, I always explain to users that this isn’t an exam and that aren’t any right or wrong answers.
  4. Avoid “Would you like this Ferrari?” type questions – My experience is that when you test a prototype or a new product with users they are almost all likely to answer ‘yes’ when you ask them whether would buy or use this product. I feel that is therefore a redundant question, answers to which are unlikely to tell you very much. No one can (accurately) predict future behaviour and there are so many factors that will impact actual product usage, that asking ‘would’ questions will provide you with fairly meaningless insights in return. I have heard a good number of war stories where product people made the mistake of thinking that their product would be a great success, purely based on people saying during interviews that they would buy it.
  5. Combine user interviews with live prototypes – Ideally, I prefer doing user interviews in conjunction with people actually using your product, even if it’s still in its most ‘minimal’ state. Whether a product is being used in Beta or has been launched fully, tracking usage data will only help you to learn so much (I wrote about the constraints of pure data-driven design last year). User interviews provide a great way to find out more about the ‘why’ behind the analytics data that you can track.
  6. Listen, reflect and probe – Listen, be silent … these things are easier said than done when you’re a passionate or opinionated product person but in my view oh so important when doing user interviews. When I explain the purpose and format of the interview to users, I tend to ‘warn’ them that I might not always respond (immediately) to their questions and that I will at times ask them to ‘think out loud’. This might sound a bit forced and unnatural, but understanding users’ thought processes, considerations or steps that they go through can be really insightful. UX people like Grace Ng, Adrian Howard and Michael Hawley have written some good, practical pointers on how to best paraphrase users and to ask ‘why, what, when or how’ questions to probe further.

Main learning point: It was good to refresh my understanding of some the tips around how to best do user interviews. However, I do feel that conducting these user sessions boils down to one fundamental thing: active listening. A lot of the practical tips and techniques that one can apply are great, but I do believe that the ultimate skill required is to truly listen to what the user is saying (and to what the user isn’t saying).

Fig. 1 – Key product questions that user interviews (or other product discovery techniques) can help to address (taken from: Marty Cagan – “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love”, Chapter 16)

  • Do you understand who your users really are?
  • How are users using your product?
  • Can users figure out how to use your product? Where do they stumble?
  • Why do users use your product?
  • What do users like about your product?
  • What do users want added to or changed in your product?

Fig. 2 – Some practical things to consider when preparing and running user interviews:

When approaching users to participate:

  • Think of the users you’d like to engage with – Whether you use a recruitment agency like Indiefield, a site like ethnio or if you recruit people yourself, it’s important to have a clear idea of the target persona(s) that you’d like to interact with.
  • Include the purpose, location and duration of the interview session – Inform the user upfront on the nature of the session, its expected duration and provide the details of the place where the interview will take place.
  • If you’re offering users an incentive, outline details  I typically include details on the relevant incentive in the initial email (e.g. an Amazon voucher).
  • Provide users with a range of dates and time slots to chose from – There are tools that automate the process of scheduling slots but you can always use a simple spreadsheet to keep track of available dates and time slots.

Preparing the questions and the room:

  • Create a high level interview outline – This is not a detailed script! This outline should provide you with a guide and reference point to use throughout the sessions. For example, an outline can contain any of the following elements: (1) interview objectives (see point 1. above), (2) interview topics, themes or scenarios that you want to cover and (3) some initial questions or tasks related to each part of the interview (again, these don’t have to be super detailed, but should help to get the conversation going.
  • Create a user consent form – The main purpose of this document is to ensure that the user is happy with you recording the session and using the data from the interview for internal purposes only.
  • Get a tape recorder and/or camera – Use your phone or tape recorder to record the session. Not only will this help in you listening back to the interview in full, it also means that you don’t spend the entire session taking notes. Instead, you can instead focus on listening.
  • Get a comfortable chair and a drink – I know it sounds obvious, but do make sure the user feels comfortable in the room or location where you’re conducting the interview.
  • Don’t create a tribunal setting – Especially if you have two people conducting the interview (i.e. one person asking questions and one taking notes) I think it’s important to avoid create a setting where the users feels that he/she’s being interviewed for a job or grilled as part of an exam.

Facilitating the session:

  • Do at least one trial run – I’ve learned – the hard way – of the importance of doing at least one trial run of your user interview of your usability test. This will give you the opportunity to iron out any kinks or detect any questions/tasks that don’t make sense to the user.
  • Prepare one other person – Ideally, I like facilitating these sessions with one other person. This person can ask the user questions, take notes or simply observe. I find this a great way to involve other people within the organisation, e.g. engineers or marketing people.
  • Introduce the interview session – Again, this is a bit of a no-brainer but it’s nevertheless very important to explain to the user about the nature of the session, the things that you’re hoping to learn and to ensure that the user feels comfortable asking you questions or seeking clarification.

Related links for further learning:


9 responses to “How to do effective user interviews?”

  1. […] Measure. Measure. Measure. Tracking the impact of a product is crucial if you wish to learn about your product and your customers. I’ve written before about the importance of spending time on defining the right metrics to measure, avoiding the risk of succumbing to data overload. That’s all well and good, but what do you do when the key things to measure aren’t so tangible!? For example, how do you measure customer feelings or opinions (a lot of which you’ll learn about during qualitative research)? […]

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