How To: User Interviews

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Everyone knows that building the foundation for a great business starts with listening to your customers and users. But just like laundry day, it’s all too easy to push off these crucial conversations, leaning on assumption and gut instinct instead…until you find yourself down to your last pair of socks.

Among the reasons to push off user research, time and money often shoot to the top of the list. Talking to users takes up time that could be spent doing other things — namely, building product. Formal user research can also require money. Finalizing the perfect set of survey questions, sending it out to a highly curated list of targets, and creating a defined process around user research isn’t cheap; depending on your approach, it can cost several thousand dollars in time and resources to get a research effort off the ground.

If your goal is to build a company that will change the world, these are all just shortsighted excuses.

“Building the wrong thing is always more expensive,” notes , VP of Product at User Interviews. Good user research provides you with information about the problems the user is facing, and how they view your current solution. The process of talking to users enables you to unlock deep insights that help to inform both product and design decisions, giving you confidence that you’re building the right solution for your users.

We talked to a few product leaders we respect and admire to get their insights and tips for effective user interviews.

Ask the Right Questions

Asking the right questions is an important part of user research, but it’s not easy. Slipping into “pitch mode” is all too common, and leading people to the answer you want is often easier said than done.

  • Prepare a script and list of questions ahead of time to be sure your conversation stays on track; make sure you hit your key learning objectives.
  • Whether you’re following a script or find yourself interviewing off the cuff, there’s one rule of thumb: avoid asking questions with yes or no answers. As Sarah Doody explains in her guide, , “Asking open ended questions is critical to keeping the conversation going and creating opportunity for the person to tell you stories about their life that could lead you to critical insights and ideas.”
  • Ask questions about the person’s past experiences. Doing so prevents the user from explaining a process in a hypothetical scenario, and instead points you to facts about when a specific process has occurred before.
  • Avoid asking about your product / solution directly (if you don’t have to). Your goal should be to understand the pain someone is experiencing, not to ask users what they want. Try to steer clear of leading people to the answer you want when it comes to design and functionality. Your customer knows best.
  • Tushar Tanna, VP of Product at PillPack, explains, “Never ask customers what they want! It sounds counter-intuitive, but asking them to walk you through their mental processes and understanding their friction points (and pleasure points) will give you a more contextual answer.”
  • Bring a co-worker along with you to the interview. They can help take notes and correct course if your line of questioning becomes too “pitchy” or leading.

“Keep it Casual”

In Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, he identifies eight key ways to get the most out of customer conversations. Arguably the most difficult is keeping it casual.

While it’s helpful (and recommended) to have a set list of questions and clear objectives that you want to achieve from a user interview, user research doesn’t always have to take the form of a formal sit-down meeting, following a script.

As Forster explains, “It’s great to have a script and questions ahead of time, but you also don’t want to be a robot if the script doesn’t align with where the conversation is going. There’s a human and dynamic quality involved.”

During the discovery phase, consider catching customers at places where they may experience the problem you’re trying to solve — or at least are already talking about it. User interviews take up a lot less time and money if you can do it during the networking hour at your industry meetup, or in line at the grocery store.

Practice Makes Perfect

For some, the user interview process can be painfully awkward. Perhaps you don’t jive with the person across the table, or maybe it’s intimidating to ask users questions that can completely alter your vision for the product.

“If you want to get better at doing research, do more research,” says Forster. Practice makes perfect — the only way to get more comfortable is by doing it more.

A little prep can go a long way in helping you feel more comfortable with the questions you will be asking, and the flow of the conversation. Grab a willing co-worker and practice asking questions and running through the interview. Invite them to call you out when you ask a leading question, or start pitching your product/idea.

This is also a great way to get people involved in the research process that typically sit outside of the product org.

, Director of Product — Content Tools at HubSpot, explains, “Even as we’ve grown at HubSpot, the best research programs are ones that incorporate folks outside the product org. It gives everyone a shared perspective of the problems, and it distances product leaders from falling in love with a solution.”

Listening

Being an active listener is also a vital part of the user interview process. “Listen, observe, and ask questions with an open mind,” explains , VP of Product at True Motion. “One of the easiest mistakes to make in user research is to draw conclusions that confirm your own biases.”

To prevent your own biases from slipping in, try codifying your notes to indicate when a user is telling a story based in history / fact, is expressing their opinion, or has a lot of emotion. This can help refresh your memory when you head back to your notes.

It’s also important to realize that in asking the right questions (see above), you are also asking the tough questions. Eventually, someone is bound to disagree with your approach to your business or product. Try not to get too worked up.

“Asking the hard questions should give you the most excitement if you’ve fallen in love with the problem, but getting defensive is a sure way to stop learning in its tracks,” says DeFranco.

“If you do get particularly harsh feedback, separate your mind in two. In one half of your mind, think about this feedback as if it were for someone else. Continue to ask objective questions until you get to the root of the problem. In the other half, remind yourself there’s a reason you built this how you built it. Remind yourself to take a deep breath and think about it later.”

Do Your Research

There are plenty of books, articles, and resources online to help you conduct effective user research. Do your own research to make decisions about what works best for you before settling on a process. Here are a few articles, podcasts, and guides to get you started:

Created by User Interviews, a Boston-based company aimed at helping teams conduct more research, the UX Research Field Guide breaks down the user research process into easy-to-follow steps to help you get started today.

Thoughtbot’s Design Director, Jaclyn Perrone, shares her thoughts on what happens when research doesn’t go as planned, and how you can’t always predict what happens when you do things with “other humans”.

: Angela DeFranco recommends this post on the differences in UX Research at a startup vs. a larger tech company.

Created by Paulina Barlik, UX Researcher at Shopify, the guide is a curation of 250+ resources to help designers and researchers tackle topics such as cognitive bias in research to customer journey mapping.

Sarah Doody shares her thoughts on how you can convince your boss that user research is worth the money, time, and resource expenditure.

Written by Erica Hall, Co-Founder of Mule Design, Just Enough Research is considered a “cookbook” of research methods, to help you get the most out of your user interviews.

: “There’s a lot to say and read on the topic of user research, but the chapter on this topic in the book Sprint is one of best crash courses out there.” — Rafi Finegold.


Even if you use all of the tips and tricks, not every user interview will go perfectly, not every line of questioning will run smoothly, and sometimes you won’t catch yourself falling into leading questions. That’s okay — give yourself room to learn from every experience.

Not every conversation will be perfect…and they don’t have to be. The point is to get out and start the research process (early and often). You’ll emerge with a fresh perspective and feedback that rejects or validates your idea — either is helpful in guiding you on what to build.

Now, go get started!