How to conduct an effective User Research interview

Posted by Manuel da Costa / category: User Experience

Creating a new product. Pivoting the company. Expanding market reach. These are common thoughts that occupy the minds of businessmen, entrepreneurs, product managers and pretty much everyone in between. Innovation, these days, is a term almost overused – it is simply a part and parcel of working and living the digital world. With so many theories and ideas floating around, vetting becomes more important. The value of conducting effective user interviews to collect useful, actionable, reliable and insightful data has never been greater than now. With that being the case, let’s see what it takes to conduct an effective user research interview.

Who Are You?

The Beatles once famously sang “Now that you know who you are, what do you want to be?”. Now that may just be a silly lyric from a not-so-popular song of theirs, but actually, who you are is the crucial first step in the right direction.

When conducting an interview, the definition of your idea or theory is ever so crucial. The purpose of the interview helps you define what you think you know and who you think your target audience is. Now it is important to understand that while these assumptions will eventually change into facts as you get deeper into the process. As you continue understanding the product and the people who will eventually use it, there might be a great deal of difference between where you start and end. However, that should not take away from the reality that you need a baseline; a purpose to define what you are doing. So whether you’re improving an existing app, trying to reduce the number of abandoned shopping carts at your e-commerce venture or trying to launch the next revolution, your starting point is the same: a hypothesis.

The path, at this stage, separates for those who are building something new and those who are fixing an existing product. The builders would likely continue to the discovery stage whereas the fixers would jump into user-testing.


The Voyage Of Discovery.

If you are seeking to build something new, by this stage you ought to have an idea that is neither vague nor finely defined. This is the launching point for your first type of user interview – the discovery phase.

During the discovery stage, you will be talking to users about whether there is a need for your idea in the first place. You will also be discussing the existing way in which the industry or technology functions. There is a prevalent misconception that one needs to have already built a product before you do your user research. That is, simply, wrong. The discovery stage will define pretty much everything that you need going forward by defining the scope and target audience of your idea. Mock-ups and prototypes come after this stage.

There is a risk that you may come to a point where the idea simply falls apart as you discover that there is a limited requirement amongst users for what you have planned. Remember, this is alright. It simply means that you have saved a lot of time and effort in pursuing an idea that is not valid or required. On the other end of the pendulum, you may find out that the discovery stage is extremely fulfilling as it gives credence to your theories and can help you make the case for actually investing hard cash and manpower in the development of your new product. Another important thing to understand is that this stage of the interview process will give you a clearer and more detailed picture of the landscape in which you want your product to exist. So, whether your idea is shot down or given a new set of wings, you will definitely come out of the experience wiser.

Please Use Me

If you are building a new product, you will follow the discovery stage with building a prototype enriched by the knowledge you have gleaned from your potential audience. With a talented team of engineers and designers, it is quite possible to come up with a viable, well designed product to send into usability testing. If you are simply trying to improve the functionality of an already existing product, you would naturally know a lot about your product and its users through the data you have collected. In this case, you would need to define what further information you are seeking in order to fix or improve your product. This discovery is usually a lot easier as it is driven by the fact that you have something wrong or unsatisfactory with the product.

Usability testing is a relatively more straightforward part of the process and is definitely more common than discovery testing. At this stage, researchers tend to be geared for minor changes and a further refinement of the idea. However, without actually changing the main concept of your product, you may end up making large scale changes to the product after user testing. You should be able to gain insights on what the priorities of the user are and how they can be addressed in an orderly fashion. Often, at this stage, you will find problems with the layout and functionality of the product. Developers and users can be very different individuals after all!

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

You may find that you have to conduct several rounds of user research during the scope of a project. Unfortunately, we have yet to invent a magic wand that builds perfect products and solutions in one go. During either discovery or user-testing phases, most projects tend to undergo small, incremental changes which are then subject to further testing. Being thorough can be a laborious task. Being impatient and skipping some of your testing may end up proving to be even worse!

Question Time

Having covered the broad stages of the user research process, let’s actually get down to covering the question of how to actually conduct the interview. What questions do you ask? That sort of thing can make or break a user research session.

  1. A comfortable user is a user worth talking to. Interviews should be conducted in an environment where the user is relaxed and feels “at home”. A typical user research session is usually conducted in a relatively casual and conversational style. People tend to be less guarded when they are comfortable and this is exactly what you want.
  2. Ask without asking. As humans, we have a habit of asking questions in a way that will get us the answers we desire. At the same time, when being asked questions, we have a habit of trying to please the person asking by offering answers that we think are the correct ones. An effective user research interview is one where the questions are more loose – you want the user to speak and chat while you pick out the details from their conversation. It is easy to corrupt the outcome of your interview by leading a subject on in order to get the answers you want. The true skill of an interviewer is the ability to define the scope of the conversation and then allow the user to freely roam within that scope.
  3. Listen and empathize. The ability to listen to someone and understand their situation, wants and needs is hugely underrated. In all our day-to-day conversations, we tend to color the things we hear with our own perspectives. We rarely actually think of what someone is saying to us based on their own situation. User research is all about understanding the user and that involves both listening and looking at the responses from the user’s perspective. This will greatly improve the understanding that we gain from interviewing people.
  4. During each interview, you will collect data whether in words or numbers. The ability to go through this painstakingly and gain relevant insights is extremely crucial. It is often useful to have a team go through the information rather than a single person. This way, you tend to avoid individual bias.
  5. Often, you will find that people tend not to know what they actually want. An interviewer must be able to analyze their subject and ask the right follow-up questions, without attempting to interrupt the stream of thought of the user. At the end of the day, you are trying to get specific information out of the user, so don’t be afraid of asking questions if you feel that the answers are generic or vague.
  6. Reality and self-image are often two different things. A good example of this is an anecdote that comes from the company Sony who conducted a user interview asking people what they thought of the brilliantly bright yellow walkman cassette player. During the interview session, users all applauded the flashy yellow one. However, someone had the sense to offer the users a free walkman as they left with two piles of ‘boring’ black and ‘exciting’ yellow units placed for collection. They all walked out with black pieces. The reason? People tend to think of themselves differently than how they act. Interviews that use a blend of questions and activities tend to collect more accurate information.
  7. One-on-one user interviews are time consuming but they also tend to be more accurate. It is often found that people tend not to disagree with each other in groups. It is common for the opinion of the most enthusiastic subject to be painted upon the other members of the group who tend to ‘follow the leader’. That said, group interviews become relevant when you want to understand the interaction between multiple users who are using the same product, particularly if there is an interactive element to what you are working on. It is important to know this distinction before jumping into your session.
  8. Be honest. In every stage of the process, honesty is vital. It is understandable that people want their ideas to be confirmed and do not want rejection from their interviewees. However, this sort of rejection will be less painful, and more useful, than the failure of your product in the marketplace. Sometimes it pays to be vulnerable when you seek accurate information from your audience.
  9. Have fun. User research interviews need not be boring. As we have stressed before, interviews are meant to be jovial, conversational and friendly with the aim of getting as much information out of the subject without being either intimidating or boring.


If you, the reader, have come this far in this article, you will probably have guessed that the art of running a successful user research interview is indeed a complicated one. You will be tested on your knowledge and patience and may have to face some hard truths about the work you are involved in before you get to the stage where you have a viable product that has the chance to succeed. The journey, at times may be hard, but the fruits of that journey will always be successful, because every user research interview will end with you knowing more than you knew before!