8 tips for running user interviews over the phone

7 min read Ashlea McKay

Like all qualitative research methods in UX, user interviews conducted over the phone have their pros, cons and challenges. Sometimes they are your best or only option. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to do the best we can with what we have because it sure beats doing nothing at all. It might be that your participants are remotely located and maybe you don’t all have access to the same technology — access to technology is a privilege! Or maybe you do and that technology just isn’t playing the game and you have to improvise. Maybe you work in a secure environment that puts all kinds of limitations on your research or maybe it’s something else entirely.

One of the biggest challenges of running a user interview over the phone is that unless you’re doing it via video call, the communication is entirely verbal. There’s no body language for you to communicate or observe, you can’t talk with your hands or draw something out on a page and you can’t control the environment in which your participant dials in from. That said, it absolutely can be done and it ispossible to gather useful and usable insights for your project by running a user interview over the phone. Here are 8 tips to help make it happen.

1. Plan your call location ahead of time

It’s very important that you dial into a phone-based user interview from a location that is free from distractions and excessive background noise. You don’t want to have to keep asking your participant to speak up or repeat themselves because you can’t hear them and they shouldn’t have to listen to your colleagues sharing Game of Thrones spoilers in the background. In my experience, quiet spaces aren’t always available at short notice and it pays to plan ahead. If you can, book a meeting room in advance, arrive early and make sure you book extra time either side of your interview time slot so that any meetings booked before yours will have ample time to clear out.

It can also help to headphones and try to find a meeting room that is quiet and not right next to another one with glass walls because, as I’ve learned the hard way, sound carries and it can be just as disruptive as dialing in from an open plan office environment! If a quiet space isn’t available in your workspace, consider making the call from home if you can or from some other quiet space outside of the office. This might seem obvious, but I see mistakes around call location happen all the time. Participant experience matters and the environment you dial in from can have a big impact on that.

2. Help your participants plan ahead

Just like you need to plan your call location ahead of time, it’s also best if your participant does too and you’re the best person to help them do that. I once had a participant dial in from a moving car with all the windows rolled down and another from a busy call center environment — both scenarios could have been avoided. A great way to help your participants plan ahead is to politely ask them dial in from somewhere quiet when you first book the session. You might include this information in the calendar invite along with all the other helpful details you’ll be providing e.g., contact details, session details and instructions for any technology you might be using to run the call. Keep it light and friendly and maybe list it as the ‘where’ for the meeting e.g., Where: Please dial in from a quiet location so we can chat.

Sometimes despite your best efforts, a participant may still join the session from a less than desirable location. They might not be aware of how loud the background noise in their office is or they may have forgotten to go somewhere quiet. Maybe they’ve unexpectedly needed to work from home and their dog won’t stop barking. When this happens, it is best to try to see if they’re able to move to a better location away from the noise and distractions. Toughing it out rarely works and can derail the entire session wasting both your time and the participant’s. Be patient and empathetic with them and consider exploring whether it’s possible to reschedule if it can’t be resolved then and there.

3. Don’t overload your script

Participant responses will be entirely verbal and you’ll want to factor in extra time to ask clarifying and further probing questions. If you plan to go in with a pre-prepared list of questions, keep it brief. It’s totally fine to have a larger overall list of questions you’d like to ask — especially for cases when participants are super articulate and rip through them quickly — but limit the number of ‘must-ask’ questions as much as you can, otherwise you might not get through them all.

4. Keep the session running time short and sweet

And on that note, tip #3 does not mean you should hold an extra long session to compensate — nobody wants to sit on the phone for an hour! It can be exhausting and you don’t know if your participant is having to hold the phone up to their ear the entire time — ouch! Keep the session length to under 30 minutes in total. If you feel that’s not enough time to get the answers you need, consider diversifying your approach by running your research in multiple parts.

You might follow up with a short survey after your session or you might include a few additional questions in your screener before the interview to gather more context from your participants. Keep these brief, don’t ask anything you don’t actually need to know and be mindful of taking up too much of your participants’ time — they are giving you a gift, so don’t overdo it.

5. Embrace the awkwardness

Some people are quite comfortable talking to complete strangers over the phone and some people aren’t. You’re going to come across all types of people and you may even feel a little nervous before each session — we’ve all been there! I think it’s important to recognize upfront that awkward interruptions and silences in the conversation are going to happen and to embrace it with confidence and humor. It’s not a big deal and your participant will likely be just as nervous as you are. Tackle it together. Keep the conversation light and humorous — make a joke, and if you interrupt the participant, apologize and keep going. Smiling when you talk can also help make you both feel more comfortable — you’ll feel better and they’ll hear the warmth in your voice that will put them at ease too.

6. Record the session

With all those juicy insights being delivered entirely verbally down the phone, it’s a good idea to record the conversation if you can. You might miss something and recording the session will allow you to go back to it. I’d also recommend avoiding taking detailed notes during the call. Just immerse yourself in the conversation and type your notes up later from the recording.

Everyone has their own unique approach and style to running research. I’m someone who finds it hard to focus when talking on the phone and I’ve noticed that it’s much easier if I don’t have to do anything else! Do what works for you, but definitely consider recording those sessions where possible to help ensure research traceability and make life easier when sharing with your team. Just note that you’ll need to ask your participants if it’s OK that you record the call.

7. Make the most of not being seen

A silver lining to the challenges of running user interviews over the phone is that your participant can’t see you. You don’t have to worry about how you’re dressed or how you’re sitting or keeping your facial expressions in check. You can have your planning notes and questions lists spread out in front of you or up on your screen without having to worry about them being distracting or potentially leading. You can put yourself on mute if you have to and you get to dial in from a really comfortable place. Make the most of it! Run the session from an environment where you feel relaxed and confident. No matter how many times I’ve done this, I always feel a twinge of the jitters right before I make the call and being in a comfortable and safe space can make all the difference.

8. Follow up with a thank you email

Sending a quick thank you note after a user interview conducted over the phone is a nice way to add a human touch to close out the participant experience. It’s also a good time to deliver or confirm details around how any incentives will be granted to the participant for their time.

So there are 8 tips to help you ace interviewing users over the phone! What are your top tips?

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Ashlea McKay

Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than a decade of professional experience spanning both the public and private sectors. Ashlea co-founded Optimal Workshop's UX advice column in 2015 and is based in Australia.