Capture the context: Pro tips for user interviews

Gregg Bernstein

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Stories convey so much. The best stories contain enough rich, lived-in detail to elicit understanding and empathy. These contextual details flesh out words and actions, anchoring the story in place and time.

When interviewing users, the responses to our questions make up only half of the story. As I write in my chapter “Before You Even Open Your Mouth” in “How to conduct great user interviews”, the details surrounding the interview offer complementary data that assists in contextualizing what we’ve heard, transforming our notes into stories.

Next time you conduct a user interview, try to capture more than just the words. Use your keen powers of observation to collect additional data. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

In-person interviews

Settings

Most introductory journalism courses begin with the five W’s: Who, What, When, Why, and Where?


“Where?” is a small, easily omitted detail with huge significance. Compare these two examples:

  • We interviewed Bea on 9 January 2017.
  • We interviewed Bea on 9 January 2017 in her dining room, which doubles as her home office.

The second example, with minimal effort and just a few more words, offers a setting, narrative detail, and contextual data.

Greetings

When I arrive for an interview, I note who greeted me and detail the journey from the front door to my interview location. Why?

At a large company, I might have signed in with a front desk staff, who passed me off to an administrative assistant, who escorted me to a conference room. At a smaller company, all staff might share an office manager — or perhaps it’s everyone for herself.

These points speak to company scale and maturity, and they’re the details that flesh out and humanize your interview notes.

Devices

If you’re working on a product, you want to know where it fits into an existing ecosystem and budget.

Thus I take stock of the devices in use around me during an interview — things like laptops, mobile devices, and office equipment. Be sure to note the brands and ages of the machines — these little details matter.

This works remotely, too

Remote interviews offer similar contextual benefits, but gathering this data requires a bit more effort.

At a minimum, note everything you can see in a video chat — are you interviewing someone at an office, a coworking space, a coffee shop, or a home? Is your participant dressed casually or in business attire? These details might seem insignificant, but they contribute to a better understanding of your participant’s lifestyle, habits, and company culture.

If appropriate to your study, you can go a bit further and explain to your participant that you like to get a sense for how and where people work. If your participant doesn’t mind, ask for a quick remote tour of the space — see if your participant will pan the camera around a bit.

If I’m interviewing by phone, I ask my participant to set the scene for me. “Tell me about your space — what’s your office like?” I press for enough detail that I can comfortably describe the setting to a colleague.

Give yourself a hint

Whenever I create an interview discussion guide, I add reminders of the contextual details I want to capture atop my guide. A typical sheet might list the following:

  • Location
  • Devices
  • Headcount
  • Office environment/vibe
  • Odds and sods

This list reminds me of the details to note. It also gives me a spot to log these details during any lags or spare moments in the course of the interview.

Summing up

Just as user interviews take plenty of practice, so does mindfulness of context. With each interview you conduct, try to go beyond the interview to capture contextual data. These details ground our interviews in place and circumstance, offering wonderful stories about our users that inform our product and design strategies.

Gregg Bernstein
  • Gregg Bernstein
  • Gregg Bernstein is an accomplished user and product researcher. He spends his days listening, thinking, collaborating, analyzing, writing, and then listening some more — mostly for Vox Media. He also speaks around the world about his work at conferences (UX2016 Copenhagen, WebExpo Prague, Web á Québec, Giant Conference), and for such companies as Etsy, EA Games, Fullstory, and more.

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