How to build rapport in a user interview

5 min read Max Koh

There are many hurdles that UX researchers need to jump in order to get their job done. They have to deal with stakeholders, recruit and wrangle research participants, spend hours analyzing data, and present research findings. In many instances, they’re doing all this across multiple projects at once!

One of the more overlooked and biggest challenges that every UX researcher deals with is building rapport with participants. Building rapport allows you to get your participant to open up to you and share all their thoughts and opinions.

So, how do you do this when you only have a limited amount of time to talk to your participants?

Learn how to develop your user interview skills below.

Why build rapport?

User interviews are usually conducted in the following format:

  • You introduce yourself
  • You give a brief outline of what you’ll discuss with your participant
  • You have the discussion
  • You save some time to answer any questions from your participant
  • You thank your participant for their time and finish up.

But following this format to a T can make the whole thing robotic and sterile. Instead, turn your interview into a real meaningful conversation — one in which your participant’s opinions are valued and appreciated.

It’s scary being on the other side of a table, getting interviewed by a stranger. People can feel intimidated by researchers (especially if there’s more than one person present), they can withhold thoughts because they think it might not be the answer the researcher wants to hear, or they can wonder if they’re doing the wrong thing. At times, this can totally derail your qualitative research project, or at the very least, steer it in the wrong direction.

To get good, insightful results, your participant needs to feel okay with opening up to you and being honest about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Instead of treating your participants like “research subjects”, build a relationship with them and treat them more like a peer.

How to build rapport with research participants

There are many little things you can do to build a better relationship with your interviewee. Here are just a few of them — for a bigger list, check out our recently published ebook “How to conduct great user interviews”.

1) Be accommodating

First, introduce yourself to your participant and tell them what your role is. Ask your interviewee about their job, where they work, how their day has been, and other bits of small talk to break the ice.

Offer them a cup of tea, coffee, or glass of water if you’ve got it available. Remember to explain that you’re not testing your participant. Instead, you’re having a conversation with them about their opinions and experience with something — there are no right or wrong answers!

2) Keep an eye on your body language

The way you sit, stand, or smile can have a big impact on how your participant feels. Crossed arms, fidgeting with your hands, or yawning can all make a participant feel on edge, or that their opinions are wrong/boring.

Remember to keep your body language open at all times. Don’t cross your arms or legs, make sure you face your participant, make eye contact (but not too much!), and don’t be afraid to smile. Stay energetic and happy, and make sure you’re actively listening instead of just jotting down notes and progressing through your script.

3) Avoid barriers between yourself and your participant

Make sure there aren’t any objects in between you and your participant like chairs, lots of desk clutter or a computer monitor. You want to see your participant, but you don’t want to distance yourself by sitting on the other side of a desk or table. The same goes for objects — don’t create barriers by holding a big notepad, clipboard, or big cup of coffee. Make sure your hands are open and use a small side table to hold all your necessary things.

4) Dress appropriately

You’re going to meet lots of different people during your research. From business suits to young professionals, students and even maybe some teenagers (depending on your project), so make sure you’re dressed appropriately. Your office dress code might not be sufficient enough!

For example, if you’re interviewing corporate people, you might want to dress more business smart instead of rocking up in sneakers and jeans. Or if you’re talking with students, you might want to do the opposite. This helps to set the tone.

5) Show interest in your participant

Finally, showing some interesting in what your participant has to say can go a long way in making them feel comfortable and valued. Lean forward slightly when they’re speaking to you (but not too much!), summarize some of the things they’ve said to you to get validation of what you observed.

You can also mimic some of their gestures and subtly mirror some of their body language. For example, the amount you lean in, where you place your arms and legs — just make sure it doesn’t look intentional. It’s likely that you end up doing this without noticing anyway!

Remember, the most important thing is to make sure your participants are comfortable. It doesn’t take a lot of time and effort to build a rapport with your research participants. A little bit of work goes a long way, especially when it comes to getting higher quality results. If you’ve got any tips of your own you’d like to share, comment below!

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Max Koh

Max is Optimal Workshop’s UX writer, resident cat whisperer and Samoyed enthusiast. Connect with her on LinkedIn