How to interview users

6 min read Optimal Workshop

“Whether it is police officers interrogating a suspect or a lawyer cross-examining an opposing witness or a reference librarian helping a patron, the verbal exchange is a deliberate, learned speciality that goes beyond what happens in everyday conversation.
For you as an interviewer, it’s the same thing.”

– Steve Portigal, “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights”

Interviews are an essential part of UX research, aimed at learning and deeply understanding others. They may seem straightforward, but skillfully talking to people requires deliberate practice and fine-tuning over time.

What can interviews tell us?

Interviews are a qualitative research method. They help us understand people’s goals and needs, exploring the why behind behaviors, preferences and attitudes to help build a picture of what really makes our users tick.

Quantitative data is great for understanding magnitude, usage and trends, but it will never help us to understand why certain behaviors are happening in the first place.

how-to-interview-users-1.pngChristian Rohrer (2014) from:

Interviews can help us understand our users, and answer questions like…

  • What are their current processes and limitations?
  • What do they struggle with?
  • What are their users’ general attitudes?
  • How do they think about a problem?
  • What drives their current behaviors?

Without a doubt, interviews have many applications in user research. They’re great for exploring problem spaces, understanding user journeys, building our personas or validating assumptions.

What can’t interviews tell us?

User interviews are powerful, but they’re not going to help us answer every question. There are certain things interviews are not good for, including:

  • Predicting future behaviors
  • Asking participants to recall past events
  • Being representative — you never know if the person you are talking to represents the majority or is an edge case.

Ideally, interviews should be part of a mixed method approach. Whatpeople say they do and what they actually do are often two separate things. Supplementing our insights with quantitative data can help to support what we’ve learnt and make our findings more reliable.


Asking the right questions

The quality of the data we get out of our interview is only as good as the quality of the questions we ask. Here are some tips to ensure you make the most of this method and get the information you need.

Avoid closed questions

Yes/no questions usually don’t spark great conversations.  Try to avoid questions that start with “Would you…”, “Did you…”, “Is it…”.

In turn, ask open-ended questions that start with who, what when, where, why and how.

You’ll elicit more information and better stories by encouraging your participants to elaborate and explain in greater detail.

Get specific

When you get into the flow of talking to your participant, it is often easy to forget about the level of detail we require to make our findings useful to us later on. It’s important to ensure you are capturing as much detail as possible, for example:

Ask about sequence
“What are the first steps you take when booking your flights?”

Ask about quantity
“How many different options would you usually narrow down your choice to?”

Ask about specific examples
“What was the last airline you flew with?”

Ask about exceptions
“Can you tell me about those times where you would prefer to book in-person?”

Ask about relationships
“How does the rest of your family get involved in the process?” 

Don’t be afraid to follow-up and clarify

Don’t always settle for the first answer you get. If you’re not entirely clear on the answer, ask for more detail. Use phrases such as:

“Why? When? How?”

“What’s an example of that?”

“What do you mean by that?”

Paraphrasing is especially useful for ensuring you are properly interpreting what the person you are interviewing is saying. Repeat what they’ve just told you back to them in your own words to give them the opportunity to clarify and to check if you’re on the same page.

Aim for showing, not telling

Observing someone performing a task is worth a thousand words. Aim to interview people in their natural environment, and if possible, encourage them to show you how they get things done, rather than telling you.

Asking the questions right

Being a confident interviewer takes practice. There is no right or wrong way to go about planning and conducting your interviews, but there are some things worth keeping in mind that can make it easier for yourself.

Build rapport

Rapport is defined as “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.”

It’s your job as the interviewer to build rapport, and make your interviewee comfortable enough to open up and feel at ease. Be neutral, even-toned and accepting. Aim to get your interview to a place where rather than answering questions, your participant is telling stories.

Be comfortable with silence

When we’re working hard on ensuring our interview flows well, silence can be seen as the enemy. Giving your participant the time and space to reflect and follow up on a question they just answered can lead to an additional level of detail we may otherwise miss.

Here is a useful video where Steve Portigal unpacks the power of silence during user interviews.

Come prepared

It’s important to have a clear idea of the questions and topics you want to cover before your interview. Focusing on a carefully drafted script during your interview can be distracting and shifts your focus away from your participant.

Have an outline of the topics you’d like to cover to serve as a guideline, but avoid sticking to a detailed script. 

Some things you may want to include in your interviews include: 

  • Background information (demographics, etc)
  • The use of technology in general
  • The use of your product/service
  • The user’s main objectives, motivations and preferences
  • The user’s pain points

While it’s a good idea to chunk up the things you’d like to cover, let your interview unfold organically, and be prepared for the conversation to follow an alternative path to the one you planned.

Focus on your participant, not your notes

Try to maintain eye contact with your participant, and not focus too much on capturing data in real time. If you are working alone, recording interviews and writing your notes up retrospectively is a good idea.

Try to limit your note taking to key takeaways or things you want to loop back on so you don’t forget. 

If you have the opportunity to bring along a dedicated note-taker, do so. Tools like Reframer make it easy to capture observations in real time, giving you more time to focus on the interviewee.

Final thoughts

Always approach your interviews from the perspective of improving the person’s experience, not improving the business or organization you represent.

It’s your job to be an advocate for your users, and that starts with approaching user interviews with an open heart, and an open mind.

Treat your interviews as guided conversations. At the end of the day, be nice, be grateful, and thank your participants for taking the time to help you further your understanding.

Further reading