Learn about user interviews

What are user interviews?

User interviews are a research technique designed to get qualitative information directly from users. Typically, interviews involve asking people questions related to how they use a particular system, their behaviors and their usage habits.

The user interview is a popular research method for a reason – few other techniques can give you the same level of insight in as much detail or as quickly.

It’s important to keep in mind that unlike focus groups, user interviews are one-on-one sessions, usually involving a researcher and notetaker or observer.

What can user interviews tell you?

Unlike surveys or focus groups, which focus on high-level insights, user interviews allow you to delve deep into a particular topic. You can give your interviewees the freedom to provide detailed responses to your questions, which often means you’ll get valuable data and insight. The key lies in giving your users a chance to talk and elaborate on their experiences without the influence of other people in the room.

Keep in mind that interviewing is a skill that can be tough to master, and in many ways, the value of your insights will depend largely on your skill as an interviewer.

When you should do user interviews

User interviews can inform a number of different research and design areas (which we’ll cover here), but they’re most useful during the initial exploration phase of a project. When you’re starting from scratch, user interviews can help to build a useful framework for other research tasks.

Let’s imagine you’re building a new home renovation website. You know that there’s an opportunity for a better experience in this market but aren’t sure where to start – you’ve got a clean slate. By sitting down with users, you can get valuable, in-depth insights. What are people’s biggest questions or concerns when starting a renovation project? Where do they go first when looking for home renovation information? By asking broad questions like these, you can get a far more comprehensive understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.

User interviews can also feed valuable insights into other areas of the research process:

  • Persona development – Interview users to create accurate personas with a real foundation.
  • Journey mapping – Develop journey maps by understanding people’s thoughts, emotions and motivations as they accomplish particular tasks.
  • Contextual inquiries – Enrich your observations by observing users as they go about daily tasks in their own environment.

User interviews and usability tests

It’s easy to get user interviews and usability tests mixed up, but there are some key differences between the 2 methods.

  • User interviews – These sessions usually semi-structured, and you have the flexibility to dig deeper into a particular topic. You’re having a conversation with your participant, so you should remove any barriers between you and keep the focus on the discussion.
  • Usability testing – Usability tests are task-based, and the focus is on the thing you’re testing. Ideally, you fade into the background (by sitting off to the side) and keep the user’s attention on the design.

Limitations of user interviews

Like any method, this one has its limitations. Unlike a contextual inquiry or usability test where you focus on capturing behavioral data, user interview data is all self-reported. This is an issue, as nobody has a perfect memory, meaning your interview subjects could fail to remember potentially useful details. You also may have people who are too shy to share or those who overshare and send the interview off course.

Again, the usefulness of your user interviews can often come down to how experienced you are as a facilitator.

What you need to host a user interview

You don’t need much to host a user interview – just yourself, a set of good questions, a quiet room and (ideally) a notetaker. There are more comprehensive interview guides available, but we’ve put together a few tips to get you started:

  • Have a goal – Identify something specific that you want to learn from your interviews. For example “How do people look for ideas for home renovation projects?” or “Where do people go when trying to find a painter?”. It’s a good idea to speak to your stakeholders for ideas.
  • Prepare a set of questions – While it’s OK to ask questions as you think of them during the interview, a prepared list will ensure you stay on track. Preparing questions beforehand also gives your team a chance to add suggestions.
  • Make your interviewee feel at home – Before diving into your questions, allocate a small amount of time to break the ice and run through what you’re about to cover. Explain that you’d like to take notes and ask permission to record the interview. It’s also a good idea to slow yourself down to give your interviewees time to think and speak.
  • Find a quiet space  – You don’t need a dedicated room for interviews, just a quiet space with a table and chairs.

How to run a user interview

Good notetaking is one of the most important parts of a user interview, but it’s also something that’s really easy to get wrong.

Reframer is a qualitative research tool we’ve developed to simplify the process of capturing notes from your interviews. It allows you or anyone else in your team to capture observations and keep all your notes in one place. By using tags such as “positive” or “confused” to later filter your data, you can quickly analyze your findings with ease. Reframer makes it easier to find the insights you’re looking for.

Looking for something else?

User interview 101

Learn how to run a User interview in our 101 guide

Learn more about our qualitative research tool, Reframer.

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