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A comprehensive guide to running user interviews

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

June 07, 2024

The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. It’s a well-known saying — but unlike ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, it actually makes quite a lot of sense. 

Whether you’re interviewing a celeb or doing customer research, asking good questions is the key to getting full, detailed, and ultimately useful answers. Something that’s especially important for product teams, whose ultimate goal is to create something users love. 

User interviews are a crucial part of the development process, offering a direct line between programmers and their customers. To help you master the art, we’ve created a detailed guide full of tips and examples to help you get the most out of this all-important interaction. 

What are user interviews?

If good customer knowledge sits at the heart of good product design, then user interviews are your direct line to the goldmine. 

Instead of guessing what users want, interviews reveal their true needs. Once you’ve learned how they tick (and what ticks them off), your design decisions will be rooted in real experiences and not just wild guesses that may or may not be right.

Imagine the bounty of insights you’d get from talking to users directly. By asking a few well-chosen questions, you can unearth all those hidden frustrations and unmet needs while also validating your design hypotheses, allowing you to move forward with confidence.

The key word here is empathy. Through interviews, you’re hearing users’ stories firsthand. This helps you connect with their experiences, driving more thoughtful and effective designs that truly meet their needs — which is what good design is all about. 

What are the benefits of user interviews?

  • Get direct insights: User interviews transport you into your users’ minds, so you can hear firsthand about how they use your product/service.
  • Locate pain points: You can hear firsthand about what really frustrates your users when they interact with your product or service.
  • Understand user needs: What better way to know what your users think than by asking them? 
  • Improve user satisfaction: When you know what your users want, you can serve it up, which means happier customers. 
  • Validate assumptions: Interviews can confirm whether your guesses about user behavior and preferences are right or not. 
  • Discover new opportunities: Chatting with users is a great way to uncover improvements or new features you hadn’t considered. 
  • Enhance user experience: Hearing things from your users’ POV helps you design functionality changes that lead to a better user experience. 
  • Build empathy: Engaging with users helps you relate to them better. 
  • Encourage user loyalty: Involving users in the development process can make them feel involved. This can lead to loyal fans and advocates.
  • Reduce development costs: Fixes are expensive. Identifying issues early on can save you time and money later on in the development cycle.
  • Boost team comms: Sharing insights from user interviews helps keep the team aligned.

User interviews vs. usability tests 

Knowing which is which is important because for the best results, you’re going to want to combine both.

User interviews are all about exploring user attitudes and experiences. They are conversational and open-ended, which helps you dive deep into user thoughts and feelings. The data is qualitative and useful for shaping your strategy.

Usability tests focus on how users interact with the product. They’re focused on tasks that users complete so developers can identify any usability issues they may have missed due to being overly familiar with the interface. 

User interviewsUsability tests
PurposeExplore user attitudes, motivations, and experiencesEvaluate how users interact with a product or prototype
FocusUnderstanding the ‘why’ behind user behaviorIdentifying usability issues and testing functionality
MethodConversational, open-ended questionsTask-oriented, observing users complete specific tasks
Type of dataQualitative insightsQuantitative and qualitative data on usability
When to useEarly stages of design to gather user needs and insightsMid to late stages to test and refine the user interface
OutcomeIn-depth understanding of user needs and motivationsConcrete data on usability problems and user performance
Typical questions‘Why do you do this?’ ‘How do you feel about this?’‘Can you complete this task?’ ‘What problems did you encounter?’
EnvironmentFlexible (in-person, remote)Controlled (lab setting, remote with specific tasks)
InteractionInterviewer-led, interactive discussionUser-led, with observer taking notes
Duration30-60 minutes30-90 minutes

During the user product design process, you’ll need both. User research first, then usability tests later on when you’re tweaking the product’s UX

8 types of user interviews

Now we’re clear on what a user interview is (and isn’t), let’s take a look at the different options. 

User interviews come in various shapes and sizes, each suited to different research aims. While the general process is the same (more on that in the next section), you’ll want to flex your approach slightly depending on your goals. You might also want to use a blend — different types at different stages of the research journey.

1. Structured interviews

Structured interviews follow a predefined set of questions with little deviation. The consistency makes it easier to compare responses and pull out common themes. Use this approach when you want to gather specific information and quantifiable data.

2. Unstructured interviews

At the other end of the scale — unstructured interviews. These are more like freeform conversations, with no (or few) scripted questions here. It’s best for exploratory research, where you’re looking to uncover unexpected insights and gain a deeper understanding of user experiences.

3. Semi-structured interviews

Offering a blend of the structured and unstructured approaches, this one involves a guide of key questions, but you’re allowed to go off-piste. Interviewers are free to follow interesting tangents that pop up during the conversation. This balance makes them a versatile option for most user research needs.

4. Group interviews

Also known as focus groups, these involve multiple participants discussing a topic together over the course of an hour or more. They’re good for generating a range of perspectives and ideas. Downsides include groupthink and the extra moderation needed to ensure all voices get heard. 

5. Expert interviews

These interviews target individuals with specialized knowledge relevant to your research. Use them when you want deep insights into specific areas, helping you understand a complex issue or validate technical assumptions. 

6. Stakeholder interviews

These interviews involve conversations with various external and internal stakeholders, including clients, team members, and senior decision-makers in the biz. Knowing their thoughts helps you keep your project aligned with their (very important) goals and needs, as well as the various constraints. 

4. Contextual interviews

Taking place on the user’s home turf, contextual interviews show you how people interact with your product/service in their natural setting. Use them when you want to learn about real-world challenges and behaviors that might not materialize in a more formal interview setting. 

7. Remote interviews

These happen via phone or video conferencing tools, making them ideal for reaching people regardless of location. They’re cost-effective and allow for a broader range of participants, though they might lack some of the richness of in-person interactions.

How to run a user interview  

Here’s a step-by-step guide, which you can flex depending on your audience and goals and the specific type of user interview you’re doing. 

1. Define your objectives

First thing’s first: write down what you want to get out of the interview. Goals like understanding user behaviors, struggles, or simply gathering feedback on a new feature are all good starting points. Be as clear as you can here, because you’ll use this as your guiding star.

2. Prepare your questions

Based on your objectives, create a list of questions to guide the interview. Use a mix of open-ended questions like ‘Can you describe your experience with our product?’ to encourage a range of detailed responses. Avoid leading questions that suggest a particular answer, which could skew your results.

3. Recruit participants

Find participants who match your target user profile via surveys, databases, social media, and so on. Make sure you have a good mix of people to capture the full spectrum of viewpoints. And don’t forget to offer incentives like gift cards or discounts to sweeten the deal and encourage participation.

4. Schedule and prepare for the interview

Preparation is the secret to a well-run interview. Start by scheduling at convenient times, then confirm via email, including the interview’s purpose, duration, and any pre-interview instructions. Prepare a comfortable and quiet environment for the chat — or if you’re running a remote session, make sure your video tools are up and running, allowing time for tech teething problems before you begin. 

5. Build rapport

Before the interview kick-off, take a few minutes to build rapport. Introduce yourself, explain the goals of the interview, and reassure participants that their honest feedback is appreciated (and that they won’t be judged for any opinions). Making them feel comfortable will encourage a more candid, and therefore useful, discussion. 

6. Run the interview

During the interview, follow these best practices:

  • Listen actively: Pay close attention to the participant’s responses, and show that you’re interested. Nodding, smiling, good eye contact, verbal affirmations, and thoughtful follow-up questions are all great ways to show you’re taking things on board. 
  • Be flexible: Even though you have a set of pre-written questions, be willing to follow interesting tangents or dig deeper into specific answers.
  • Encourage elaboration: Use prompts like ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ or ‘Why do you think that is?’ to encourage full and detailed responses.
  • Stay neutral: Avoid expressing your own emotional reactions to the participant’s answers. Remember, the goal is to gather info, not coerce or judge, and definitely not to correct. You’re there to learn from them, not vice versa.
  • Observe non-verbal cues: Pay attention to body language and tone of voice. These things give you a deeper context into what’s being said.

7. Take notes and record

Take detailed notes during the interview to capture the main points. If possible, record the interview (with the participant’s consent) to ensure you don’t miss anything important. Audio or video recordings allow you to revisit the conversation later.

8. Wrap up

Toward the end of the interview, thank the participant for their time. Summarize key points to double-check you’ve understood their responses correctly, and as if they have any additional thoughts or questions. Let them know how their feedback will be used and, if applicable, how they can access the results of the research.

9. Analyze the data

After the interviews, review your notes and recordings to identify common themes. Look for recurring issues, positive feedback, as well as unexpected findings. Organize your data in a way that makes sense for you and those you’re presenting it to. (Hint: diagramming tools like Cacoo are ideal for data visualization.)

10. Share your findings

Bring together all your findings and present them back to the wider team and stakeholders. Remember to tailor your feedback to the audience, highlighting the key insights and user quotes that will matter most to them. Use visuals like charts or personas to make your findings more engaging.

11. Follow up

Send a thank-you email to everyone involved, reiterating your appreciation for their time. If you promised incentives, make sure they get them promptly. Keeping interviewees informed about how their feedback impacted the project can build goodwill and encourage future participation.

12. Reflect and iterate

Reflect on the interview process. What went well? Where can you improve? Use this reflection to refine your approach for future interviews. 

Common mistakes when hosting user interviews

Every process has pitfalls. Here are the main culprits to watch out for, plus tips on how to bypass each one.

1. Lack of empathy 

Empathy is essential in user interviews. It creates trust, encourages honesty, and makes you more receptive to the participants’ POV, encouraging a richer interaction all round. 

  • Practice active listening to show you value their input
  • Validate their feelings and experiences without judgment
  • Use open body language to create a welcoming environment.

2. Leading questions 

Avoid asking questions that suggest a particular answer because they’ll lead to biased results. 

  • Rephrase questions to be neutral and open-ended. For example, instead of saying, ‘Do you find this feature helpful?’ try, ‘How do you feel about this feature?’
  • Avoid inserting your own opinions into questions
  • Pilot test questions to ensure they’re unbiased.

3. Assuming user knowledge 

Just because you know how something works, it doesn’t mean your users do. Assuming a degree of competency might lead to misunderstandings and incomplete answers. 

  • Use simple, clear language
  • Clarify terms and concepts when necessary
  • Check comprehension throughout the interview
  • Give context for technical terms or concepts
  • Gauge the participant’s familiarity with the topic early on.

4. Ignoring contextual factors 

Pay attention to the context of a user’s response. Factors like the environment, their mood, or recent experiences can all impact their answers. 

  • Ask about the participant’s current state or recent experiences
  • Note the interview setting and any distractions
  • Consider external influences when analyzing responses.

5. Biased language 

Be mindful of using language that implies a value judgment or assumption because this can shape how users respond. 

  • Use neutral terms that don’t carry any hint of judgment
  • Avoid leading phrases that suggest a ‘right’ answer
  • Train yourself to recognize and eliminate bias in your language.

6. Not exploring contradictions 

When users contradict themselves, don’t ignore it. Gently probe to understand these inconsistencies because they very often reveal useful insights. For example, if a user praises a feature but seldom uses it, explore why that’s the case. Maybe the feature is right, but the user interface is not. 

  • Ask follow-up questions to clarify contradictions
  • Use specific examples to dig deeper into inconsistencies
  • Reflect on the context to understand potential reasons for contradictory responses.

7. Overloading with information 

Interviews are full-on, so avoid dumping too much information on people at once. This can confuse them and affect the quality of their responses.

  • Break down complex information into manageable parts
  • Introduce concepts and questions gradually, allowing users time to process and respond thoughtfully
  • Summarize key points to ensure understanding.

8. Dominating the conversation 

Remember, the interview is about the user’s experiences and perspectives, not yours. Avoid talking too much or steering the conversation towards your own ideas. Let the user lead the discussion as much as possible and focus on listening.

  • Practice active listening without interrupting
  • Use prompts to encourage users to elaborate
  • Limit your own speaking time to give users more space.

9. Neglecting non-verbal cues 

Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. These can give you additional context that might add meaning to words. For example, hesitation or excitement can signal important feelings about a feature or issue.

  • Observe and note non-verbal behaviors during the interview
  • Ask about observed cues to understand their significance rather than assuming
  • Reflect on how non-verbal signals align with verbal responses, and probe for more detail.

10. Skipping post-interview reflection 

After the interview, take time to reflect and make sure everything’s clear. Note immediate thoughts so they’re not forgotten — they’ll be useful during the analysis stage.

  • Schedule time immediately after the interview for reflection
  • Write down key takeaways and any emerging themes
  • Discuss your reflections with a team member for additional insights

11. Failing to follow up 

Reach out to participants if you need clarification on certain points or if new questions crop up from their responses. Follow-ups give depth and accuracy to your findings. 

  • Identify areas that need clarification during the analysis
  • Contact participants promptly while the interview is still fresh
  • Prepare clear, concise follow-up questions.

12. A lack of preparation 

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Not being well-prepped will result in a disorganized interview and missed opportunities. 

  • Create a detailed interview guide with key topics and questions
  • Research participants’ backgrounds to tailor questions
  • Practice conducting the interview to ensure smooth execution.

13. Interrupting and rushing participants 

Avoid interrupting participants while they are speaking. Interruptions can disrupt their train of thought and lead to incomplete answers, not to mention put them off speaking altogether. 

  • Wait for a natural pause before responding
  • Use non-verbal cues to show you are listening
  • Summarize their points to confirm understanding before moving on
  • Let them finish their thoughts completely before you respond or ask another question.

14. Focusing too much on negative feedback 

While it’s important to understand what users don’t like, don’t neglect to ask about what they do like and what works well. 

  • Balance questions about dislikes with questions about likes
  • Highlight positive feedback to understand successful elements
  • Use positive feedback to identify areas for further development.

15. Ignoring demographic information 

Collecting basic demographic information will give you important context for the responses. 

  • Include demographic questions at the start of the interview
  • Analyze how demographic factors influence responses
  • Use demographic data to identify trends and patterns in feedback.

The role of diagramming tools in user interviews

User interviews generate a lot of data. And how you present that data has a big impact on your team’s understanding of it.

Diagramming tools can help make sense of all the information by visually organizing and summarizing key points. These tools turn complex stats into clear, easy-to-follow visuals like flowcharts, mind maps, user journey maps, and more. 

This makes it simpler to spot patterns, highlight important insights, and communicate findings effectively to your product team — including not technical stakeholders. 

With visual aids, everyone can quickly grasp the main takeaways and make better decisions that resonate with the most important people of all: your users.



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