Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Interviewing Users
Knowledge Share | Industry Savvy

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Interviewing Users

on / by Steve Portigal

How difficult can it be to ask users the right questions? Why is the kind of user I interview so important? And what are the ways that the interviewer can influence the conversation?

There are more than enough questions that we should ask ourselves about interviewing users before we go out there and ask people all sorts of questions. Today, you get the chance to ask me anything you could possibly want to know about interviewing users. And when I say anything, I mean anything!

In an earlier post Tomer Sharon interviewed me about the challenges organizations face when using interviewing as research method (we’re reposting that video below). And now, my new book, Interviewing Users, is on sale!

Published by Rosenfeld Media, Interviewing Users explains how to succeed with interviewing, including:

  • Embracing how other people see the world
  • Building rapport to create engaging and exciting interactions
  • How to listen effectively in order to build rapport

What do you want to know about interviewing users?

Ask your questions in the comments below. Usabilla has three copies of my book to give away for the best questions!

If you don’t make it into the top three, you can get still a 20% discount when you purchase the book at Rosenfeld Media using this code: USABILLAINTUSER.

In this interview, Tomer and I talked about why it is so hard for people to do user research and how startups should approach it, what clients expect from user research, and about the interesting interaction with clients who work with a user research agency.

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Article by

Steve Portigal

Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized agency that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. He is the author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, a Rosenfeld Media book. Follow him on Twitter at @steveportigal.

Share your thoughts

  • Gavin

    How do you best eliminate candidate selection bias, whether or not you are involved in finding users? Right now, I am gearing up for user testing and am a bit nervous about a certain client selecting the users to be interviewed.

  • Bryan

    Here are a few small questions for getting and talking to users when doing guerrilla or low-budget testing:

    Without special circumstances how important is having ethnographic/demographic data?

    What’s the best way to get in-person users on a low budget?

    What’s the best way to package up results? I know it’s best to have the client observing in some way (and I’ve got my own hacked together observation room), but after that I want to provide them with some video and actionable items from the sessions.

  • Dante

    Slightly off-topic, but what advice / lessons learned can you give from “Interviewing Users” that can be applied to interviewing internal and client stakeholders?

  • Edje

    How do you know manage giving all users equal opportunity to give honest feedback and not allow discussion to be dominated by tangential aspects as some people desire to impress or show off to others in a participative feedback session?

  • Frank

    Some users tend to steer their answers towards telling you what specific functionality they want from the ultimate product, no matter what you ask. How can an effective interview be conducted in such cases?

  • Ian Everdell

    What are your techniques to make sure that questions are completely non-leading and non-subjective?

    How do you keep users on track? How far do you let them go before you steer them back?

    How do you condense everything you learn in interviews into a cohesive picture for stakeholders?

    How much do you prep users before their interview? Do they know the purpose? What’s being testing? How can this influence their behaviours and responses?

    Looking forward to reading the book!

  • Talking to users often provides insights that are valuable to people outside of ux/web teams. What advice do you have for integrating user interviewing into other areas of a business so those insights are shared?

  • How do you balance interviews from different groups of users. I work for a large membership organization. We certainly want our site to give our members them what they want, but we also want to influence non-members.

    There are also small groups of users that heavily influence our website decisions but are unlikely to subject themselves to interviews in any representative numbers: I’m thinking specifically of journalists and policy makers.

  • Kate Roberts

    How do you handle a participant who seems determined to find fault with any website or product you mention? Do you treat their feedback as valid or take it with a large pinch of salt?

  • Elise Edson

    What are your best tips for handling low-energy / quiet interviewees? I wonder if my extroverted body language is making them shut down more!

    Also, I have R&D team members who love to be involved in customer-facing activities. What’s worked for you in training teammates in user interviewing?

  • Marc Hindley

    How can you prevent users telling you what they think you want to hear, rather than how they actually feel?

  • Ann

    How can I avoid leading questions when others write the questions and push for them to be asked?

    How do you avoid or redirect the interviewee answering hypothetically for their demographic?

    How do you get better responses when the interviewee doesn’t seem engaged?

  • Annemarie

    How can you beforehand make sure that you acquire participants that are ‘good’ at thinking aloud during performing a certain task.

  • David Wen

    How hard is it for your friends and family to be unbiased interviewees? Is this considered unethical?

  • @Annemarie – there’s a standard articulation question that should be in your screener (see a sample at http://www.rosenfeldmedia.com/books/user-interviews/Portigal%20Consulting%20-%20Sample%20Screener.pdf)

    We often do a 5-minute call before we meet for an interview to develop rapport, see if they have any questions, verify some of the things we are asking about, etc. If you have an exercise for them to try, then you could do it then, too. I think if you decide not to go forward with them after that, though, you should give them a small incentive as thanks.

  • @Ann – you shouldn’t be asking the questions as written. The interview guide is just that – a guide. Otherwise, you are just moderating a survey and not conducting an interview. Chapter 6 talks a lot about how to ask questions and might be helpful for you.

  • @Marc – you are describing the need for rapport (see page 20) – it’s up to to establish this dynamic with your participant. You also need to hear the difference between those two types of responses and adjust your questioning or follow-up further as necessary.

  • @Elise – see my handout at http://www.rosenfeldmedia.com/books/user-interviews/Portigal%20Consulting%20-%20A%20Guide%20to%20Participating%20in%20Fieldwork.pdf for teammates.

    In Chapter 8 I talk about “When the participant is reticent” – if you are extroverted maybe you are expecting or hoping that they will come off as extroverts. Maybe everything is just fine and that’s the way they are? Although you have me curious about extroverted body language – are you gesticulating wildly :)?

  • @Kate – it’s always helpful when getting feedback to understand “why” – quant methods are better for simply tabulating the number of issues out there, but you have the chance to dig in. The why may be the same or different and may be enlightening in different ways. And yes, I think that we bring our own interpretation to what we’re hearing from people. If someone says “I hate life and I hate people” and then says “I don’t like the way this peanut butter tastes” then we’ve got some good context for that feedback. Thank goodness we’ve had the opportunity to learn more deeply how they look at the world!

  • @Erik – one reason to look at different user types is to highlight contrasts you wouldn’t otherwise see. The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s a difference between who you do research with and who you design for. The first gives you insight about how to do the second.

  • @Dennis – can you bring those other groups in as stakeholders at the beginning (and along the way?) Can you create deliverables – or meetings where results are discussed – for those other groups?

  • @Ian – I will give people some context for why we’re talking to them, but most people understand “market research.” I definitely do not go on and on about alphas and rollouts and BUs and other things they don’t understand or care about. I say just enough and at the end I ask them if they have any questions for me. Some people will say “What will you do with this information?” or “How many other people are you talking to?” – but the key is to orient this discussion – at least until the end – to their world, not yours.

  • @Frank – this is about how the interview is framed – from the point you make the initial request, to the introduction. However, in many cases, people have stuff to tell you and you need to let them tell you that before you go forward from there. You also can keep asking why and why and why for every feature request they make. You can ask who else has the same need, etc. You want to get the discussion to needs, but you can let them dictate the starting point if they are so passionate about that.

  • @Edje – it sounds like you are describing a focus group setting and the behavior you are describing is well known by social scientists. If you don’t want to have people socially performing with each other, don’t bring them into a group. I talk in Chapter 8 about interviewing multiple participants, but in that case I am thinking friends, family, not strangers thrown together suddenly. Why do that to them (or yourself)?

  • @Dante – the pieces in the book that talk about rapport, listening, and asking questions (Chapter 2 and 6) apply nicely to any interview setting, I think.

  • @Bryan – unsure about your question? Demographic and ethnographic are very different types of data! And I’m not sure what you mean by “special circumstances.”

  • @Gavin – seems like you need to find a way to have the difficult conversation with the client about the concerns you have about getting them the best information that can help them the most. You obviously know your stuff and that’s what they’ve entrusted you to bring, so step up. Note: this is much easier for someone to write in a comment box than it is to actually go out and do it! But consider this a vote of confidence, amirite?

  • Adam Kendall

    How do we plan our interviews so that we take into account unconscious bias?

  • Nijil David

    While filling out a form, do you want to go by surprise or do you want the form to tell you how far you have reached?

  • @Nijil – that’s not really anything to do with my area of expertise. Maybe check out LukeW’s Web Form Design at http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/web-form-design/

  • @Adam – can you expand on your question a bit? What kind of bias are you talking about? And is it necessarily an unconscious bias?

  • @David Wen – There’s a lot of issues here; I think opportunism is an important aspect of participant recruiting. Ask yourself “who can you get?” At the same time, it’s crucial to identify what are the characteristics of your participants that will make your research valuable. So you need to balance those two.

    The problem with friends and family is that they are actually harder to interview. Imagine you are interested in people’s vacation planning process. You can ask a stranger “What was the last vacation you took?” and it’s so much easier to ask that question authentically because you really don’t know. If you are interviewing a family member, you know what their last vacation was. Sure, you can say “Now I think your last vacation was to Italy, is that right?” But already the dynamic has shifted and you are sort of now both playing the role of recapping for the camera things you’ve already talked about. It’s just so much easier to deal with a relative stranger.

    My compromise is to get friends-of-friends. So you get the expediency of working your social network but you meet someone you know a lot less about.

    I’m not sure what the ethical issues are here; to me it’s more about what will get you the best data. I certainly wouldn’t suggest you misrepresent your sample to someone else though.

  • How to win one’s attention while interviewing ??

  • Moritz

    My question would be how you can get people to tell you private stuff that is important for your research if they are hesitant to tell it to you

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