I started my professional life as a newspaper journalist where I had the pleasure of hundreds of subjects for my stories – from people like the Prime Minister of Tibet-in-Exile, to strangers on the streets. Interviews with key subjects could change the direction of my story completely, as I uncovered new angles and leads.

When I transitioned to web and UX design, it was a pleasant surprise to find that those same interview skills proved useful when I conducted user research for my clients. User interviews can be a goldmine of information for product designers who truly want to build products that will help people. User-centric design is all about what works for the end customer, so why not talk with a few of them one-on-one?

For instance, when creating a redesign plan for my Upwork case study, I interviewed three freelancers who had either used the online platform or were interested in it, in order to come up with my key takeaway design flaw with the current system. Listening to personal anecdotes of my subjects struggling to use the online marketplace drove me to conclude that freelancers on the platform feel more like commodities than real people and that any design-related solution would need to first solve this very human-centered problem. Without those interviews, I don’t know how I would have arrived at such a critical conclusion. It inspired me to include customer service and technical support improvements as part of my UX redesign plan, which isn’t interface-related but certainly would change the experience for the better.

Presented here are the benefits of interviewing and how to interview the right way so you get the most valuable information from the beginning of the design discovery phase.

Why do UX designers do interviews?

Two people talking while seated at a table.

User interviews are just one aspect of conducting user research but often can yield more high-quality insights than any other research method.

Interviews provide a wealth of qualitative information – thoughts, feelings, frustrations, anecdotes, and much more – about a certain task or situation that you can’t necessarily glean from a data set or a research report.

With my clients and my own personal projects, I strive to speak with at least two current or potential customers before conducting any UX design exercises for many reasons.

First, it orients me to the product and its customers. Each customer base has unique challenges that are hard to design for without talking to the user base in question.

Second, it helps shift the mindset from stakeholder to customer – instead of designing things that I think people would like to see, I’m focused on what I know will work and is backed up by interview findings.

Let’s talk about how to set up an interview and get the most out of the time with interview subjects.

How to get the most out of your interview subject

The steps below will help maximize your time for each interview session.

  1. First, ask yourself a few questions before diving into a user interview. Make sure to understand exactly what you need to know about the users in question, and how that knowledge will help in the UX design process of the product.
  2. Next, take about take 15 minutes to write down a list of relevant questions to ask subjects. Some may be demographic related (occupation, area of residence, age range, education level) if not included in a screener or this is not used. The rest will likely be focused on the task or system you as a designer are trying to improve. For example, the following are great starting points when trying to uncover pain points in a system or process:
    1. Gather context: What are you trying to get done?
    2. Analyze workflow: How do you currently do this?
    3. Find opportunities: What could be better about how you do this?

Notice how the questions are neutral-sounding, not intended to bias or lead an interview subject to say something that the company might want to hear, or that the interviewer thinks the company wants to hear. If you want more questions, check out Harvard University’s starter questions for user research.

  1. Recruit the right subjects. Three to five interviews usually yield actionable insights. Recruitment can be as simple as reaching out to past product users and beta users, or as complicated as creating an email campaign and offering rewards to members who choose to have an interview with the company (incentives are key… you attract more flies with honey, they say!)
  2. When conducting the interview, make sure to record (with the subject’s approval) and approach one-on-one interviews with an open mind and conversational attitude. You may even go off script of your original questions – which is completely fine. Ask follow-up questions such as “how does that make you feel?” in order to illicit reactions. Writer Nick Babich puts together a list of suggestions such as building rapport and explaining that right and wrong answers don’t exist. Making the subject comfortable from the beginning will help them be more candid about their experiences.

Be sure to watch for non-verbal cues. Body language is a great way to decipher how subjects really feel. Ask why the subject rolled their eyes, laughed, sighed, or some other reaction. The subject may have a key anecdote to tell or have strong emotional reactions – it’s important to find out what those are.

A man with closed eyes and a hand on his face showing frustration

This user could be demonstrating frustration through nonverbal behaviors.

What not to do in an interview

Many things don’t work in user interviews and can even make the information gathered unreliable. Some of those are:

Don’t ask leading or biasing questions.

Questions like “what’s wrong with this feature?” or “what would make you want to buy this?” automatically lead a user to feeling or reacting in a specific way about the product. Try to stay neutral as much as possible. Remember that you’re an observer in an interview situation, solely there to understand the subject’s reactions.

Try not to interrupt or fill the silence.

It’s tempting to devolve into a casual conversation but remember the purpose is to get answer and insights. Try to remain silent and let the subject do most of the talking, again reminding yourself to be an observer in this situation. Following this rule has revealed to me many personal anecdotes and stories over the years – like how one unlucky bank customer had to ask her bank to “treat me like I’m dead” in order to get them to close her account. I then wrote about the nightmare of user offboarding and led with that same story.

Don’t educate the subject or say your own opinions.

This goes back to interviewee bias, but also, trying to educate interviewees may backfire – they may feel like their opinions are not worth it since they clearly don’t understand your product.

After the interview

What you glean from interviews can inform user personas, user journeys, and ultimately the product design. Interviews may provide insights you never expected, uncover hidden challenges, or motivate the team to add features that previously were not imagined or included.

I worked with a group of developers designing an application for small business owners. Without sitting in on user feedback interviews, I wouldn’t have known one key thing: most of their customers were not very tech savvy. It was eye-opening to learn that many were actually afraid of navigating through the app because of their perceived lack of knowledge. A characteristic like that, which is quite intimate to know about someone, would be difficult to glean from datasets alone.

This set of users required special design solutions, like consistent coloring and styling of buttons, just enough copy for each UI element but not too much, and generally trying to convey an overall sense of security and trust when using the software. I also recommended gathering regular user feedback and design iteration as a way to continually tailor the experience.

Regularly soliciting customers’ feedback is key to building a strong community of users – as in, customers who enjoy interacting with your team and genuinely want to see the product succeed. Users who feel like a business is listening and responding to them take it personally – and that is a good thing because those are likely to be repeat customers.

I often think of UX design as relationship-building as much as it is doing actual design. Build a strong bond and sense of trust with your users, and the benefits will flow both ways.

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