Any interview, be it research or testing, is a collaboration of two (or more) people. It’s not just about you and it’s not just about the user. Even though the ultimate goal is for the participant to make most of the talking, it’s a mutual effort and both sides have to contribute to make it work.
You, as the researcher, should give the participant just enough to make them think and talk freely. The participant, on the other hand, should feel at ease and motivated enough to make the effort and process what you are saying and come up with an answer. It’s a lot of work for both of you but luckily there are the basic tricks to make it easier, like asking open-ended questions, briefing or establishing rapport.
But even when you do everything by the book — you chitchat for a bit, make time for briefing and ask the most open-ended questions ever, things might not go so smooth.
I remember one time in particular, when I was interviewing a person (let’s call her Sarah) from halfway around the world over the phone. I was tired and sleepy because it was late, and she was tired and sleepy because it was too early. I could hear the grumpiness in her voice. The chitchat was so-so, but after a quick briefing, when the interview actually started, I knew that this will be tough. I would ask open-ended questions that worked really well with previous participants but she would not budge. Sarah continued to give me one sentence or even one word answers… I literally felt the cold sweat as the interview quickly got very uncomfortable. The grumpy Sarah would give me basic info but I needed more, I needed to dig deeper to uncover the motivations behind the observed and described behavior.
But how? I did not want to lead her into telling me what I ‘wanted’ to hear and make the interview invalid and therefore kinda useless.
I remembered how we talked about working with silence during my psychology studies and decided to give it a go. I switched from my busy, panicked mumbling to silent and patient waiting.
And it was awkward.
It was awkward, but definitely worth it. I felt incredibly pressured to start talking and break the silence, but so did Sarah. And after a short while, she actually did start to talk and before I knew it, she was telling me all the whys and all of her reasoning.
Talking with people can get difficult, because every participant is different.
So I decided to research more options, remembered and applied more from my studies and did (way) more interviews. I learned to use techniques other than silence to benefit the interview and nowadays they come so naturally that I don’t even have to think about them.
So one day I put it down on paper and here it is. A list of some of the things I use in essentially every interview.
Paraphrasing is a very powerful tool. Simply, you take what the respondent said and repeat it with your own words, perhaps with a little questioning tone that nudges the participant to answer. Optionally you can paraphrase and ask if you understand it correctly. Usually they will tell you whether or not it’s correct and sometimes (that’s when you know it’s working) they disclose some additional information.
Participant: “So I wake up and check this app before actually getting up to brush my teeth.”
Researcher: “So.. do I understand it correctly, that before getting out of bed, you check something on your phone?”
Participant: “Yeah, I usually scroll Facebook for about 20 minutes and I also play this one game…”
Silence and the “hmm”
Using the “hmm” technique is basically working with silence. Being silent may be difficult for some people, but if you are brave enough to try it, it works wonders. Silence puts pressure on the participant and usually people are trying to fill it with words. And that’s how the magic happens and when you possibly learn a lot of nice info. In addition, the “hmm” sound ensures that the participant won’t think that you fell asleep.
Oh and it even gives you time to compose yourself and maybe prepare for how you’re gonna phrase the next question.
Participant: “So I wake up and brush my teeth.”
Participant: “But yeah, I’m usually on my phone for about 20 minutes before actually getting up…”
A technique similar to paraphrasing, but usually used with shorter sentences/words that are repeated back to the participant. This lets you avoid leading questions easily by returning exactly what the participant said but with a questioning tone.
Participant: “This is … not what I would expect.”
Researcher: “Not what you would expect?”
Participant: “Yeah, I mean I would expect to see this instead of that when I click on this over here.”
Boomerang is a technique I find more useful in usability studies than in interviews. When participant asks you a question, instead of answering it, you should return it back to them — ask them how they think it should behave or what would they expect, or even how would they do it if they were home alone.
This is something I use ALL. THE. TIME.
Participant: “What happens if I click this?”
Researcher: “What would you expect to happen?”
Participant: “I don’t know.. maybe this and this…”
This technique is very useful when you really are not certain how would you ask something without leading the participant and it literally means that your question is incomplete. You only hint to what you are asking about but never really finish the sentence.
Good example could be things like: “So you mean…” or “You clicked here…”
It’s important not to sound overly confident or like an expert, instead it’s good to sound a bit confused and in a way that shows genuine interest (this kind of applies to every interview technique ever).
Last but not least, something more related to the general structure of an interview.
It is best to start with broad and non sensitive topics (the top of the funnel) and make your way through to more and more specific areas and questions. That way the rapport has been set at the beginning and both of you can feel more at ease with the potentially more difficult and more specific questions.
Something like this:
However, always try to end the interview on a bright note, with a little debriefing and time for questions or comments.
- Start and finish your interview easy and happy (briefing and debriefing are your best friends)
- Go from broad topics and questions to more specific ones
- Use what you heard from the participant to get more information
- It’s okay to answer a question with another question
- Silence is your friend too