User Interviews

There’s no better way to understand your customers than talking with them directly. User interviews provide insights into what people think about a product (a site, app, or service). What is memorable? What is important? What ideas for improvement do people have?

Today I’ll share the steps I follow when I write an interview guide, research tips, a few things to remember during and after a user interview, an example interview guide, and my favorite resources to learn more.

Steps I follow when I write an interview guide

Step 1: Think about the goal of your design challenge. Why are you doing the research? What are you trying to learn? Who are you going to talk to and where?

Step 2: Brainstorm questions. Think about what kind of feedback is going to be most useful and inspiring. Mind maps or a simple list work well.

Step 3: Organize your questions. Start with demographics (profession, age, location, etc.) and easy questions to give the participant time to get comfortable with you. Then, ask open-ended questions that relate to your design challenge. For example:

  • What do you do for a living?
  • Who makes up your family or household?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?

  • Tell me about an experience …
  • What are the best/worst parts about …?
  • Can you help me understand …
  • Describe your favorite … What do you love most about it?
  • Imagine you can only … What would it be and why?

For each open-ended question, prepare follow-up questions to learn additional details, such as:

  • Where were you when this happened?
  • When did that happen?
  • Tell me why you did that.
  • Tell me more about that.
  • Tell me why you felt that way.
  • Why is that important to you?

Research tips

Ask questions to learn details about these two key categories.

  • Motivations: What do people care about the most? What motivates them?
  • Frustrations: What frustrates them? What needs do they have that aren’t being met?

Avoid questions that lead to just a yes/no answer. Ask open-ended questions (which begin with words like “How” and “Why”) to encourage people to tell their whole stories. Instead of “Do you buy groceries online?” ask “How often do you buy groceries online?” or “Why do you buy groceries online?

Ask one question at a time. Instead of “Do you buy groceries online, and if so, which websites or apps do you use?” ask “How often do you buy groceries online?” then follow up with “Which websites or apps do you use?

Nudge the user’s memory by asking about recent experiences or specific events rather than about general processes.

  • Tell me about the last time you bought groceries online.
  • Tell me about a time when you were thinking about buying groceries online but decided to go to a store instead.

IDEO believes “drawing is a great way to learn from the people you’re designing for.” You could ask interview participants to “Draw your dream grocery aisle/store. What would be on the shelves, the coolers…?”

A few things to remember during and after a user interview

You are free to change the order of questions in the guide, omit questions, or spend more time asking follow-up questions to a response that is giving you lots of helpful insight.

Listen patiently and allow for pauses to give participants time to think. Take notes and use nonverbal gestures, such as eye contact, nodding, and smiling, to reassure participants that you are engaged and interested in the conversation.

Use a few minutes after each interview to capture what you’ve observed, as well as any new ideas you have. Write down exactly what the participant says and capture direct quotes. 

Example interview guide

This is an interview guide for a semi-structured interview (including a brief introduction) which I created to learn more about how travelers book accommodations, what they feel works well, and what they think can be improved. 

Resources to learn more

Here are my favorite resources to learn how to do user interviews to improve your product or service. This short video explains “the difference between the 3 main types of user interviews, and at what stages of a UX design process it makes the most sense to use each”. To learn tips and best practices on how to write an effective interview guide and how to conduct user interviews take a look at Writing an Effective Guide for a UX Interview and User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them. Also, take a look at Why User Interviews Fail to ensure you do them well.

The light phone

Designed to be used as little as possible. It will never have social media, clickbait news, email, an internet browser, or any other anxiety-inducing infinite feed. It’s an experience we call going light.

Light is not just another tech company. We build all of the tools from scratch to ensure there are absolutely no third party apps tracking you. In this time of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ and the ‘Attention Economy’, the Light Phone represents a different option. You are the customer, not the product. This is a phone for humans.

Deep work

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

Fame is a bee

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.

– Emily Dickinson

Sugru mouldable glue

I’d love to play with this!

While studying for my MA in product design at the RCA in London, I had a bit of a crisis. A niggling thought stopped me in my tracks.

“Do I really want to design more products? There’s far too much waste in the world. I don’t want to buy new stuff all the time. What if I could fix and improve and reimagine the stuff I already have, to make it work better for me?”

Jane, Sugru Inventor

Colors do not clash, they vibrate

And if you still don’t feel confident, take heart in the wisdom of legendary interior designer David Hicks, who believed that the idea of colors clashing with one another was a fiction cooked up by “genteel women” in the 1930s. “Colors do not clash,” he said. “They vibrate.”

– Ingrid Fetell Lee, Joyful

Look at Matisse

Do what I do whenever I have a color problem. Look at Matisse.

– David Hockney
The Snail 1953 Henri Matisse

Our food system

Our food system is not broken. It was designed this way—and that means it’s time for a redesign. That’s why we started this podcast: we go where the questions are, looking at the gaps in current systems and talking to the people who are building the food systems we’ll need in the future… right now.

Because how we grow, distribute, and access food will shape the future of our communities, businesses, and planet.