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.