Four tips for conducting user research interviews

Continuing on from my tips for planning and preparing for user research interviews, I thought I’d share some tips for conducting the research interview itself.

Walking into my first interview, I was fairly confident that I knew the right questions to ask and when to extract the data I needed for my research. I had it all mapped out in my very thorough interview guide. But what I discovered conducting the first couple of interviews had nothing to do with trying to elicit data from the participant, but challenges associated with my interview technique.

Here are my top four challenges and tips based on what I learnt during my first few research interviews.

Tip One: Embrace silence

Silence is not a bad thing. Wait for your participant before you continue.

The participant may be thinking of what else to add or how to answer the question. Don’t interrupt the participant’s train of thought by asking another question or rephrasing your question. Embrace the silence, and give them time to breathe.

The first couple of interviews I conducted I took silence as a bad thing, thinking my question was confusing or that the participant didn’t know how to answer. So I found myself rewording, elaborating and interrupting the participants train of thought. I only realised this with the third participant who specifically responded that he knew what I was asking, he was just thinking of how to phrase it best. From then on, I welcomed silence and allowed the participant to continue at their pace.

Tip Two: Manage your time

Set duration expectations with the participant before commencing the interview. This will come handy when you need to stop a discussion without insulting the participant.

My initial interviews went overtime and I had a great deal of difficulty stopping unnecessary conversations; the participant would either cut the interview short or was constantly looking at their watch. I soon realised that I wasn’t tracking well with time.

My solution was to ensure that I had a good visual on time without distracting the participant, I mentioned timing constraints upfront and asked to be excused for stopping conversations short to allow for further conversations and activities.

Tip Three: Be casual and conversational

A formal, mechanical Q&A session is not the greatest way to get the information you need; not only that, but it’s also very uncomfortable for the participant.

The questions prepared as part of the interview guideline should only be used as conversation starters and as a checklist of topics to cover.

I spent my first couple of interviews reading my interview guideline to ensure I was asking all the questions I needed and I didn’t follow up on other insights the participant may have alluded to, nor did I go deeper to discover the real reasons behind some of the answers provided. Not to mention, the participant didn’t look too comfortable at all and it appeared as if they were being judged on their responses.

I soon decided to memorise the questions and topics I wanted to cover to ensure I wasn’t constantly referring to my guide and the interview conversation was fluid. I also stopped and listened to the answers I was receiving so that I could ask the participant to elaborate further so the interview could naturally lead to the additional questions I had.

Tip Four: Record, record, record!

Record every interview but don’t stop recording until the participant, or you have left the interview venue.

I can’t stress how important this is. It’s very hard to maintain a conversation and write down what the participant is saying at the same time. You either miss things, or when you reflect back on your notes later there may be a bit of context missing.

Not only that, there were so many occasions that I concluded the interview, stopped recording and the participant deceided to add a little more insight and I found myself scrambling to write down what they were saying.

Summing up what I’ve learnt

Conducting user research interviews is not as difficult as I had originally thought. But it definitely isn’t easy and takes plenty of practice and fine tuning of your approach to be successful. So if you are a newbie to the world of user research interviews and you need some advice, consider my four tips:

  1. Pause and listen.
  2. Keep an eye on the time and don’t be afraid to stop the conversation.
  3. Keep your interviews structured, but conversational.
  4. Don’t forget to record, and continue to record beyond the end of the interview.

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