Research & understanding

User interview

Ludovic Delmas
November 3, 2020

If user research is about finding hidden treasure (aka insights), then user interviews are the treasure map that leads you to the hidden riches. 

They can give you insights that are gold and help you determine what direction to head in. 

A user interview is a 1-on-1 conversation between a UX researcher or designer and a participant. To conduct one, write a script with your research questions and then use that script to talk to participants. That’s it. It’s one of the cheapest, simplest, and most common methods employed in user research. 

User interviews help you gain an understanding of the users, who they are, their goals, what they like about the product, what they want from your product, their pain points with the product, and many other things. Basically, users will tell you their opinions and perceptions of an experience. Most interviews we conduct are around 15-45 minutes, although they can be much longer.

One of the best parts of user interviews is that you don’t need to conduct them with dozens and dozens of participants to get statistically significant answers. Usually, you only need to talk to 4-6 participants who represent your audience to see trends and gain insights.

At a high level, the structure of a user interview has three sections:

The introduction

The interview questions

The wrap-up

The introduction is a pre-written script that you read to each participant to frame the purpose of the interview and set the expectations for the session. 

Then come the questions, where you ask participants everything you need to know. This is the meat of the user interview. 

And the wrap-up is the script where you read closing remarks to the participants and ask if they have any questions for you. 

User interviews are important because they give you insights into the needs and deep motivators of your users. They give you a better understanding of people’s behaviors and their choices. They also help validate assumptions, answer research questions, and give you empathy for the user. Conducting user interviews directly helps you to create personas (if you’re into that kind of thing) and to choose the design direction. 

User interviews can be conducted during any stage of the UX process. That said, they’re most effective in the beginning stages when you’re still defining the problem and figuring out the general design direction. This way it’s still cheap and easy to change your approach based on user feedback. 

There are a couple things to keep in mind when conducting user interviews. 

First, don’t ask closed questions. A closed question is a question where the only answers to that are yes or no, such as “Do you like the feature?” The only answers are yes or no. Don’t do this. 

Instead, ask open questions. Open questions invite a greater response than just a yes or no answer. They allow the user to fully explain their thoughts and opinions. They also help you get to the reason behind why someone does something. With that in mind, a better way to ask that question would be something like, “What do you think of the feature?” Depending on their answer, you might consider following it up with, “why do you think that way?”

Second, make sure to avoid leading questions. Leading questions bias the participants towards a certain answer, which will skew the results of your interviews. For example a leading question could be, “which apps do you use to purchase airline tickets?” This question assumes that they use mobile apps to purchase airline tickets and directs their focus only towards the mobile space rather than more broadly. Again, don’t do this.

Instead, ask non-leading questions. These don’t push the participant towards a specific response. A better way to ask the previous question would be, “how do you currently purchase air travel?”

In general, ask questions that are open and non-leading, meaning they invite a greater response than just a yes or a no and don’t bias their answer. 

Conduct a user interview to:

Learn insights into the needs and deep motivators for the user.

Better understand people’s behaviors and their choices (why they do something).

Validate your assumptions. 

Answer your research questions. 

Gain empathy for the user. 

Get the entire team on the same page.

Determine the general direction to head in for a product. 

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