5 tips for better user research interviews

July 11, 2022

As an evidence-led design agency, you won’t be surprised to hear that we’ve organised and facilitated our fair share of user research sessions over the years. We’ve carried out UX research and usability testing with people in their places of work, their homes and even on the go (yes, taking notes is as tricky as you’d imagine!). We love research so much that we’ve recently been talking to other UX designers and researchers about how they like to do it. Unsurprisingly our conversations have been packed full of insight, with each one conducting their research in slightly different ways. 

We’ve combined all the insights along with our own experience to create some practical tips to help anyone carrying out user interviews, whether you're new to user research or a seasoned pro looking to dust off those test scripts.

1. Always practice with a pilot

The discussion guide is written and the team are eagerly wondering about the outcome of the approaching research sessions. So much prep goes into getting to this point in the project but researchers often skip a very important step, running a pilot. We understand how time-pressured projects can be, but there is so much value in taking an hour to test out the discussion guide before a scheduled user session.

Pilots - or a run-through - can be done with just about anyone! Even going through and answering questions yourself can give a lot of benefits. 

Why should we care if it’s improvised? Typically, research participants give up 30-60 minutes of their time to help with a project. Whether they are incentivised or not, we should value their time and contribution. The best way to do this is by using each session to the fullest. There can be a lot to remember, but knowing the discussion points encourages you to relax and be curious! So on your next project, try doing a pilot and see the benefits for yourself. 

Furthermore user researchers conducting a user test via Zoom

2. Let the participants in on what you are doing

The participant needs to feel relaxed. When facilitating it’s important to prep your discussion points, these ensure you cover the key areas you are researching and help to group the insights into themes and topics.

During the pandemic we did most of our user research over video calls, making recruiting participants easier and more affordable to run the sessions. But doing user research remotely comes with its drawbacks. Having the ability to observe body language and user behaviour is key for both our understanding of the participant’s mindset and for them to feel at ease in the situation. It’s important for you to both feel comfortable and by letting the participant know that you have prepared some discussion points, means that they won't worry if you’re reading from another screen. Otherwise, participants could feel they’ve said something wrong or that the researcher is bored

3. It’s ok to be ignorant

We wouldn’t need to research if we knew everything, and no one can know how others will feel using a product or service. So there is value in not knowing everything, it gives the participant more space to explain their understanding of potentially obvious things, whilst the researcher can stay curious. 

Whether you’re helping a company on a project or working in-house, it’s important to detach yourself from what you know about the product or service. This can help with removing biases and staying inquisitive. Sometimes the most obvious questions can get the most surprising insights. 

However, try not to take this too far. It's important that the researcher is seen as credible, and the user may feel lost if neither they nor the researcher has a basic knowledge of the discussion topics. At the end of the session, you can always open up with more detail about the project.

4. Always watch your interviews back

At first this may seem like a waste of time, and besides, who wants to watch themselves back on video? It’s awkward, we know! But whatever level you are, you should try to get into the habit of watching some of your interviews. 

It enables you to experience what it's like to be interviewed by - you! We can have an idea of how we come across in interviews, but watching them back allows you to pick up on habitual gestures or sayings. 

For instance, if you have a saying or phrase you tend to repeat when you want the participant to expand, such as ‘How does that make you feel?’, you can quickly notice this when you watch yourself back. Nothing is wrong with this saying, but it can be inappropriate depending on what the participant is talking about, so by learning these habits, we can ensure we are being present and intentional with our responses. 

A smiling woman using a laptop while holding a cup of tea

5. Don’t forget to be you

It's normal to feel a little tense at the beginning of an interview, you’ve most likely just met each other and by making them feel comfortable, you’ll hopefully end up feeling like you’re having a casual chat.We often look to other, more senior researchers to watch how they conduct an interview. But copying someone else's behaviour can make you feel and look cold.  

Be authentic. Talking in your tone of voice and using your natural mannerisms helps you connect with the participant. The terminology of ‘Research’ and ‘Interviews’ makes it a science that we can mess up with the slightest stutter, but driven by curiosity, you can’t go wrong. Questions don't have to be asked in a particular way. Instead, use your interest and energy to lead the discussion.

A researcher said, ‘It’s not uncomfortable to watch someone make mistakes. It's uncomfortable to watch someone uncomfortable,’ So don’t worry about messing up, its all part of the design process.

We're an evidence-led, product & service design studio founded in 2013. The research and strategy behind great design is just as important as the design itself. By gathering data and insights to inform our decisions, we help organisations create services and products based on evidence, not opinion. A hypothesis driven design framework helps us achieve this. Please get in touch if you would like to know more. We believe that design is better done together, so we encourage co-creation, joint ownership and collaboration throughout all stages of research, design and development. We can work embedded within an internal team, or seamlessly in parallel.

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