August 15, 2023
5 (more) lessons for effective user interviews
Here’s how the pros design their user interviews to get the most valuable feedback.

It all starts with the user: your product or service, the features you offer, and (yes) your research methods. Without insight from users, you’re playing a guessing game with your releases. But without the right participants and interview tactics, your user interviews could be misleading or uninformative.

Let’s dig into finding and interacting with your user interview participants:

5 (more) lessons for effective user interviews

  1. Recruit participants and schedule interviews thoughtfully
  2. Provide an incentive for participants
  3. If possible, conduct interviews with a teammate
  4. Create an interview guide, and get familiar with it
  5. Take steps to avoid confirmation bias

1. Recruit participants and schedule interviews thoughtfully

Getting the right people to talk to can make or break your user research results, but recruiting participants can be a challenge. You have to find people who are interested, have time to chat with you, and have the background to contribute.

“When I first started as a design research recruiter, I was obsessed with hitting target interview numbers. If a team requested eight participants for a group discussion, I felt obligated to recruit exactly that amount. What I didn't grasp is that numbers don't count for much if the group isn't filled with thoughtful, articulate people who can participate meaningfully in a conversation,” wrote Sangeetha Santhanam, a Senior UX Content Strategist.

To make it easier, your team should have documented criteria for participants. For example, age, gender, education level, shopping habits, occupation, etc.

Once you’ve found prospective participants, make scheduling and attending the interview as seamless as possible. All instructions should be clear and concise.

2. Provide an incentive for participants

Incentives can help you attract a diverse group of quality participants for your user interviews — people are busy, so you’ll probably get a larger, more engaged group if you offer them something in return for their time.

Generally, moderated user research studies should have a greater incentive than an unmoderated study (since unmoderated interviews can be completed as the participant’s schedule allows). The incentive amount will also depend on the type of person you’re hoping to participate. For example, do you want to question consumers or do you need input from a specialized professional?

For most research studies, either cash or a gift card is an appropriate incentive. Another option is to offer a discount on your products or services. Or you could offer to make a charitable donation.

To offer incentives:

  1. Find out what’s legal and appropriate. Depending on your industry, participants may not be able to accept an incentive. Do your due diligence here.
  2. If incentives are doable, make sure you communicate when and how participants will receive the incentives.
  3. To make it simple you can communicate about the incentives and pay out incentives through Ribbon.

3. If possible, conduct interviews with a teammate

Your user interviews will be way more productive if you have a teammate with you. For example, one person can ask questions and the other can prepare the recording device, take notes, or help field follow-up questions.

With the additional help, you’re less likely to miss important details. And by involving other team members early on, you’ll be able to avoid misunderstandings in the future.

That being said, you don’t want to overwhelm participants.

If there are more than two people who want to observe your interview, set up a way for them to watch remotely. That way they can still ask questions (directed through your second helper) but won’t be crowding the room. Note: if you take this approach, let your participants know that others are watching remotely.

4. Create an interview guide, and get familiar with it

Effective user interviews require a lot of preparation, but it’s worth the effort — especially when it comes to creating an interview guide.

Previously, we took a look at writing questions for user interviews. Creating a guide is the next step in that process. Think about it as if you’re designing your interview process.

Typically, interview guides are broken down into two main sections: an introductory or general section and a more product- or process-focused section.

Here are a few sample intro questions:

  • Can you tell me what your typical day looks like?
  • What websites do you visit/apps do you use on a daily basis?

And a few more specific questions:

  • What’s the hardest part of using [x]?
  • What step takes the most time?

Want more guidance? This great post by GitLab walks you through how to write a discussion guide for user interviews.

Once you’ve created a guide, make sure you (and your teammates) are familiar with the questions and the flow of the interview. You don’t have to memorize the guide, but you want to be able to monitor your conversation enough to get the answers you need.

5. Take steps to avoid confirmation bias

It’s human nature for people to filter feedback through their own set of biases (usually unintentionally). People tend to favor results and data that confirm their own ideas, but confirmation bias can quickly distort user research results.

“Particular behaviors or speech patterns of interviewers can affect the participant’s response. Even such simple feedback as saying “Great!” or “That’s really good feedback [to an open-ended question]” can affect the participant’s responses to subsequent questions,” wrote Chauncey Wilson in his book Interview Techniques for UX Practitioners.  

So what can you do to help confront this issue?

  1. First, acknowledge that you have certain assumptions, and share them with your team. Self-awareness can get you pretty far.
  2. Recruit a diverse pool of participants — specifically people who are different from you. Your goal is to get as many perspectives as possible.
  3. Try to work with a larger sample size.
  4. Don’t shirk from disagreements. Not all feedback will help your team make improvements, but sometimes it points to issues you hadn’t considered.

Effective user interviews = the best insights

User interviews are one of the best ways to collect feedback from your target audience, but only if they’re conducted thoughtfully. Otherwise, you risk missing out on valuable information and risk letting bias affect your results.

With the ability to recruit participants, schedule interviews, and host moderated user interviews, Ribbon can help you get the insights you need to create more human-friendly experiences.