August 15, 2023
5 short lessons for effective user interviews
Learn how UX professionals get the most out of their user interviews. These 5 user interview lessons are packed with tips from customer researchers, UX writers, usability consultants, and more.

How many times have you heard a company describe its brand or product as “user-focused?” One of the best ways to get there is to conduct thoughtful, useful user interviews. But most companies aren’t making the most of their user research opportunities.  

So how can your product team approach user interviews more effectively? Here are five short lessons you can incorporate into your process right now.

TL;DR Summary

You’re more likely to have successful user interviews if you begin with specific objectives and an inclusive, thoughtful strategy. Put emphasis on the format of your questions, and give participants’ answers your full attention.

5 lessons for effective user interviews

  1. Start with a specific, actionable research objective(s)
  2. Lean on your customer support team
  3. Make a point to build rapport with participants
  4. Consider the construction of your questions
  5. Plan to spend more time listening

1. Start with a specific, actionable research objective(s)

Before you even get started with your research, you need to parse out what you already know about your users’ habits and what you want to know. As David Travis and Philip Hodgson outlined in their 2019 book Think Like a UX Researcher:

Surprisingly, many UX research studies do not begin with a considered research question. Instead they are motivated by uninteresting and superficial objectives such as the need to ‘do some research,’ ‘get some insights,’ ‘hear the voice of the customer,’ or ‘find some user needs.’ The first step of any research endeavor should be the development of a research question that will provide the central core around which an investigation, its methodology and its data analysis, can be developed.

An effective research objective is practical and specific. It should align with project goals, define your overall approach, and help determine your research methods. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your objective is achievable.
  • You can have more than one objective. However, it’s important that your team prioritizes them.
  • Have a general plan for how your team will react to the outcome. For example, if there’s a negative reaction or user confusion, how can the experience be improved?
  • Write your objectives in stages, so they flow more like a story.

Each research objective should have its own set of tasks and questions. It’s also important to understand that what your team wants to know is not what you’ll ask your users (more on writing questions later). And finally, make sure all of the stakeholders agree on the objectives.

2. Lean on your customer support team

Before you dive into a large user research project, check in with your success team. They speak to customers all day, every day.

CS teams regularly collect and analyze customer complaints, suggestions, questions, and pain points. In essence, their goal is in line with the product team’s goal: help customers use a product or complete a process more effectively.

Instead of assuming that data doesn’t exist, develop those internal relationships. You might just find you’ll have a better starting point, more specific objectives, and more effective user interviews.

3. Make a point to build rapport with participants

The more comfortable your participants feel, the better. Initiate the conversation with small talk, use positive body language, and explain the process to each participant.  

As you begin the interview, introduce yourself, explain what you do at the company, and outline your role in the user research process. Let the participant know they should treat you like you don’t know anything about the process or product.

When you are ready to start Hannah Shamji, a Customer Researcher and Strategist, suggests “asking for permission before you begin recording, reminding them there are no right or wrong answers, and actively encouraging honest or negative feedback.” Make sure participants know this isn’t a test.

Your arch of questions can also help participants feel more comfortable. “Start with asking simple questions to put the interviewee at ease,” says Adrienne Barnes, Founder of Best Buyer Persona. You can work your way up to more intricate user interview questions.

Always try to remember that most participants are walking into an unfamiliar situation, so any extra context you can give them is welcome.

4. Consider the construction of your questions

Writing your user interview questions shouldn’t be a second thought. Pay attention to the sequence of your questions — you want your questions to flow from beginning to end. And remove any words and phrases that could be confusing, too technical, or misinterpreted. Allison Grinberg-Funes, UX writer says:

As a writer, I pay attention to the language used… and try to keep my questions open-ended and using similar language/terms (rather than synonyms, for example).

In other words: Use plain language, avoid leading questions, and use neutral wording. Some people interpret questions very literally, so you want your questions to be as clear as possible and free of jargon. Here are a few basic sample questions:

  • What was your experience with [the product or process]?
  • Where did you get stuck?
  • How did you find this experience?
  • How does [the product or process] fit into your [workflow, daily life, etc.]?
  • Where do you see yourself using this [product]?

Need more help with writing questions? You might find these user interview example questions from Yale helpful.

Your final question should give participants space to bring up anything they haven’t mentioned. If you’ve built rapport with the participant, there’s a good chance that this last question will get you a lot of interesting nuggets to include in your user research.

5. Plan to spend more time listening

Let’s assume you have a strategic plan and thoughtful questions. Your prep work will help streamline the user interview process, and it leaves you free to do the most important job in user research: listening.

Silence can be a powerful tool.

Present the user interview questions tactfully, and then pause to leave room for an answer. Adrienne Barnes, Founder of Best Buyer Persona puts it well:

Let there be silence after asking a question. The interviewee should talk most of the interview and be allowed time to think before answering.

Similarly, you should pay close attention to the language participants use to answer your questions. Ask follow-up questions as needed. “When you hear a filler word (easy, useful, hard, always, etc.,) dig deeper,” says Hannah Shamji, customer researcher and strategist.

This type of follow-up question also works for tasks. For example, “I noticed you did [X]. Why?”

Upgrade your user interviewing toolkit

Ribbon helps product teams recruit research participants from their own website and makes it easy to start video interviews in a matter of minutes. You can invite your team to select participants, observe video sessions in real-time, and share insights.

And to help avoid scheduling conflicts or confusion, Ribbon integrates directly with Google Calendar.

It’s product-led discovery at its finest, and you can get started for free.