For a vast majority of the product and user research teams we’ve spoken with, time is the limiting factor that stops them from speaking to their users. Speaking to your users takes too long.
One way we get to know our users is by interviewing them: implementing a systematic way to gather information. This helps us understand why humans think and act in certain ways. We’ve covered why knowing your users is essential to your product's success. But how do we talk to our users? The process isn’t simple but it is straightforward, once you learn the art of conducting a user interview.
The purpose of interviewing users is to get to know them. In order to ensure that we do this in a structured manner, we need to ask the right people the right questions in the right way. We have another article covering 5 short lessons for effective user interviews. Here, let’s dive deeply into three aspects of interviewing: Matching your research objective with the users you interview, the indispensable need for preparation, and building up your tolerance for silence.
As we discussed elsewhere, it’s important to start with a well-thought-out research question or objective. This objective will help define whether your research is generative (deeper understanding of a user group), evaluative (testing newly created concepts or solutions with users), or a combination of the two.
Next, we need to speak to the right people: these individuals can be current users of a product, or someone who fits the profile of a potential user. This is to ensure that you’re talking to the right users in order to find valid answers to your pre-defined questions. An example from my last role: Our key user group was bicycle couriers. We knew many things about them, like their average age, average tenure with our company, and how many shifts they usually worked per week. We knew what kind of bike they rode, how much gear they went through, and how many orders they could fill on average, per hour or per shift.
But we didn’t know plenty of other things – what were their main pain points on their courier shifts? How was their experience of entering a restaurant or ringing a customer’s doorbell? How did they troubleshoot moments of friction on their shift? The best – and only – way to find out this information was to interact directly with the couriers. Our research was generative in nature, as our knowledge was at an early stage of being built up. Our research objective was to get to know their overall user journey. Therefore, we could talk to a fairly general group of couriers to gain insights.
Later, let’s say we wanted to test a new app feature that was meant to enhance the courier’s experience of finding a customer address. Our earlier generative research revealed that a notable subset of couriers wanted audio-only directions so they didn’t have to rely on looking at their phone while out on the bicycle. This feature would provide audio directions to the customer’s home, but was only applicable for couriers who used earbuds or earphones to find the location. At this point, it wouldn’t make sense to talk to a general group of couriers – we needed to talk to couriers who fit this particular use case.
I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews in my career and I still get nervous before I start a one-on-one conversation with an interview participant. To a certain extent, nerves are good: They mean you care about the task in front of you, and you intend to take it seriously. But too many nerves could throw you off balance and make the process not go as smoothly as it could. Here are a few practical tips on organization, which should ensure that your nerves serve only to fuel your excellence as an interviewer:
Whether your interview is more structured or leaning toward unstructured, always prepare for the content of the session. Preparation could mean writing a script in advance, with at least bullet points detailing what you want to know at the end of the interview. Not sure how to get started?
Silence is a non-verbal example of an interview probe. Verbal probes allow you to get more information from your interviewee (“tell me more!” or “anything else?”) but non-verbal probes can be even more powerful.
We discussed the importance of silence in our other article on interviewing. Learning to be comfortable with silence is a lifelong journey. It still makes me squirm when the silence stretches out, no one speaking, and I have a nearly irresistible urge to fill the void with another question. Just as it gets unbearable, however, my interviewee has the tendency to say something remarkable, something they never would have said if I had powered on. Every time this happens, I’m reminded again how that momentary discomfort is worth it. How can you learn to embrace the silence?