A Pragmatic Guide to Successful User Interviews

Paul Boag

Many of the articles I read about user interviewing are horrifyingly intimidating. They take time and budget that most do not have. So, in this post, I adopt a more pragmatic approach.

Before we discuss user interviews lets begin by talking about my favourite subject — myself!

I want to share with you six facts about me:

  • I am 47 years old.
  • I have been married to my gorgeous wife for 21 years.
  • I have a 16-year-old son.
  • I have worked in digital for 23 years.
  • For 13 years, I founded and ran a digital agency.
  • Now I work as an independent consultant.

Now you know these facts, do you feel you know me as a person? Of course not!

Even if the list was twice as long or even ten times as long you wouldn’t know me. You could also read every one of my books and my 14 years worth of blog posts and still not know me. It is hard to know somebody if you do not interact with them.

Reading facts is not the same, and that is why you need to meet with your audience in person. Only if you spend time with people can you understand them and only once you understand them can you seek to encourage them to act.

I would also suggest that neither is reading a report. Too many organisations rely on third-party user research agencies. Although that has its benefits, it should not be an excuse to avoid meeting with users yourself.

Why then do so few stakeholders have any kind of contact with users? Why are there designers, developers, marketers, executives, product owners and more who literally have never sat down with their target audience?

User interviews and research guidelines on gov.uk
The UK Government’s Digital Service requires stakeholders in a project to spend at least two hours with users within the last six weeks to participate in a project.

That isn’t the case in the UK Government. The UK Government’s Digital Service values user research so highly that they insist that stakeholders in a project must have at least two hours of contact with users within the last six weeks to participate in a project.

Similarly, usability expert Steve Krug, in his book Rocket Surgery Made Easy, proposes running usability testing with users every month.

Even one round of user interviews will be transformative for your understanding of your audience and by extension your ability to nudge them to act.

So how should you start?

Consider Going to Your Users when Interviewing

Although it will be a little more work, I would recommend visiting your audience in their place of work or at their home. I can tell you from personal experience; this kind of interview is transformative.

The first time I did this was when I was working on an ecommerce website. The client insisted I spent some time with their audience personally, but I admit I was sceptical, thinking that I had carried out more than enough research.

Cat lady from the Simpsons

I turned up at the home of my first participant at the agreed time. When she answered the door, two cats immediately took the opportunity to leave the premises, with one rubbing up against my leg on the way out.

I have to confess that on meeting this very lovely woman and entering her home, my mind immediately went to the cat lady from the Simpsons. In fact, it turned out she had nine cats in total.

Every surface of her house was covered in cat memorabilia. The moment I sat down on her couch, a cat jumped on to my lap, demanding to be stroked.

After chatting for a while, I suggested we try testing the e-commerce site to see how she found it. She took me into her study and sat down in front of the oldest desktop PC I had ever seen, that sat atop a desktop equally cluttered with cat keepsakes.

In fact, her desk was so covered with cat souvenir that she barely had room for her mouse, which she had to pick up and move to give herself more space repeatably.

Then there was the fact that the minute she sat down a cat leapt onto her lap demanding attention. In fact, it so craved attention that partway through to test it decided to climb on the keyboard to stop her typing.

I learned a valuable lesson in that first session. We look at our websites, and they seem simple and easy for us, but in the real world, people are distracted and in less than optimal conditions. We cannot assume we have people’s full attention, a subject I cover in my post on cognitive load.

I would never have learned that lesson from a survey, or a report, or even speaking to her over the phone or at my office. It was only going to her home that I saw the real person behind the personas and research.

What is more, she was the first of six people that day, each one more eye-opening than the last. I learned more in that one day than I had in all the previous research we had carried out.

Yes, field visits like this are time-consuming, but they are completely worth it. Even if you can only do it once, I would encourage you to do so. I spent one day of my time, and it transformed my approach to the project.

Supplement Your In-Person User Interviews with Remote Interviewing

But, you will probably feel the need to speak to more than six people. You may feel that this isn’t representative and that you should talk to more. After all, six people will not represent your entire audience.

In truth, you are right. Speaking to six people over a single day will not give you a rounded picture of your audience. However, it is a start, and it can be supplemented by surveys.

You can also ask users to come to you instead. That saves a lot of time visiting people. However, it will also put a lot of people off of participating, especially if you are trying to reach busy people, which to be honest, is most of us these days.

So, whether you are looking to increase your sample size or simply reach people whom you cannot meet in person for whatever reasons, a remote interview is a worthwhile alternative.

A simple phone call is a perfectly valid way of carrying out a remote interview. However, personally, I favour video conferencing using something like Skype or Zoom.

A tool like Zoom is perfect for running remote user interviews as you can see the participant and even share your screen.

Although this can sometimes be a little unreliable compared to the phone, it does offer two distinct advantages. First, you can share screens, allowing you to look at things like sites together. Second, and in my opinion, even more importantly, you can see the other person. It is amazing how often facial expressions provide as many insights into the user and their thought process than what they actually say.

There are specialist user research video conferencing tools like Lookback. However, these really are overkill for a simple interview. They are more designed for usability testing.

Avoid Interviewing Multiple People Together

Whether you are intending to carry out your user research in person or remotely, I would highly recommend that you carry out these interviews on a one to one basis, rather than running group sessions.

Although focus groups have been popular for many years, they do come with some significant flaws that could easily lead you to false conclusions.

In focus groups, you tend to find that more extrovert characters dominate the conversation and carry the rest of the group with them. As a result, it is easy to come away from a session, thinking that the extroverts opinion is shared by the majority.

One to one interviews may take longer, but they will give you much better insights into your audience.

Ensure Your User Interviews Are Focused

Whatever approach you end up adopting, the key to success is going into these interviews with a clear picture of what it is that you wish to learn. What exactly that is will depend on your context. However, a good starting point is to focus on the customer’s journey.

I would encourage you to talk with participants about their experience of engaging with your company.

  • What problem or goal brought them to your company in the first place?
  • How did they initially come across your company?
  • What were their impressions of your company?
  • What did they do next?
  • What questions did they have and how did they get them answered?
  • What other steps were involved in their engagement with your business?
  • How did they feel about the process?

Discussing their journey is a good starting point for two reasons. First, it is focusing on their experience and not their opinions. It is common for people to say one thing and do another, so focusing on their journey means that they are simply recounting their story, not getting drawn into a subjective discussion.

Second, and more importantly, understanding their journey is crucial for improving conversion.

Not User Interview Best Practice

I am aware that the approaches I outline in this post are not exactly best practice. They cut corners and do less than one should. However, I am a pragmatist. I know most of us don’t have the time or permission to do the kind of user interviews a company like Google or Facebook do.

However, the approach I have outlined in this post could be done by anybody with no training, no budget and little time. In my opinion, even a small dose of user interaction is better than none at all.

Stock Photos from BrAt82/Shutterstock