How to conduct user interviews

Gather meaningful insights, create better experiences

Andra Cimpan
6 min readMay 18, 2020
Cover article

According to Don Norman, the human-centered design process starts with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet. The field of user experience has a wide range of research methods available and one of the most common of them is user interviews.

User interviews are a great way to extract information from users, to gather and define their needs and, at later stages, to identify any usability issues. User researchers conduct interviews in the early stages of the design and development process, when their ideas or problems need further exploration or need insights into how others relate to the topic. It is crucial to gather the information you need, to understand potential users and their lives well enough that you can design a product they will actually want and be able to use.

User interviews are a quick, easy, and cost-efficient way to collect user data, so they are often used, especially in Lean and Agile environments.

Let’s start with the basics: What is a user interview?

A user interview is a recorded conversation with your end-user during which a researcher asks one user questions about a topic of interest with the goal of learning about that subject. The discussion can be focused on examining the user experience, the usability of a product, or fleshing out data for input into personas.

Before the interview

Define the goal

It is crucial to start each new interview project with a clear understanding of the purpose of your research. It is vital that you know why you want to conduct the interviews and what is the desired outcome.

A good practice is to involve the key stakeholders in the process of defining a purpose for your research. From their desires, determine the main goal, ensuring that it is realistic.

Make sure you don’t set a goal too broad, like learn about users, but instead set a concise, concrete goal related to a specific aspect of the users’ behavior or attitudes which will direct how you will be constructing the interview. Document the goals that you and your team set for this research phase prior to moving further to set up the interviewing process.

Design your interview structure

There are 3 different types of interview you could perform:

Interview types: Structured, Semi-structured and Unstructured interviews

Structured interviews have carefully scripted questions and the questions will be asked by the interviewer in exactly the same way, format, and order. These types of interviews contain more closed-ended questions (yes or no answer) and fewer open questions. In the case of surveys, the interviewer will present the participant with predetermined options to choose from.

Structured interviews are not usually used in the early stages of a design project because they don’t really generate many new insights.

Semi-structured interviews are interviews where the interviewer prepared a script with questions before the session, but he is allowed to ask additional or probing follow-up questions based on the conversation. The interviewers have the freedom to change the order of the questions in the guide or to spend longer probing response to one specific question in order to get helpful insight from the participant.

The questions used in semi-structured interviews are generally open-ended as they give the participants the chance to talk more and allow for free-form answers, like lists and stories.

Semi-structured interviews are usually used in the early stages of a design project

Unstructured interviews are the ones where the interviewer did not prepare a script with questions, although they might have an idea of some topics that they could cover.

Usually, it is recommended to prepare a guide before the interview, as it will help you avoid going off tangent and ensures you have some really good, quality questions prepared that provide sound insights.

Design your interview script

A discussion guide is a document in which you formulate the questions you want to ask your participants. Your discussion guide should be closely tied to the purpose of your research, and the questions should be selected according to your learning goal. In the case of semi-structured interviews, having a discussion guide or script does not restrict you from asking additional or follow-up questions but it is more like a skeleton for your discussion. During the interviews, the guide should serve as a reminder of the questions you want to ask or topics you want to cover.

Often, in a study, the research teams will conduct several interviews with different participants in order to do a full research project. Developing an interview script in advance is a helpful way to standardize the interview process and really ensure you’re covering all of the main questions during your time with the participants.

A good resource that can be used as an inspiration for the discussion guide is the Usability Test Script presented by Steve Krug in his book “Rocket Surgery Made Easy”

Once the script and questions are prepared, have them reviewed by someone else from your team to make sure there are no leading questions and the questions are designed to validate or invalidate the assumptions and hypothesis.

Constructing an Interview script

Decide who to recruit

Recruitment is an important part of the interview process. It is essential to recruit a representative sample of your target audience. Start with your user personas and try to find interview participants that match them. Decide whether you want to have only one particular group of users or users from many different groups. Regarding the number of participants that should take part in the study, there is no set rule. One technique that you can apply is Jakob Nielsen’s recommendation for usability testing, which is to start with five participants. If you notice that by participant five you reached saturation and you’ve stopped getting any new insights, you probably don’t need to recruit any more participants.

Interview team setup

User interviews can be conducted in many different locations — at the users’ site, in a controlled environment like a lab, or remotely, using online meeting tools. The location should be decided based on the availability of the participants and the research team but also on the scope of the interview.

The interviews that are conducted at the users’ site are usually contextual interviews. The scope of this type of interview is to observe the user in the environment in which they use the product. The same rule applies in the case in which the user needs certain tools or elements from their environment during the interview. Artifacts can nudge the interviewee’s memory and can also paint a better picture of the users’ processes for the interviewer. These are very common in usability testing and assessment of products and even in information visualization.

The most common setup is one user and two UX researchers. One UX researcher focuses on asking questions and guiding the interviewee through the interview while the second one is the notetaker. It is recommended to record the session for further references and transcripts of the discussion. (Don’t forget: always ask for permission before starting the recording, and be ready to abandon it if your interviewee feels uncomfortable.)

A note In Plain English

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Andra Cimpan

User Experience Engineer that creates digital products 👩‍💻 with knowledge and passion💖