User Interviews – The Beginner’s Guide

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Our Beginner’s Guide series is designed to help those who are just starting to learn about user experience, or those who want to brush up on the basics. In this part, we take a look at user interviews.

What is a user interview?

A user interview is a common user research technique used typically to get qualitative information from either existing or potential users.

It is typically performed by one or two user experience consultants (one to interview and one to take notes) and can cover any range of topics from:

  • The person’s background
  • Their occupation
  • Their use of technology
  • Their goals
  • Their motivations
  • Their pain points

These all add vital meat on the bone to any personas you design and help you understand your potential and existing users.

How do I prepare for a user interviews?

You need to spend some time thinking about what types of users you want to interview and how many of each. A lot of this will be down to timescales and budget, but make sure you have enough from each representative group – normally around 4-5 at a minimum.

You can identify some potential user groups through the use of analytics, market research or any other materials the client may have given you access to. If the brand you are working with has social media activity this can be an excellent way of identifying some potential customer types.

WritingNormally you will spend some time upfront writing an interview script with the different questions you want to cover.

When writing this script is important to remember a few quick tips:

  • Let the person know why you are doing the interview – Many people may be wary about a stranger coming and asking them lots of personal questions. Before you jump in give them an overview of what you are trying to accomplish and most importantly let them know there are no wrong answers. Also let them know that any feedback will be kept anonymous.
  • Don’t ask any leading questions – Rather than asking ‘How often do you use Facebook?’, ask ‘Do you use any social networks?’. Not only does this give you opportunities to ask follow up questions but it can uncover insights that you may have forgotten to ask about.
  • Use the script as a guide not a bible – The script should help lead the conversation in the right direction but it should not be stuck to too rigidly. Be prepared to go a little off piste if the conversation is heading in an interesting direction. Just make sure to cover all the areas you need to.
  • Keep it to less than an hour – A fairly simple tip but an important one. Most people will have trouble staying focussed longer than this so if you are running out of time cherry pick the most important questions.
  • Leave time between interviews – A whole day of user interviews can be exhausting, particularly towards the end. Give yourself a half hour buffer between them to allow for any over run, give you time to finish up your notes and to have a bit of a break.

How do you run the user interview?

Live Scribe

If you are doing it solo then you have a slightly tougher task in that you need to record your findings as well as run the interview. I’m a big fan of using a Livescribe Smartpen 3 Pro Edition so that I have an audio recording to fall back on if I miss anything out.


Some quick tips for during the interview are:

  • Dress to the level of the interviewee – If you are interviewing someone in an environment where they all wear suits then if you turn up in shorts and t-shirt they may be slightly dubious of your credentials and on the defensive. Use common sense here.
  • Make the interviewee feel comfortable – Offer refreshments, have a bit of small talk before you get going (but not too much, you aren’t trying to make friends). Give them the overview of how they are helping you conduct your research and thank them for their time.
  • Keep it on track – As previously mentioned, it’s ok to go a little bit off script as long as it’s adding value to your research but if it’s a complete tangent get the interviewee focussed again by saying something like “That’s really interesting, but what I really wanted to ask about was X”
  • Try not to bury your head in your notes – Easier when there are two of you, but even if it’s you on your own try to maintain eye contact where possible and don’t spent the entire time writing.

What is a contextual interview?

Work DeskWhere possible it is generally best to interview people in their natural environment, be that in their home,  place of work or elsewhere. Doing the interview this way can yield greater insight into how the environment the user is in will affect how they currently use an existing system or will use what you are designing. Put simply it gives your user research context.

Things to watch out for can be:

  • Distractions – During the interview your interviewee may well be interrupted by phone calls, children, emails, colleagues or any number of additional distractions. How frequently do their occur? How can your design help accommodate for these?
  • Personality clues – Is the environment messy? Is it organised? Things like this can give you a lot of information about how the person you are interviewing organises and remembers information.
  • Technology – What kind of technology is the person working with? What is the phone reception like?
  • Workarounds – Particularly relevant in the workplace, is your interviewee using any workarounds for systems which aren’t meeting their needs? See if you can spot any ‘quick reference’ bits of paper or links on their computer and ask about them

What do I do with the findings from my user interviews?

More than likely you will have tons and tons of notes from your different sessions and maybe even some audio recordings.

There’s no way around it, going through your notes takes a long time. However, there are a couple of things you can do to speed up the process.

Mind The GapMindmapping is an excellent way of cutting through the detail and identifying themes and trends from your research. If your goal is create personas from your research then look at the top level sections you need to fill in such as motivations or pain points. Use these as a starting point in your mind map and begin to pull out some of the findings and jot them down.

Particularly powerful when presenting back to clients or getting the rest of the project team to understand what you found out can be quotes that sum up a particular point – these are like gold dust so listen out for them in your interviews. An example might be “I never use my computer for X, it’s just too slow”.

I recommend reading this excellent article by one of our guest authors Jenny Grinblo Mind Map User Tasks. Whilst it is geared slightly more towards user journey creation it will give you a good idea of how you can use mind maps to break down your user research findings too.

What next?

The findings from your user research help feed into your personas and user journeys. Ideally they will give you a good idea of the context in which your system needs to work and what types of users you have to cater for.

Further reading

Images courtesy Pulpolux !!!Marco LeoAllison MillerJason Carter