Summer is coming by Marylou Faure

Stop doing user interviews. Start having conversations.

The case for relaxing in user research

There’s something I’ve realised lately, that’s making my user interviews go smoother and getting deeper, more nuanced insights. I want to share it with you:

The key is this: relax.

Take a step back, for a moment. What is a user interview? If yours are like mine, it’s essentially sitting down with a complete stranger, asking them quite personal questions about their life, and hoping they’ll answer truthfully and openly enough that you can use what they say to design your product. It’s kind of weird, really.

Essentially, you’re fast-forwarding a relationship in just a few minutes, from first meeting to sharing life truths. How do you get there? How do you get them comfortable enough to talk to you and really share their truth with you?

The answer is build that rapport. There’s an art to interviews, and really, I think of it as being a sister to the art of conversation. I think when people are learning how to run user interviews, there appears this balancing act between ‘user interview skills’ and ‘social skills’. Sometimes social skills is the part that falls into the cracks when you’re learning the basic skills of user interviewing.

If you can level up by remembering your user interview skills and also relaxing and having a conversation, the person you’re talking to is going to be that much more engaged. If they’re engaged, what they tell you will be more natural, your insights will be deeper and learnings more nuanced. If they’re disengaged, you’ll get your yes, no answers, but they won’t feel like going deep, sharing their feelings, and opening up to you.

This is my argument for losing a little of the formality and relaxing —with the aim of creating a relaxed, friendly feeling of talking to a new friend, rather than the stiff, nervous feeling of being interviewed.


How can you do it?

1. Little things matter. When they arrive…

When the interviewee arrives at the office for their interview, I greet them at the elevator with a big smile and a handshake. Then I take them to the kitchen to grab a cup of tea, offer them a snack, make some small talk. How’s your morning been? Did you find the office okay? I want them to feel like a valued guest - my goal is for them to actually enjoy their hour with us.

Don’t usher them in and plonk them in a waiting room like the next in a line-up of people. Don’t let them feel like a cog in the wheel.

Welcome, by Gabrielle

2. Build in time for chatty warmup questions.

I always ask warmup questions at the start of the interview - easy to answer things like What do you do for work? Whereabouts do you live? What devices do you have at home that use the internet?

Part of it is to get them used to talking, and feeling comfortable in the space. Part of it is to assuage their fears — maybe they feel nervous, like, “am I prepared for this? Are the questions going to be hard?”

Answering easy questions can help them breathe out and realise —yes — you’re perfectly prepared for today, just by being yourself.

3. Try and find out what they’re enthusiastic about.

Before I ask anything tough, I really want to see some spark of enthusiasm for the conversation in the person’s eyes. Think about your social skills again. You wouldn’t just jump straight to asking a deep personal question when you just met someone. You need to establish a little rapport, and a good way to do that is by getting them to talk about something they’re enthusiastic about.

What’s the last thing you watched on TV? What made you watch it? Where’d you grow up? What was it like starting that job? How’d you get into being a teacher?

Key to this is: Actually be interested in what they’re saying. You definitely can’t just ask “What’s the last thing you watched on TV?” and then jot down the answer like ok, good, ticked that one off. That totally defeats the purpose.

4. Embrace non-formal language. “I was like F&*# that!”

I love it when people swear in user interviews. I think that's a sign I'm doing my job right.

I deeply, almost desperately, want to know their real emotions about the stuff we’re talking about. If it’s internet outages we’re talking about, I want to know just how mad they were when Netflix stopped working and what exactly they said on the phone to Telstra at 11pm that fateful Monday night. If they can feel open enough with me to share the real truth and not censor themselves like they’re on their best behaviour in a job interview, then I am winning.

By Eduard Mykhailov

5. Try and create a smooth flow between questions, by engaging and actively listening.

If you’re actively listening, and you have a good idea of the general topics you want to cover in your interview, 80% of the time you should be able to smoothly flow questions and topics together in a way that makes sense and also covers most of what you wanted to talk about.

There’s a fine line between directing the flow of an interview and actually engaging in a conversation. You don’t want to talk much at all. But you can definitely engage with the conversation just enough to not seem like you’re a researcher.

For example, if you’re asking someone the last thing they watched on TV , it comes across as pretty weird if they tell you and you just reply, “Ok” and move on to the next question. It’s more natural if you’re more like, “I love that show too! What made you watch it?” It’s okay to engage with them a little. You don’t have to hold yourself behind a stuffy wall of researcher-formality.

6. Be open to learning stuff you didn’t expect, and going off-topic.

I like to think of a moderator guide more as a guideline. It’s likely in the course of your conversation they’ll bring up something interesting you hadn’t thought of before. It’s great to follow those paths and explore the unknown unknowns.

Where you stray off the map is where you start to really expand your knowledge about the area you’re talking about. You can only do that by actively listening and really knowing your moderator guideline. The benefits of following unexpected paths have often enough far outweighed the drawbacks of having a topic you only spoke about with one person. If it’s interesting enough, you can build it into the next round of research.

A caveat…

Relaxing and treating your user interviews more like conversations doesn’t mean you can throw away everything you’ve learned about being a good user interviewer! It’s still important not to ask leading questions, to ask storytelling questions, to give them space, not make assumptions, and all the other techniques you know. This is about relaxing just enough to connect with the user on a non-clinical level, so they feel comfortable talking to you and being open.

So what’s the takeaway? Relax! You’re talking to a human, who is sitting in front of you, being very kind to answer all of your nosey questions. Try to help help them feel like they’re talking to a new and curious friend, rather than a buttoned-up researcher, and watch how your insights blossom.


What do you think? Where do you think the balance lies between formality and rapport? Let me know your thoughts here, or say hi on twitter! @nicolarushton

This article has been translated for Chinese readers


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