8 tips for user interviews that will improve your digital products

We're always working to make our processes user-centered! This week, we share our best advice for getting valuable feedback from user interviews.

We always try to design our digital solutions from a user’s perspective. That sounds rather obvious – and really, it should be – but it can also be a pretty tough assignment. In the early stages of each project, we consult a wide variety of literature, trend research, blogs, case studies, etc to research how a particular group of will-be customers thinks, and to try to predict their expectations and the ways they might interact with our finished product. These insights are genuinely useful, but sometimes, nothing beats face time – and that is where user interviews come in.

User interviews as a research tool draw strong opinions; some people think they’re useless, others consider them the holy grail of feedback. In reality, as usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between. Personally, we feel user interviews can yield invaluable insights, if you approach them with the right mindset.

However, you may very well have built a product without having a background in research or journalism, which means you probably don’t have any experience interviewing people – and are unsure how to handle these user interviews.

Read on for our eight best tips for conducting user interviews that will help you build better products!

1. Know what you want

User interviews are a little like blind dates – other people have offered you some (hopefully useful) information about the person across the table, but now you have to form your own opinion, face to face.

Going into a user interview, it’s important to think about your purpose: what do you hope to learn?

At November Five, we conduct two different types of interviews. When we are working on a new business or digital product for a client, we prepare by interviewing different important stakeholders. The goal here is to validate insights that we previously gathered from our desk research, and to get a better insight at the specific problems these people encounter. This will help us build a product that will hit all the right notes when it’s released.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the interviews we organise after a product has been launched and used for a while. This is a great tool to gather feedback about the real-life use of our products and better understand the motivations and experiences of our users.

The purpose of these interviews is to enrich the learnings we take from a product’s analytics. After all, numbers can only tell you about the “what”, not the “why”. During these interviews, we focus on the way the users feel about the product and how they actually use it. Comparing these answers to the initial scope and roadmap of the project will teach us whether users experience the product the way we envisioned it. It puts our previously defined roadmap into perspective and helps us determine the real value of all of the features. And that, in turn, will help us build a better 2.0.

2. Don’t waste time with the wrong people

You need to talk to the people that can actually teach you something. And who the right people are will depend from product to product. We have a few general guidelines, though.

For our preparatory interviews, we interview all of the most important stakeholders of a project, and talk to a number of future end-users. It’s important to get input from different perspectives early on. We’ve noticed many times that there can be some pretty big differences between the vision of the client’s product owner, and the problems and opportunities that the future users see. Good interviews in the early stages of the process can help align everyone’s priorities for the envisioned product from the start.

When we conduct feedback interviews, we always try to get a good balance between heavy, average and low users of the product, and between different user profiles.

3. Put your best foot forward

People always say that you only have one chance to make a good first impression – and that advice does not only apply to dating or meeting your in-laws.

It’s important that you start building trust from the first moment you contact your interviewee. Be friendly, be clear, and make sure you explain the purpose of the interview and your expectations properly. The same advice stands when you sit down to actually conduct the interview; most likely, this is the first time you meet your interviewee, so focus on building trust before peppering them with questions.

If this sounds touchy-feely, just remember that most people are not comfortable delivering honest feedback face to face, especially when that feedback is negative. Your goal is to get honest feedback, and in our experience, the right atmosphere will help your cause tremendously.

4. Prepare your script, but keep an open mind

This follows from the previous tip: your interview script is a guide, not a bible!

There’s nothing wrong with preparing scripted questions. You can outline the high-level topics you’d like to talk about, prepare questions for each topic and define a set of core questions you’ll make sure to ask every interviewee. It’s important to have a clear picture in your head of what you want to know.

It’s also equally important to remember that your interviewee is a person and not an answering machine. Don’t over-focus on your scripted questions, and remember that any interview is a conversation. If you succeed at creating a comfortable atmosphere and allow your interviewees to voice their opinions and elaborate on the topics they care most about, you’ll very likely get the feedback you need.

5. Don’t ask users what they want

Opponents of user interviews as a feedback tool often use that famous quote by Henry Ford:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

We think user interviews can add value, but there’s a lot of truth to this quote: don’t try to ask your users what their ideal solution looks like. You specialise in creating products, not your interviewees. We’ve found that a focus on the real-life situation of the interviewees is much more effective. We usually ask them about the problems they encounter and would like your product to solve and the tools they are used to working with today (to name just a few examples). That’s not to say that you can never ask about specific features, of course – and that brings us to the next tip:

6. Be concrete (and avoid suggestion)

If you ask specific questions, you’ll likely get more useful and honest answers. It’s much easier to answer “Which features to you use most often?” than it is to answer “What is your opinion about our product?”. Concrete questions will help you get concrete answers, and asking for examples will teach you about the exact way people use and experience your product.

On the other hand, you should be careful with suggestive questions. For instance, if you ask your interviewees if they’d like to see Feature A integrated in the product you’re building, they will probably say yes. This is due to a phenomenon that psychologists call “social desirability’. Social desirability is a propensity to provide answers that make you appear good in the eye of the other. Everyone does it, often subconsciously. It’s a good guideline to try to avoid questions that will trigger this process.

7. Don’t rely too much on memory

Another tip to get qualitative answers: avoid asking people questions that rely heavily on what they remember.

Human memory has its limits. It’s difficult for people to recall the details of a past experience and explain why they did what they did. The only exception to this rule are extreme situations: we tend to have clearer, more detailed memories of those times when something went really well, or really wrong.

Your solution very likely did not trigger such intense feelings in your interviewees, so pay attention. Very often, people won’t tell you that they can’t remember exactly why they made a certain choice. Instead, they’ll make up a story that rationalises their choice and the elements they do remember – making things sound more coherent and logical than they actually were. Of course, there’s often no way around relying on people’s memories, but you can use this knowledge to better interpret their answers.

8. Don’t pitch

If you care about the product you’ve built, you’ll be tempted to try to sell certain aspects to your interviewee-users. It’s only natural, but it will probably hurt the quality of your responses. An example: an interviewee states that a certain feature would be a great addition to the app. However, you know that that functionality is already in there! Unfortunately, if you’d start to explain that fact, you’ll make your interviewee feel like a bit of an idiot, which means you’ve missed out on a learning opportunity (Why didn’t they find this feature? Maybe your menu isn’t as clear as could be?).

The goal of user interviews is gathering feedback and learning about user’s behaviour, so that you can do a better job next time. To put it bluntly, the focus of an interview is the user’s opinion - not yours.

And finally: combine and conquer

Like we stated earlier, it’s important to combine several research methods when writing up your insights report. In our experience, you’ll achieve the best learnings and recommendations by bringing together the information from interviews, team feedback, web analytics, and any other channel you choose to use. The advantages and disadvantages of the different research methods tend to balance each other out, which will help you create improvements or recommendations with a strong fact base.

If you’d like to read more about our processes, check out our case page! Spencer (and its predecessor, the Mobile Workplace app) is one of the projects where we worked with extensive user interviews both at the start of the trajectory and after the launch.