Manage the conversation

Maria Matveeva

Director of Design

Maria Matveeva

One of my core UX design skills is finding information through user testing and interviews. What we gather will help us decide what to build, and how. This makes our ability to source qualitative information very important to the success of a product.

A user interview is, at its essence, a closely managed conversation. It is my responsibility, as the designer, to manage it. The level of control required of the UX designer in this situation is unfamiliar, and can be stressful in the beginning. I think the reason for this initial discomfort is that we have little context for this managed type of conversation in our everyday life. We’re used to conversations in which both parties share control over the direction and tone. Owning the conversation completely can feel rough and undemocratic. It takes skill and experience to do it while making the other party feel at ease.

I want to share what I learned while conducting interviews and user tests at DockYard. I hope this will take some of the edge off the initial difficulty for others also learning this skill, and make it a more pleasant and productive time for all.

##Lessons learned

###1. Prepare well

There is a lot of prep work involved, before the conversations can even start. Taking the time to do these steps properly allows me to get the most out of the time I spend with the interviewee.

  • Schedule the interviews. You may need to find suitable users yourself. Or, the client may help by putting you in touch with some preselected users to interview. Try not to schedule interviews back-to-back in case one takes a bit longer than expected.
  • Arrange for the legal details. This could include notifying the interviewee of privacy arrangements, having them sign an NDA, or otherwise vetting the situation. Basically, you want to protect yourself, the person you’re interviewing, and the client by specifying how information is going to be used.
  • Draft a sequence of questions that cover your desired information.
  • Edit until questions sound polished and neutral (more on this to follow, in a separate post)
  • Prepare a notebook, pen and a laptop.
  • Print the questions so I can write notes in context and check off completed ones.
  • Prepare backups and extra copies of any materials I’m planning to use.
  • Grab water and a snack! You don’t want to take focus away from the interview by being too thirsty or hungry.
  • If needed, also grab a timer and a sound recorder (your needs may vary)
  • Triple-check the list of interviewees and their basic information. For example, phone interviews can happen over different time zones. It’s nice to verify you’re not calling the person who kindly offered up their time at 6am.

###2. Establish context

Your interviewee should theoretically know who you are and what you’re talking about. After all, they agreed to the interview. However, it is always a good idea to confirm your assumptions. A brief introduction won’t hurt. For example, you could start with “Hi ____, thank you for taking time to do this! My name is ____, and my company was hired by ____ to improve their product. How familiar are you with the product?”

###3. Direct the conversation

For a UX designer starting out, it may seem rude to redirect the conversation. Especially so if your interviewee is describing, with passion and detail, a subject they are an expert in. But don’t be afraid to redirect the conversation. You need to get to the specific questions you want answered (but of course be nice about it!). For example, to get back on track, you might say “Great - this extra information is very helpful, but I’d like to get back to the original reason you started using ____?” This acknowledges the value of their insight, then nudges them to answer your original question.

###4. Go with the flow

At the start of the interview, there is a prepared, logical sequence of questions to ask. But in a conversation, one thing may lead naturally to another. If it makes sense to ask things out of order, it’s totally acceptable to do so. This is where a printed list of questions helps. Check them off as you go to make sure none remain unanswered.

###5. Use teamwork

It is definitely easier to have a team of two handling the interview. This way, one person asks questions while the other focuses on capturing notes. Some notes may be of things like body language, expression, and movement - all important indicators of how a user may feel about the questions in addition to what they actually say. An experienced interviewer could probably handle both tasks with grace. As a beginner, it’s almost impossible. Try to do both at once, and you’ll either get awkward pauses as you write notes, or you’ll fail to record some of the valuable details.

###6. Don’t be afraid to clarify

Some interviews happen over the phone. The challenge here is that we lose most of the added information of body language and facial expression. This could be remedied with extra questions. For example, if I think the interviewee is referring to their laptop to answer something, I would literally ask that: “I’m guessing you’re looking at the laptop screen for reference - is that correct?” It is also important to be attentive to the tone of voice so you can hear emotion, like hesitation.

Another possible challenge in phone interviews is sound quality. Users may be on a shaky cell phone connection, or calling us via Skype. This can make their (and potentially your own) voice difficult to understand. It is tempting to dismiss the poor quality of sound and just omit details you can’t quite hear. Make sure to always ask the interviewee to repeat or speak louder if you do not understand what’s being said.

##In conclusion

Conducting interviews caused me to cringe quite a few times. Am I doing it right? What does the interviewee think of me? Do I sound professional? Looking back, I can see how I and my colleagues got over our fears, and made significant improvements with just a few rounds of practice.

Remember, both you and the interviewee are there because you want to improve some aspect of people’s lives through your work and their experience. You’re on the same side, and you share this interest in the thing you’re discussing. Make the most of this interviewing situation, and you will see improved results each time.


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