User Interviews Shouldn’t be Awkward

Woman posed awkwardly
Kara Black

Product Designer

Kara Black

You’ve done your research, familiarized yourself with the subject matter, discussed strategy with your team, and finalized a script. You’re ready to dive into your discovery interviews. What could go wrong?

In order to design a better digital product, designers/researchers may use a clinical and methodical approach to a user interview. We want unbiased opinions as we try to define processes and pain points all in a short time span. But the setting of an interview can be a strange and alien environment for the participant. It’s easy to lose sight of the social skills that we rely on in everyday life. We conduct user interviews to understand and empathize with the users of a product. We should also be designing a comfortable interview experience for the participants as well.

What We Can Do Better

Build rapport beforehand

I find that if I can grab five minutes with the participant beforehand, I’m able to put them more at ease and engage them in conversation. I try to schedule interviews with this time accounted for. We can exchange pleasantries, ask questions about our lives, joke around – things that may feel awkward in a recorded session or in front of other people. When we move into a conference room with other people listening, we can just continue our conversation that we already started.

Create an inviting space

Stepping in to a room with strangers can induce anxiety for some people. A user interview is a strange social situation. It may be their first time in this situation and all the focus is on them. It can seem like a test they didn’t prepare for. The setting can make it even more intimidating. You need to make sure the user feels as comfortable as possible.

It’s always important to keep the number of people in the interview to a minimum. If possible, only the interviewee and someone taking notes. If teammates feel the need to listen in, create a video meeting so teammates join without having to be in the room.

Also be aware of the physical space. I recently found myself in a large conference room with a 12-foot wide table. I was on one side with a team member, the interviewees were way across the table, and a few other people were down at another end, observing. The chasm between us felt wide. The interview went well, but one of the participants didn’t seem as engaged.

The next interview, I changed it up. I sat much closer to the participant. We turned toward one another and the onlookers weren’t within her vision. The conversation felt more intimate. There was more smiling and less unease. It felt like a conversation between two people instead of an interview.

Include some interaction

I had a happy accident during one user interview. We weren’t prepared to have the participants share their screens. Instead of figuring out how to hook them up to the projector, I gathered around their laptop and allowed them to walk us through a document. This interaction made the interview more interactive. It broke that barrier caused by the aforementioned 12-foot conference table and helped us get on the same side (literally and figuratively).

As the interview continued, the participants came around to our side; we drew on whiteboards and there was more engagement.The atmosphere felt looser. The room evolved from one with defined sides to one where everyone felt more comfortable. In the end we asked more questions and gathered more useful details than we had in any previous sessions.

Match their body language and energy level

Pay attention to how the person is sitting and talking. I’ve found I connect quicker with the interviewees if I match their body language and energy level. If someone has a quiet voice, it feels disruptive to be talking louder than they do. If someone is loud and monopolizing the time, you have to be able to direct the interview appropriately.

Pause if you sense nervousness

Be aware of how your interviewee is feeling. Are they talking really fast? Are they fidgeting? Are they losing eye contact or looking for a distraction? Try calling for a coffee break. During sessions where I can tell the participant is feeling nervous, I always try to reset the environment. Allowing some alone time or offering a few reassuring comments can put them at ease. It’ll be a more productive session if communication is clear and flowing.

Be an active listener

The script can only take you so far. Don’t just ask a question, write notes, and move on to your next question. The more you learn about your subject matter, the more you’ll start to pick up on patterns, terminology, and themes. Ask clarifying questions to dig deeper. Remember key pieces of information they shared and bring it up at another appropriate point in the interview. This will let the user know you are listening and engaged with the conversation.

Don’t put words in their mouth

There’s a distinct line between repeating what the person is saying to make sure you understand, and using your own words to describe their area of expertise. People respond better when you approach it like they are the instructor, and they are teaching you about their area of expertise. No one is going to be impressed if you already know the answer to the question, or if you can come up with an example. Let the interviewees do the talking.

Remember, you are not the focus of this interview

Personally I always get a little anxious going into user interviews. It’s a little like public performance. You have to become a confident, well-spoken facilitator who is pulling out useful bits of information. But the success of the interview isn’t dependent on your performance. You are not the star. Everyone’s focus will be on the user and the information they are sharing. Remember your goal is to understand the user’s experience: Create the right space to learn that experience and you will have successful interviews.

User Interview Quick Tips

  • Keep the number of people in the interview small, just interviewer and maybe someone taking notes. If other people need to join, make it a remote meeting, so teammates can listen in without having to be in the room.
  • Choose a small, intimate setting instead of a large impressive conference room. Consider meeting in a neutral space (like a coffee shop) or better yet, go to them.
  • Create an interactive component to the interview. Have the users show you something, map out their process, collaborate and critique each other.
  • Match their body language and energy level.
  • Be aware or your users’ state of mind. Reset the room with an intermission if you sense nervousness.
  • Listen actively. Go off script to let the conversation flow.
  • Split up interviews with a break, especially if you need to reset the vibe of the room.
  • Let the user do the talking.

DockYard is a digital product agency offering custom software, mobile, and web application development consulting. We provide exceptional professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. With staff nationwide, we’ve got consultants in key markets across the U.S., including Portland, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Dallas, Miami, Washington D.C., and Boston.


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