4 Phrases to Jump Start User Interviews

Meg Davis  

July 08, 2013

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photoblogOn the user experience team, it is crucial for us to step into the shoes of users to understand their needs before we begin design. One of the key ways that we do this in our discovery process is by talking to target users. User interview questions are developed based on what we know from business stakeholders, the competitive market space, and gaps of knowledge our team has about the users. These questions evolve as the team’s knowledge evolves with each interview. One challenge during user interviews is getting participants to talk at a detailed level, rather than glossing over details in their day-to-day tasks that they take for granted. Oftentimes, these details become inspiration for the design team and build empathy for the users.

In my experience, I’ve found these four phrases get participants talking and keep them engaged during an interview. Almost all of these phrases in my toolbox involve prompting a participant based on something they have already said – even if it is an offhand comment.

1. “What I’m hearing you say is _______. Is that correct?”

I use this phrase to check my understanding based on what I’ve heard from the participant. Oftentimes, this read-back of what I’ve heard spurs the participant to either correct something I’ve said or to add more information for clarification.

2.“So you do ________ and then….?”

As interviewers, our instinct is to talk, and it’s counterintuitive to trail off sentences. However, letting your voice trail off at the end of a sentence is a great technique to prompt the participant to step up and own the statement. Participants will feel the need to finish the sentence.

3. “Do you remember the last time that happened? Can you walk me through what you did step by step?” or simply “Show me.”

This phrase gives the participant a concrete event to discuss in detail and triggers their memory about certain steps of the process they are describing. It can put participants at ease to talk about something that already happened, rather than talk in generalities.

4. “I heard you say ‘________’. What did you mean by that?”

Open-ended questions may sound elementary, but they strip away any bias or assumptions that you may have as a researcher. They allow the participant to start an explanation from ground zero. This can surface nuances about the most basic way a participant thinks about a topic.

The more engaged that a participant is during an interview, the better the design team can understand their unique point of view. The design team starts to observe patterns of thoughts and attitudes as more participants are interviewed. These patterns can by synthesized into actionable insights that ensure that the design resonates with target users.

User interviews are one of my favorite parts of the discovery process. I’d love to hear what other techniques you use to get the most out of your participants when conducting user research. When in doubt, I find that cookies help to spur conversations!