How to Run a User Interview

How to Run a User Interview

As a product manager, understanding the needs and pain points of your users is crucial for creating successful products. As we mention in our post How to Make Something People Want, if you’re not interacting with the audience for your product, your likelihood of failure increases exponentially. One of the most effective ways to gain insights about your product is by conducting user interviews. In this post, we'll cover a step-by-step process for running user interviews, and we’ll discuss some best practices to help you get the most out of your conversations with users.

Step 1: Define Your Objectives

Before you start reaching out to users, it's essential to have a clear understanding of what you want to learn from the interviews. This might include identifying the most common pain points, understanding the context in which users interact with your product, or gathering feedback on a specific feature. Having clear objectives helps you to focus your questions and ensures your interviews are productive.

Step 2: Find the Right Participants

The quality of your user interviews depends on the people you choose to interview. Make sure you select a diverse group of users that represent different segments of your user base. This might include users who are new to your product, power users, or users who have recently churned. Strive for a mix of demographics, job roles, and experience levels to gain a comprehensive understanding of your users' perspectives.

While it can be convenient — avoid conversations with those that have a pre-existing relationship with your product where possible. Their answers will always be partially influenced by that relationship.

Step 3: Prepare Your Questions

Once you have your objectives and participants, it's time to design your interview questions. First, review your objectives and make a list of the topics you want to cover. Then, create open-ended, non-leading questions that encourage users to share their thoughts and experiences freely. This is the real art of conducting a user interviews. Spend as much time as you can thinking of questions that will get you meaningful, compelling information from your audience. Using a semi-structured interview format can help you strike a balance between having a plan and remaining flexible during the interview. Remember to leave room in your questions for users to respond with their true feelings.

Here's an example of a well-framed question:

Instead of asking, "Do you like the new search feature?"

Try asking, "Can you tell me about your experience using the search feature?"

The former question guides the user toward a broad yes/no answer, and is likely to elicit an inaccurate response as people may not want to hurt your feelings (see: The Mom Test). The latter question opens up the possibility for the user to express their thoughts about different aspects of their experience using the product.

Step 4: Conduct the Interview

When it's time to conduct the interview, remember that your main goal is to listen. Start by building rapport with the user and explaining the purpose of the interview. Then, follow your prepared questions but be prepared to go off-script if the user shares interesting insights or stories.

As Twitch CEO Emmett Shear explains in this now-iconic talk, it's essential to ask the right questions to the right people. People are the experts about their own behavior, so try to keep the conversation focused on what they did, how they felt, and what they were thinking about as they interacted with the product.

The user is an expert in the problems they have. Your goal is to figure out what those problems are, as specifically as possible, so that you can design the best solution. It’s usually best to avoid solutionizing during the interview as you’ll waste valuable time and attention. If other solutions are available for the problem, ask about the user’s experience trying those options. If they think that other options are good but they’ve never tried them out, then the problem they have may not be big enough to be worth solving.

Step 5: Analyze and Synthesize Your Findings

After conducting your interviews, it's time to analyze the data. Start by identifying common themes and patterns. This will help you uncover key insights and prioritize the most impactful improvements to your product. Remember to consider these insights in the context of your original objectives.

Step 6: Figure out a plan

Finally, take the learnings from your user interviews and figure out a plan for improving on the pain points you’ve discovered. Share your findings with your team and stakeholders along with actionable recommendations based on your insights. As you work through your findings, it’s also important to highlight any areas where further research may be needed so that you can be prepared for follow-up conversations.

Best Practices for User Interviews

Now that we've discussed the general step-by-step process, let's discuss some best practices to keep in mind when conducting user interviews:

  1. Stay neutral: Avoid leading questions or expressing your own opinions. Your goal is to understand the user's perspective, not to influence it.
  2. Listen actively: Take notes, ask follow-up questions, and show genuine interest in the user's experience.
  3. Embrace silence: If interviewees are quiet for a moment, don't rush to fill the silence. Give users the time to think and formulate their answers.
  4. Be flexible: Be prepared to deviate from your script if the user raises interesting points that warrant further exploration.
  5. Thank the user: Always thank your interviewees for their time and valuable insights, and if possible, keep an open line of communication with them in case you have any further follow-up questions as you continue learning. Their feedback is crucial for your product's success.

By following these steps and best practices, you'll be on your way to running effective user interviews that provide valuable insights and help you create better products.

Some other helpful tips for user interviews

While all of the above make for the foundation of a strong user interview process, it will be additionally helpful if you keep the following in mind:

  • Record your interviews to make getting notes easier — but make sure you ask permission to record the interview from the subject. We make it clear that the footage will be used for ‘internal purposes only’ and never released to the public.
  • Try to build a catalog of digging questions that push for more info. Some people are short in their first answers, so get used to following up with things like “Anything else?” “Can you tell me more?” “Can you explain that in more detail?” “Why do you think that is?” and similar.
  • Keep your interviews to 30 minutes to an hour. You need enough time to get good information, but too much time and you can get answer fatigue from the participant. Though some might get energized and want to keep chatting (how often do they get to say everything about something they hopefully care about?), shoot for a consistent time.
  • Organize a spreadsheet with your consistent questions across rows, and interviewees in columns — it will allow you to visually scan your subject’s answers all for a single question quickly and easily.
  • It’s OK to include in your interviews some quantitative style questions — not everything needs to be a long response. We like to add lightning rounds that ask for rankings or ratings of things that might help us understand the severity of pain points or the importance of solutions against other things.
  • Try to not ask your audience about things that aren’t related to their role as a user. In most product-centric user interviews, you generally don’t need to know if your target audience ‘likes your logo’ or ‘what do you think about these colors’.

Use experts for the best possible interviews

If conducting interviews isn’t your strength, or you need support in recruiting or targeting the right audience, and framing your interview for the most potent possible insight, then bring in experts. Studio has conducted thousands of interviews across many industries, as part of our product design sprint process, and can ensure that the output of the process will steer you towards product-market fit. If you’re looking for help, contact Studio now.

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