How To Conduct Great User Interviews

Researching your audience is imperative to developing a successful, ‘needed’ product or service.

To create something people want and need, you first must find out what they want and need. After all, creating a product or service without that vital information is like getting into a car and saying, “Go!”

In the book Pain Killer Marketing, researchers Chris Stielhl and Henry DeVries found that one-on-one interviews can generate around 80% of all possible pain points for your target market. That’s some seriously helpful information!

Of course, you can’t just rock up to anyone in the street with a pen and paper. And you can’t just make it up as you go along. To get the right information, you must prepare the right questions.

That’s where user interviews come in!

A man conducting a user interview with another man
User Interviews are critical to building great products and features

What are user interviews?

A user interview is generally a one-on-one session in which you ask questions about a topic related to a product or service you own, or one you’re hoping to create. It’s not just a chat about what’s cool and what’s not: it involves delving deep into a customer’s thoughts and experiences. You need to figure out what they want, what they’re trying to do, and what their problems are.

User interviews are a great way to gather data because they’re quick and easy to conduct and can provide valuable insights. With the right strategy, a user interview can reveal valuable insights into people’s behavior, their motivations, fears, needs and desires.

Careful planning and execution will help you get consistent and valid information. Your questions should elicit information that you can use to grow your business and send it in the right direction.

UX interview methods

While it may be tempting to “just wing it”, you may not end up with the data you need.

Some of the best methods for getting this data include:

–        Interviewing

Face-to-face interviews allow you to witness verbal and nonverbal cues, such as emotions and body language, which may add color to your research.

Interviews also help you to refine questions for other methods, such as surveys; while conducting an interview after a survey can clarify survey responses.

–        Field Research

Field research is helpful for studying users in their own environment and understanding their problems or solutions. The idea is to observe people using your product or service by hanging out with them or watching them while they’re using it. Where possible, you can ask questions about what they’re doing.

How do I start my user research?

First of all, define your goals. What is it you want to get out of this research?

You can figure this out by talking to your stakeholders. Find out what they’re trying to do and learn. 

Define your user research goals by asking: 

  • What do we need to learn?
  • Who do we need to learn it from?
  • How will we use the data we gather?
  • What information will make us more confident in our design/product/feature decisions later?
  • Who wants/needs to get answers to those questions?

User research interview questions

Here’s a pro tip for getting the information you want from your interviewee: make them feel like they’re the expert – and that you need their opinion.

When devising questions for your interview, have a clear goal of what you want to discover. In most cases, a researcher should want to find out: 

–        The users’ needs and goals

–        How users currently complete tasks using the product or service

–        What users think the product or service offers them (and what more they really want or need)

Give your interview a structure: an introduction, a few warm-up questions, the most important questions, and a close.

The key to gathering as much information as possible is to be flexible. A ‘semi-structured’ interview is one in which you prepare a set of questions to ask in a certain order but allow room to improvise where necessary. Be ready to change your questions and/or create new ones if the situation requires. Avoid being too strict and too vague; this is when your interview can provide the most important and interesting findings.

Even if you use the same base set of questions every time (which also keeps the interview methodologically valid), you can still allow yourself to wander off where necessary.

Remember, the best user interview questions should be those that help you find out what a user is trying to do and what is and isn’t working for them.

1.     Don’t ask leading questions.

For example, “How mad do you get when your website goes down?” will influence your interviewee’s answer by priming their thoughts. Instead, allow your respondents’ answers to be as expansive as possible. You’ll get a more valid response if you ask, “Recall a time when your website was down. How did you feel?”

2.     Don’t ask people what they want.

Your subjects aren’t the designers: they don’t know how to create the solution. That’s up to you to figure out.

Instead of, “What would you like us to do?”

Ask, “What are you trying to do?”

3.     Give your questions some context.

Create a valid memory by asking, “Tell me about the last time your computer crashed. What happened?”

This gives your respondents a specific context for answering your question, which gives you more genuine, insightful data.

4.     Ask open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions encourage the respondent to elaborate, while closed questions generally give you a yes/no answer. For example, instead of

“Do you use social media to ask for recommendations?” ask,

Tell me more about the last time you asked a question using social media.”

This will provide more information about the experience as well as the service.

5.     There are no stupid questions.

Avoiding basic questions can mean you miss valuable information: even if you think you already know the answer.

You can yield important background information with a question like, “What does your job involve?”

Check out our Essential Guide to User Research Notes here

How To Analyze User Interviews

So, you’ve finished interviewing and you’ve got your data. Great! 

Now you have to turn it into something that makes sense. 

To do that, you’ll first have to categorize, classify and organize your data in a way that generates insights and action. 

The secret is to start this analysis BEFORE you start researching!

  1. Step one:
    As mentioned above, your first step should be to create well-defined goals for what you want out of your research. This will help you to collect the data that answers your questions.

  2. Step two:
    Brainstorm a list of tags (or descriptors) for each goal that will help identify notes and data that align to the goals of the research. Assigning these tags to different sections of your research as you work will help to speed up your analysis later.

  3. Step three:
    While conducting your research, it’s easy to tag or code your data in real time using spreadsheets. Tags can be added to individual notes in an adjacent column and then color-coded.
    Or, to make research even easier, use a software tool like Aurelius to tag and organize notes as they’re taken. This also makes for quick viewing and analysis of tags later.

  4. Step four:
    After each interview/test/field study, pause to debrief on what was learned or observed. Doing this while also reviewing the notes and observations will help you hear the same information from a new perspective.

Tagging and Coding User Interview Notes

Tagging notes and data as they’re collected will help connect those tags to your original research goals. For example, when researching how to get more people signing up for a product free trial, your research questions might be:

  • Does the website communicate the right message to share the value of a free trial?
  • Is it easy for a new customer to sign up and begin using the product?

Here, your topic is whether or not potential customers understand the value of the product and free trial. Useful tags based on those questions would be #free-trial, #value-prop, #signup-reason, #signup-process, #onboarding, #confusion

Tagging notes and observations according to these themes as you go along will make your analysis MUCH clearer later. 

Once all the research is done, it’s time to dig in to find patterns and frequency across all the data gathered.

Use your original goal as a framework but keep an open mind for other interesting bits that may have popped up. 

As you sift through your data, keep these points in mind:

·   What are the potential benefits of this product/site/experience to the users?

·   Where are the clear or potential pain points?

·   What emotions might users experience while using various parts of this product/service?

Try Thematic Analysis or Affinity Mapping

An affinity diagram enables you to analyze qualitative data or observations by organizing information into groups of similar themes.

  1. Record all notes or observations on individual cards or sticky notes
  2. Look for patterns and notes or observations that are related
  3. Create a group for each pattern or theme
  4. Give each theme or group a name
  5. Create a statement of what you learned about each group (this is your key insight)
Affinity diagram for ux research using sticky notes on a wall
Affinity Maps for UX Research Analysis

Begin by reviewing your notes, transcripts, and data for any relevant phrases, statements, and concepts that align to your research goals and questions.

Next, tag and code any remaining data that represents key activities, actions, concepts, statements, ideas and needs or desires from the customers who participated in the research.

Now you need to review those tags and codes to find relationships between them. Pay close attention to tags that have notes with multiple other tags, and this often indicates a relationship between themes. Create new tags and groups where appropriate to review more specific subsets of the data. 

Continue this process until meaningful themes are exposed.

You should then be able to ask yourself:

  • Why do these patterns or themes exist?
  • Why did participants say this so many times?
  • Does the data help answer the research questions?
Aurelius user research tool - tags view
Example of viewing affinity map themes in Aurelius, the user research and insights tool

Create Key Insights to Share Research Findings

Once you’ve done the research and analysis, you’re ready to create your research nuggets and key insights.


Structure your key insights into four points: 

  • Title: a statement that sums up the insight (what you learned)
  • Description: details about the statement and why it’s important
  • Evidence: the supporting notes and/or attachments that give context and evidence to the insight
  • Tags: the tags that provide metadata for the key insight

If you’ve gathered data from several different groups, put a symbol on each note to show which group they belonged to. This will help you identify patterns or themes across different groups or backgrounds.

An example Key Insight in Aurelius, the user research tool
Creating a Key Insight in Aurelius

If you’re doing user interviews and UX research regularly today, you should check out Aurelius to help you speed up analysis, quickly create key insights and share what you learned to influence decisions that matter.

Start a 30 day trial of Aurelius today

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