One-on-one interviews are the bread and butter of user research. I can’t even begin to count the number of research interviews I have conducted over the past eight years. They are my absolute favorite method for understanding the problem-space and peeking into users’ brains and inner workings. Settling into a generative research session feels so comfy for me, and I genuinely look forward to each one.
It wasn’t always that way, however. I stuttered and stumbled through so many one-on-one interviews before I eventually found my rhythm and beat. It wasn’t pretty. I failed my first generative interview altogether. Through the years, I asked leading questions, had awkward pauses trying to search for the right question, asked participants to predict the future, and annoyed some participants by asking the same question repeatedly when I couldn’t think of what I should say next.
All this to say, like any other skill, this type of methodology takes a lot of practice. It’s not something you learn in a workshop or course and can immediately do with confidence. It takes time to evolve your particular style of interviewing. My best advice is to practice with friends, family, or whenever you are speaking with colleagues. Luckily, there are some best practices in mind that we can apply to all conversations to build that generative research muscle.
How to improve your sessions
In my first generative interviews, I was trying to keep my head above water. I was learning how to ask open-ended questions and, essentially, relearning how to have a conversation, but in a structured and professional environment. I had to apply what I learned about biases carefully to present my team with valid and reliable insights. I felt an immense amount of pressure to get these interviews right.
Through the years, I have found approaches and guidelines that I apply to make my generative research sessions successful.
You can’t have a successful generative research interview without learning how to listen actively. Active listening means going beyond just hearing the words the person is saying; you are also looking for the meaning they are communicating. During a research session, the participant should have your complete attention. I take away any distractions so I can focus on everything the person is saying.
I will occasionally nod and say “okay” or “uh-huh” to indicate I am listening during the session. I try not to use positive indicators to listening because this can bias the participant into thinking they are doing a “good job.”
Finally, do your best not to interrupt the participant. Think about times when you were interrupted while trying to explain something. Interruption is frustrating and stops the person from conveying their complete message. Let the participant finish before asking clarifying or follow-up questions. This technique works when talking to colleagues too!
Repeat and mirror
Mirroring is imitation in the most basic form. We unconsciously copy each other to bond, provide comfort, and build trust. We do this by imitating body language, tone of voice, speech, and vocabulary. Repeat the last one-to-three essential words the person said (or a small phrase). As an example:
Participant: “I hate how I can’t easily return what I bought from your website!”
Researcher: “Can’t easily return?”
Participant: “Yeah, the forms are impossible to get to, and I never know which to use.”
Researcher: “Impossible to get to?”
Participant: “Your website doesn’t let me easily search for obvious keywords, so I can’t find anything when I need help.”
Researcher: “Obvious keywords?”
When you do this, you trigger an instinct, which automatically makes the person you talk to elaborate on their thought. This technique is an excellent replacement for asking “why” or “what do you mean?”
Years back, I attended a training session that taught this acronym to help form open-ended questions on the spot. When you use these phrases to begin your questions, it helps you have open-ended conversations with participants and reveals stories and insights. The letters stand for:
“Tell me...” or “Talk me through...”
“Walk me through...”
Silence is golden and is one of the best ways to get people to elaborate on their thoughts. It also ensures you won’t interrupt the participant, especially if you are running the interview remotely and there may be a delay due to the internet.
I use silence all the time. Every time a participant finishes a sentence, I count to three slowly in my head before responding. This silence gives them time to continue elaborating on their thought if there was more. Since people like to fill the silence, the participant will most likely continue talking to explain what they were saying, meaning you don’t even have to ask!
Do a dry run (or two)
Conducting a dry run before your first interview of a study can help you establish your flow, find the kinks in the script, and get you to feel more confident about the upcoming sessions. To this day, I still do a dry run or two, depending on the complexity of the subject.
I do my best to find a dry run participant in which the subject is applicable. For example, if I am testing a grocery e-commerce delivery service, I would ask any colleagues if they use something similar. If you can’t find any colleagues (or if you are a freelancer), reach out to friends, family, or your network. When I worked at a b2b company, I would reach out to account managers or customer support since they typically had the most touch-points with customers and the software.
Listen to podcast interviews
One way I started to improve my interviews was to listen to how others interviewed people. Now, take this with a grain of salt because not all podcast hosts are looking to be unbiased. More often than not, I hear podcast hosts asking leading, double-barrelled, biased questions all the time. But, this is a great practice to understand and identify what you shouldn’t be doing.
A bonus is to listen to user research podcasts to see how user researchers are interviewing their guests.
Questions to avoid (and what to do instead)
As much as there are techniques to apply to your interview skills, there are specific questions to avoid.
Yes/No questions or closed questions
Yes/no questions and closed questions don’t allow participants to tell stories or give you rich data about their motivations. These kinds of questions shut down the conversation and can make participants feel unheard. Instead, have a list of open-ended questions ready and use the TEDW technique to phrase your questions. Another piece of advice is to start questions with the word “how.”
Keep in mind that I sometimes still ask these questions by mistake. Whenever I have done it, I notice and always try to make up for it by asking an open-ended question after.
Asking about the future
Regardless of good intention, sometimes it can be easy to fall into the future-based question trap. You want to get answers and give guidance to your team. Sadly, not only are future-based questions completely unreliable and hypothetical, they can be pretty uncomfortable for users to answer and may lead to some social desirability bias. A few future-based questions I see regularly are:
Would you use [feature/service/product/app]?
How often would you use [feature/service/product/app]?
Would you buy [feature/service/product/app]?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to buy [feature/service/product/app]?
How much would you pay for [feature/service/product/app]?
Would you pay X for [feature/service/product/app]?
Instead, turn all of these questions into past tense! The past is the best predictor of future behavior. Instead of asking users how often they might use a feature or how much they might pay for something, we should reference their past. Here is how these questions can be much more effective:
Describe a time you used a similar [feature/service/product/app].
How often have you used a similar [feature/service/product/app]?
Tell me about the last time you bought a similar [feature/service/product/app].
How much have you paid for a similar [feature/service/product/app]?
Have you paid for a similar [feature/service/product/app]?
As I said, practice makes perfect. My generative research interviews got better when I stopped trying to make them so perfect and focused on my sense of curiosity. I wanted to learn as much about each person and the subject we were covering. This genuine sense of curiosity and using the above techniques helped me find my interviewing style and become very comfortable as a moderator.