User interviews are one of the best research methods a UX designer has at their disposal – but they’re also fraught with danger.

They can either give you valuable insights that will form the basis of your design or doom you to failure from the very start.

And there is just one thing that separates the two: It’s asking the right questions.

And to ask the right questions we must first begin with understanding the purpose of conducting a user interview.

The Purpose of a User Interview

If you ask most people what the purpose of conducting a user interview is, they would probably say it’s to get feedback. That is feedback on an idea for a new product or for improving an existing product.

It is this need for feedback that guides the interviewer, the questions asked and the participant.

It is also the biggest mistake one can make.

User interviews aren’t about obtaining feedback about an idea. In fact, as Ryan Fitzpatrick of The Mom Test says, “When you do it right, they won’t even know you have an idea.”

User interviews are instead used to meet two objectives:

  • Understand User Goals and Problems
  • Understand the Context of Use

It is by using these objectives as guiding principles that ensure the data you obtain will be useful and put you in a better position to design your product.

User Goals and Problems

The biggest reason for startup failure is due to no market need for the product. At 42% that is no small number.

So, how can you avoid becoming just another statistic?

It’s by making sure that your product meets users’ goals by solving a real problem.

It’s important to frame this as not just meeting one overarching goal either. In our 4 Most Important Concepts to Really Understand Your Users article, we mentioned a user has both primary and secondary goals.

If we take the example of a flight booking website, the primary goal is to book a flight. That much is obvious.

But other goals include checking dates, times, fare options and sharing information with others, with each goal having its own pain points that need to be overcome. A user may in fact only decide to actually book a flight on their third or fourth visit to the site.

Context of Use

A product doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is used in the context of both a physical and social environment.

When you learn more about the context in which a product is used, you begin to understand how it fits into the picture of your users’ lives.

Going back to our flight booking website, there are several things we can learn about our users.

  • Do they travel for business or pleasure?
  • Alone or with others?
  • If traveling with others do, they confirm details with each other before booking?
  • What details do they confirm? e.g. price, dates and times
  • What is the most important variable (price, dates and times) when booking?
  • Do they do all this at home, at work or both?
  • How many times do they visit a site before booking?
  • How many sites do they usually visit?
  • How long does the entire process from deciding to travel to booking take?

By asking these questions we soon begin to form a picture of the physical and social environment in which a user uses a product.

We are then in position to design a much better user experience and actually meet our users’ goals and solve their problems.

4 Types of Questions to Avoid & What to Ask Instead

If you ask the wrong questions your data won’t just be shallow but also lead you down the wrong path when designing your product.

Thankfully, the questions you want to avoid fall into just four categories.

 1. Product and design feedback questions

Example: Do you like our travel website idea?

Why: You receive an answer that is based on an opinion. Even worse, this opinion may be bias, as the participant doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. For design related questions, you receive advice from amateurs who likely don’t have a strong opinion about the design.

Instead Ask: What and why questions – What travel websites do you use and why?

2. Leading questions

Example: Would you prefer to check-in online?

Why: Leading questions are worded to give an answer you hope to receive, introducing bias and influencing the way participants respond.

Instead Ask: How questions – e.g. How did you check-in? Please describe what you did?

3. Hypothetical/future-based question

Example: Will you use our website when launched?

Why: People are terrible at predicting the future. It’s common for people to say they will use or buy a product when in reality they won’t. This can give false hope. Read “Seven lessons I learned from the failure of my first startup” where the founder learned this the hard way.

Always remember the Margaret Meade quote: “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things”

Instead Ask: Specific questions about the past – e.g. Tell me about the last time you booked a flight.

4. Close-ended questions

Example: Did you check-in online?

Why: Yes/no questions give very little insight into your users’ goals and problems.

Instead Ask: Open-ended questions – e.g. How did you check-in? Please describe what you did.

You may have noticed a common theme for the questions you should ask instead. It is when you switch focus to past behavior that you begin to obtain far more meaningful data.

This is because the answers you receive aren’t based on hypotheticals, the subjective or bias but on the concrete reality instead.

This is the type of data that provides insights into fulfilling the two objectives of understanding user goals and problems and understanding the context of use.

How a User Interview Should Flow

Every good user interview has a certain flow to it. You can get into this flow by having your questions and talking points prepared in advance.

Introduction and Explanation: Begin by welcoming your users and explaining what the interview is about

Simple Background Questions: Ask simple background questions to get users talking and to feel at ease, like what’s your name, how old are you, where do you live and so on.

General Questions About the Topic: It’s a good idea to learn about your user’s habits related to the topic in general.

Specific Recent Example: To avoid generalities, ask participants to tell you about a specific example.

Dig Deeper: Listening to the participant go into detail about a specific, past experience they had allows you to learn about their goals, pain points and the context in more depth.

Recap and End Interview: Finish with a summary of what has been said and thank the participant for their time.

6 Rules to Follow

There are a few general rules to follow that will hold you in good stead for every interview you conduct.

  1. Create a script: You don’t want to go into an interview blind. Create e a script covering the entire interview process with particular emphasis on the questions you want to ask.
  2. Don’t be a robot: Even though you have a script in front of you, you don’t just want to read this off mindlessly. The script should act as a reference.
  3. Empathetically Listen: People with a high degree of empathy make the best interviewers. They seek to really understand who they’re talking to, giving participants room to talk with no judgment or intent to introduce their own opinions and bias. Make sure this describes you.
  4. Focus on the past: Focusing on the past gives you the most valuable insights because it is based on concrete data instead of hypotheticals and the future.
  5. Keep it casual: Remember that a user interview is nothing more than a conversation – and it certainly isn’t an interrogation. Like most conversations with someone you don’t know well, keep it casual.
  6. Record: Always remember to record the interview. Taking notes can make it seem like you’re judging the person, making it hard for them to relax. Despite your best efforts there will always be something you miss too. So, being able to listen to or watch the recording again lets you pick up on anything you might have missed.