Thinking of skipping the research interview guide? Here is why you shouldn’t.

Plus some tips on making it bullet-proof

If you are in UX design, whether you are starting with a Bootcamp or already in the field, you’ve certainly had to deal with user interviews. Some of us love conducting them; others begin to tremble at the idea of talking to a stranger. Even if you are confident, being well prepared beforehand never hurt anyone. Here are some tips on how to have a well-fleshed-out interview guide that can alleviate the discomfort and control the unknown.

The value of the guide

An interview guide is a valuable tool for designers and UX researchers, regardless of years of experience, and it can bring a lot of value in 2 ways:

  1. Helping the interviewer tackle all the unknowns and has consistent, comparable insights;
  2. Ensuring questions are formulated well and allowing the interviewer to focus on listening instead of phrasing.

Role #1: Keeping you focused

Let’s start with the first role: to keep you focused on the insights you need to uncover and avoid having a conversation that leads nowhere.

I’ve been there: going into a user interview between 2 other meetings and thinking that a simple conversation about the topic will help me uncover everything. No matter how well the interview went, I would end up disappointed when comparing it to another one, simply because my insights were not consistent. I would discuss a specific aspect with one person and another with the other, not leading to any consistent feedback or recurrent theme that would help me find the root of the problem. I didn’t have my guide with me, so I got fully immersed in the conversation, distracted and wasting time.

Relying solely on memory might sometimes fail us, especially with so many things to consider. That’s where the interview guide comes in, allowing us to make sure we get answers to all of our unknowns.

However, while valuable, it shouldn’t make you sound like you are going through a checklist or a script. People might answer questions differently, tackle three topics at once in a single sentence or offer you a response to another question. The guide will help you stay on track and ensure you’ve tackled all the points you set out to cover. Even if you think: “I got this, I’ve done it hundreds of times by now!”, you can never be prepared enough.

In my interviews so far, having a clear structure in my guide has helped me avoid:

  1. Wasting time that could have been used to let the interviewee tell another story and uncover the insights I need;
  2. Leading and biasing participants by rushing into another question offtopic that I didn’t think through;
  3. Interrupting the user’s chain of thought by zooming in, then zooming out, talking about the future and the past alternatively, with no order whatsoever;
  4. Missing significant queues for follow-up questions by trying to figure out whether I asked everything I needed.

Role #2: Helping you formulate questions correctly

So, now that we are clear on the first role of the guide, let’s talk about the second one: helping us build the questions and taking some pressure off the actual meeting. Let’s take them in order.

Don’t neglect the intro.

Even if you’ve done some interviews already, thinking about the context you are offering and jotting down some ideas will help you a lot when you are face to face (or in Zoom) with a person. Knowing the right amount of context to share and having it clearly defined in your guide will not only put your participant at ease that you know what you are doing but also make you sound confident instead of “winging it.”

Before you start going into the topic, make sure your participant is ready to start. Pay attention to body language. You might even ask them if they are comfortable and prepared, but please don’t ask them directly: “Are you comfortable?”. In my early days, I used to have this in my guide, and this question made people feel like something uncomfortable was going to follow. A better way to ask is: “Are you ready to start? “. If you see from their reactions that they need another minute to care for some things or distractions, reassure them that they can always take another minute.

Also, don’t forget to inform participants that you are recording the session. It might be something trivial for us, but it might make some of them uncomfortable if they are unfamiliar with the process. I do this by using the following phrase and including it in the guide, just in case I am too eager to start with the questions. Don’t worry; you don’t need to read a script, and in time, you will know it by heart, but having it there serves as a small reminder.

“Would it be ok if we record this session? This will allow us to focus on our conversation rather than taking notes. Rest assured all information collected will be kept confidential (your name will not be associated with your responses, nor will it appear in any reports).”

Do your homework

Things might differ from interview to interview, but in most situations, you already know something about your participant from a panel or a screener survey. Before starting the conversation, it’s good to include what you already know in your guide. For example, if your participant already answered they invest in stocks, don’t ask them again, but rephrase your question to show that someone has read the information they provided.

What to avoid

You’ve probably heard this a lot of times: make sure your questions are not biasing your interviewee, but how should we formulate them? Asking questions is one of the trickiest parts of a user interview guide, and here is where most people abandon it and start having a free conversation.

Before discussing some examples, here are a couple of questions that are best to avoid in a user interview.

  • Leading questions — include or imply the desired answer to the question in the phrasing of the question itself. A good example might be: “What is difficult when making a currency exchange?” implying that performing such an exchange is difficult. (Pro tip: you might be familiar with the NN Group, so here is an article I found extremely valuable about leading questions)
  • Asking users to predict the future instead of focusing on the past/present. Typical example: “Would you use this feature if it would be available in your app?”
  • Yes/No questions — won’t leave you sufficient room for uncovering problems. Unless your participant is by nature talkative and assumes the purpose of your question, the most common answer to “Did you ever order food online?” will be “yeah, sure.”.

Here are a few before and after examples to help you compile the perfect guide and avoid bias.

  • “What is your experience with investing in stocks?’ can be changed to “Do you have any experience with investing in stocks? Can you tell me more about that?”. This way, unless we know from the screener survey or the participant already told us they invest in stocks, we don’t assume and put them into an uncomfortable position, thinking they should have invested. It’s also a way to get an unbiased response.
  • “Could you show me how you would see your portfolio by clicking on the button?” is a leading question that could be formulated: “Could you show me how you would see your portfolio?” By asking the person to use a specific button, we might already miss a lot of insights regarding their expectations.
  • Let’s say we want to ask participants about a negative experience in the industry of interest. We might already assume how they will respond or have a negative experience ourselves. Asking questions like: “Can you tell me about a recent negative experience when you had to spend a lot of time going to the bank and opening an account? or “Tell me about a negative experience, for example, when you lost your documents.” will jeopardize your interview. On the one hand, you are coming up with an example for them, and in case they won’t easily remember something else, they will pick this one up. Secondly, you are assuming something unpleasant for you might also be unpleasant for your participant. While most of the time, experiences are similar, it’s not the place or time to assume this, but to check. The best way to ask this is: “Can you please describe a negative experience you recently had with your banking services provider and what made it so unpleasant?”.

Don’t end the conversation abruptly.

It might come as common knowledge, but it’s essential to show respect to people at the end of the interview. Some topics to cover in this part are: compensation, checking if they would be interested in future interviews or testing sessions, and thanking them for their time. It’s also an excellent opportunity to make sure you’ve covered everything, and they shared all the experiences they consider valuable.

Asking: “Is there anything else I should have asked?”/” Is there anything else you would like to add?” might uncover pretty nice things you didn’t tackle during the interview and might be worth investigating.

We’ve covered a bit, so let’s do a quick recap of what is essential when it comes to preparing an interview guide.

  1. Understand its value and always be prepared. Even if you have a lot of experience interviewing, having a guide nearby will help you ensure all the topics are addressed, no matter how the conversation goes;
  2. Use it for guidance, don’t recite from a grocery list. If you are just in your early days as a Researcher, in time and with a lot of practice, you will get the hang of it.
  3. Don’t skip the intro. It might seem simple, but it’s essential to offer people all the information they need, as you expect from them. The trust and comfort you build in the beginning will lead to better insights.
  4. If you have information about your participant, review it and add it to your guide. This way, you won’t force people to go through the same thing multiple times and can jump directly into more details.
  5. When thinking about questions, take some time to define them based on your research goals and what you need to find out. Mapping knowns and unknowns proved to be a valuable exercise you can do if you need more structure and clarity. Having the questions tied to goals and ensuring you address them will help you navigate the large pile of insights you will have after the session.
  6. Always ask open-ended questions. Avoid those leading or focus on future behavior instead of past and present.
  7. End the conversation by asking participants if there are any topics you might have missed. You never know what might come up.

If you’re looking to kickstart your UX Design career and need a helping hand with choosing the best way to transition into a UX role, we’re happy to help you at Mento Design Academy. You can book a free call with us in which we will explore if UX design is right for you and if you’d be a good fit for our UX & UI Bootcamp. Stop postponing your career switch and reach out to us! :)

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Raluca Maria Angelescu

Raluca Maria Angelescu

UX/UI Designer .Everyone deserves a better designed world! Starting with the morning coffee cup and all the way through digital interfaces.