There’s an old saying that goes “If you try to be all things to all people, you won't be anything to anyone.” That’s why whenever you start a new project, prioritize features, or do product exploration, the biggest question you need to answer is who is actually going to use this thing?
Without a clear picture of your ideal user, you’re stuck shooting in the dark and hoping you hit the mark. But understanding who your user is–their goals, experiences, desires, and abilities–is like flipping on the lights.
Luckily, you already have a tool at your disposal for getting this information: user interviews.
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User interviews are the easiest way to connect with your current or potential users. However, they’re also one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated tools in your toolkit.
Most product managers assume because they know how to have a conversation that they know how to do user interviews. However, interviewing users is a skill that takes time and effort to develop.
In this guide, we’ll break down the fundamentals of conducting great user interviews as well as some unexpected tricks and strategies pulled from decades of experience.
What are user interviews and why conduct them?
People who build products think and talk about them in a fundamentally different way than people who use those products on a daily basis. This means that to make the best product possible you need to get out of your bubble.
User interviews are a formal process for engaging with your users to understand their problems, habits, skills, and desires. More than just a casual conversation, user interviews have specific goals, are recorded for research and future use, and produce actionable insights for development teams.
When conducted properly, user interviews go beyond a simple data-gathering exercise and tell you exactly what to prioritize in your next sprint, teach you how to make new users successfully, and help you uncover bugs, red flags, and confusing UX before you even commit one line of code.
But poor user interviews–the kind most project managers end up doing–can send you in the completely wrong direction or worse. As design guru Dieter Rams so elegantly put it:
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.”
User interviews aren’t the only way to understand the people who use your app, tool, or site. In fact, they’re just a single part of the larger user research toolkit, which includes:
- Heat maps, tracking, and analytics. These are tools like HotJar or Google Analytics that allow you to see how users interact with your product.
- User surveys. Using a tool like SurveyMonkey, TypeForm, or Google Forms, you can create basic surveys to track trends and understand how your users think.
- Usability testing. This is a hands-on session with a user where you ask them to perform specific tasks to see how intuitive your product is.
However, out of all of the user research tools available to you, user interviews can be the most directly insightful.
Analytics and tracking give you unbiased data but you don’t know why users are acting the way they are. Surveys help you qualify statements but are often incentivized by gift cards or similar, meaning you’re probably not hearing from your best users. While testing often ignores motivations and opportunities and focuses on bugs and technical issues.
This isn’t to say these forms of research are bad. They have their place and can still provide you with some great insights. However, user interviews are the only true way to get access to deep insights from good users.
When you speak to individual users, you move beyond averages and scripted interactions and instead get to build rapport, connection, and empathy for the type of people you ideally want to make up your user base.
User interviews are the secret weapon that great product teams use. But they only work if you conduct them correctly.
When should you start doing user interviews?
Now that you understand the true importance of user interviews and how they fit into your broader research, the next question is: When should you conduct them?
User interviews can be an incredible tool at any phase of a project. However, there are specific moments where it’s paramount that you speak with users:
- At the beginning of a new project. User interviews can help you clarify your ideas and get a better understanding of your user’s wants and needs. This information helps validate your ideas and start thinking about innovative solutions.
- During the early stages of development. Feedback on early prototypes and concepts helps flesh out your plan and highlight issues before you’ve committed more resources. As an Agile team, you should be testing early and often to get the most feedback possible.
- After shipping your product/feature. Seeing how people use your actual product shows you what works, what doesn’t, and where people want more. This is called a contextual inquiry and is a powerful way to prioritize features and find new opportunities for growth.
Not all of these situations require the same time and effort. But missing an opportunity to speak to users early on or when you’re first building can be a huge misstep. Each moment–from before you start to after you’ve shipped–gives you key insights that will make your product better and more user friendly.
How to conduct better user interviews in 3 steps
User interviews can be broken down into three steps:
- Planning and preparing for the interview
- Conducting an impactful user interview
- Analysis, reflection, and actionable next steps
Each step has its own best practices and techniques that can help you mine deeper insights and learn more about your users.
Step 1: Planning and preparing for the interview
A user interview is not a conversation.
Let’s repeat that one more time: A user interview is not a conversation.
Yes, you’re speaking to another human being. But the goal is not just to shoot the breeze but to answer specific questions, dig deep into their motivations, and gather impactful insights.
As Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, writes:
“Interviewing is a skill that at times can be fundamentally different than what you do normally in conversation. Great interviewers leverage their natural style of interacting with people but make deliberate, specific choices about what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and when to say nothing.”
Without proper preparation, the chances of gaining deep insights diminishing rapidly. So let’s start with the key steps you should take before any user interview.
A user interview is not a conversation. It’s a skill.
Start with a clear goal in place
While it’s great to hear what your users think of your app or tool, a user interview needs a specific question or goal in order to be a valuable use of everyone’s time.
Do you have a specific problem you’re trying to solve?
Or do you have a hypothesis about your users that you want to test out?
This objective will become the overarching guide for your interview and is something you need to define before anything else.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What do I need to know about our users to make this app/feature better?
- How can we get insights that will help us build a better product?
Ask if a user interview is the right tool to answer your questions
Having a clear objective also helps you understand if a user interview is the right tool to use as some questions are better answered through different research methods.
For example, if you want to understand why users are dropping out mid-way through onboarding, you might be better off with usability testing or even using analytics to track the specific screen or step where they give up.
If you do decide that a user interview is the best tool you can choose to do it in-person or remotely.
In-person interviews are much better for gathering more information (like body language) and make it easier to build rapport. However, today most user interviews happen remotely over a video chat tool. We’ll cover some of the best practices for conducting remote user interviews below.
Decide who you should interview
User interviews are only as good as the people you recruit for them.
Finding insightful and willing participants can be a challenge. However, the better you are at sourcing users to interview, the better your results will be. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to find users to interview:
- Source: Use what you know about your best users to find more people like them to interview. This could mean posting on relevant subReddits, forums, or Slack channels, or using paid channels like Facebook ads to recruit users. If you’re in the early stages, start with friends, family, and close connections and then expand from there. Aim to start with 5 participants and then reassess.
- Screen: For each willing interviewee, you’ll want to make sure they’re both a part of your desired demographic and a potential user. To do this, send each a quick survey asking about their use case, background, and desired outcomes.
- Schedule: Finally, set a date and time for each subject with at least 30 minutes of free time between interviews to digest, analyze data, and prepare for the next one. A good rule of thumb is to stick to a maximum of 3–4 user interviews per day.
User interviews are only as good as the people you recruit for them.
Prep your discussion guide
User interviews should stick to a ‘semi-structured’ interview style. This means hitting a sweet spot between reading questions from a list and having an unstructured conversation.
Following a ‘semi-structured’ style isn’t easy, however. That’s where a discussion guide becomes your ultimate tool. Think of a discussion guide as a user interview template. It lists your objectives, specific questions, and which topics you want to discuss in a way that flows naturally.
The key is that you don’t have to ask every question on your guide. Think of it more as a set of ‘guardrails’ to keep the interview from getting off track.
A typical user interview discussion guide consists of two types of questions:
1. General: These are the broader questions you ask at the beginning of the interview to set the stage and understand your user’s experiences and motivation.
- Tell me a bit about your work and your role at the company
- What are some of the apps and tools you use on a daily basis?
2. Product-specific questions: These are the more targeted questions about user behaviors, desires, and pain points.
- What’s the hardest thing about using this product?
- What type of workarounds have you developed to deal with this?
- Was there anything missing from this product that you were expecting?
Remember, this is a guide, not a script. Use it to test out questions and flows and look for ways to iterate on it as you go along.
Tip: Organize your discussion guide using the hypothesis-driven design process. Basically, this means writing down the high-level topics and assumptions you want to ask your interview subject with specific questions listed out underneath.
- Assumption: Users want more ways to customize their dashboard
- How do you use your dashboard on a daily basis?
- What specific features do you use the most?
- How do you customize your dashboard to make it easier to see those features?
This helps your notetaker organize what was said and also gives you a format for post-interview analysis as you can tie back each answer to its hypothesis or assumption.
Write questions that are direct, open-ended, and short
Your guide gives you a structure, but questions are the core of any user interview. However, not all questions elicit the same depth of insight.
Starting with easy questions that only require short, personal answers is a great way to build rapport. But once you get into the real meat of the interview, you’ll want to use some journalistic best practices. This means asking questions that are:
- Direct: Don’t bury or hide what you’re after. Be direct about the question and then leave space for them to think about their response. Being direct also means keeping the question in the present. Don’t ask about hypothetical future releases as most people have no idea what they’ll do in the future.
- Open-ended: Ask questions that start with ‘How’ or ‘Why’ instead of ‘Which’ or ‘Would you do X?’ This tells people you’re looking for something beyond a short yes or no answer.
- Short: Keep your questions short and to-the-point. Don’t include extra information that might confuse or lead them to try to guess what you want to hear.
Tip: Do a practice run to hear your questions out loud. This will show you if your questions make sense or if you’re tripping over your words as you try to get them out.
Design your interview environment
Both in-person and remote user interviews benefit from the right environment. By crafting a space that is relaxing and comforting, you’re more likely to connect with your subject and get deeper insights.
For in-person interviews, this could mean a conference room with comfortable chairs and privacy from other coworkers. While for remote user interviews, it means having a solid wi-fi connection, good audio, and personal background.
Tip: Choose a non-distracting background for your video calls. Tools like Zoom let you choose a custom background like these ones from Unsplash.
Recruit an interview partner
User interviews are best done as a duo. Adding a partner to your interview might seem intimidating to the user, but there are real benefits to not being alone:
- You have a dedicated note-taker, freeing up one person to focus on questions, follow-ups, and building rapport.
- You’ll have someone watching your back, keeping you on schedule, and reminding you of any questions you might miss.
- You get multiple points of view on the data.
Tip: Make sure to introduce your interviewing partner and set expectations early on. Let the subject know who is asking questions and that the other person is just there to take notes and keep you on schedule.
Step 2: Conducting an impactful user interview
Planning and preparation are more than half the battle when it comes to user interviews. But you still need to ensure the actual interview sticks to your plan.
Here are the time-tested tactics and best practices you can use to get the most out of your user interviews.
Set the stage and build rapport early on
Whether you’re conducting a user interview or going on a blind date, you never get a second chance at making a good first impression.
The first few minutes set the course for your entire user interview. So what should you try to do right away?
- Get yourself in the right headspace. Stay calm, confident, and relaxed. Take a deep breath and smile. Projecting a positive attitude has been shown to make other people relax and feel positive as well.
- Introduce yourself and your partner. Jumping into a video call or conference room with more people than you expected can be intimidating. Instead, take the first minute to introduce yourself and your partner and explain the roles you’ll be playing.
- Ask permission to record. Recording user interviews is key. But you need to ask permission. If they say no or that they don’t feel comfortable, have a back-up plan with your partner.
- State your objectives. Let them know exactly what you’re trying to learn and how the interview is going to progress.
- Tell them how long the interview will last. Set expectations for yourself and your subject. Let them know that you’ll keep the interview on track (and do it!)
- Ask easy questions first. Build rapport by asking the subject about themselves and trying to find a connection beyond just being on the same call. Ask them easy questions about their technology habits and why they were interested in trying out your tool or prototype.
Tip: Stick to 3–5 short answers at the beginning of each interview. These could include things like:
- Tell me about yourself?
- What does your typical day look like at work?
- What products or apps do you use on a daily basis?
- Why are you interested in checking out our product/app?
- Do you have experience with similar products/apps?
Whether you’re conducting a user interview or going on a blind date, you never get a second chance at making a good first impression.
Recognize the 7 stages of a user interview
User interviews usually follow a predictable pattern. The more you recognize the stages, the easier it will be to dig deeper for the answers and insights you’re looking for.
In Interviewing Users, Steve Portigal defines the seven stages of a user interview as:
- Crossing the threshold. This is the beginning of the interview that we covered earlier. Set up a proper environment and project a positive attitude.
- Restating the objectives. Give a high-level overview of what you’re doing and ask if they have any questions.
- Kick-off questions. This is when you transition into the actual interview and ask a few basic questions. One great tip here is to use a transitional phrase like ‘So, to get started…’ and then ask an open-ended question.
- Accept the awkwardness. Look for signs that your interview subject is uncomfortable and give them lots of opportunities to succeed. If you can see a certain path of questioning is giving you shorter and shorter answers, move onto something else and circle back later.
- The tipping point. This is when you’ve successfully built rapport and your subject starts to give longer and more detailed answers.
- Reflection and projection. If you’ve done your job up to this point, the interview should switch gears from tactical responses to reflections on the potential benefits of using your tool or app. This is a great place to look for the emotional side of the interview. Why would they want to use your product? What’s the larger benefit for them?
- The soft close. Keep recording even once you’ve signaled that the formal interview is over. Many of the best insights come after the interview subject feels they’re ‘off the clock’ and can speak candidly about their feelings.
Master the ‘follow-up’ question
There’s a saying in newsrooms that good interviews follow the two P’s: preparation (which we’ve already covered) and persistence.
Persistence is knowing what you want out of the conversation and not giving in when your questions aren’t answered or aren’t answered properly. Rather than repeating yourself if you’re unsatisfied with the subject’s response, use follow-up questions to come at it from a different angle.
As management psychologist, Dr. Richard Davis writes:
“The key to understanding people lies in the follow-up question.”
Here are a couple of best practices for asking follow-up questions.
First, ask your original question in a slightly different way. If you get a deflection or a vague response, it’s worth it to repeat your question by saying something like ‘Let me ask you this in another way…” Sometimes people just didn’t understand exactly what you were asking.
Another option is to connect your interviewee’s answers together. Try linking their response to a previous one by saying “Is that what you meant earlier when you said…?” This not only helps them clarify their position but also shows that you’re really listening.
Finally, you might try digging deeper by using the ‘5 Whys’ method. This is where you use their previous response to form the next question in an attempt to get closer to the root cause.
For example, if your interview subject says they think your interface is too messy. Ask them why they think it’s messy. If they say they think it’s messy because the navigation bar has too many items. Ask them why they don’t like having too many items in the navigation bar. And so on…
Tip: Following up requires listening closely and not being afraid to ask the same question twice. Try to practice this at least a few times in each interview.
Push for clarification whenever possible
Always ask for clarification if you’re unsure what the interviewee is saying or there’s something vague in their answer. You won’t get another chance to dig deeper once the moment has passed.
Tip: Try these phrases when asking for clarification:
- ‘When you said X, did you mean Y?’
- ‘What did you mean when you said X?’
Ask about specific experiences using the ‘critical incident’ technique
‘Tell me about a time when…’ is a famous interview question. However, humans are notoriously bad at recalling past experiences.
Instead, the critical incident technique (CIT) mines more specific experiences by asking people to remember extreme situations.
- What did you like the most/least…?
- Tell me about a time when you were really frustrated by/had an awesome experience with…?
While you want to know how someone uses or thinks about your product on a daily basis, the deeper insights will come from when it either exceeded expectations or totally missed the mark.
Look for non-verbal cues
Only a fraction of what gets communicated is verbal. Often, you can read more into an answer by how someone speaks and acts. These non-verbal cues help show you when to follow-up, ask for clarification, or shift topics.
Some common non-verbal cues to look out for include:
- Arms crossed
- Fidgeting or twitching
- Not making eye contact
- Rushing through answers
Any of these could be a sign your subject is feeling uncomfortable and you should switch tactics before losing them completely.
Tip: Sometimes all someone needs is a bit of encouragement. Let them know they’re doing a great job or that you really appreciate their insights.
Don’t lead or try to educate users
You might have a specific question you want to be answered from the user interview but it’s important to resist framing your questions around that end goal.
A leading question is one that includes the answer–or at least a path to it–within the question itself. This is bad as it suddenly creates a biased participant rather than an honest user.
Here’s a basic example. Let’s say you’re interviewing someone about how they listen to music. You might think to say ‘How often do you listen to music on Spotify?’
However, this question is leading in two ways:
- It assumes they’re an active Spotify user
- It pushes them to only think about listening to music through streaming platforms
Instead, by asking a more neutral, open-ended question like ‘How do you normally listen to music?’ you’re more likely to get deeper, more insightful responses.
Tip: Read through your prepared questions and topics. Where are you leading or making assumptions? Are there fewer ‘leading’ ways to get at these same questions?
Minimize your note-taking (or better, have a dedicated notetaker)
Written notes are a great way to help you organize your thoughts, pull out key phrases or insights, and analyze the results of your interview. However, it’s simply impossible to listen deeply enough to pick up on nuances and non-verbal cues if you’re simultaneously trying to take notes.
Try to minimize the number of notes you take during the user interview. Or even better, bring in a dedicated notetaker who can concentrate solely on capturing and organizing insights.
If you do have to take notes at the same time as you interview, one technique is to use keywords and timestamps. Simply write down a keyword related to the insight and note when it took place for later reference when you rewatch the interview.
Your notetaker can also use our free User Interview Template and Checklist to keep track of what’s important.
Journalists love silence in an interview for one simple reason: everyone else hates it.
If your subject stops talking, don’t feel awkward and try to fill the space. Instead, let them do it. It’s at this precise moment where you’re forcing someone to think beyond their gut reaction and dig deeper for something to say.
Let them speak in paragraphs, not sentences. That’s where the magic comes from.
Tip: When your interview subject stops talking, start counting in your head. This helps stop you from filling the space while you wait the 5–10 seconds it usually takes an interview subject to feel the need to respond.
Keep an eye on the clock
User interviews should last a maximum of 60 minutes. Any longer and you’ll both lose focus and get frustrated.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to say ‘Thanks! Do you mind if we move on?’ You can always circle back on a question at the end if you feel like there was more to say or that you needed clarification.
End with a wrap-up summary and last chance for notes
Use the end of your user interview to ask for final thoughts and create a sense of positive closure. Take a few minutes to summarize the key points and then ask if they have anything else to add.
Here are a couple of ways you can phrase this:
- What was your overall impression of [the app/tool/site]? I’d love to hear your personal thoughts.
- How do you think the [app/tool/site] would relate to your life? Is it something you’d use?
Don’t forget to use this moment for a bit of small talk and to transition back into non-interview mode. Thanks to what psychologists call The Peak-End Rule, we judge an experience based on how they felt at the emotional peak and at its end. So closing your interview in a positive and casual way can help leave a lasting impression on your subject.
Step 3: Analysis, reflection, and actionable next steps
The knowledge and insights you gain from user interviews can quickly go to waste if you don’t organize and store it properly. In-the-moment ‘a-has!’ become muddled and useless when all you’re left with is a few notes and (maybe) a long video to comb through.
Instead, the final (and most important) step is to analyze your data and turn those insights into something you can actually use.
Run a short retrospective to condense and summarize
Ideally, you’ll have at least 30 minutes after each user interview to decompress and summarize your insights. Working with your interview partner, run a quick three-question retrospective:
- What went well? Discuss the questions, topics, and approaches that felt strongest. What insights were unexpected?
- What didn’t go so well? Where did you slip up or the flow of the interview felt awkward?
- How can you improve on the next interview? What steps can you both take to ensure the next interview is even better?
Organize insights and optimize for cross-company sharing
User interviews can influence everything from development to marketing. But only if their insights are organized and stored in a way that lets other people access them.
Planio can be used as a powerful knowledge management tool for storing this information (as well as keeping your interviews organized and storing recordings in the cloud).
You can even create a Kanban-style board to track interviews from planning to completion and share information across your team.
Each interview lives on its own card where you can include: interviewee name, background, why you chose them, retrospective, a summary of findings, as well as links to other relevant issues, projects, and files (like the recording if you have one).
Combine your user interview findings with other research techniques
Once you’ve gotten through your full list of user interviews, you’ll probably be ready to jump back into building. But it’s important to first validate your findings through other research methods.
User interviews give you personalized feedback, but there’s always a chance that you’re dealing with outliers or fringe cases. Try some of the other research methods we listed above like heat maps, analytics, tracking, surveys, and usability testing to see how more quantitative data relates to or informs your interviews.
By combining methods, you’ll get a fuller picture of how your users act–both in words and in practice.
Remote research: How to conduct better user interviews online
Last but not least, your location has a huge impact on how you conduct user interviews.
With so much of the world moving to remote work, it’s most likely that you’ll be conducting user interviews online. And while all of the tactics and best practices we’ve covered can be applied to remote user interviews, there are a few more remote-only ones you should know.
- Make sure your video is on and you’re prepared when the interview starts. You want to create a comfortable space for the user from the second they join. For example, you can invite them to a Planio project and use Planio Meet for the interviews. Being already prepared is a good place to start.
- Send your subject a pre-interview checklist. This is as simple as confirming the date and time and making sure any software is installed that they’ll need to perform specific tasks.
- Test your connection and have a back-up plan for if it drops out. Keep your phone ready to hotspot if your wi-fi connection becomes unstable.
- Mute your notetaker after introductions to reduce distractions. The less background noise, the better.
- Practice transitioning the conversation using your words only. There’s a chance your subject won’t want video turned on (or can’t). Think through how you’ll transsition, show you’re listening, and guide the overall interview if you can’t use non-verbal cues.
- Maintain the silence. Allow the interviewee space and time to answer. Keep quiet until you’re ready to move on.
- Resist the urge to multitask. Your computer is a distracting place. Close your chat and email so you can listen more closely and ask better follow-up questions.
Learning to interview properly can change the course of your product and your company
In sales, there’s a common saying that ‘whoever knows the customer best, wins.’ The same can be said for product development and project management. The better you know your customer, the easier it is to build something they’ll love and want to use.