The user interviewing guide
From planning to debriefing: best practices for user interviews.
Effective user interviews go beyond gathering data. They help you put data into context. Your user interview findings can help your team prioritize, uncover bugs, and remedy confusing flows before they’re finalized.
To help you conduct the most useful research, we’ve put together the perfect “cheat sheet” for conducting user interviews: best practices, foundational ideas, and a few do’s and don’ts.
Topics covered in this article:
- How user interviews fit into UX research
- Planning your user interviews
- User interview questions
- Conducting your user interviews
- Debriefing and analyzing your user interviews
How user interviews fit into UX research
Product teams and UX researchers use a wide variety of tools and methods to collect information. Effective teams know how and when to use these tools.
User interviews allow researchers to gather information through conversations with users. It’s one way to collect qualitative data — adding a layer of humanity and narrative to quantitative data.
So when should you do user interviews? If your team wants new ideas, deeper insights, or help identifying design problems, user interviews are the gold standard.
Planning your user interviews
If you go into your user interviews unprepared, it will show in the results. You’ve got to do your homework and take the time to frame your interviews.
“I've been shouting about pre-planning your interview questions a lot lately. It sounds obvious, but the quality of the INTERVIEW is directly tied to the quality of the INTERVIEWER,” says Hannah Shamji, a customer researcher and strategist.
A user research plan serves as a reference point; it contains your project’s timeline, stakeholders, and objectives. It should summarize the purpose of your research and explain logistical decisions.
In short: user research plans keep your interviews on track. Without thoughtful preparation, your chance of getting quality feedback is diminished.
Basic outline of a user research plan
A thorough user research plan typically has an outline similar to this:
Background and key stakeholders
Document the details about why this research is necessary and who the stakeholders are.
Clarify business goals and challenges. And make sure there’s agreement on project goals, the pain points of your users, and your user interview methods.
Summary of timeline and resources
How many team members are able to dedicate their time to interviewing participants and analyzing the data? What platforms or tools will you be using to conduct your interviews?
Your research plan should include the estimated time it will take to conduct thorough interviews, notes about or links to other resources, and when to expect a final report.
Spell out the goals of the research and predicted outcome(s).
Participants and recruiting
Include a breakdown of your participants and how you recruited them.
Create an interview guide so that every interviewer is on the same page. Include instructions for the research session, user interview questions, and wrap-up steps.
User interview questions
For the sake of this article, we’ll assume you’re conducting semi-structured interviews. (Meaning you’re going into each user interview with a set of pre-determined questions, but the interview could deviate slightly depending on how the participant responds.)
Writing your user interview questions is arguably one of the hardest parts of user research. Let’s take a look at a few best practices for user interview questions:
Your questions should contain:
- Ice-breaking, intro questions
- Detail-oriented questions
- Product/market fit questions
- Insight-based questions
And you want to avoid:
- Leading questions
- Questions about future behavior
- Asking two questions in one sentence
- Yes/no questions
Your questions should move from broad to detailed throughout the interview.
User interview questions to get you started
Not quite sure what to ask? Here are a few suggestions, and they can all be modified to fit your current situation.
- Tell me about your role/responsibilities at work
- What does an average workday look like for you?
- Tell me about your team
- What apps or websites do you open first on a typical day?
Detailed or digging-in questions
- What tasks do you spend the most time on?
- How often do you [perform activity/use service]?
- What’s the difference between [task A] and [task B]?
- What's the hardest part about [performing activity/using service]?
- How do you currently solve [issue]? Walk me through your process.
Product/market fit questions
- When was the last time you did [performed activity/used service]?
- Tell me about any other tools you’ve used in the past to [perform activity/use service]?
- What do you like or dislike about those other tools?
- What's your team's current budget for [tool/service]?
- What could be easier about [performing activity/using service]?
- What do you think about this [product/prototype]?
- Can you complete [activity/task] using this product or prototype?
- Why do you think someone would use this product?
- If you were looking for [information], where would you expect to find it?
- Does anything within this [product/prototype] seem out of place or unnecessary?
This is far from an exhaustive list of user interview questions, but it’s a great start. You can build from here and ask follow-up questions as necessary — hopefully adding more context and clarification to participants’ responses.
- Can you tell me more about [x,y,z]?
- Could you elaborate?
- What did you mean by [x,y,z]?
- Can you give me an example of [x,y,z]?
Conducting your user interviews
Now that you have a thorough plan in place and quality user interview questions, you’re almost ready to start. But how you conduct your interviews also affects whether or not your participants feel at ease and comfortable communicating their thoughts.
These basics should help you kick off your user interviews with confidence:
- Have a consent form ready for participants to read and sign — briefly explain it to them. (With Ribbon, consent forms are automated so you have less to worry about. 🙌🏻)
- Go into all of your interview sessions ready to listen. Your language and body language should convey that you’re calm, well-prepared, and focused.
- In-person interviews are great but not always an option. Video interviews can be just as informative, but keep in mind the Internet is “not a clean proxy for the overall population.”
- Your team should create (and follow) a consistent system for analyzing interview results.
Ribbon allows you to easily schedule and conduct moderated video interviews.
Do’s and don’ts
Here are a few things to strive for and a few things to avoid during your user interview process:
- Ask questions that validate your objective.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Summarize each question and response during the interview. (e.g., “It seems like you are saying [x,y,z]. Did I understand correctly?”)
- Always end with some variation of “What did I not ask?”
- Always thank participants for their time.
- Avoid questions about the future (and predictions or expectations). Ask about the participant’s past experiences.
- Try to avoid talking about your product or service during your introduction, especially in a fawning way.
Debriefing and analyzing your user interviews
About 5 to 10 minutes before your interview is supposed to finish, you’ll want to start wrapping it up by introducing closing questions.
- Do you have any questions?
- Is there anything you’d like to add?
After the session is done, take a few moments to reflect on the interview. Write down any final observations, and discuss the interview with any other teammates that were present.
“It’s important that you take time to absorb the data through a progression of analytical steps. Upon completion of the interview, several core ideas as well as additional questions may be evident to you. It’s useful to make note of these ideas and questions shortly after the interview,” says Anne Galletta and William E. Cross in their book Mastering the Semi-Structured Interview and Beyond.
Ideally, you should schedule user interviews at least 15 to 30 minutes apart so you have time to digest each interview.
Finally, schedule a time with your entire team to debrief. Plan plenty of time to recap observations and contextualize data by linking it to your objectives and other information. From there, your insights should be clear and actionable.
Ready to start your user interviews? Explore how Ribbon can help simplify user interviews for your team.