User interviews can be a powerful tool to help you build a better product.

When done well, they challenge you to think past your assumptions to truly understand your user. When you know what motivates, frustrates, drives, and inspires your user, you know how to provide them value.

When done poorly, you run the risk of alienating your current users. Or, worse, making design decisions based on misinformation, which can negatively impact your product’s success over time.

To put it bluntly, user interviews can help make or break your growth. Below is a straightforward, five step approach to guide you in preparing for and conducting successful interviews.

Step 1: What do you want to learn? Define clear goals ahead of time.

Before you start, be sure to identify what it is you want to learn. Do you want to learn more about the user, in general? For example, how they book travel when they are planning a trip? Or, do you want to ask them about how they reserve and rent a car in your app? Be specific. Setting a clear intention will help inform all the steps that follow.

Develop a simple mission statement to guide your interview. For example:

“I want to learn about my users’ experience with reserving and renting a car in my app.”

Looking for more general information? Try something like:

“I want to learn how my users make decisions about renting a car when they travel.”

Step 2: Preparation is essential. Prepare an interview guide.

You have a short window to ask these users anything you want. This is a golden opportunity to have your users’ undivided attention so prepare your questions carefully.

Generally, there are two types of questions: open-ended questions and close-ended questions. Focus on open-ended questions and try to avoid close-ended questions.

Open-ended questions vs. Close-ended questions

Open-ended questions launch a conversation. They allow the user to share their experience, feelings, and thoughts. These types of questions facilitate a dialog which can lead to interesting insights. Close-ended questions stop the conversation.

So how do you create open-ended questions?

Open-ended questions normally start with the words what, which, where, why, when, how, who. “How do you…?” “When you do…” “What does it look like when…?” “What makes you…?” “Why do you think…?”

You ou can also direct the user to explain certain things, as in:

  • Explain how you would normally find that.
  • Tell more more about…

Here are some good examples of close-ended questions transformed into open-ended questions:

  • Closed: Do you think you would use this product?
  • Open: How would this product fit into your travel planning?
  • Closed: Is this easy to use?
  • Open: What is most confusing about using this?
  • Open: What worked well for you in using this?

Keep in mind that questions that begin with “who” and “where” sometimes elicit one-word answers. These types of questions can still can be informative. Just be prepared to have follow-up questions to these, which we’ll touch on next.

Finally, test your questions by trying to answer them with yes or no. If you uncover a close-ended question,rewrite it. Remember, not all close-ended questions are bad. But try to keep them related to and surrounded by open-ended questions.

User Interview

Here are a few open-ended questions we’ve used at Big Nerd Ranch:

  • What would you most want to change about ___?
  • What parts did you like the most about ___?
  • What do you expect to happen when ___?
  • Where do you normally find that answer?
  • How does this compare with ___?

Follow-up questions

No matter how many open-ended questions you ask, some interviewees will be less talkative than others. This is natural, and the conversation can still be valuable. To tease out more information from them, be ready with a list of follow-up questions:

  • What does that mean to you?
  • What about that don’t you like?
  • How might you do that differently?
  • What do you think about that?
  • Tell me a little bit more about…
  • Could you provide an example of…

Putting this into practice using our example above, you might ask, “How do you normally rent a car?”, “Via the website.”, “You mentioned that you visit websites, which websites do you use?”

A warning: Leading questions

What’s even more problematic than a close-ended question? Leading questions. A leading question is one that encourages a particular desired answer, often because of the way that the question is phrased. These can be hard to avoid, and it takes practice to identify and learn to rephrase them. Let’s look at a few examples:

Example 1:

“Does this make sense?”

This question is not only a close-ended question, but biases the user to agree because you are implying that there is some sense to be made of this.

Instead ask, “What do you think about this?”

Example 2:

“Do you have any problems with renting a car in this app?”

This phrasing leads the user to think of a problem, where they may not have any problems.

Instead, ask, “Tell me about your experience with renting a car in this app?”

Example 3:

“How hard is it to find the car you need for your trip?”

This implies that it is hard or there is a level of challenge to it.

Instead ask, “How do you find a car for your trip?”

Example 4:

“At what point in the process do you find the right car for your trip?”

This also implies that they inevitably find the vehicle they want/need, when in fact they may not.

Instead ask, “Describe your experience of vehicle selection.”

Then if they use words like “right vehicle” or “hard”, you can follow up with questions like “Why is that the right vehicle?” “How do you determine the right vehicle for your trip?”, “What makes it hard to select a vehicle?”

Step 3: Recruit Users

You may have a set of users already that you can contact through your email or subscriber list. Create a screener to determine who you want to interview. This could simply be a list of people who downloaded your app in the last 30 days. Or perhaps a list of users with a certain job function.

If you need to recruit general users to learn more about general user types, sites like usertesting.com will help you find users that meet certain criteria.

Step 4: Interview Time

Record the interview

Be prepared to record the interview and make sure that the user knows it will be recorded, but not shared publicly. Have a device ready to record and test it ahead of time. The worst thing you can do is think you’re recording and then when the interview is over, realize the recording didn’t work.

Establish the tone

Be sure to tell your participant that there is no right or wrong answer. You are there to learn as much as you can about their thoughts and experience. Start off with easy questions before diving into the questions that require more thought and dialog.

Ask all your questions

To gather the most complete data, ask every participant your full list of questions. However, remember that those questions are just a guide. Do not stick to your questionnaire too rigorously that the interview feels perfunctory or robotic.. Be open to free-flowing conversation. If you find something interesting taking place in an interview but it’s not covered by your script, explore it anyway. Pursue promising new lines of conversation. Yes, you need to make sure all the questions are asked of everyone, but the dialog and discussion with each person will be unique.Shoot for a balance between conversation and interview. Above all, keep an eye on time and be respectful.

Take minimal notes

Avoid taking copious notes during the interview. Try to be as relaxed and comfortable as possible. This will put the other person at ease. Take notes only for items that can’t be captured in a recording: like if the interviewee shows you a screen, or shrugs.

Do, however, jot down particular words or phrases that the person uses which may have a specific meaning for them that you need to understand.

For example, your interviewee may share that they love their hotel-booking app because it’s “simple.”. You need to find out what “simple”means to them. Let them finish their thought, but note the words they use that you need to follow up on.

Ask them, “Tell more about why you think the app is simple. What makes it simple?” Or, “Could you provide me other examples of simple apps that you use?”

In short, use your recording to capture the conversation’s content, and take notes to facilitate the process.

Step 5: After the Interview

Now that you’ve prepared for and conducted a successful interview, listen to your recordings and look for patterns. Whenever possible, transcribe your interviews using a service like Temi. But if you’re short on time, listen to them and take notes (noting the time in each recording). Assess: Did you learn what you set out to learn? What new things did you learn? Summarize the patterns and trends that you are seeing. And highlight any surprising insights.

Yes, preparing for and conducting your user interviews can be an intensive process. Use these steps as a guide to get you started. Above all, remember to prioritize open-ended and follow-up questions. Avoid close-ended questions and leading questions at all cost. Using that simple formula, you might be surprised at the depth of insight your interviews reveal.

💡 If you found this article helpful, Big Nerd Ranch will be hosting a Successful User Interviews Hack Night in Atlanta, GA on March 28th, 2018 at 7:00pm. See Eventbrite for more details.

This article is sponsored by Big Nerd Ranch.