How to conduct an awesome user interview

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
What’s the difference between a user interview and a user test?

Well, an interview is just a conversation, you may still have a hypothesis or assumption you would like to dig into, but it’s more likely used to create empathy maps, personas and understand who your users are and what problems they are solving with your product, or failing to solve.

A user test, on the other hand, will be an observation of a user using a product or completing set tasks. It will have a defined hypothesis to test and a structured path to take if done correctly. A user test can happen at every stage of design. It could be done very early on to validate ideas with low fidelity prototype, and just as likely be used with the final high fidelity BETA release to refine the experience before full launch.

How do I find users to talk to?

Let’s start with recruitment, in an existing business or product you would normally be talking to your current user base for this. There are several ways you can recruit people to interview. The most common would be reaching out to your email list, so it might be all the people signed up to your product and opted into marketing comms. You can email out a short catchment survey (Google forms is great for this) if you are looking for more specific user types. In the email, you will ask people if they are open to a 30–45 min conversation to help improve there experience. Always good to use language that makes them feel important and that they can effect change.

Another option is via social media, for several products I have worked on we have created a tester Facebook group. This is for users that have put their hands up to help. You will usually get great returns on this approach and not need to offer incentives. However, the one downside to doing a Facebook group is that it slightly skews the type of user you get. There is a user type for people that want to do user testing and help. This means this should never be your only source of user feedback, make sure you do reach out to your wider customer group too.

What if I have no customers yet or an email list?

This is a common question, and the answer depends on the type of business you have. I would recommend the book Will It Fly by Pat Flynn, it outlines ways to test your product/business market fit and do research prior to launch. In short, you need to understand who your users are to be able to find them. Once you understand who your ideal user is, you can start to see Facebook or Reddit groups they may be in, or websites you can advertise on. You then post asking for participants, usually, an incentive will be needed for this approach.


Once you have your survey responses in and a list of people to interview you can start to plan your interviews. I usually create a simple spreadsheet to track who I have emailed for an interview, who has replied or been interviewed already. If you are doing remote interviews then it is also a good idea to mark down the time zones of participants.

How many participants should I interview?

100! Just kidding, the optimal number is actually 5 for user testing and to validate designs or hypothesis and 15 if you want to get a good read on your product/business and create personas. The NN group has a great article on why 5 people for user testing you should check out.

I recommend that for existing products you should speak to 1 person a week and keep that going indefinitely, it will mean you consistently have insights and understanding of your users and can adapt your roadmap and plans accordingly.

The Interview

1: Be nice — Help the person relax and feel easy. The environment you create is essential for the user to open up and talk honestly and feel safe. I will always be very calming and be sure to listen to them. Usually, it is good to open by saying I will ask you some questions, there is no right or wrong answer, this is just a casual chat.

2: Get personal — You need to find out about them, ask about their home situation, job, family life, favorite holiday destination, and hobbies. You need to get a good picture of who they are and what their environment is like. A question I often ask is “ What does a perfect day look like to you?” This helps you understand what is important to them.

3: Context — How people are experiencing your product and where, is vitally important, to properly understand this you first need to understand who they are and get a picture of what a typical day may look like for them. Understanding how your product fits into their life allows you to design better experiences, what are they doing before and after for example?

4: Understand the problems — what problem are the users experiencing. What problems are you trying to solve with your product, how does this present itself to the user? How do they solve it currently or have they solved it in the past, is it working for them?

5: Be free-flowing — let the person speak and flow, don’t interrupt and be welcoming of ideas. It is important to ask open-ended questions and let the person speak, they may start talking about an area you had no idea was relevant or reveal some hidden insights.

6: Don’t guide — The way you ask questions is very important, you will have ideas on some parts of the experience and consciously or subconsciously you may start to guide the user in a certain direction. Never ask a question like “So would you select start workout at that point?” Rather say “and then what you do?” Always follow up with “Why?”

7: Bring along a team member — this is good for 2 reasons. One being note-taking, it is best to have one person doing the majority of talking while the other takes notes. The second reason is that if you are a product team it is great to let others understand your user’s pains and problems. By having a different team member in each interview, you are slowly educating everyone on who your users are and how they use your product. This means in their day job for each decision they make they will have a more informed view on what to do from a user’s viewpoint.

8: Note-taking — I am always a fan of post-it notes for note-taking and using empathy mapping for general user interviews. For this you should be thinking about think, say, feel, do, pains and gains as your key areas to theme the notes after. Post-it notes work well as you can then easily theme the findings after the session.

A tool I love to use for this is , it’s a digital whiteboard tool and speeds up the process of doing it physically and then transferring to your computer.

Empathy mapping

Plan your questions blueprint and use the same format for all your interviews but with the ability to go deep on a subject if you need to. I usually structure mine by the following:

Life — Start by asking about the person's life, family, job and personal information.

Product — How did they find it, how do they use it and why? How did they solve the problems before the product?

Environment — Asking about the environment and setup is important, how do they consume or interface with the product? How does it fit into their day?

Competitors — Do they use any additional support products or similar products, why? If not now have they before? Are they thinking about it in the future — Why?

Improvements — How can the product be better, what else could it help you do? Or what is it not doing well?

Targeted questions — These should be focused on a current known hypothesis or assumption and will change all the time.

Anything else — Let the person keep talking and see if they have any other feedback, suggestions or general views about the product.

Another popular way to do this is to use the design thinking method AEIOU, in the Design Thinking Playbook by Nadia Lagensand they state “The AEIOU questions help put some structure into the observations. Especially with inexperienced groups, it is easier this way to ensure an efficient briefing on the task at hand.”

AEIOU is broken down into 5 categories.
What happens?
What are people doing?
What is their task?
What activities do they carry out?
What happens before and after?

What does the environment look like?
What is the nature and function of the space?

How do the systems interact with one another?
Are there any interfaces?
How do the users interact with another?
What constitutes the operation?

What objects and devices are used?
Who uses the objects and in which environment?

Who are the users?
What role do the users play?
Who influences them?


Every good product needs user interviews to inform and provide valuable insights, without them you are in the dark about where to go and what you are doing well. After all, what is UX without Users!

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Tuesday, October 6, 2020




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