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7 Tips for Better User Interviews with Jaclyn Perrone

If you're new to user interviews, here's 7 tips from a pro on how to level up your interview skills.

If you’re new to user interviews, it can be hard to know what separates a good interview from a bad one. Even seasoned interview pros make mistakes; it’s part of the whole being human thing! 

So we invited Jaclyn Perrone, Design Director of thoughtbot’s Boston studio, to walk us through some of her tips for better user interviews. She talked about what makes a good user interview, what to do if you make a mistake, and how to handle it when things don’t go as planned. She gave an amazing webinar, complete with a live user interview! You can check it out, along with her slides, below.

Jaclyn shared a ton of knowledge in the webinar, but we’ll cover her top seven tips for better interviews in writing too. Here’s a quick rundown. 

1. Don’t overwhelm the participant, no more than 2 people in the room.

It can be intimidating to be a research participant. They may not know what to expect from a session, and walking into a room with you and 10 of your colleagues certainly won’t ease their anxiety. Keep the head count to a minimum, Jaclyn suggests no more than 2 people from your team should be in the room with the participant. 

One of those people should be the interview facilitator, who talks to the participant and leads the research session. Jaclyn noted that the facilitator should be face to face with the participant, without a computer open. They should be the only one talking to the user, to avoid confusion and to establish trust. If the note-taker or observers have a question, they can be passed on a sticky note to the facilitator during the session. 

The other person is a notetaker, who is there to document the session and observe. If there are more people who want to observe your interview session, let them know they’re welcome to do so remotely. You can do this by setting up a laptop with video conferencing in the room or recording the session and playing it back for observers later.

Jaclyn said that, at thoughtbot, they set up a laptop with videoconferencing, so observers can watch quietly and remotely from another room or their own offices. If observers have a question, they can message the note-taker on Slack, who will write it down and pass it to the facilitator. Those running the research sessions make it clear that all questions may not be answered, as the session is ultimately between the facilitator and the participant. 

2. Have an intro prepared. 

Think about what you’re going to say to start off your interview before you’re actually starting your interview. Participants can be nervous, and if they haven’t participated in research with you before, they may not know what to expect. It’s important for you, as the researcher, to lay out what they should expect, and let participants know there are no wrong answers in research. 

Here’s what Jaclyn includes in her intros: 

  • Who she is, why she’s interviewing them, and what she hopes to learn. 
  • Assurance that everything in this session will be anonymous. In Jaclyn’s case, audio of the session will be shared with stakeholders, but video and identifying information are withheld. 
  • Permission from the participant to record. Jaclyn and her team use voice memos on their phones to record sessions.
  • A statement that there are no wrong answers, and that she is just the researcher, she won’t take any criticism personally. She also assures participants that the session is not in any way a test.
  • A brief rundown about what participants can expect from the session. For example, “First I will be asking some questions about your background, and then switch over to questions about your typical day and workflow.”

Having something written up before the session that includes Jaclyn’s main points and anything relevant to your research specifically can help you feel more prepared when you start a session. It also gives the participant a better idea of what will happen during the session, and reassures them that there’s no wrong answers. 

3. Have a conversation.

When Jaclyn was a guest on our podcast, she stressed that at the end of the day, research is just humans talking to other humans. Treat your interview more like a conversation than a checklist. This not only makes it less stressful to do your interviews in the first place, it makes it easy to learn new and unexpected things from your participants. 

Jaclyn also recommends asking open-ended questions and encouraging participants to tell stories about their experiences. Start your interview questions with “who, what, where, when, why, and how” and avoid yes or no questions. This gives your participant space to elaborate on their experiences. Then, ask follow-up questions to dig deeper into the topics you want to learn more about. While it’s good to have a script, treat it more like a guide, and don’t be afraid to go a little off topic. 

4. Don’t lead the witness.

If you’ve ever been in an interview and heard the facilitator ask, “Wouldn’t it be great if…”, that’s leading the participant to a certain answer. Don’t do this! Let the participant tell you what they think, in their own words, without prompting from you. This is easier said than done, and it takes a lot of practice to curb the habit. 

Get in the habit of sitting with silence for a little longer than you would in normal conversation. If a participant pauses while giving an answer, give them a moment to finish their thoughts. Avoid filling the silence with examples or leading statements. For example, if you ask “How do you share research with your teammates?”, don’t follow up with, “Do you meet in person? Send emails, or…?”. Let your participant come to their own conclusion, even if that takes a moment. 

If you’re trying to get better about asking leading questions or sitting in silence, ask the notetaker or observers to help you track when you’re doing these things in an interview. They can help you see things you may not in the moment and improve your habits!

5. Play dumb.

User interviews are all about learning. Sometimes that means asking dumb questions like, “How do you check your email?”. You can assume most people check on an email client on their phone or computer, but there’s a surprising amount of nuance in which client they use, when they check email, how they approach that task, etc. Don’t be afraid to learn more about these things by asking questions that may seem a little dumb in normal conversation. 

Jaclyn says most of her “dumb” questions in an interview are around a participant’s tech habits. She’ll ask about what tasks they do on their laptop vs. their phone, when they use their phone, etc. She’s found that oftentimes, the answers she gets surprise her and turn her assumptions on their heads. 

6. Be an active listener. 

One of your main jobs during a user interview is to listen to the user. Jaclyn encourages that facilitators practice their active listening skills by asking follow up questions based on their previous answers, engaging physically through head nods and smiles, and staying away from the computer while you’re interviewing. Being a captive audience for your participant encourages them to elaborate and be more open with you throughout the interview. 

She encourages facilitators to let the note taker take notes, leaving the space between the facilitator and the participant clear. Facilitators can jot down quick notes on paper, or engage with notes that are passed by the note-taker, but should try to keep those things to a minimum during the session. 

7. Take time to decompress after the interview. 

Most researchers recommend at least 15 minutes of buffer time between interviews to decompress and account for any unexpected delays. Jaclyn recommends you take at least 30 minutes between sessions. This gives you some buffer time in case anything goes wrong, plus time to decompress and look over your notes while the session is still fresh in your mind. 

Interviews can take a lot out of facilitators, and having enough time to decompress and prepare for the next interview is really important. It makes doing multiple sessions in one day possible, and means you’re not too exhausted to properly analyze your notes when the research is said and done. 

Jaclyn also warned that interviews can die on the vine if you don’t take the time to properly analyze and synthesize your notes. Allotting some time after the interview to sync with your note-taker and write down your key takeaways from the interview makes your findings ultimately stronger. 

About our guest

Jaclyn Perrone leads the Design team at thoughtbot Boston, a product design and development consultancy with a 15-year legacy of working behind the scenes on your favorite web and mobile apps. Prior to thoughtbot, she made her way to product design via a long and winding road through project management to front-end development to UX design. She’s worked in different types of environments, companies, and teams, such as Ogilvy & Mather and Pivotal Labs. When she’s not busy diving into the psyche of your users, you can find her slapping the bass, painting a painting, or exploring new places with friends.

Carrie Boyd
Former Content Writer at UI

Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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