When I was a bright-eyed freshman in college, I enrolled in some upper-level art history classes to get ahead on my major.
I was so excited to be finally taking classes that I had dreamt about for years (I know, I’m a nerd). Until the professor walked into the classroom on the first day speaking Latin. No kidding, he spoke Latin, a dead language, for the first 30 minutes of the hour long lecture. The class was on British art consumption in the 1600s. The syllabus was in English. The students muttered their confusions in English. I was still solidly in a classroom in Boston in 2016.
Needless to say, he lost almost the entire class that day. No one was sticking around to see if he would write the exam in Latin.
Why did I tell you this story? Because starting your research off on the wrong foot is like my professor coming to class speaking Latin. When you start your research by jumping straight to the conclusion you want to find, which method you want to use, or a flawed research question, you’re losing the opportunity to draw meaningful customer and user insight from your time together. You’re not allowing them to offer their input in the way that will help you best solve their problems. You’re lecturing at them in Latin.
There’s a better way, and I’m going to share it with you.
To do truly meaningful research, you’ll need to start with a good research question. According to Erika Hall of Mule Design, a good research question is “specific, actionable, and practical.” This means you should be able to find an answer to your question, with a reasonable amount of certainty, using the tools available to you.
For example, I could not reasonably find an answer to the question, “What do dogs think about while their humans are at work?” For my dog, it’s most likely chasing squirrels, but I have no way to know that for sure.
On the other hand, I could reasonably answer the question “How much time does my dog spend staring at the window while I’m at work?” While this would be a little sad 😢I could set up cameras and monitor her window-staring time to come up with an accurate number.
Your research most likely won’t be focused on your dog’s habits, so here are some examples of specific, actionable, and practical research questions.
“Does our pricing page accurately address our customers questions about our pricing?”
“How do 40-50 year olds choose vacation destinations?”
“What tools do millenials use to learn how to manage their finances?”
Questions like these are specific enough that you will know when you have found an answer, practical in that you could reasonably find answers to them in the scope of a research project (that scope could be large or small depending on your question), and actionable, so you can act on the answer that you find.
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Once you have your research question, you can start creating meaningful questions for your interview. Typically, your interviews will have three parts—a warm up, some big questions, and a cool down. The warm up questions will help you learn more about the person you’re interviewing and establish a rapport with them. The big questions are why we’re all here, to dig into the user’s thoughts and feelings around your research question. The cool down section is as simple as, thank you for providing your feedback, here’s your incentive payment, and perhaps an open-ended “Anything else,” which can yield some fruitful insights. Though all of these portions of your interview are important, we’ll focus on creating good “big questions.” Need ideas for warm-up questions? Check out this list by Sarah Doody, full of great starter research questions.
Your participant shouldn’t be able to answer the questions you ask them with a simple “yes” or “no.” At least, that shouldn’t be their first instinct for an answer. Be sure your questions encourage the person you’re interviewing to tell a detailed story. A good way to ensure this is to start your questions with “why,” “tell me about,” or “how do you.” Some examples of good questions and conversation starters for research include:
“Tell me about the last time you planned a vacation for your family.”
“How do you decide your monthly budget for eating out?”
“Why did you choose this product over others?”
“Walk me through the last time you used our product.”
Questions and statements like these encourage the participant you are interviewing to give longer, more complete answers. This means that when you are thinking of a solution to your problem, you’ll have more complete knowledge of what your customer’s process looks like. This will allow you to create actionable changes that make a real difference for your customers.
There’s another reason it’s better to ask questions that encourage your participants to tell stories about their past actions. People don’t always say how they really feel or recount their experiences accurately. This is totally fine, it’s all part of being human, but it’s something to consider when crafting your interview questions. It’s important to get as much detail as possible from your participants about actual events and things they have experienced. Don’t ask them to speculate on whether or not they would buy something in the future, or enjoy a certain feature. Even if all of your participants express resounding excitement over the thing you describe, they may not actually use it when the time comes.
Now that you know how to create impactful interview questions, let’s get to some actual logistics. How many questions should you ask? How long should your sessions be? Who should you ask these questions to?
The answer to all of these questions is: it depends on what your research is trying to accomplish. Your starting point should be your research question.
So let’s ask one. For example, “How do working parents with young children choose family vacation destinations?”
The question is specific enough that we’ll know when we’ve arrived at the answer, practical in that we could find people to answer it for us, and actionable in that we could potentially arrive at an outline of the process that we could make changes based on.
For a research question like this, we’ll probably need to do some interviews. There’s no product to test, or specific numbers we need to gather. This research question could also be answered with something like a survey, but starting with interviews is a good way to get a feel for the nuance of how working parents with young children choose destinations. Your research question will also dictate what kind of study you create, so take a moment to think about how you can best answer your question.
For this specific question, 30 minute to hour long interviews with 5-10 working parents will probably do the trick. Keep in mind that your sessions could be longer or shorter and the number of people you need to recruit could vary, depending on your research question.
As far as how many questions you need to ask, that’s pretty much up to you. It’s best to go in with some specific questions that follow a series and by that I mean, they build as the interview progresses. You’ll always want to start your interviews with some basic, warming up questions. One or two of these will probably fill out this time, but just use your warm-up time to get to know the person you’re interviewing a bit. After your warm up, you’ll want 2-4 “digging in questions”. These questions are the meat of your interview. They help you to answer your research question, and should build on each other. Why only 2-4? Because you need to give your participant a lot of time to talk about their experiences, and you need to leave yourself some time to ask follow up questions.
So, when all is said and done your interview questions could look a little bit like this-
Warm Up Questions
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your family.
What does your family like to do on vacation?
Digging In Questions
Tell me about the last time you planned a trip for your family.
How did you decide on the destination?
What tools, services, or websites did you use to help you decide?
Easy peasy! Five questions, tons of insight. Keeping it simple leaves room for you to follow up and learn more about their specific process and experience. If you need or want some guidance creating a moderator guide, I’ve created a simple form for you. Just fill it out and a moderator guide will appear in your inbox, like magic!
You can create a fantastic moderator guide, full of amazing interview questions, but there are still things you should do as an interviewer to take your research to the next level. Even if you ask well-crafted questions, your participants may not always give you the answers you’re after. You’ll need to follow up with them to get them to tell you their story. Sometimes, your follow-up can be as simple as asking, “Why?”. Other times, you can dig in to whatever is most interesting, investigating different parts of your customer’s story.
Your goal during your interview is to learn as much as you can about this customer and how they relate to the research question you’re trying to answer. Be sure to cover the questions you set out to answer, but follow up as you see opportunities to learn more.
If you have an especially chatty participant and don’t need to follow up, that’s great! That means it’s time to employ another key researcher skill—listening. As long as they’re giving you valuable feedback, it’s your job to sit there and listen to it. Of course, if they start meandering too far away from the topic at hand, or you start to run out of time, you can politely direct them back to your research topic. But as long as it’s valuable, shut up and listen.
Another reason you’ll want to pare down your questions is so that you can take time to really listen to what your participants are saying. Ask one thing at a time, and move with your participants through your interview questions. This allows them to adequately answer your questions, and gives you some time to sit back and listen to their answers.
A good UX research interview is made up of more than just the questions you ask. Though they play a big part in determining your success, your research question and your skills as a moderator are just as important. To create meaningful research, you’ll need to listen to your customer’s stories and get a feel for their experiences. This will help you create meaningful product or business changes that fit the needs of your customers and keep them coming back to your product.
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