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What UX Researchers Can Learn from Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal (Plus 2 Topics Beyond What’s Covered in the Book)

What UX Researchers Can Learn from "Interviewing Users" by Steve Portigal (And How to Apply It to Remote Research)

“Interviewing Users” has in-depth advice for in-person interviews. Learn how to translate those insights to remote interviews.

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal provides a solid foundation on how to conduct in-person interviews. It also has a few chapters dedicated to the types of personalities you may encounter. Portigal’s book is a great introductory interview guide for UX researchers, however, there’s still more to learn once you’ve finished the book, especially for remote interviews.

To delve into some of the interview skills the book did and didn’t cover, we spoke with Bindu Upadhyay, a UX Researcher at wearereasonablepeople.

Bindu Upadhyay working on a project.
Bindu Upadhyay, deep in a research project.

She discussed key takeaways from Portigal’s book that still resonate in her day-to-day activities, along with two key practices she learned since reading it: 

  1. How to approach remote user interviews
  2. How to connect your interview questions to your study’s hypotheses.

To begin, we’ll first review the foundational “7 Stages of an Interview” that Portigal put forth in his book.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your user research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants in the U.S. and Canada. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Find your first three participants for free.

The 7 Stages of an Interview, According to Steve Portigal

Portigal asserts that most interviews follow the same seven stages — it doesn’t matter if the interview is for product development or design research, they will still have elements in common. By recognizing each stage, it’s easier to prepare and facilitate more informative interviews, gaining valuable user insights for your research.

#1: Crossing the Threshold

This is the moment when the user enters the room or office in which the interview will be held. Participants may not know what’s expected of them. They may feel awkward or tense. It’s helpful for you to give them a brief overview on who you are and who you represent. It’s also good to set up the space ahead of time to feel welcoming.

Bindu still uses several strategies Portigal shared when it comes to crossing the threshold. 

First, she “seats the participant so they don’t have to swivel their head back and forth as they answer questions from everyone in the room. You want the participant to be able to maintain eye-contact with their interviewers,” she explained. 

She also makes sure everyone is seated together on corners, as opposed to sitting across from each other at a table. This helps the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a conversation.

#2: Restating the Objectives

Stage two is when the interview really begins. In stage two, you can do a high-level explanation of what the interview will be covering and how long it will take, something Portigal calls a “thumbnail outline of the process.”

Setting this upfront contract at the beginning allows the participant to interject and notify you of any scheduling complications. It’s best to double check they still have enough time to complete the whole interview. If their situation has changed, you can adjust accordingly.

Finally, it’s good practice to ask the interviewee if they have any questions for you. If they ask a question that is (1) off-topic or (2) requiring too detailed of an answer, don’t be afraid to acknowledge their question, but redirect them to the purpose of the interview. 

#3:  Kick-Off Questions

Portigal likes the transitional phrase “So, to start...” because it signals to the interviewee that the interview has become more official. It’s like stage one and stage two were showing your boarding pass at the terminal and getting to your seat, and with stage three, the jet doors are sealed and the plane is taking off. 

Portigal recommends starting with broad questions such as those and working toward the specific. For example, Bindu is currently running research on Digital Ledger Technology (DLT). “When I start those interviews where most of the subjects have been experts in their field,” she explained, “the first thing I ask them to do is define DLT in their own language.” 

If you start the interview with a much more specific question, Bindu said, “the intentions of the researcher become transparent, which could lead the participant to tell you what they think you want to hear versus the real insights they have to share.”  

#4: Accept the Awkwardness

The interview is bound to feel awkward at first. Accept this awkwardness as part of the process, be patient, and continue to ask questions.

Participants who are uncomfortable may have stiff posture, give shallow answers, and avoid any real conversational depth. Portigal says you can tell when you’re in stage four because you’ll feel like you don’t have the participant’s permission to keep going. 

The trick is to recognize that this discomfort can be overcome by “giving your participant plenty of ways to succeed,” such as asking them easy questions and keeping your tone straightforward and factual. If you notice they are uncomfortable, don’t press on to deeper and harder questions.

“In this phase, it is crucial to not get stressed about the participant's attitude,” Bindu shared. “Be spontaneous, and if required, have the conversation in third person until you find a hook in the conversation to get them to talk about their challenges. For example, instead of asking, What are the challenges you face while scheduling your day? you can ask, What do you think are some common challenges people face while scheduling their day?"

Stay surface level, polite, and on task until they start to relax. That’s when you know you’ve moved to stage five.

#5. The Tipping Point

The tipping point is when a rapport begins to develop between you and the participant. Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge when a rapport is being established, but it’s usually when the participant has switched from answering in short, clipped sentences to answering in stories

#6. Reflection and Projection

Up until now, you’ve been working to get past the awkwardness of the interview, culminating in stage five, where the interviewee went from answering in short, abrupt sentences to telling longer stories.

In stage six, your participant is more retrospective. They talk about the big picture of your research and how it could affect them personally. For example, let’s say you were conducting research about how a candidate schedules out their work day. Up until now, the interview has been focused on how the interviewee goes about their day.

You’d recognize you’re in stage six territory when the candidate starts to speak about the hypothetical benefits of having a better way to schedule their daily tasks and the type of things they could accomplish with the time they would save.  

What you’re looking for here is not whether their prediction will be right or wrong but the emotional sentiment tied to their prediction.

#7. The Soft Close

The interview isn’t over until both parties have completely separated. Even when you’re giving your participant “hard cues,” such as thanking them for their time and packing up your stuff, if they are still in the room, the interview isn’t over. This is why Portigal recommends keeping your recording device on until the participant is so far away that the only thing it could record is silence.

Why? You can still get excellent insights in those final moments. This is known as the doorknob phenomenon, named after the end of a medical consultation when a doctor is heading for the doorknob and the patient pipes up to say, “Wait!” 

The team looking at a whiteboard while working on a project.
Bindu working with her team on a project.

Adapting Portigal’s Best Practices to Fit Remote User Research

Some of Portigal’s advice transfers well to remote research. An interview can still move from broad to specific terms. You can still embrace the awkwardness, leverage silence, and slowly build rapport with your participant.

But you can’t rely on body language and the way your room is arranged when you’re chatting over Zoom. Here are a few of the ways Bindu recommends for making a remote interview a success:

  1. Turn your video feed on at the beginning to create a vibe for the interview. The idea is to welcome the participant, to cross the threshold with them, and to restate the objectives while you’re chatting face-to-face. Afterward, Bindu usually turns off the video to procure cleaner audio and to avoid distractions by the non-eye contact that remote face-to-face settings offer. “But this heavily depends on the research context,” she added. 
  2. Make sure any associated tasks can be done with technology the participant already has installed. And always have a Plan B if problems arise. If you do need participants to use any technology they might not have used before, it’s best to send instructions ahead of time and have them practice, if possible.  
  3. Mute the notetaker. Just like an in-person interview, you want the focus to be on the conversation. Little things like the keystrokes of your notetaker become big distractions as you try to navigate from the kick-off questions to the tipping point, where bonding and rapport are established.
  4. Think of how you’re going to transition the conversation without using body language. Much of adapting Portigal’s best practices to remote user research is learning to do with verbal cues what you used to do with body language. How does the participant know if you’re interested in what they are saying or even if you’re listening when video is turned off?  Bindu likes to use humor to break up moments and transition from topic to topic, plus she gives the interviewee space to ask questions at the beginning and end of the interview. If you are using video, you can also pay attention to tense shoulders and facial expressions.
  5. Give the participant space to ask questions. Finally, don’t give up on silence. Give your interviewee ample time to think about the question, respond, and then reflect on their response for a moment before asking follow-up questions.
💻 90% of user researchers said they've worked exclusively remotely since the pandemic began. Read the stats on remote work amid COVID-19, the rise of remote user research tools, and more in ✨The State of User Research 2021 Report.

Connecting Your Interview Questionnaire to Your Study’s Hypothesis 

When asked to think about invaluable interviewing techniques not covered in Interviewing Users, Bindu shared some key planning strategies every user researcher can employ beforehand. 

“Learn to connect your interview questionnaire with your hypotheses,” she emphasized, “so you don’t end up in a situation where you don't have the data that you need. This also ensures your research is lean and can be traced back to your research questions.”

Question & Assumption - Prioritize - Hypothesis - Experiment - Learn & Build
Image Source

She likes to use the Hypothesis-Driven Process, something she came across during her ongoing efforts to improve as a researcher. Here’s what that process looks like on her team:

On a recent research project, her team worked to come up with three or four broad research questions about the project, then they listed their assumptions about that topic. When she says assumptions, she means things like “people love to change music playlists per their mood” or “people listen to music on short driving trips and podcasts on longer road trips.”

Bindu calls this “gathering the essence” of the study. She asks colleagues to share their assumptions, compiles them into one list, and then chooses the most important ones (with the team) for testing. Each assumption requires its own specific questions and testing methods. Ideally, you’ll end up with overarching hypotheses. 

By connecting your interview questions to your study’s hypotheses, you can better plan for your research, show up prepared for the interview, and increase the chances of getting powerful insights from your participants. With her questions, Bindu said she numbers them (such as question 1.1, 1.2, and so on), and then the notetaker “takes note of everything the interviewee said — not their interpretation of what was said — in each section,” she shared.

By doing that, she has created an outline for post-session analysis, where she and her team can tie the answers back to the assumptions listed. For this to work well, it’s important to sync with the notetaker beforehand so you both have clear expectations of what you hope to accomplish.

Steve Portigal's book, "Interviewing Users," primarily addresses interviewing techniques for in-person interviews. Here are some recommendations for remote interviews: (1) Use video at the beginning of the call to set the tone. (2) Check technology and specifications ahead of time. (3) Mute the notetaker. (4) Plan verbal cues to transition the conversation from subject to subject. (5) Give the participant a chance to ask questions.

Final Thoughts

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights (published by Rosenfeld Media in May 2013) shows beginning user experience researchers and designers how to stage an interview, how to organize their questions, and how to handle awkward moments. It’s been called a “must-read for both novice and experienced interviewers.”

But the flow of a user interview is just one part of conducting great research. As you tackle new problems, you learn new research methods to solve them. Learning from a book is a good start, but it’s a bit like the first three stages of an interview — it’s mainly there to get the ball rolling.

When problems arise (and they will), Bindu likes to “look at problems and challenges and think of opportunities, instead of feeling stuck and angry.” Sometimes, that means chatting with teammates for a fresh perspective. Other times, that means investing more time in ongoing personal development, a strategy Bindu has taken to add more options to her arsenal of research strategies.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your user research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants in the U.S. and Canada. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Find your first three participants for free.
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