Note to the reader:
This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!
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User interviews are one of the most flexible and adaptable methods—they are powerful tools for uncovering new opportunities and generating ideas during the discovery phase, complement both qualitative and quantitative evaluative methods, and can be used in conjunction with ongoing listening continuous methods to keep up with changing customer needs and opinions over time.
In case it wasn’t obvious from our name, we’re big fans of this method.
User interviews (also called in-depth interviews) are 30- to 60-minute conversations with a single participant, in which a researcher asks questions about a topic of interest to gain a deeper understanding of participants’ their attitudes, beliefs, desires and experiences.
Because interviews are live (either online or in-person), moderators are able to pick up on and respond to verbal and non-verbal cues, ask followup questions, and probe into topics more deeply. The candid, interactive nature of interviews often leads to serendipitous nuggets of insight that is hard to achieve by other methods.
This UX research method is a relatively quick and easy way to collect qualitative user data, and interviews pair well with just about any other research method—use them to follow up with usability testers, understand decisions made during card sorting studies, or flesh out feedback from ongoing listening surveys.
Generative interviews are the most common type of user interview—they are the best way to answer the question “what don’t I know?”.
Like other generative or discovery methods, generative interviews are used early in the design and development process when you’re looking for opportunities and ideas.
But these are not simply brainstorming sessions—interviews are structured conversations used to gather the information you need to answer clear, specific, and actionable research questions (even if, at this stage, your research questions are fairly broad).
Note that this chapter is primarily focused on generative interviews.
Contextual interviews (or contextual inquiry) are a special type of semi-structured interview that gives researchers insight into the context of use. These interviews take place in a user’s environment (in context), which can make them feel more natural than interviews conducted in a lab or a staged virtual setting.
During contextual interviews, researchers ask participants questions while they complete tasks. This could involve shadowing a participant in their physical workplace, or moderating a usability testing session and asking questions as users interact with a site.
Continuous interviews are interviews you do on a regular basis by setting aside a chunk of time each week to connect with users. The goal of continuous interviewing is to keep you in touch with the people that matter most—your customers.
Continuous interviews are especially important for people who may not have regular research contact with users. They can also be used to keep teams in touch with users in between research projects. Teresa Torres, who teaches a course on continuous interviewing, explains:
The value of continuous interviewing is really just being reminded on a regular basis that our customers will always know their world better than we possibly could.
One thing to keep in mind is that the feedback you get from continuous interviewing may be a bit more scattered than feedback from other, more focused research.
Our Continuous User Interview Launch Kit includes an analysis template that will help keep track of the notes you take during sessions and scan through them quickly to find emerging themes. These themes can help influence more focused research, or serve to add color to your existing roadmap.
User interviews are used to inform vision decisions, allowing you to get clarity on a participant's big-picture beliefs and philosophies in order to determine a potential company, product, or service direction.
They can also be used to inform strategic decisions, allowing you to understand participants' current behaviors, expectations, or frustrations to determine a plan for a product or service.
Interviews generate a large amount of qualitative data, including detailed notes, transcripts, and videos. All of this data then needs to be synthesized into artifacts such as: personas, scenarios, thinking styles, or journey maps.
Because interviews capture the voice of the participant, they often provide powerful first-hand testimonials that support research-backed recommendations for improvement or change.
User interviews, as we mentioned, can be used throughout the product development cycle—from ideation to testing to post-launch listening.
Interviews are used:
We’ve mentioned contextual and continuous interviews, and have also explained how interviews can be used alongside methods during the testing and validation phase.
But the truth is user interviews really shine during discovery, when you still don’t really know exactly the problem you’re trying to solve or how. You might have a general idea about what a problem is, in which case generative interviews can help you refine your understanding. Or, you may simply want to develop a product in a given space, and you need to generate ideas about what problems exist before you can imagine their solutions.
Generative interviews are a fantastic method for uncovering opportunities for innovation and illuminating solutions to problems. And what’s more, this method allows you to build up a nice bed of rich information about your user base from which you can pull ideas—both for brand new project builds or improvements to existing products.
Interviews, like every user research method, have their limitations and drawbacks. None of the potential pitfalls are big enough to outweigh the benefits, and most can be offset with mindful research design and planning.
Some things to be aware of:
User interviews can help you answer just about any qualitative research question you can think of. Qualitative means it's answered with words, not numbers. So while user interviews can't tell you how many people bought your competitor’s product, they can help you understand why people made that purchasing decision.
Typically, user interviews are just one piece of your research puzzle. For most projects, you’ll want to supplement interview data with quantitative methods like product analytics, usability tests, or surveys.
We covered how to set research goals and come up with effective research questions in depth in the Planning UX Research module—definitely give the chapters in that module a read if you’re struggling to clarify your goals or uncover stakeholder needs. Very briefly…
Talk to your stakeholders. Conduct stakeholder interviews to find out what it is they want to learn, what decisions they need to make, and what they hope to achieve. You won’t be able to satisfy every stakeholder wish in one research project—look for the core, concrete goals that can practically be answered through UX research.
Ask yourself (and your stakeholders) the following questions:
From there, you should be able to answer the key question: What do I want to learn through user research?
User interviews, like all the research methods discussed in this Field Guide, should start with a research question that is specific enough to know when you've found the answer, actionable in that you can do something about it, or practical in that you can reasonably answer it within the scope of a research project.
For example, you can't reasonably answer "Why don't people buy my product?" There could be many different reasons people aren't buying your product, and covering them all in one study wouldn't be practical or give you actionable results.
A better question may be, "Does my pricing page accurately answer my users questions?", or "Why do people in my target market choose X competitor over my product?".
Both of these questions could be answered with user interviews, and your team would have a clear path to action once the study was complete.
Get a copy of our UX research plan template.
Next, prepare a set of questions to ask participants. Having a list of questions helps keep the conversation flowing and serves as a good framework for notetaking and organizing data during and after the interview.
Some of these interview questions should spring directly from your core research question.
For example, if you want to learn how people research travel destinations, you could plan to say “Tell me about your last vacation” followed by the question “What prompted you to choose X as a destination?”
But remember: This is an interview, not an interrogation—a good moderator guide should also incorporate get-to-know-you questions, and leave room for spontaneous, open-ended responses and followup questions.
We purposely this set of questions a ‘discussion guide’ or ‘moderator guide’, rather than a ‘script’.
That’s because although its good to prepare a loose questionnaire to guide the interview, you should feel free to deviate from it when it makes sense. You don’t want the interview to feel stilted—you want it to flow, and you want your interviewee comfortable. If the interview is taking a useful turn, follow it where it wants to go.
For discovery interviews, where the scope of your inquiry might be quite broad, consider a list of topics in lieu of a questionnaire.
If you identify a handful (3-6) of larger topics you’d like to cover, and identify a handful of subtopic, you’ve got yourself a nice loose guideline for an interview that won’t be overly confining.
For example, say your area of interest is snacks (because who isn’t interested in snacks?). You might come up with larger topics like cookies, popcorn, charcuterie, and healthy snacks. And beneath each main topic, you might have a few subtopics. In the end, your list of topics might look like...
And you can use this list of presumptions as a guideline for understanding how, why, and what your interviewee looks for in a snack without locking yourself into a prescribed list of questions.
We put together a list of sample interview questions in this handy sheet. Here are a few examples of different types of interview questions you can ask:
Digging in questions
Product/market fit questions
Usability testing questions
Customer interview questions
Below is an example interview script that follows Teresa Torres’s Continuous Discovery Habits framework. This sample discussion guide is based on a fictional study with people who sell their handmade art on Etsy.
Researching with humans does, unfortunately, involve some (sometimes tedious) administrative work—like creating an interview schedule, collecting signatures, and plenty of emails— to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Thankfully, there are ways to streamline the process, which we’ve shared below. But first, it’s time to:
Take another look at your research question and ask yourself: Who is likely to have the answers I’m looking for? Do the same with your most important interview questions.
Write down the qualities you think that person—this knowledgeable answer-giver you’re picturing—is likely to have. This list is the beginning of your participant profile, which you will use to write your screener survey.
We say beginning, because it’s likely that your list is too long, the profile too narrow. Really scrutinize each of the qualities you wrote down—does a participant have to be vegetarian or Black or married or live in Southern California in order to provide valuable insights to your question?
Unless it’s truly necessary for a participant to fall within a certain demographic, you can probably strike that criteria from your list. When we filter by demographics, we’re often making assumptions about relationships between people’s backgrounds and their behaviors—and doing so risks biasing your research and missing out on diverse perspectives.
Read the chapters on UX Research Recruiting for a step-by-step guide to user research recruitment, plus in-depth advice on filtering participants and calculating rewards.
There is something of an art to deciding how many people to interview. In general, the more people you talk to, the more information you will get—but only up to a point. The amount of fresh insights you’ll glean on a topic diminishes with each subsequent interview. Eventually (often sooner than you think), the responses will start to get repetitive.
That’s why it’s good to start small. For most interview studies, you only need 5 participants.
So start by recruiting 5 people, since you are almost certain to need that many. You can always recruit more folks later based on your needs:
Remember that when you’re doing discovery research, it’s good to keep an open mind and have a flexible research plan. You can plan and budget for any number of participants, but that doesn’t mean you have to recruit them all at once. Generative interviews can sometimes generate ideas about who you should interview next. So if one interview leads you down an unexpected (but relevant path), follow it.
Recruiting participants for interviews can be fast (really)—which means you can respond to new lines of inquiry as they crop up.
User interviews can be as long or as short as you need them to be, but we typically find that 30-45 minutes is the right amount of time for each session. That gives you enough time to spend a few minutes at the beginning warming up and getting comfortable, and to wrap up. It's also short enough that interviews don’t feel like an unmanageable time commitment from you or the participant.
Of course, if you feel like doing a 15-minute, 20-minute, or even hour-long user interview, that's perfectly ok too!
Don’t collect data without permission. Before the day of the interview and at the beginning of the session, clearly explain why you’re conducting the interview, how the data will be used, and how it will be stored. Get every participants’ informed consent in writing—these forms, and your verbal explanation, should be in plain, easy-to-understand language.
And remember: Your interviews may involve collecting sensitive or personal information, in which case you will have to take steps to either safeguard or destroy all such information.
To help your participants remember the interview date and get to the right place at the right time, send them an email with the following key pieces of information:
Plan to follow up multiple times for interviews scheduled a week or more in advance. And when conducting remote interviews, never assume that a participant has or knows how to use a platform—give them clear instructions on how to join the call in the emails leading up to the interview.
Read more about scheduling and communicating with participants in this Field Guide chapter.
It’s here: Interview day! Kicking off a user interview study is always a bit nerve-wracking—but a little practice and preparation go a long way. Whether this is your first user interview or your 100th, we promise you’ll get into the groove.
To make sure everything goes off without a hitch, always test your tech. Do a test run of the software you’ll be using, make sure it's up-to-date, triple-check your internet connection, and charge your devices.
We recommend clearing your workspace as much as possible to help you focus on the interviewee. Tidy up your desk, close some of those browser tabs, and make sure any materials you’ll be asking participants to interact with or respond to—files, images, websites, a physical prototype, etc—are organized and close at hand.
Once you have everything in order, it’s time to conduct your interview!
Begin by introducing yourself. Briefly explain the reason for the interview and how long you expect it to take—your interviewee may already know all of this from your prior communications, but always recap on the day itself.
Make the participant feel comfortable. Create a rapport, assure them that there are no right or wrong answers, and get them warmed up with some get-to-know-you small talk. Remember, this is about establishing trust, not becoming BFFs—focus on making sure they feel safe and seen.
Talk slowly. Pause. Ask them if they have any questions of their own before you begin.
Start with questions that are easy to answer and contain no judgements or assumptions. Work toward more specific questions gradually, and save deeper probing about personal details and behaviors for later in the interview, once the participant has started to open up and feel at ease.
For instance, if you are interviewing public school teachers who have to purchase classroom supplies with their own money, you might work toward the specifics by asking them:
Play dumb. Don’t be shy about asking questions that seem obvious, or that you think you know the answer to. For instance, if someone says “I really hate wine” you might ask them “what do you mean by that?” They might then go on to say “I mean I don’t like that it gives me headaches. I actually used to love drinking red wine with dinner, but it’s not worth the agonizing hangovers.”
In another example, if someone from Boston is talking about their habits and says “I go to Harvard often,” ask them to clarify if they mean Harvard Square, the metro stop, or the university—or something else entirely.
You can also ask people to perform tasks by sharing their screen, or by describing the action: “Can you show/describe to me how you [X]?”
User Researcher Nikki Anderson shared that she frames interview questions using the Taxonomy of Cognitive Domain, which explains how certain verbs can trigger particular thought processes:
Don’t rush the participant. Once they finish speaking, let their response hang in the air for several seconds longer than feels comfortable (try counting to 5 in your head before replying). Eventually, many participants will fill that silence themselves by expanding on their response. If they don’t, you know you’ve given them enough time to answer thoroughly and can move on.
Some people have a lot to say. Digressions or apparently excessive storytelling can be great opportunities to learn things you didn't think to ask about, and allowing some digression is good for rapport, but be prepared to diplomatically pivot back on topic when necessary. Do not let an interview go into overtime, since your interviewee has places to be—as do you. You can always schedule a follow-up if need be.
As you approach the end of a session, preface your final questions with a statement like“I just have one more question before we wrap up,” or “To wind things down, I have just one or two more questions.” This will make the end more gentle, especially if you have someone really pouring their heart out.
Make sure to reserve time at the end of the interview to sincerely thank your participants for their time, vulnerability, and contribution to your project. Before you close the book, ask participants if they have any questions or anything else to add (“Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think I should have?”).
UX Researcher Stéphanie Walter says of this final question:
“Most of the people will say no. So I wait. Then they think a little bit and actually have things to add. So here again, don’t underestimate the power of silence, don’t turn the recorder off. A lot of people will give you interesting feedback once the interview is “finished”.
We recommend bringing someone else on your team along to take notes during the interview session so you can focus on the conversation and stay attuned to nonverbal cues and opportunities for insightful follow up questions. This is especially true if you’re conducting interviews in-person, but even recorded remote interviews can benefit from having a skilled notetaker in the copilot seat.
And even if you’re relying on recordings, it’s always a good idea to take time after a session to write down thoughts and impressions and add those notes to the transcripts.
Note taking can be descriptive—describing something you saw or heard— or evaluative—making a judgement or inference based on something you saw or heard. If you can, include timestamps with your notes for context.
You can take notes with pen and paper, in a whiteboard tool like Miro, with a dedicated research tool, spreadsheets—whatever works.
In our User Interview Launch Kit, we’ve included a Google Sheets note-taking template that makes it easy to take quick and organized notes during an interview session. It also makes it easy to pull out specific answers and tidbits from each interview.
🚀 Get the User Interview Launch Kit.
And whenever possible, record your interviews. Not only will transcription tools make your life a whole lot easier in the next step, but you’ll be able to pull out impactful audio or video snippets to share with stakeholders. Just be sure that you notify the participant before recording begins and obtain their consent.
Transcriptions and audio/video recordings are powerful tools for capturing and sharing verbatim records of the sessions, but it’s up to you, as the researcher, to make sense of those records.
You can save yourself a lot of work at the end of a project by forming good note taking habits and transcribing and tagging data as you go.
For every interview:
Some study designs even call for giving interviewees a chance to review the transcripts, notes, and initial analysis, in case they have any corrections or retractions. Place all your records, including copies of the recordings or field notes and any amendments offered by the interviewee, together for easy later retrieval.
It is easy to get lost in the sheer amount of information that qualitative methods like user interviews can generate. Keep your analysis focused by answering your research questions first and foremost. Don’t ask the data questions if you don’t have a plan or use for the answers. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit the data later and analyze it with a different research question in mind! Properly tagged and stored, interview data is a rich edition to your research repository.)
For most interview analysis and synthesis, Google Sheets (or your preferred spreadsheet tool) is all you need. We also recommend using a tool like Miro, MURAL, or Figjam to organize your notes and make sense of emerging themes in the data.
Roberta Dombrowski, our VP of User Research, typically conducts interview analysis in two stages: first looking at each session in isolation, and then looking for patterns across interviews.
User interviews produce audio and video recordings that are full of rich, first-person accounts of the user experience. Include audio/video clips in your findings to bring a human voice/face to the data. If you’re sharing interview snippets as you go, be sure your stakeholders understand that the clips don’t necessarily reflect trends across participants (since you haven’t done the final analysis).
Mind maps, word clouds, and storyboards are other effective ways to share interview data with stakeholders who don’t have the time or patience to mine through spreadsheets or large data sets.
One of the reasons user interviews are such a popular method is that they are economical. You don’t need a lot of time, budget, or special tools to conduct successful interviews.
🧙✨ Discover more tools in the 2022 UX Research Tools Map, a fantastical guide to the UXR software landscape.
To conduct user interviews, whether in-person or remotely, you’ll need:
User Interviews has a pool of over 700,000 vetted participants and customizable filters to help you find exactly the people you’re looking for. You typically only need 5 participants to start with—and when you sign up, your first three participants are on us.
Next, you’ll need a way to talk to people. For in-person interviews, this means a venue that allows for quiet, private conversation. This could be your office, their office, a lab, a rented workspace, etc. Be sure to factor travel expenses and refreshments into the cost of your budget for in-person interviews.
Remote user interviews are simpler—you and your participant will just need a video conferencing link and a computer or smartphone. Tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet have become so ubiquitous that most (though not all!) users will feel comfortable using these platforms for a call. Even still, try to choose software that will be familiar to people and always provide clear, step-by-step instructions ahead of time.
If you’re using a tool like Zoom to conduct your interview, recording the session is simple—and you can easily download a transcript of the conversation, which you can then use for analysis.
To record in-person interviews, you may be able to get by with a smartphone, or you might need special audio/video equipment. Always test-drive your setup ahead of time to make sure the sound is clear and (if applicable) the video offers an unobstructed view of the participant.
During the interview, you’ll need a tool for taking notes. A good old-fashioned notepad and pen can work but remember you’ll need to transcribe your notes later for analysis. We recommend that you:
Finally, you’ll need a way to analyze your data. If you’re just getting started with user research, you won’t need anything fancier than a spreadsheet (like the one in the User Interview Launch Kit) and maybe a whiteboard tool like Miro for organizing and synthesizing data.
🔧 Read more: Your Remote User Interview Toolkit
Interviews are like the capybaras of user research methods—they play nice with almost everything.
They can be combined with other methods, such as observational field studies or focus groups. An initial series of interviews can lay the groundwork for a field study, or an observational field study can develop insights that are later used in planning an interview series. Participant-observer studies often include interviews.
The same recruitment methods, tools, and logistical planning—and sometimes even the same interviewees—can be used in both the generative and evaluative phases of a project. In the generative stage, you might pick their brains regarding the pain points of using a certain product, and later ask them to use the product to determine whether those problems have been resolved.
User Interviews (the company) owes a lot to user interviews (the method). Our founders conducted generative user interviews as part of the discovery process that led them to found the company. You can read all about how we went from being a failed startup to raising a $10M Series A with (meta) user research in our origin story.
But don't take our word for it. Get out there, conduct some interviews, and see for yourself how powerful user insights can be!