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Dig Deeper on 1-1 Interviews with Insightful Follow-Up Questions

It's easy to miss out on golden opportunities during generative research without pushing further.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Saenz

Interviews are an integral part of being a user researcher. This methodology allows us to dig deeper into understanding peoples' perceptions, mental models, needs, and pain points. Geared with this information, we can build better products.

I'm biased because I love generative research, specifically one-on-one interviews. I believe they are one of the best ways to engage with users.


However, I wasn't always a big fan of interviews. They are difficult. The first time I ran a generative research session, I made it about 10 minutes into the conversation before my manager had to take over.

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The challenge of follow-up questions

I did an okay job asking the first question, but had no idea how to form the subsequent questions and follow up without biasing or leading the participant.

After that encounter, I was shaky during interviews. I had learned the TEDW framework—one that I love and teach to many—so I could ask conversation-starting open-ended questions, but I had no idea how to keep the conversation going.

I constantly get asked how to follow up and continue a discussion with users, or how to know when to probe further. Looking back, I struggled with the same questions. And this concept is difficult to teach since each user interview is unique. But here are some tips and tricks I wish I had when learning how to interview.

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✔ Develop a sense of curiosity over fear

My first piece of advice is to develop a strong sense of curiosity about the way people think. The most successful researchers are those fascinated with how people make decisions and process events.

When we have a sense of curiosity, we are naturally more inclined to have open conversations with people and follow up. We let go of our fear and get into a natural rhythm with our participants.

As soon as I replaced my fear of "the next question" with genuine curiosity, I found it easier to ask follow-up questions. Instead of thinking, "What should I ask next?" I could listen and dive deeper into what I wanted to learn more about.

I was chatting with someone at a networking event, and we somehow got on the topic of picking refrigerators. This might not be the most exciting topic in the world, but I was intrigued. I'd never heard someone's process for choosing a fridge. We spent about 45 minutes going through her journey, and I learned so much.

I was able to do this because I was naturally curious. So how did I build this skill?

  • I looked for opportunities to learn about how people think about things and their different mental models
  • I kept an open mind and never thought of something as boring—if I became bored, I tried to re-engage
  • I asked questions relentlessly
  • I was okay with saying I didn't know something, and couldn't contribute meaningfully to every conversation

This particular skill takes practice. Relax and listen with a sense of curiosity when talking with anyone, such as colleagues, friends, and family. Ask them questions and dig into their thoughts. Trust me, it makes chatting a lot more fun!

When we have a sense of curiosity, we are naturally more inclined to have open conversations with people and follow up. We let go of our fear and get into a natural rhythm with our participants.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, User Research Academy
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✔ Use active listening

To figure out what our next question should be, we should be intently listening to the participant. Focus and active listening are keys to a successful interview.

Make sure you remove all distractions from the physical environment and your mind. For example, write down anything distracting, or jot down a post-session to-do list to get thoughts out of your mind so you can completely dial into the participant's words.

When it comes to active listening during a session, a great way to do this is through mirroring.

Mirroring is imitation in the most basic form. We unconsciously copy each other to bond, provide comfort, and build trust. We imitate body language, tone of voice, speech, and vocabulary.

Mirroring has a significant psychological impact. It signals to the other person that we are similar to them and, through that, builds trust much faster. We are subconsciously drawn to what is similar and tend to avoid what is not. When you mirror another person, you’re telling them to trust you and that you are on the same side.

Mirroring is also a great way to ask a question without asking a question and can be helpful when you are feeling "why-heavy."

Participant: "I wasn't sure how to finish the onboarding."

Researcher: "You weren't sure..."

Participant: "Yeah, I was confused because the last screen kept taking me to a verification, but I wasn't receiving the email."

Researcher: "Weren't receiving the email..."

Participant: "Exactly, I went into my email to double-check a few times and tried to do it again, but nothing came through. It was frustrating."

Researcher: "It was frustrating..."

Participant: "I just wanted to get it done with!"

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✔ Embrace silence

Some of the best user research interview advice I have ever heard is to "shut up" and embrace silence.

After a participant has responded, I count slowly to three in my head. This approach ensures the person is genuinely done with their thoughts and reduces the possibility of interruptions (especially with remote internet lag)!

Additionally, people talk to fill the silence. It is awkward, after all. However, giving a few seconds of silence can prompt participants to expand more on their thoughts and give you a deeper understanding.

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✔ Probe subjective or vague words and phrases

When it comes to knowing when to follow up, the best thing you can do is probe when someone uses subjective or vague words and phrases.

What is subjective? When I say the word "scared," what comes to mind? What comes to mind when I say "barking dog"?

I can guarantee that we have different definitions and memories of being scared. We also likely have varying mental models of barking dogs.

When I think about being scared, my memory goes straight to someone breaking into my house at night. I get shaky and replay the potential situation, which makes me anxious.

Now let's take the phrase "barking dog." Before I got Poncho, if you would say this phrase to me, I would think about a cute dog barking while playing. However, since Poncho loves to bark at night, I now relate "barking dog" to a feeling of annoyance when he interrupts my sleep with a random bark.

And then with that bark, I can get nervous about someone breaking into my house...

See how this experience could be vastly different from others? How would you have known all of that context had I not told you?

Whenever participants bring up subjective or vague words or phrases, ask them what they mean. This approach leads us to a shared understanding of a feeling or reaction.

What are some subjective words to look out for? They are primarily emotions that could mean a million different things, given the person and situation. Here are a few:

  • Happy
  • Frustrated
  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Excited
  • Confused
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✔ Put these into practice

I want to end with some key phrases you can use to help you in your next interviews with some examples.

"Why?" / "How so"

The good old "why." There's a reason why "why" is so popular: it’s a quick and easy way to probe deeper into someone's thoughts and meanings. Another way to ask why is the phrase "how so?"

Participant: "I didn't want to reach out to customer support."

Interviewer: "Why?"

Participant: "I didn't think I'd have time with the wait holds..."

Interviewer: "How so?"

You can continue asking why or how until you hit a core value, or get deep enough that the participant can't explain anymore. Learn more about this particular technique in this article.

"Tell me more about [subjective word/phrase]"

"Tell me more"—part of the TEDW framework—is a great way to get someone to open up about a subjective word or phrase. It drives deeper into the meaning behind their feelings, and brings us closer to a shared understanding.

Participant: "I had an [annoying] experience sitting on the customer support call."

Researcher: "Tell me more about what was [annoying] for you."

"Explain what you mean by [subjective or vague word/phrase]"

Another great part of TEDW is "explain what you mean by." Like "tell me more about," this phrase lets participants open up and describe their feelings more fully. It pulls out specific and concrete examples rather than keeping them vague.

Participant: "I was [frustrated]."

Researcher: "Explain what you mean by [frustrated]."

OR

Participant: "The prototype looks [fine]."

Researcher: "Explain what you mean by [fine]."

"Describe how [experience] made you feel."

As I've mentioned, we want to get descriptive stories and memories from our participants. These stories are rich data that help deepen our understanding of customers beyond what we could imagine.

When it comes to experiences, getting concrete examples of what an experience was like and how it made a participant feel is crucial.

It's easy for us to stop at a participant telling us they had a particular experience, but this is when we need to continue. The phrase "Describe how [experience] made you feel" is an open-ended and conversation-provoking question that’s easy to ask.

If you want, you can even drop the "made you feel" and go with the more general, "Describe [the experience]. This phrase is helpful if you want to backtrack and get more detail on the holistic experience before diving into the details.

Participant: "I went to the doctor the other day and had to sit in the waiting room."

Interviewer: "Describe how [sitting in the waiting room] made you feel."

OR

Participant: "I went to the doctor the other day and had to sit in the waiting room."

Interviewer: "Describe your [experience with going to the doctor], starting from the beginning."

"In what sense?"

"In what sense?" is a great way to follow up without having to form a question fully. It is also a great alternative to "why."

I've just started using "in what sense" to get participants to open up about particular subjective or vague words and phrases. It helps me gently ask them to open up about their feelings and go deeper.

"In what sense" is a great tool to use when you’re met with those vague terms that could mean a million different things to anyone listening or trying to interpret results.

Participant: "Trying to get our luggage was an absolute nightmare."

Interviewer: "In what sense?"

Overall, following up and continuing the conversations are just as important as getting that first question right. Use these techniques in your upcoming interviews to see the stories and insights you can unlock!

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 


To get even more UXR nuggets, follow her on LinkedIn, join her bi-weekly newsletter, or read more of her work on Medium.

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