I remember sweating as I sat down for my first generative research session.
Me: “So...can you tell me about the last time you used our platform? How was it?”
Participant: “It was okay. There is this problem I have with this list component, it isn’t working properly.”
Me: “Oh, I’m sorry. Can you describe what happens?”
Participant: “Every time I try to add something to this list, it says it is added, but I can’t see it.”
Me: “Oh, wow. Okay, how does that make you feel?”
Me: “I can understand that.”
I looked down at my nonexistent script.
Me: “Sorry! Um, is there anything else?”
Shortly after that point, my manager stepped in and saved me. I had only bumbled through 20 minutes of the 60-minute session. I was devastated—and convinced my career was over. I had an MA in Psychology, and I couldn’t even perform an interview. Fraud alert.
Clearly (and luckily), that was not the case. I scoured the internet and practiced interviews with everyone I could, and have since come up with go-to techniques on one-on-one interviews that I now use with my students today.
In a nutshell, what I learned was: User research is a bit like improv. Here are a few ways you can nail the performance.
Make the interview more comfortable
Do your research! Make sure you understand the industry the product is in, including competitors and jargon. If you are testing a prototype, or live code, ensure you have played around with it enough so you are familiar with the different patterns and interactions. It may sound like common sense—but I’ve watched researchers who were too busy to review a prototype walk into an interview unprepared and struggle more than the participant.
Recruit the right participants. I can’t stress this enough. Make sure you are recruiting your target audience. If you are prototyping and testing a car buying feature, make sure you recruit people who have bought a car, or at least have considered it in the past. Nothing makes a research session more uncomfortable than a realistic scenario and a confused, unqualified participant.
I do a little interior decorating beforehand, making sure there is water available, and that I can sit next to the participant (as opposed to standing over them or sitting across from them). If you’re doing your interview remotely, make sure both you and your participant will have a quiet space with a solid WiFi connection.
Ready the environment. I’ve witnessed many research sessions held in dark office meeting rooms, where you can hear all the surrounding chatter. Choose a room that is quiet, and well-lit, as it will enhance the quality of your output. I do a little interior decorating beforehand, making sure there is water available, and that I can sit next to the participant (as opposed to standing over them or sitting across from them). If you’re doing your interview remotely, make sure both you and your participant will have a quiet space with a solid WiFi connection.
Define the problem statement and objectives. Research plans will give you much-needed focus when conducting your sessions. By defining a problem statement and research objectives, you will explicitly state why you are doing the research and what you want to get out of it. This ensures alignment with your team, and will keep you from going too far off-topic, especially when the participant says something you really want to follow.
Frame the questions correctly. With your problem statement and objectives stated, you can write the “right” types of questions. I use the TEDW approach to form open-ended statements that induce conversation and entice users to tell stories. If you are unfamiliar, TEDW is an acronym which stands for the following question-openers:
- “Talk me through.../Tell me…”
- “Walk me through…”
Practice your script! Once you have drafted your entire script, even if there isn’t much written, read it out loud several times to check for awkward language, uncomfortable jargon and to ensure the flow makes sense. Better yet, run it through with a colleague!
My interviewing tips & tricks
Be aware of the flow. We don’t want to begin a research session with a bang. Just like any other conversation, we want to ease into it. As a researcher, cultivating a trust-filled environment is key to getting strangers to open up. I like to start with “how are you’s” and understanding what the person does for a living. I even ask about the weather, and how their week has been. This allows me to have a bit of human conversation with them, and develop a bit of rapport before I get into the more complex questions.
Exercise active listening. In order 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 also from your mind. Write down anything that is distracting you or jot down a post-session to-do list—anything to get thoughts and distractions out of your mind so you are able to completely dial into the participant’s words.
Lean in when the participant is talking, nod your head, affix a small smile on your face and maintain a (healthy) amount of eye contact. When people feel like you are interested in what they’re saying, they’ll only say more.
Be aware of your body language. I can tell the vibe of a meeting or conversation based on body language. When I see a lot of crossed arms, I know there’s an air of defensiveness. During our sessions, we want to be as open as possible. Lean in when the participant is talking, nod your head, affix a small smile on your face and maintain a (healthy) amount of eye contact. When people feel like you are interested in what they’re saying, they’ll only say more.
Mirror the participant. Is the participant angry or barely answering your questions? This is not the time to put a huge smile on your face and speak enthusiastically. Of course, never be mean to a participant, but make sure you are mirroring their tone, as it will make them feel more comfortable. From that state, slowly engage more, and, usually, the participant will start to mirror you, and open up.
Embrace the silence. Some of the best user research interview advice I have ever heard is to simply “shut up.” I count slowly in my head to three once a participant has completed a sentence, to, both, make sure they are truly done and prompt them to keep talking. No one likes silence, and it is a great way to urge participants to expand on their thoughts.
After an interview
Evaluate your interview. This is the biggest advice I can give to user researchers who want to advance their career. Always take the time to listen again to your past interviews, and write yourself feedback on how it could go better next time. I also include techniques I want to practice for upcoming interviews. You can also use Steinar Kvale’s 10 criteria of a good interview to help you assess yourself.
Ask for feedback from others. I literally ask everyone for feedback on everything. Kindly ask your manager, colleagues or friends to listen to your interviews, and tell you how you can improve. I love when colleagues sit in on my sessions and can give me direct feedback after. Constructive criticism is how we learn and grow.
Always take the time to listen again to your past interviews, and write yourself feedback on how it could go better next time. I also include techniques I want to practice for upcoming interviews.
Fun tactics I’ve used to supplement my user research career
Mindfulness meditation. I meditate before each research session I conduct or take notes for. This allows me to calm my mind and gives me better awareness of my biases. After my brief (sometimes just three-minute) meditation, I write down my thoughts and assumptions so they are out of my head. That way, I go into each research session with a blank canvas and quiet mind.
Take improv classes. Introverted user researchers unite! Improv classes have really helped me think on my feet, and come up with fast responses when I may be caught off guard by a participant’s response. This is especially helpful when you ask a big question, and the participant hardly responds: I.e.:
“How can we improve this feature?”
“It’s fine, I don’t think anything can be improved.”
So we await dreaded silence and awkwardness. But we don’t have to. We can try something new, like:
“What if we were in a magical world and you could change anything to make this work better for you?”
Be a research participant yourself. Not only do I feel ethically inclined to give feedback to anyone who asks it of me (the number of surveys I have filled out is astounding), but being a research participant can earn you a few things. First, you can feel what it is like to be in that position, helping you to understand how to further make participants feel comfortable. Second, you can check out other researchers' techniques, and even learn a thing or two. One quick note with this tactic: It’s often helpful to join another researcher’s project—especially when they’re short on participants, and you’d make a good recruit. But there can sometimes be ethical concerns when involving yourself in another researcher’s work. Make sure to identify yourself as a researcher during the screening process—and to stay out of competitors' studies.
Use networking to run mini-interviews. I used to hate networking events, but, now I use them as opportunities to run mini-interview sessions. I make it a goal to learn as much as I can about a person in five minutes. I use open body language, the TEDW approach and the power of silence to make the person comfortable enough to share. After a small chat, a number of people smile, shake their heads, and say, “Wow, I haven’t told many people that!”
If a lot, or some, of these techniques are new to you, don’t try them all on for size in your next research session. Before I walk into a session, I pick one technique I want to work on, then focus on it for a few sessions, until I feel more comfortable. All of these techniques and tricks can be adapted to wherever you are in your career, and you can add more to level yourself up.
The best advice I can give, besides “shut up,” is to stay curious and open to feedback. With those two traits, you can’t go wrong in your journey as a user researcher.
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.
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