How to run effective user interviews

We examine what it takes to run insightful user interviews that can help you better understand the challenges users face and how to solve them.

User research is a crucial first step in crafting any successful digital project. At Numiko, we use in-depth user research to inform all our projects. The insights we glean from this research are key to understanding how to solve the challenges our clients face. What we learn plays a big role in shaping the output of the project.

Your user research should draw on a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, as these both bring different kinds of insights to the table. We’ve already covered how to get started with user research for websites, where we looked into why user research is important, how to get started, and explored different research methods such as surveys, user interviews, and observation tests. That article provides an introduction to the topic, but we thought it would be useful to do a deep dive into running highly effective user interviews, so you get the most out of this research method and avoid any potential pitfalls.

When to do a user interview

Before we tackle how to run an effective user interview, it’s worth taking a step back to consider your user research programme more holistically, and where your user interviews should fit into it.

User interviews are a great way to gain a deeper understanding of your users. They let you access rich, qualitative feedback that you simply can’t get from other methods. However, they can also be time consuming and therefore expensive. You should use them to delve into the most crucial questions and challenges, so it’s worth looking at other sources of data first to decide where to target your efforts.

We recommend first consulting your quantitative data as that presents a broader view that can highlight where your website may be facing challenges. For example, your analytics data may show that certain user journeys have very poor conversion rates, or surveys may flag up users reporting low satisfaction scores with a particular area of the site. You can then follow up this high-level quantitative analysis with user interviews to get a much richer and more nuanced understanding of how users are interacting with that content and what factors may be causing the poor performance.

User interviews don’t typically have large sample sizes, as that would be hugely time consuming, so they don’t generate statistically significant findings. This means you shouldn’t use them to test explicit hypotheses. You need to approach them with an open mind to discover what users want and think. This means user interviews aren’t the right research method to use if you have a specific question like ‘should we make the button blue or green’- these kinds of direct choices are much better suited to A/B testing. User interviews should be used to explore problems and help inform how you shape solutions. You can then switch to other methods to test if those solutions work for your users. Every type of user research has its strengths and weaknesses, and that’s why they each have a role. Use them in combination to get the most insightful answers.

Speak to the right people

Now that we have established where user interviews should sit within your wider research programme, the next step in running effective user interviews is to make sure you’re speaking to the right people.

This point may seem obvious, but have you thought in-depth about who ‘the right’ people are? Your users are likely to have different needs, with various audiences coming to your website for different reasons. You need to hone in on the users that face the issue that you’re looking to explore in more detail. Certain groups of users will be far better placed to provide a unique set of insights specific to their needs, and it’s worth working out how you can target these users when recruiting for your interviews. You might also be looking to target new audiences that your current website is failing to attract, so you’ll need to think about how to reach these to understand their needs and motivations.

Take the example of a university looking to understand how it can improve its website to attract more students (a challenge we often work with universities to solve). Putting out a general call for participation, via surveys, social media, or mailing lists is likely to attract volunteers who do not have any insight on how the website could be better for prospective students. They may be existing students, faculty, researchers, or other groups visiting the university website for reasons completely unrelated to student recruitment.

That’s why when we run user interviews looking to understand the need and priorities of prospective students, we run sessions with specific groups who match exactly the profile of those that the university is seeking to appeal to. One such group we highly recommend speaking to is current ‘offer holders’ at that university. These are prospective students who have applied for a place and received an offer to study but have not yet selected their final choice. Those people will be in the process of weighing up which university they want to attend from a range of options. That makes them an ideal group for gaining insight into how the website could be improved to better attract prospective students.

Ask yourself: Who are the equivalent users for your website? Be highly targeted and specific when recruiting for your user interviews so you don’t waste time talking to people who aren’t able to speak directly to the challenges you’re seeking to solve.

Write a script, but don’t stick to it

Now you’ve planned how to target the right people, you need to think about what you’ll ask them and how you’ll ask it. There’s an art to conducting user interviews, and we recommend using experienced researchers who have expertise in running effective interviews. We also recommend working with researchers who have a deep understanding of the sector so they can ask follow-up questions with confidence, responding to what users say, and will know when to go off-script, exploring when a participant raises something unexpected.

User interviews can be structured (asking questions from a prepared script), semi-structured, or unstructured (an unscripted conversation). We recommend the semi-structured approach, where you prepare a script in advance but do not follow it robotically and deviate when it would be beneficial to do so. This approach means you have time to think deeply about the questions you want to ask in advance, but also means you can follow new fruitful lines of inquiry when they appear. Sticking rigidly to a script removes a lot of the benefits of conducting user interviews. If you want answers to a set of highly prescribed questions, you might consider using a survey instead.

Ask the right questions

Asking great questions that tease out valuable insights is a skill that takes time to master. Developing this knack for insightful questioning starts with being open. This means asking questions that are open-ended, allowing the user to convey their experience, and not leading them towards any existing preconceptions of the problem you are hoping to solve. Record the session to free yourself from taking notes, as this will allow you to be more present, and better able to follow up any fruitful lines of enquiry that develop.

You will, of course, have your own thoughts on the issues you are exploring, but it’s important you don’t use the interview to try to validate your own assumptions. Leading questions will inevitably mean you miss valuable insights, so don’t approach the question writing like you’re trying to gather evidence to make a case. Your interview should be an open exploration to seek out how users feel.

Focus on the user’s experience and try to uncover challenges or frustrations they might be facing. That’s the key information you’re looking to uncover. In a recent user research project which we ran for one of the UK’s leading galleries, there was an ongoing internal debate about the best way to structure the data surrounding each artwork. We conducted user interviews and observation tests, exploring different user preferences and showing a range of prototypes to users such as academics, artists, gallery professionals, and members of the public. This approach led us to a very clearly defined and evidence-based way forward. We generated insight that allowed our design team to arrive at a solution that meets the expectations of casual visitors and researchers alike.

Once the challenges have been identified, do probe them in more detail to understand what users struggle with, but don’t ask them to identify the solution. Successfully architecting a solution is a job for design and user experience professionals. The user doesn’t know what design would have solved their problem, so don’t ask them to try and provide it!

What to do with the results

User interviews are a big investment. You should plan from the start to get the most out of them.

Schedule time after the interview to think through how you can translate the answers into meaningful insight. Listen back to the recordings, take notes on what consistent themes are emerging. Identify patterns – are there any clear stories emerging about what users are struggling with?

Present your design and UX teams with genuine insight into what users find difficult and the reasons why, not just a list of what they did and didn’t like. This kind of insight will be far more useful for those teams when attempting to devise a solution.

Finally, remember to consider your findings as part of your wider research programme. Look back at other sources of data, your analytics, surveys, or any previous research. Do your findings align with your other research methods? Looking at the big picture, are you starting to see broader themes? These can inform what you focus on next, and how the solutions you create fit into the wider user experience across your website and across different channels.

If you’d like to conduct insightful and effective user research to inform your digital projects, our experienced team of UX specialists are on hand to help. See how we can develop your understanding of your users with our user insight service.

User research sits behind all the best digital projects. We distil the best insights from our years of running user research projects to explain how to get started with doing user research for your website.