How to write and conduct user interviews

Last checked and updated on 6 July 2022

User interviews are a UX method of questioning, which offer researchers a golden opportunity to better understand a given topic – as well as identify how improvements can be made. 

Quite different to focus groups, user interviews are a quick and easy way to collect user data

So how exactly do you go about writing and then conducting a user interview? We take a closer look.

What is a user interview? 

Far from just a chat with someone to find out what they do and don’t like about a product or process, a user interview aims to get to the heart of what the user is doing and what their problems might be. 

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Chris Mears, UXr suggests:

 “User research is how you will know your product or service will work in the real world, with real people. It’s where you will uncover or validate the user needs which should form the basis of what you are designing.”

Whilst Head of Product & UX at Usabilla, Maria Arvidsson, describes UX research as:

“The means through which you try to understand your users’ needs, behaviors and motivations and validate your assumptions and solutions.”

Design Modo defines UX research as “The process of understanding user behaviors, needs, and attitudes using different observation and feedback collection methods.”

Is a user interview the same as a focus group? 

In short, no. 

A focus group involves multiple users at once – typically between 6 and 8 individuals at a time – in order to better understand the users’ feelings and needs, before interface design as well as after it has been implemented. 

By contrast, a user interview is a one on one session, although its format can allow for several facilitators to ask a question in turn. 

What is the difference between good and bad UX research? 

In her article ‘How To Conduct User Experience Research Like A Professional’, Raven L Veal examines the difference between good and bad UX research, concluding: 

“The biggest sign of an amateur UX designer is excluding end users from the design process. At the very start of my career I held the attitude that I could test any app, website, or product on myself, replacing the act of speaking with users. Never a good idea. It took time for me to learn a more professional approach, which is to start the design process by listening to the end user. Overall, UX research helps us avoid our biases since we are required to design solutions for people who are not like us.”

Under what circumstances would you conduct a user interview?

User interviews can be utilised in a number of different scenarios:

Pre design stage: Long before you have decided on a design, it can be greatly beneficial to conduct user interviews in order to help inform journey maps (we have previously written about ‘How to get started with customer journey mapping’), different personas, feature and workflow ideas. 

Field study: to help add value to a contextual inquiry study which looks at users in their own environment, by also identifying pain points, bottlenecks and issues for users.

On completion of a Usability Test:  in order to collect verbal responses related to any behaviours you might have observed.

What are the benefits of a user interview? 

In her article ‘User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them’, Kara Pernice advises that “Interviews give insights into what users think about a site, an application, a product, or a process. They can point out what site content is memorable, what people feel is important on the site, and what ideas for improvement they may have.”

Veal adds “One of the other benefits of user experience research is that it helps us understand how people live their lives so that we can respond to their needs with informed design solutions. Good UX research involves using the right method at the right time during the development of a product.”

How do you go about conducting a user interview? 

So how do you put together a user interview? Kara Pernice advises that we should “first and foremost, think of an interview as a type of research study, not a sales session or an informal conversation.”

She goes on to make the following suggestions for a successful interview: 

1. Set a goal for the interview

Be clear in advance about what exactly you want to achieve from the interview itself. 

Simply ‘learning more about our users’ is far too generic to be helpful, as it is unlikely to direct your questions in a way that is relevant to your design needs.  

2. Make the user feel as comfortable as possible

Creating rapport with the user in advance of the interview itself can pay dividends in terms of how well the whole process runs. 

Suggestions for making users feel comfortable include getting in touch with them in advance of the formal interview; explaining the purpose of the interview and how the data will be used. As well as advice about not interrupting the interviewee or making them feel rushed in their answers. Showing genuine empathy can help but the interviewer must be careful not to adversely affect the interview itself with any of their own responses to users frustrations. 

The Interaction Design Foundation advises “Try to focus on the interviewee and not on note making – it’s just plain rude to bury your head in your notes. Maintain eye contact, keep a conversation flowing and record the interview rather than getting lost in note making.”

3. Prepare questions before the interview

A clear set of questions that have been prepared in advance of the interview will ensure that the interview runs as planned. Of course, you may wish to add in supplementary questions in response to your interviewee’s answers but a basic script is important in guiding the overall process. 

4. Write dialog-provoking interview questions

Questions should be simple to understand and avoid multiple questions within one question.  Avoid closed questions which can shut down conversations. And keep away from leading questions, replacing examples such as “why do you enjoy using this product so much?” with “why do you use this product?”

It can help to write more questions that you expect to ask, since some interviewees will talk at length whilst others will try to fly through the process. 

Kara Pernice is at pains to make sure the difference between the user-interview method and the usability-testing method is understood: a user interview is not about researchers observing what users do. It’s about users reporting their beliefs and perceptions in an interview. 

Beware the limitations of user interviews 

Data from self-reported interviews (unlike behavioural data) has several limitations, because it relies on human memory, which we know to be flawed and because not every detail of importance will necessary be shared between the interviewer and interviewee. 

Pernice therefore concludes “Interviews are a quick and easy way to get a sense of how users feel, think, and what they perceive to be true. Do them, but complement them with observation-based research to attain an accurate and thorough sense of what users really do and a higher feeling of confidence with the information you collect.”

Thinking about whether UX interviews could help you gain some insight into opportunities for your product or service? Contact us for an informal chat.

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Important – The information provided in our articles is intended to be for general purpose use only, and not advice for you or your business. We strive to publish accurate information, but encourage you to fact-check and seek expert guidance. You should always speak to a qualified professional to get tailored advice about how to operate your business under your specific requirements and circumstances.