Interviewing. It’s one of those things that almost anyone can do, few people do well, and only a tiny handful are truly great.
You don’t have to become Charlie Rose, Oprah, or even Barbara Walters to conduct user interviews. But as a customer-centric company, you have an essential job to do — to gather product/service insight from your customers. It’s not enough to talk with your customers. You want them to share their honest opinions so that you can share them with your team. And you need useful information from which the company can benefit.
Novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hector Tobar wrote, “One thing I’ve learned from all those interviews is that I am always going to be surprised.” So here are some tips to help you become a more artful interviewer and gain more useful information and insights and maybe even a few surprises.
1. Use Your Script Wisely
Good user interviewers develop a script and use it without it ever feeling as though the conversation was scripted. Instead, they naturally weave the script inside the conversation, which leads to the questions being asked in a different order than as scripted.
Great user interviewers do the same. But they’re also aware that when questions are asked in a different order, there’s a risk that each interviewee will interpret them differently. That’s a problem when interviewing many different users on the same subject. Their answers may be skewed by the context. Great interviewers try to ask questions in as similar a form as possible to minimize interpretations and glean more meaningful insight.
2. Acknowledge Bias
Bias is a common problem, and good user interviewers try to minimize interjecting their bias into the interview. They don’t want to influence the user’s responses.
A great user interviewer knows it’s not possible to eliminate bias. Everyone has opinions. They understand that it is important to not only minimize bias but to acknowledge its existence and go looking for it.
3. Share Your Expertise
A good user interviewer conducts a lot of interviews and, over time, develops expertise. They hone their listening skills, ask better questions, and become comfortable with the process, which helps put interviewees at ease.
Great user interviewers also hone their craft and share their experience — thus empowering their team to conduct better interviews. By teaching your team to become better interviewers, you can collect more interviews and be assured that they’ll be of equally good quality — thus providing more useful data and insights.
4. Create Tension Through Silence
Good user interviewers make their participants comfortable, encouraging them to open up and share more.
Great interviewers also make users feel comfortable, but then at a critical point when they sense there is more to learn, they go silent — sometimes for as long as 90 seconds. The silence adds a little tension. The interviewee is uneasy and thinks there must be something more I’m expected to say. As a result, they feel compelled to fill the void and often volunteer information they might hold back or even say something they didn’t want to share.
Warning: This is not an opportunity to trick a customer or catch them in an aha moment. It’s about drilling down deeper. You may get the surprise that Hector Tobar talked about when a customer blurts out something totally unexpected. If that’s the case, you need to ask permission to use that information.
5. Use Recordings to Create Company Knowledge
Good user interviewers record the conversation so they can refer to it, check their notes, verify the accuracy of a quote, and expand their knowledge.
Great user interviewers record the conversation. But beyond their personal use, they have a more holistic view and recognize that recordings are the repository of company knowledge. They treat each user interview as a learning opportunity for the whole team — including future employees. As a user interviewer, you want to expand your entire team’s knowledge.
6. Keep Your Objective in Mind and Come Away with Even More Questions
Good interviewers are empathetic and try to put themselves into the customers’ shoes. They work so hard to build rapport that sometimes they lose sight of the goal of the interview. The result is some interesting insights but nothing beyond which to build future inquiry.
Great interviewers know that there is a job to be done. So, with their goal in mind, they carefully rein in open-ended conversations from going off point. You’ll know that an interview is great when you come away with many insights AND a lot more interesting questions. This is what makes the great interview so valuable — especially when you end up with questions you might never have considered.
7. Keep Notes to a Minimum
A good user interviewer takes detailed notes and shares them with the team.
Great user interviewers focus more on the conversation. They know the interview is being recorded and limit their notes to new ideas that come out of the interview and reminders about the context for an idea that they don’t want to forget. They probably even use an AI note-taker.
Great interviewers also know the power of video for capturing an interviewee’s mannerisms, facial movements, and general comfort level. The visual is part of the context for the narrative that you can’t capture in notes. There is nothing more impactful than watching your customers talking about the challenges they face. You can share whole interviews or clips from several interviews that highlight a key point.
8. Focus on the Narrative
Good user interviewers know that any quantitative data from interviews is not statistically significant. But, at the same time, they try to understand the parity between the qualitative data and any quantitative data — either coming out of the interview or from earlier surveys.
Great user interviewers know that statistical significance is not the goal but focuses on finding and validating the narratives. They know that the story…the narrative…the qualitative data are what matter when doing research. And most quantitative data are only meaningful when you’re surveying tens of thousands of people.
9. Understand the Structure of an Interview
A good user interviewer recognizes that an interview has a beginning, middle, and end like a story.
A great user interviewer knows that interviews have a beginning, middle, and end for a reason. For one thing, they’re opportunities for iteration. You can return to a question for follow-up and maybe a deeper answer. You can use the conclusion to wrap up and verify what the customer said. And since you should use the beginning to make the interviewee comfortable, save your most important, most penetrating questions for the middle — when the customer is at ease — you’ll get a better answer.
10. Learn to Listen
A good user interviewer pays attention, makes good eye contact, and doesn’t fumble with script or notes.
Great user interviewers don’t merely listen closely; they are paying attention to engage a customer in conversation and ask follow-up questions. So learn to listen and be as inquisitive as a little kid asking, “why?”