How to conduct user interviews for better UX

Steven Carr | August 3, 2021
UX researcher conducting user interviews

Whether you’re designing a new flow in your product experience or reimagining your site hierarchy, it’s important to collect user feedback to ensure you’re building the best possible solution for your users. However, there are many different methods for gathering your users’ perspectives. In this post, we’ll uncover why user interviews are one of the best methods for getting rich user feedback, when and how to conduct them, and how to extract the most actionable insights.

To get us started, let’s dig into what user interviews are. It may seem obvious to some, but there are subtle differences between user interviews and other forms of interviews.

What are user interviews?

User interviews are a form of UX research that helps you gather information about your user on a certain topic, including the use of a system or product, behaviors and habits, preferences, and the list goes on.

definition of user interviews

User interviews are more than casual conversations with users. In fact, the most successful user interviews are those that are strategically outlined to uncover information about a specific thing. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are some great ways to get started with user interviews: 

  • Uncover human insights from target users or prospective users
  • Question users during your discovery phase to get a deeper understanding of their behaviors, problems, and pain points, or to generate new ideas
  • Concept testing or getting feedback on early ideas in the development process
  • Test prototypes that are difficult to understand without context or where users may need extra guidance from the interviewer
  • Conduct in-depth research where follow-up questions may be necessary

The more familiar you get with the insights that come out of user interviews the more creative ways you’ll be able to apply them to your specific line of work or situation. 

In case it’s not already clear, let’s dig into why user interviews are so important in user experience (UX) design.

Why user interviews are a vital part of UX design

The exact meaning of UX design is widely debated, but we like to think of it as the process of designing (digital or physical) products that are useful, easy to use, and delightful to interact with. It’s about enhancing the experience that people have while interacting with your product, and making sure they find value in what you’re providing.

Now, there are a lot of ways to collect user feedback in order to ensure you’re meeting the criteria above for good UX. From surveys to customer reviews to support calls, each provides you with a level of user insight that’s better than none at all. However, in order to maximize the effectiveness of your feedback, it’s best if you can really see and hear how your users interact with your product. This is where moderated and unmoderated testing comes in handy.

When to conduct user interviews 

At the core, user interviews are a method for extracting user insights. But it can be tricky to know exactly when in the process is the best time to execute them. To go one step further, it can be difficult to pinpoint when a user interview or unmoderated usability test is the best course of action.

Let’s clear that up.

It helps to think of user interviews as a form of a moderated usability test or a real-time conversation that you’re having with a user. On the other hand, an unmoderated usability test isn’t monitored or guided, so there’s no one else present during the study except the user. In essence, the primary difference between the two is the presence of a researcher (or person conducting the interview).

Related reading: Which qualitative method is right for you?

when user interviews are most effective

User interviews work best when you need a high level of interaction between you and your user. For example, if you want to study a prototype with limited functionality, or a complicated process or concept, moderated testing provides you with the interaction you’d need to guide a user through the study. 

It's also an excellent way to understand the customer journey, discover pain points, and react to what interviewees say. User interviews allow you to observe body language and pick up on subtle behaviors and responses that you might not get in an unmoderated test. You can also give users more context when they seem to get stuck or confused. Interviewing users helps to develop a rapport and a natural conversation—which helps establish trust. This can lead to candid feedback that might not have been possible with other qualitative research methods.

How to conduct user interviews

User interviews can be conducted in-person or remotely, whichever is most convenient for you and your user. A major challenge with live interviews and in-person focus groups is the high cost—both in terms of time and money. Live interviews and focus groups take weeks or months to complete and most people need feedback much sooner than that.

To overcome these challenges, Live Conversation is an integrated solution that makes it fast and straightforward to conduct user interviews with real people. With self-service scheduling using the UserTesting on-demand Contributor Network, you only need one business day lead time to get the rich insights available via face-to-face conversation, without the hassle and time typically required to schedule and recruit for live user interviews. If you’re not a UserTesting customer, you can always schedule calls with your own panel of customers or users and hold user interviews over Zoom.

Nonetheless, every user interview you conduct is a conversation, but you shouldn’t simply wing it. These conversations are opportunities for you to gain a deeper understanding of your users and target audiences using open-ended and follow-up questions.

Here are a few things you can do before and during your interview that will help make your conversation run smoothly while helping you get the best human insights possible.

1. Compose a conversation script and questions

As with any conversation, the discussion should be organic and take its own shape. However, it’s still helpful to have a general script of what you’d like to say outlined and available, including critical questions you must ask. Having your questions and a general idea of what you’d like to say handy will keep you and your user on track. 

Pro tip: Use your script as the framework for taking notes during each interview.

2. Test your tech

Make sure all the technology you’ll be using for your interview is operational and updated in advance. Check that you and your user have a reliable internet connection and working webcam and microphone at the start of your user interview.

3. Have your materials ready

Make sure you have any visuals, links, or other materials that you’d like your user to interact with ready to share either via video or by sharing your screen. We recommend having any files, images, or browser tabs you’d like to share open on your desktop.

Tips for conducting user interviews

A live interview should be more like a conversation than a job interview with a fixed set of questions. Instead of eliciting a response through tasks or specific questions, you want the other person to feel at ease so that they share interesting and useful pieces of information about themselves.

Keep these tips in mind while you’re conducting your interview:

1. Keep it casual

Make your interview feel like a casual conversation. Start out by breaking the ice with something simple, such as “Hi, I’m Jane. How are you doing today?” or something similar.

2. Push through the initial awkwardness

Getting to know someone new almost always comes with an uncomfortable silence, a stutter here and there, or reading questions that sound like they were written by a therapist. Here’s the good news: feeling a little awkward usually means you’re on the right path. Don’t get hung up on the discomfort. Proceed with the general script and trust in your prep work. 

3. Let the conversation warm up

Allow a little time for your participant to warm up before you jump into a single line of questioning or pursue a specific topic. Asking your participant to share a little bit about themselves and offering up a bit about yourself in return will build a foundation of knowledge from which you can decide where to take the conversation.

4. Parrot your participants

A great way to keep your participants talking, without putting words in their mouths, is to simply parrot back whatever they just said. For example, if they say, “I dunno, this page just looks weird....” you can wait a few seconds and then say, “the page looks weird...” and just trail off without actually asking a question. This usually gives them time to gather their thoughts and helps reinforce that you’re listening to them, even if they may not think that they’re saying much.

5. Take five

A good rule of thumb is to slowly count to five in your head before responding to anything your participant says or does. This technique gives you an easy measure to ensure you’re giving a participant the right amount of time to respond.

6. Avoid leading questions

Leading questions can subtly and inadvertently persuade participants to provide the answer you hope to receive, but not necessarily the one that will provide fuller, more objective insight. For example, “What did you like about the homepage?” implies the participant must have liked something. Instead, leave questions open. Ask, “Was there anything you liked or disliked about the homepage?”

A final word on user interviews 

Much like anything else, getting good at user interviews takes time. However, the more you conduct the better you’ll get and soon you’ll start finding new and interesting use cases for them. Remember, designing user-centric products requires input from your users. Next time you set out on designing a new product or experience, consider how user interviews might help you uncover valuable insights.

Getting started with user feedback

If you're new to collecting user feedback, use this guide to make user insights actionable and incorporated throughout your design process.
About this author:

Steven is a Content Strategist at UserTesting. When he’s not inserting oxford commas where they belong, you can find him shooting pool at a local dive or building killer playlists on Spotify.