In this guide

The complete guide to user interviews

    The complete guide to user interviews

    The complete guide to user interviews

    Whether you’re designing a new flow in your product experience or reimagining your website, it’s important to collect user feedback to ensure you’re building the best possible solution for your users. There are many different methods for gathering and understanding your users’ perspectives. In this guide, we’ll explore one of the most widely-used and effective UX research techniques: user interviews.

    This guide will cover: 

    • How user interviews improve the product development lifecycle
    • The different types of user interviews
    • When to conduct user interviews 
    • How to run a successful user interview
    • How UserTesting can help you get the answers you need with user interviews

    To get us started, let’s dig into what user interviews are. Even though it might seem obvious, there are subtle differences between user interviews and other forms of UX research that are important to note. 

    What are user interviews?

    User interviews are a form of UX research that helps you gather user perspectives on a certain topic, understand how they navigate a digital experience, gain context into their behaviors and habits, and more. It’s a flexible tool that helps teams get to the why behind their product’s performance. 

    The most successful user interviews are those that are strategically designed to uncover information about a specific question. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some great use cases for user interviews: 

    • Uncover customer insights from target users or prospective users about your website’s messaging and navigation
    • Question users during the discovery phase of a product design project to get a deeper understanding of their behaviors, problems, and needs
    • Test prototypes that are difficult to understand without context or where users may need extra guidance from the interviewer
    • Offer concept testing to get feedback on designs that have reached the development stage
    • Have users compare your digital experience against your competitors to evaluate which they like best and why

    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 you need more persuasion, let’s dig into why user interviews are so important in user experience (UX) design and the product development lifecycle (PDLC) in general.

    User interviews: an important part of the product development lifecycle

    User-centric product design is the process of designing (digital or physical) products that are useful, easy to use, and delightful to interact with for users. 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.

    From surveys, customer reviews, and support calls, to metrics like traffic, conversion, and NPS, there are plenty of different data that can give you a level of human insight. However, in order to maximize the efficiency and impact of your PDLC, it’s best if you can really see and hear how your users interact with the product throughout its development. This ensures the product is tailored specifically to real human needs and is why user interviews are such an effective tool. Otherwise, you risk building something that no one wants or needs.

    Insights from user interviews can help your team:

    • Fill in knowledge gaps on what users need
    • Speak the language of the target user
    • Answer UX questions that are blocking progress
    • Pave the way to new ideas for features or products
    • Improve larger business decision-making and strategy
    • Validate hypotheses and align stakeholders around a design vision
    • Allocate resources to the right business areas and avoid rework

    Challenges of user interviews

    Now that we’ve emphasized the value of user interviews, let’s look at a few challenges that come along with this UX research method. 

    User interviews take time

    User interviews require careful preparation. Once the interviews have been conducted, they need to be transcribed, analyzed and organized for sharing amongst the organization. It’s important to have the right platform to streamline this process so that everything from interviewing to analysis can happen in one place.

    Moderators need training

    Interviewing is a skill and moderators need to be able to ask the right questions to properly engage with participants. It’s important to make sure your interviewers are trained in how to make participants comfortable, give them space to talk, and ask thoughtful questions.

    Participants need to be vetted

    Vetting participants is vital for any research project. While UserTesting can do the heavy lifting of participant recruiting, those without a human insight solution must be careful to recruit a group of participants that truly represent the user. It’s important to interview a wide variety of customers so that the data isn’t too narrow.

    When to conduct user interviews 

    At the core, user interviews are a method for extracting user insights. But it can be tricky to know the best time to use them. It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint when a user interview or a different approach—like unmoderated usability testing—is the best course of action.

    Let’s clear this 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. Unmoderated usability tests aren’t monitored or guided, which allows for faster, larger studies but can sometimes lack depth. Think surveystree testing, or card sorting. In essence, the primary difference between the two is the presence of a researcher (or person conducting the interview).

    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 in real time. Additionally, user interviews allow you to observe body language and facial expressions, and pick up on subtle behaviors and responses that you might not get in an unmoderated test. Throughout the interview, you can give users more context when they seem to get stuck or confused or dig deeper in your questioning to understand why they’re responding a certain way. Interviewing users also develops a rapport with them that helps establish trust. This can lead to candid feedback that might not have been possible with other qualitative research methods.

    User interview styles: Unstructured, semi-structured, and structured

    When conducting a user interview, UX teams typically employ varied levels of structure to their approach to get different kinds of responses. We can separate these approaches into three buckets: Unstructured interviews, semi-structured interviews, and structured interviews. While it may be surprising to hear that having less structure in an interview could be a good thing, there are specific use-cases for that call for each.

    Unstructured user interviews

    Unstructured interviews involve asking very open-ended questions without a strict outline or guide, allowing the user to direct the conversation. Interviews like these are useful for gathering extensive information and are ideal for identifying pain points and problems within a product area. In an unstructured user interview, it’s important to ask neutral, non-leading questions that might influence the user's responses. This type of interview can be challenging for those new to user interviewing as it lacks control over the type of information collected. Unstructured interviews are most useful at the beginning of a project during initial ideation while researchers or designers have limited knowledge.

    Semi-structured user interviews

    Semi-structured interviews strike a balance between structure and flexibility. Researchers create a discussion guide or test script to steer the conversation toward valuable insights for the design team, often including scenarios or tasks to prompt participant action or thought. While the discussion guide maintains focus, it also allows for unique and creative ideas to emerge. Semi-structured interviews are most effective when researchers are familiar with user personas and have a prototype for participants to interact with.

    Structured user interviews

    Structured interviews follow a fixed set of questions for every participant, aiming to control the type of insights obtained. These questions are often closed-ended, sometimes requiring multiple-choice or scaled responses. The main advantage of structured interviews is their efficiency and cost-effectiveness, making them suitable for gathering large amounts of comparative, quantitative data from many participants. Of course, their downside is that they offer little room for detailed explanations. Structured interviews are most appropriate towards the end of a project when the product is nearing release or has just been launched.

    Types of user interviews: Generative, Contextual, and Continuous

    The three most common types of user interviews are: generative, contextual, and continuous interviews. Each type of user interview serves a unique purpose in the design and development process.

    • Generative user interviews: Explores new insights and generates ideas early in the design process
    • Contextual user interviews: Observes and understands user behavior in natural settings to answer specific ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions
    • Continuous user interviews: Maintains ongoing user contact to gather continuous feedback, supporting agile and user-centered development

    Generative user interviews

    Generative interviews are primarily used to uncover new insights about user behavior, challenges, and expectations. They’re especially useful in the early stages of the design process, when the goal is to explore opportunities and generate ideas.

    These conversations are aimed at gathering detailed information to answer broad research questions. Unlike brainstorming sessions, generative interviews focus on gathering actionable insights through clear, specific questions. A researcher might ask a variety of participants about their daily routines and the challenges they face with existing products. This helps to identify unmet needs and areas for innovation.

    Contextual user interviews

    Contextual interviews provide deep insights into how users interact with products in their natural environment. They combine observation and interviewing to understand the context of user behaviors.

    These semi-structured interviews are conducted in the user’s environment, making the setting feel more natural than a lab or virtual interview. Researchers observe users as they complete tasks and ask questions to understand their behavior and reasoning. A researcher might shadow a user in their workplace or at home to see how they interact with a new software tool, asking questions about their actions and decisions throughout the process.

    Continuous user interviews

    Continuous interviews are conducted regularly to maintain ongoing contact with users and gather continuous feedback. This approach is valuable for keeping the design and development process aligned with user needs over time.

    By setting aside time each week to connect with users, researchers can gather ongoing insights. These interviews are open-ended, allowing for a broad range of feedback that may be more varied than focused research. A product manager might schedule weekly check-ins with users to discuss their experiences and gather feedback on new features, ensuring that the product evolves in line with user needs.

    By understanding and applying these different types of user interviews, researchers and designers can gather a comprehensive range of insights to inform and improve the user experience.

    13 tips for conducting user interviews

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

    1. Clarify your goals

    Before you plan on conducting any user interviews, it’s important to know what you’re trying to get out of the process. This helps guide your questions and the conversation.

    Maybe you’re looking to understand how customers feel about your site’s new design. In that case, you need to ask open-ended questions like, “What do you think of our new site design when compared to our previous version?” If you want to find out if participants find your checkout page to be intuitive, ask questions like, “How did you feel about the navigation experience of our checkout page?”

    2. 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. Use your script as the framework for taking notes during each interview.

    3. 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.

    4. Have your materials ready

    Prepare 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 pulling up ahead of time any files, images, or browser tabs you’d like to share on your desktop. And take caution to hide anything confidential.

    5. Test your interview questions

    Test your questions on teammates and ask for feedback on whether your questions are straightforward. Are you getting the answers you were hoping for? Do people understand what the questions mean? Your users’ responses should give you a clear idea of what needs to be changed or improved moving forwards. 

    6. 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?,” “Where are you currently based?,” or something similar.

    7. Push through the initial awkwardness

    Getting to know someone new, especially virtually, 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. This part will almost always get easier the more user interviews you have.

    8. Let the conversation warm up

    Allow a little time for your contributor to warm up before you jump into a single line of questioning or pursue a specific topic. Asking your contributor 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.

    9. Parrot your contributors 

    A great way to keep your contributors 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 repeat, “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 or adding much value.

    10. Take five

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

    11. Avoid leading questions

    Leading questions can subtly and inadvertently persuade contributors to provide the answer you hope to receive, but not necessarily the one that will provide fuller, more objective insight. There are many examples of leading questions you should avoid. “What did you like about the homepage?” implies the contributor must have liked something. Instead, leave questions open-ended. It’d be better to ask, “Was there anything you liked or disliked about the homepage?”

    12. Remove bias

    It’s easy to accidentally influence customers’ answers without intending to. Take care with how you phrase each of your questions to make sure you’re not accidentally influencing their responses. 

    The key is to collect valuable, actionable feedback that isn’t shaped by your organization’s expectations or agenda. So, always ask users open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that influence participants’ answers. 

    Read up on other examples of leading questions so you know what to avoid.

    13. Say thank you

    Make it a priority to thank your customers for their time, so they feel appreciated. You could also provide incentives as a way of saying thank you to participants. For example, you could automatically enter participants into an Amazon gift card giveaway. 

    How UserTesting’s Live Conversation makes user interviews easier

    User interviews can be conducted in person or remotely, whichever is most convenient for you and your user. A major challenge with user interviews and in-person focus groups is the high cost—both in terms of time and money. Traditional user interviews and focus groups can take weeks or months to organize, schedule, recruit, and complete. Most teams need feedback much faster to align with agile sprints and product development processes.

    With  UserTesting’s Live Conversation test format, the logistical challenges are removed making it possible to conduct fast, remoteuser interviews with real people to inform your product development with confidence. With self-service scheduling using the UserTesting’s diverse Network, teams only need one business day’s lead time to get the rich insights only aface-to-face user interview can provide—without the logistical hassle and cost associated with traditionalin-person user interview methods. 

    A final word on user interviews 

    Whether you’re new to user interviews or have been conducting them for decades, it’s a skill that can always be refined. Customer needs change with culture and connecting with your audience will always be an evolving process. 

    Following the steps mentioned in this guide will help you tie your digital experiences to a firm foundation of user-centricity so that you can create products that resonate. The next time you set out on designing a new product or experience, consider how user interviews with UserTesting might help you uncover valuable insights.

    Ready to give user interviews a shot?

    Run a free test right now or visit our template gallery to get some testing inspiration. 

    Frequently asked questions about user interviews