Conducting interviews with your customers or audience can be extremely valuable to developing your products, services, or brand. Conducting interviews doesn’t have have to be complicated or difficult, and keeping in mind a few best practices will help you feel confident in your ability to get get the most out of every conversation.
Why are interviews valuable?
Interviews are a valuable research method in your toolkit. They allow you to gain an in-depth understanding of your customers’ needs, motivations and attitudes. Speaking to your audience one-on-one often provides the opportunity to understand not just the motivations, thoughts, and opinions of your audiences, but they help you to identify the kind of language your audience uses when addressing the problem you’re trying to solve.
Conducting interviews allow you to uncover behaviours, thoughts, and motivations that you had not anticipated prior to speaking to your audience. The fluid and conversational nature of them also allow you to ask follow up questions and dive into areas or topics you haven’t had the opportunity to explore using quantitative research methods.
When would you benefit from conducting an interview?
Interviews are a semi-structured conversation with a customer/user to uncover insight about their needs, motivations, attitudes, pain points and behaviours. They are considered a qualitative research method, and you often can gain a lot of deep insight from just a few participants. If you are trying to better understand your audiences’ problems pertaining to your area of expertise, or if you want to better understand the language they use to talk about their problems (so you can use the words they use when explaining the benefits of your product or service), than conducting interviews may be beneficial.
You can learn more about whether conducting interviews are the right research method for you in my post: How to choose the best research method for your project
How do you decide who to speak to?
Understanding who to speak to (and then finding them) can be difficult. It’s easy to want to just speak to friends, colleagues, or relatives, but if they are not your target audience, they might not be in the best position to give you meaningful insights. Plus, people you are close to often want to be supportive of your projects, and are more likely to tell you what they think you want to hear (which isn’t very useful!). Looking for people to speak to in places they tend to be, such as social media groups specific to your audiences or maybe even your email list if you’ve already got an audience base, can be really beneficial. You can also hire recruitment companies to recruit participants for you, which can often be done at not too much of an additional expense.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people is the right number of people to interview for a project. I try to speak to no less than six but upwards of twelve if I’m exploring a particular theme or problem or if I’m speaking to one particular type of audience. If you’re speaking to more than one audience type or diving into more than one type of problem, it might be best to make sure you speak to at least 4-6 of each audience type.
So now that you’ve decided you should conduct interviews, and you’ve recruited a few participants to your research project, what should you do?
Best Practice Tips and Tricks on How to Prepare for and Conduct a Good Interview
Write your questions before you do the interview
Before you conduct your first interview, it is important to write out what questions you want to ask during the interview (this document is often called a discussion guide or interview guide).
Doing this is useful for a few reasons:
- During the interview itself, you don’t have to think of the best way to ask something
- You’ll make sure you get everything you need from each interview. There’s nothing worse than remembering a really important question half an hour after an interview has ended.
So, where to start?
It is important to start with an introduction.
This seems obvious but is the thing people are most likely to think they don’t need to write down. But there is actually a lot you need to communicate before you dive into your questions, so writing out what you need to say can be really helpful.
Your introduction should include:
- An introduction to yourself, anyone else in the room, and an overview of why you’ve asked them to speak with you
- What to expect during the interview. For example, will you be asking them to do an exercise? How long will the interview take? Will multiple people be asking them questions?
- Permission to audio/video record or take pictures, if you are planning on doing that. (keep in mind that audio or video recordings could have personally identifiable information in them, and you should treat them as such. Make sure to adhere to whatever guidelines, such as GDPR, when storing and accessing this information. You may also need to get explicit written or verbal consent at this point).
- Let them know exactly how a recording might be used. Let them know if it is only for research or if you’d like to use it for marketing materials. If you plan on using it publicly, make sure that you receive explicit consent for whatever purpose you intend to use the recordings for.
- Context of what you’ll be looking for from them during the interview. This is usually where you would reassure participants that there are no right or wrong answers and that you’re looking specifically for their personal experiences. It’s important to let them know that you want to understand their own unique experiences and opinions and that they do not need to speak for others or try to be representative.
- Reassurance that you are not the expert. Participants often feel worried about not knowing something, so it’s good to help them understand that you aren’t expecting them to be an expert. You also may want to let them know that some questions may start to feel redundant but that you are just ensuring that you fully understand their answers.
- An opportunity for them to ask questions. Make sure they are clear about what is going to happen, what you expect from them, and that this should be a comfortable and fun conversation!
How to Structure your Questions
Everyone’s discussion guides will be different (because no one will have the same research questions as you!), but there are a few guidelines that will ensure you’ll get the most out of your participants during your interviews.
- Start with some easy questions to make your participants feel comfortable. Ask the participant to introduce themselves and ask an easy and semi-related question to get them warmed up and used to speaking about themselves. You may not get anything too relevant about your product or service from these first questions, but it will help the participant feel comfortable speaking at length about questions you do really care about.
- Ask open ended questions. Save your yes or no questions for surveys (or better yet, avoid them everywhere!). If you’ve found yourself writing down a yes/no question, think about how you can rephrase it as an open ended question. For example, avoid asking “Do you like riding bicycles on forest paths” and instead ask “Tell me about one of your favourite experiences riding a bicycle”. So, why is this important? If you ask the first question “Do you like riding bicycles on forest paths?”, participants may answer yes. But how much do they like it? What do they like about it? Maybe they only sort of enjoy that but would prefer to ride in cities. All of that is hidden from the answer “yes”. But if you ask them to explain their favourite experience of riding a bike, you will get a variety of information, and a more honest understanding of what is important to them.
- Ask broad questions first before diving deeper into particular topics. One of the most difficult things about writing discussion guides is, you don’t know what you don’t know. There will always be an element of trying to anticipate what might be important to the participant, but to avoid this as much as possible, it can be really useful to start by asking very broad questions. This allows you to then investigate things your participants bring up that you might not have even realised was important. You can then start to dive into specific things as they come up in conversation, and conveniently your discussion guide questions will already be in the correct order.
- Make sure your questions are objective. We’ve all been asked really awful subjective questions, questions that you feel you can only answer one way. All it does is perpetuate an idea you already have, and that’s not why you are doing these interviews! Even framing a question like “what do you think about…” instead of “do you like….” will go a long way to getting honest answers from your participants.
In order to write questions that are not biased to only get what you want to hear, you need to first acknowledge what it is you expect to hear.
A good exercise to do while you’re working on your questions is to think about what answers you might expect from your participants. Write these down (but not in your discussion guide). This is an important exercise because you need to understand what assumptions and hypotheses you are coming to the interview with. In order to write questions that are not biased to only get what you want to hear, you need to first acknowledge what it is you expect to hear.
For example, maybe you’re developing an app that helps busy parents find safe carpools with other nearby parents. You assume parents are going to want this because they don’t have a way to connect with their neighbors who have children. If you go into the interview and only ask questions like “do you think this app would help you connect with neighbors who have children?” the answer is probably going to be yes. But all you have done is reinforced your own assumption. If you ask instead “What is the hardest thing about getting your children to their local activities?” you may get some interesting information that could help you pivot your current design!
Prepping for the Interview
Once you’ve written your discussion guide and scheduled your interviews, it’s time to prepare!
The first thing to do is to plan out how much time you think you are going to spend on each section of your discussion guide. You could do this by testing your discussion guide on a friend or family member and time how long each section takes. If it takes longer than you planned on spending with your participants, then you may need to cut out some questions. You can also go through each section and highlight the questions that are the most important, so in case you’re running low on time, you can skip the non-highlighted questions. This way you can be sure to get answers to your most important questions in every interview.
Tip: I usually spend some time before an interview reading over my discussion guide a few times. The more familiar I am with the guide, the easier it is to jump around if I need to. This allows me to keep the interview very conversational while allowing me to ask all the questions I need to.
The last thing to do is test any prototypes, websites, recording equipment, or anything you plan on using during the interview. You don’t want to waste precious time fiddling with technology!
Things to Keep in Mind while Conducting your Interview
It’s finally time to conduct your interviews! You’ve met with your participant and you’re ready to begin. You’ve read them your introduction and now it’s time to hear from your participant! There are a few things to keep in mind while you are interviewing someone.
- If it’s your first interview, let them know. Your participants are humans too, and ultimately you’re both there to have a conversation about something, so being as honest with them as you can is a great way to create a trust relationship very quickly.
- Only ask one question at a time. This can be tricky! Even though you’ve written out your questions, that doesn’t mean that’s how you’ll ask it. It is just meant to be a guide after all. However, it can be easy to get really excited. Try to avoid doing this:
“what did you like about X, what didn’t you like and do you think you’d use it in your everyday life?”
That’s a pretty daunting thing for a participant to try to answer! Instead, break these down into individual questions and give your participant time to answer each one separately. It seems like an obvious one, but it’s much easier to do accidentally than you think!
- If you don’t like how you asked a question, don’t immediately ask it again. If you say the wrong thing or don’t word a question in a way you wanted to, don’t panic. Take a breath and let your participant answer anyway. Maybe they understood what you were trying to say. If they didn’t, just ask your question again in the way you wanted to in the first place. This is really important because clarifying your questions halfway through asking them can be very confusing.
For example, here’s what you should avoid: “if you were walking down the street and you saw a sign would you want it to say X or Y, I mean, what would make you most likely want to read more about X if you saw it on a sign?”
That’s a lot to process for a participant and you’re guaranteed to get a confused answer. You want to do everything you can to make sure a participant doesn’t feel too confused. Further, if a participant doesn’t understand what you’re trying to ask them, or they give an answer that doesn’t seem related to what you were trying to ask, simply rephrase the question and ask it again.
- Try not to encourage your participants too much. People will often tell you what they think you want to hear (because people generally don’t like feeling like they are doing or saying something wrong!). If you keep saying “That’s a great idea!” or “That’s what I want to hear!” in an interview, they may change what they are saying to please you, rather than give you their own perspective. It’s difficult to have a conversation and not give any sort of feedback, however. Try to stick to more neutral comments like “that makes sense” or “I understand”.
- Be the most ignorant person in the room. You are trying to understand their experience – if you were an expert in their experiences, you wouldn’t need to speak to them! Try not to correct participants, it can make them feel self conscious and kill the dynamic of the interview. Even if you think what they are saying is wrong, instead of correcting them ask them to elaborate on their answer. You may get some really interesting insight that way. Also, don’t assume you understand what someone is saying – ask them to clarify something if you are unsure.
- And finally, have fun! Conducting interviews with your audiences is a great opportunity for you and your brand, and you should treat it as such!
What works for you?
Let me know in the comments below if you have tried any of the above methods!
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