User Interviews: How to Validate Your Idea Before Building

DECEMBER 15, 2021

When starting a new project you’re excited about, you may be tempted to begin development right away. After all, you’re employing Agile methods, and agile means you move fast and break things. You’ll just fix whatever you got wrong later. Right? Absolutely not!

To build a great product, you need to solve an important, high-priority problem. You uncover an important problem by speaking with potential users.

You may think that user interviews are an extra step that you don’t need, but a strong user research strategy is the foundation of great product development. Studies show that every dollar invested in UX research interview and analysis brings $100 in return - an ROI of 9,900%!

To create a high-quality product or improve an existing one, you need to empathize with customers. But understanding who your target audience is might not be enough. You need to know:

  • Their needs and visions
  • Their challenges and pain points
  • Their thinking patterns
  • Their motivation
  • Their experience

If you don't have detailed answers to these questions, you risk jeopardizing your project, resulting in end-users getting something unusable or even useless.

However, conducting a UX user interview is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance; there are several pitfalls you need to be aware of. To get started, let’s find out what user interviews are in the first place.

What is a user interview?

There are two essential types of UX research: 

  • Quantitative provides numerical metrics: how many people submitted a request; how many users left the site without ordering.
  • Qualitative answers "Why?", "What", and "How?" questions. For example, "Why did the user leave the site?"; "What apps/websites do you use regularly?"; "How visible is the button?".

A UX user interview is an effective qualitative method to determine how users think, what they believe to be true, what they want, and how they feel about a particular experience.

There are three types of user interviews to consider:

  • Direct. UX researchers ask questions strictly according to a list.
  • In-depth. Interviewers use initial answers as a jumping-off point and ask follow-up questions to dig deeper into relevant topics. 
  • Ethnographic. UX researchers observe users in their real-life environment while they interact with a product. Usability testing is a common form of ethnographic research used by tech companies.

You can use all three types to gain a deeper understanding of users’ needs, problems, and pain points.

A user interview is usually a 1:1 session, but it’s more than just casual chatting. Your UX research interview questions need to be purposeful, clear, and strategically outlined to get in-depth insights into users’ behavior, struggles, joys, and beliefs.

Poor user interviews lead to bad decisions that can cause the development process to go down the wrong path.

Validating with users early on can save you time, money, and significant headache.

The cost of fixing an error after development can be 100 times higher than fixing it during the early stages.

Now that you know what a UX research interview is, let’s find out what it is used for and when is the best time to conduct user interviews.

What are user interviews used for and when to conduct them?

UX research is worth doing if you have questions that need further investigation or you need to understand how your users think. You can also learn information you didn't know you needed to solve problems you didn’t realize existed.

You can conduct a research interview for a variety of scenarios:

  • To discover and learn about target user personas
  • To uncover your target audience’s pain points and issues
  • To extract valuable information from users about their experiences 
  • To build connections with users and develop empathy 
  • To get feedback before building your product
  • To involve users and stakeholders in the development process
  • To provide the development team direct insight into user pain points and give them the freedom to find creative solutions

User research interviews can uncover your blind spots and invalidate flawed assumptions by soliciting people's opinions and personal experiences.

You should always be gathering user feedback, but there are three phases when it is especially vital to conduct user interviews:

  • Concept stages - When you are developing a new concept and planning your roadmap, interviewing your potential users will help you uncover their problems, needs, and goals. This information will help you refine your vision and prioritize initial features.
  • Development stages - User research interviews will help you acquire valuable feedback on your early product to inform improvements, functionality enhancements, and key gaps.
  • After-launch observing - You can conduct in-person or remote interviews and monitor how users interact with your solution. How users say they behave and how they actually behave are often different. Testing with just five users is often enough to find 85% of usability problems.

Depending on what stage you are in, your techniques and questions will vary. Yet regardless of stage, your user research is the foundation for creating a data-driven development process. 

Information from user interviews will inform many agile processes, such as roadmapping, feature prioritization, and writing user stories.

We asked Remedy Head of Product Igor “Iggy” Moliver, as well as a few friends of the program, to give us their favorite tips for conducting user interviews. 

Follow these nine steps to come up with good user interview questions and manage effective UX research.

9 Steps to conduct strong user interviews

When it comes to UX interviews, there are three key stages to consider:

  • Planning user interviews
  • Conducting the interviews
  • Analyzing results

Let’s go through these stages to learn the ins and outs of how to conduct a research interview.

1. Sketch out a user persona

Before conducting user interviews, you need to determine who your target user is. You can build a user persona using a combination of market research and your assumptions. User persona qualities can include age, socioeconomic status, industry, role, or social interests.

“You need to have a sense of who your user is to narrow your focus for the interview,” says Iggy.

You need to find interview participants that match your user personas so that you can uncover their greatest pain points. It’s essential to keep in mind: you should only work on a product that is truly needed. 

There is no point in building a solution that solves a minor inconvenience or a problem that people don't realize exists. Keeping a strict focus on major problems for a specific user persona will help you assess your product’s viability. 

“User interview cohorts should reflect potential users and capture different user perspectives,'' says Iggy. “Start as narrow as possible. You may be tempted to say ‘my product is for everyone’. Eventually, it may be, but it’s impossible to solve everyone’s problems with an early product.”

2. Construct your interview

Build the interview from simple to complex questions. You will want to establish a foundation and personal rapport before getting to difficult questions.

The first thing to start with is to make a list of questions for your interviewee. The list of questions depends on many factors: the stage of product development, your target audience, their professional activities, etc.

Here are a few examples:

  • How do you make decisions in a specific situation (e.g., logging in, adding an item to a cart, interacting with customer support)?
  • How have you been able to solve a problem in the past?
  • Describe how you currently do a certain task.

UX research interview questions help uncover subject areas and experiences:

  • Please describe the day when…
  • Please tell me about the moment when...
  • What would you like to change about the product if you had the opportunity?

It's also worth having a list of follow-up questions ready. Examples: 

  • Please tell me more about this.
  • Can you give an example?
  • Why do you think so?

Test the interview with your colleagues to see how they would answer your questions. You may realize that some of the questions don't work as expected. Before conducting a full-fledged interview, start by setting up a meeting with one user. You'll know right away what's worth improving.

Don't forget about scheduling breaks for yourself. Interviews take more energy than you might think. If you have a lot of respondents, don't set up one meeting after another. Otherwise, the quality of the interview and the information you gather could be greatly diminished.

3. Create a user interview template but be mindful of potential follow-up questions

User interviews should follow a uniform order to get a consistent sample. Keep core questions and order the same, with the exception of follow-up questions.

To keep the conversation flowing in a logical order, think about the best way to sort your questions. Create a user interview template to help you guide the conversation. 

The template should spell out several well-crafted questions, but remember it is a guide, not a rigid blueprint. The purpose is to simplify the research process and allow you to focus on making interview participants feel comfortable enough to open up.

Most importantly, be sure of what you want to get from the interview. 

Republic VP of Product, Matt Hamilton is not a fan of having an interview script or following a specific question order.

“Instead, I will have a list of things I’m looking to learn from the interview. I ask questions in the best way that keeps the interviewee as comfortable with being honest as possible.”

You certainly don’t want to let a script get in the way of asking follow-up questions.

“If you get a surprising answer, dig deeper,” says Matt, “Many researchers will just move on to the next question, missing the opportunity to get to a deeper insight because they are too focused on the script and not the conversation.”

4. Use open-ended questions

Open-ended questions encourage your interview subject to speak liberally. You should avoid multiple-choice, yes/no, and leading questions.

“Folks often ask leading questions to self-reinforce their own assumptions,” says Notus CEO Yuliya Belyayeva, “Start the first batch of interviews with more open-ended questions and get more granular on what you’d like to find out.”

Let’s have a look at how different types of questions can affect the quality of your interview:

  • Do you enjoy using the app?
  • Yes.
  • Do you use it often?
  • No.

No data. No story. No feedback.

And here’s how open-ended questions differ:

  • Tell us about your experience using the app.
  • I like using the app because...
  • Tell us more about the last time you used it.
  • Tell us, how did you develop your application?
  • How did you choose your development methods?
  • What factors caused you to choose this development method?

Iggy encourages interviewers to try to ask questions that elicit stories. ”You can glean great insights when people speak at length about their personal experiences. Help them open up and opt for what they want to talk about by asking additional questions.”, says Iggy.

5. Provide room to speak

Do not interrupt your subject, even to agree or encourage. If your subject hesitates or pauses, resist the natural urge to fill the silence.

“This is a rare situation when I discourage active listening,”  says Iggy. “You don’t want to do anything to break your subject’s flow. You never know where they will go with their answers.” 

A user interview can be counterintuitive to the polite or agreeable conversations most of us prefer. 

“Instead of switching topics when there is an uncomfortable answer, that is the best opportunity to learn the true underlying emotions driving a certain behavior,” says Matt.

To make his point, Matt outlines a scenario where you may be trying to understand what might drive users to adopt a new budgeting feature. The subject may give an answer like, I’ve always been terrible at budgeting so it just doesn’t work for me.

“You could accept that as an answer, since they’ve exposed a weakness and seem to want to move on,” says Matt, “but you’d miss the opportunity to learn truly why they view themselves as bad at budgeting, and what opportunities there are to help them feel differently.”

You can use this seemingly uncomfortable moment to dig deeper by following up with questions like “how would you feel if you were better at budgeting?” and “What about budgeting are you terrible at?”

6. Remain neutral

Do not influence your subject through nonverbal communication. Remember, the respondent's opinion is the only right one, so listen.

Any disagreement with the interviewee’s position can cause them to shut down. If you show excessive joy and approval, this too can affect subsequent answers.

Your interviewee will see that the answer is "right," "the way it should be," and should be kept that way. They may embellish stories or make things up, just to please you or to not look wrong.

7. Create room for follow-up

As you conclude the interview, ask your participant if you can follow up with additional questions to fill in the gaps.

Having built rapport, you can engage your subject beyond the interview. Iggy is a proponent of utilizing the moment to grow your community.

“This is an excellent opportunity to source for your beta user group. Testers are an indispensable development resource that will help you identify gaps at the early stages and avoid further issues with the final product adjustments,” suggests Iggy.

You can also answer your respondent's questions. At this point, you can better understand your interviewee, and they will trust you more in case you did everything right.

8. Broaden your interview group

Ask your subject who else you should speak with about this topic in their network. 

“Use this as an opportunity to source subjects beyond 1st and 2nd-degree connections,” suggests Iggy.

The more potential users you can interview, the more data you can get. But when you stop getting new valuable data, you can move on to full-fledged analysis.

9. Conclude your user research interview

Thank your subject for their time and efforts, and provide any context you would like them to have that you left out at the beginning. After the participant leaves, be sure to read through your records and note the points you think are most crucial.

You are finally able to reap the benefits of these user interviews when you conduct post-interview analysis. It begins by writing out the answers of the interviewees and highlighting their key points. From here, you need to go through a process of looking at different trends throughout the responses. 

What ideas are common across different individuals? What clear differences are there, and why might they be answered so distinctly? What pain points and needs stand out the most? 

Once you have the interview responses organized, you can then compare your initial market research with this analysis to seriously move forward with the following steps, like scoping your product.

User interviews ultimately provide you with the personal insights you genuinely need to turn your dreams into a tangible product!

UX interviews best practices and tips

Interviewing users is not that simple, it takes a lot of learning and practice. Having well-prepared scripts and templates can make this task easier for you. Here are a few more useful tips to enhance the interview process.

Start your interview with warm-up questions

Before diving into the topics you want to cover, ask a few friendly and straightforward questions. These warm-up questions need to be related to the general session topic, but they shouldn't be too specific, making you think about the answers.

  • What do you do for a living?
  • Can you tell us about your hobbies?
  • How often do you use the computer at home?
  • How often do you use healthcare apps?

Stay friendly

When conducting interviews, it is important to show gratitude and openness.  Make it clear that you are there to help users by being honest about their pain points and needs and that they are encouraged to ask clarifying questions or provide additional details.

It is vital to keep a friendly conversation flow while following the basic outline structure of questions so that you can get honest responses without losing out on the necessary points.

2 Interviewers at a time

If you have the opportunity, have at least two interviewers in place. One will take notes and the other will hold user interviews. Thus, your UX researchers can focus on their personal tasks and ensure no critical details are missed.

Audio and video recording

Always try to write down key responses on paper and ask for permission to record your interviews. An audio recording will allow you to re-listen all previous interviews without missing a single phrase. 

You can focus solely on the interview instead of being distracted by additional activities. Plus, you'll be able to refresh your memories and find missing moments if necessary.

Interviews can also take place via online audio sessions, although a video interview where screenshots are shared can provide even more value at later stages.

Pay attention to details

Pay attention to your interview subject's mood and reactions to your questions or certain situations. Emotions, tone of voice, and gestures play an essential role as well. These details can help you better understand your interviewee and defuse the tension when necessary.

Wrapping up

User interviews are highly effective for instant feedback and first-hand insights into users' pain points. The experience of one user does not necessarily apply to the rest. Still, you can extract essential information that will allow you to solve major users' challenges and build a customer-oriented product.

To get the whole picture, combine user interviews with other types of UX research, both qualitative and quantitative. Organizing and distilling the information is an important skill set that we’ll cover in future articles about user interview analysis, mind maps, and user stories.

In our next article we'll provide a user research template and illustrate these research tips with a user interview our team recently conducted for a dev tools product. If you still have any questions left or you need professional advice on how to conduct user interviews, don't hesitate to drop us a line.

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