User interviews are one of the easiest user research methods to get started with. To make them effective, the flow and formulation of questions need to be right.

Album art for tango fusion music titled User Interview Blues, generated with DiffusionBee
Album art for tango fusion music titled User Interview Blues, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Getting deeper with well-formed user interview questions

User interviews are one of the most basic and widespread research methods used by design teams, and a great tool to get details and especially stories from users. These are the stories that help the design process, add context for user goals and needs, and also help to answer the key questions for research projects.

With all the excitement going on around using ChatGPT and similar tools for user research, like creating interview guides, it’s essential to understand the nuance of writing great guides and especially constructing questions that get the answers the team needs to progress. Since user interviews are such an easy method to do - we call up the user, talk to them, ask some questions, and take notes or tag the transcript afterward - people sometimes jump into them without training or understanding what flow and what questions produce the desired results.

When I write about interview questions I mean particularly what the researcher would ask from the users during the session. These are different from the research questions, the things the team is interested in. It’s important to make this distinction, since this way the team can make sure to learn about what they intended to learn about (the research questions) and learn in an unbiased way about the user’s perspective (interview questions).

To have an insightful interview, a good guide helps a lot. Guide something that helps the researcher (or whoever is leading the interview) ask the questions in a flow and format as intended, rather than guide as in something to be read aloud to the letter. Ultimately great researchers should be able to follow the guide while dynamically changing question flow as it’s better to get answers to the research questions - while keeping in mind that the questions are formulated in a specific way for a reason.

When constructing questions, there are a few points to keep in mind:

  1. A few easy questions at the beginning, this establishes space and gets into the rhythm of the interview for both the interview lead and the participant. Easy as in easy for the participant to answer, doesn’t go deep into the topic of the interview. For example “Tell us about what is it that you do!”, or confirming the screener details.
  2. For each larger topic, start with an open-ended question. These allow the user to tell stories and express their thoughts and feelings freely. For example, “Can you tell me about your experience with [product/service]?” or “What are some challenges you’ve faced with [activity]?”
  3. Use follow-up questions to drill down into details after the initial question for each topic. For example, “Can you tell me more about [specific point the user mentioned]?” or “How did you feel when [specific event] happened?”
  4. Ask about specific examples to get a better understanding of the user’s experience. For example when they’ve used the product or service or encountered a particular problem, “Can you walk me through a recent experience you had with [product/service]?” or “Can you give me an example of a time when [specific problem] occurred?”
  5. Avoid leading questions, these steer the user toward a particular answer - which might be the researcher’s perspective and not the user’s. For example, instead of asking “Don’t you think [feature] is great?”, ask “What are your thoughts on [feature]?”
  6. Consider the user’s perspective when asking questions. For example, “How would you like to see [product/service] improve?” or “What would make your experience with [product/service] better?”

The thing about guides and questions is that the first few interviews will often not get the desired results or desired depth. Iterations should help, rewriting questions, reorganizing question order, and leaving out or inserting topics. A good practice is to review the guide after each and make adjustments. While this will result in each interview having slightly different answers, it’s the stories that count either way.

Asking questions in the right flow and format also helps in making interviews less of an interrogation (“and my next question is…””) and more of a discussion. Interview flow comes from having a good few open-ended questions with follow-up questions reflecting on what the user was saying. To get good follow-up questions, the researcher needs to actively listen - this is one of the reasons that taking notes and leading an interview usually can’t be done by one person.

Getting deep insights and stories from users is also how the design team can communicate about user needs and generally raise empathy in the wider organization. Great stories can be used to advocate for working toward user goals and needs and can form the basis for further analysis and triangulation with analytical data. These kinds of stories are most likely to emerge from well-formed questions.

🥤 To recap

  • Practicing how to formulate great questions when preparing for an interview makes it more likely that all research questions are answered.
  • Stories are excellent to learn about context and details, and asking for examples is a good way to hear stories from users.
  • Starting with broad, open-ended questions to get a general idea, then narrowing and going deeper with follow-up questions gives a good rhythm to the interview.
  • As the topic gets clearer for further interviews, the guide should be iterated on by rewriting questions and restructuring flow.
  • Design leaders can advocate great stories from users, so those stories must flow from research done.

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🍪 Things to snack on

The best resource on user interviews, in general, is the Interviewing Users book by Steve Portigal. It has a chapter that goes into great detail about asking superb interview questions. Also, some fine tips on what to do between questions with topics like managing the flow of the interview, how to deal with silence, what type of questions to ask, and how to work with the user’s view (as opposed to the interviewer’s).

User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them is an extensive guide on the user interview practice by Kara Pernice with some great tips on constructing questions.

When constructing the questions for the interview, a good way to structure them is the funnel technique. Maria Rosala and Kate Moran write about this in The Funnel Technique in Qualitative User Research. On a high level, this means starting from broad and open-ended questions and drilling down to details with narrowing follow-up questions up until closed questions to get clear details.

Jobs to be Done interviews are a specific flavor of user interviews that is targeted to understand the reasons for users switching to and using a particular service or product, as Nikki Anderson-Stanier writes in The Jobs to be Done Interviewing Style: Who are our Users Trying to Become?. While similar to regular user interviews, there are specific questions to learn about the switching behavior, and the article lists a bunch of great examples.

We shouldn’t lose sight, that every research activity should focus on what outcome it’s supporting. Teresa Torres gives some idea of what questions to ask for a specific opportunity with story-based interviews in What Are the Best Customer Interview Questions?. Depending on the opportunity, the focus of the questions should be on a different part of the stories shared by the users.

Followup questions are how the researcher makes the interview flow like a conversation, as Taylor Nguyen writes in A beginner’s guide to asking follow-up questions in user interviews. Follow up questions can zoom in on the details or zoom out to focus on the context, with a third category of situational questions. The article list question types and examples for each. Also, there are some good tips on how to manage the list of follow-up questions by taking notes - not on what the user is saying, but on what needs to be asked still.

Dig Deeper on 1-1 Interviews with Insightful Follow-Up Questions is another great article on followup questions by Nikki Anderson-Stanier. There are some great tips here that help with figuring out how to ask great follow-up questions (Develop a sense of curiosity, Use active listening, Embrace the silence, Probe subjective or vague words and phrases) plus some concrete phrases a researcher can use to construct follow-up questions.

Depending on the research questions, asking “Why?” can be a helpful way to drill down and understand deeper reasons. Sometimes asking Why directly leads to false reasoning from the participants. Tia Loehnert wrote about asking why question alternatives in a non-research context in 15 Ways To Ask Why Without Asking Why, these can be used in user interviews too.

Leading questions are the bane of user interviews, one that leads to bias and false insights and ultimately to failed research. Amy Schade has some tips on how to steer clear of these in Avoid Leading Questions to Get Better Insights from Participants.

Slava Shestopalov describes some of the ways questions can go wrong in 12 Ways To Improve User Interview Questions. Some pitfalls are related to well-known issues (like leading questions, hypothetical questions, or closed questions), but there are a few more interesting ones. Selfish questions focus on the relationship between the interviewer and the product idea, rather than the user and the product idea. Stacked questions combine multiple questions into one. Some other nice tips on how to avoid vagueness, too general answers, and ambiguous amounts.