User interviews: beyond the basics

Field visits are unique in the way that they allow us to blend context, observation and interview: we're able to observe a behaviour, probe for the motivations behind it and then interpret our analysis with the customer in the place where the behaviour happens. But how do you go beyond the basics of a conventional interview and really understand the user's behaviour? Here are 5 characteristics that we've seen in great interviewers that led to deeper insights on our projects.

Good interviewers build rapport. Great interviewers realise that rapport involves more than meeting and greeting.

Rapport is the ability to be on the same wavelength as your interviewee — to make a mental and emotional connection. But rapport isn't just something you do when you first chat to someone over tea and biscuits. It's a continual process of building a relationship based on trust and understanding. To develop real rapport you need to see the world the same way as your interviewee.

One effective way to do this is to match your interviewee on both a verbal and a non-verbal level. On a non-verbal level, look at the interviewee's body language — their posture, movement, sitting position and gestures — and echo these behaviours. Time your mirroring behaviour so it's not seen as too contrived. Note that you don't have to do exactly the same as your interviewee: sometimes "cross matching" (making the same movement with another part of your body) is more effective.

On a verbal level, pay attention to the volume, tone and pitch of the interviewee's voice as well as the choice of content and words themselves. For example, does your interviewee tend to use the phrase "I think" in preference to "I feel"? Depending on your own preference you may have to adapt the way you communicate to mirror these terms. Using the same preference as your interviewees will make them think — or feel — they are more understood and valued. This in turn means you'll get richer information from them.

Good interviewers listen. Great interviewers realise that listening involves more than using our ears.

"Hearing" and "listening" are two different activities. Really listening to someone is an active process: it's about hearing what the person says both verbally and non—verbally. It's about listening with your eyes as well as your ears, observing and responding to the interviewee's body language. There are four key steps to active listening:

  • Begin by making a decision to become genuinely interested in what the interviewee thinks, feels and wants.
  • Then show interviewees that you are really attending to what they are saying through your body language: with an open posture and eye contact.
  • Next, listen for the meaning behind the words. What is the speaker trying to tell you? What do they want you to hear?
  • Finally, demonstrate you've listened to your interviewee by showing you are finding what they are saying interesting and encouraging the speaker to tell you more.

Good interviewers are sympathetic. Great interviewers are empathic.

Good interviewers may be sympathetic to an interviewee's plight but great interviewers use empathic responses to make people feel understood and valued. An "empathic reflection" is giving the speaker a verbal summary of what you consider he or she thinks, feels, and believes, without passing judgment. Empathic reflections sound like this:

  • "You feel...because..."
  • "I'm picking up that you..."
  • "So, from where you sit..."
  • "It seems as if..."
  • "I get the feeling..."
  • "What I hear you saying is..."

An empathic reflection allows you to validate your understanding and build a relationship with interviewees by demonstrating that you understand them. It also gives interviewees the opportunity to correct you if you have misunderstood them — one of the cornerstones of contextual inquiry. You may find this helps interviewees clarify their ideas, emotions, and needs. Using empathic responses also helps keep the conversation in the interviewee's realm by preventing you from asking too many questions.

Good interviewers are aware they might be biased. Great interviewers use their self-awareness to uncover blocks to listening.

Great interviewers are aware of two obstacles to active listening and use their self awareness to overcome these obstacles.

The first obstacle is your perceptual bias: the assumptions and beliefs that distort or block what you hear. For example, if you think an interface is awful, then you'll find yourself seeking affirmation and ignoring evidence to the contrary. Some common forms of perceptual bias include:

  • "Evaluative listening" or judging what's being said — you may tell people there's no right or wrong answer but you truly need to believe there's no right or wrong answer.
  • Seeking confirmation for your hypotheses or ignoring information that contradicts your hypotheses.
  • Being anxious or defensive about what the speaker is telling you.

A second obstacle to active listening is the fact that we all find some people easier to relate to than others. Building self-awareness of why you feel at ease with some people rather than others will improve your ability to be non-judgemental. This helps you stay empathetic and non-judgemental and ensures that you are less likely to display frustration, disagreement or criticism. To build this self-awareness, observe what's going on in your conversations: ask yourself, "What am I thinking and feeling right now in reaction to this person?"

Good interviewers note inconsistencies between what someone says and what they observe. Great interviewers investigate these inconsistencies.

You can learn a lot by offering a gentle challenge when you see a discrepancy between what interviewees say and what they do. For example, quite often participants in field studies will say they follow a specified process when carrying out a task even though you have observed them doing it a different way. Good interviewers simply make a note of the inconsistency but great interviewers will use a statement like, "You say you follow the process yet I noticed you seem to do things differently at two points." This helps you gain more information on the interviewee's experience.

Make sure you deliver your challenge in a genuine way, and not as a power game or a put down. The interviewee may not be lying to you; he or she may just have a "blind spot". A good challenge is specific and non-accusatory. The purpose of a challenge is to stimulate discussion and help both of you understand more about the situation. Note the use of the word "yet" in the example above: this ensures you deliver the challenge in a tentative way: as a hunch rather than as a statement of fact.

If you think a challenge might be confrontational, you can soften it by sandwiching it between positive feedback. For example, you could precede the statement above with the statement, "I'm finding our meeting really interesting," and then after the challenge say, "If we can discuss that, you'll help me even more."

Getting better value from your site visits

Most of us know the basics of good interviewing but basic interviews aren't enough to get the most value out of the short time we spend visiting end users at their home or workplace. Next time, try some of the techniques in this article and see if you get richer data.

About the author

Anna-Gret Higgins

Anna-Gret Higgins holds a BSc in Psychology and a PhD Counselling Psychology. She is a Chartered Psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Anna-Gret manages the usability testing team at Userfocus and has logged hundreds of hours in usability tests of public and private sector web sites.

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