June 16, 2016
Getting candid and sincere feedback from people is much more difficult than you think. Conducting a good interview is hard. Leading one in a way that uncovers valuable insights able to shape the design of exceptional user experiences - well that’s harder.
With a background in ethnography - the study of observing, documenting, and analyzing behavior - I’ve learned it’s best to approach interviews from an exploratory and conversational perspective, where the more open-ended and informal the better.
Through examining the behaviors of successful researchers and the logistics that support a productive and pleasant exchange, I’ve complied nine steps that help produce a well-rounded, effective and rewarding experience for interviewers and interviewees.
Although interviews may be common in your life as a researcher, the experience is often rare and exciting for participants. Like a concert or a hockey game, a good interview should have an official opening that reassures participants you are following a professional standard, and allows time for everyone to collect their thoughts before beginning.
These “ceremonies” include small talk and the exchange of food. As Sam Ladner shares in her book, Practical Ethnography, accepting food or drink from a participant is highly recommended “because it is a way for him to welcome you symbolically into his home or office.”
Likewise, bringing a participant into your interview space is just as important. So respect the ceremony - offer or accept food, compliment the family photo on the fridge and pull out the informed consent form with a flourish.
Observe how interviewees react to your presence. Are they nervous, annoyed or passionate? Tailor your behaviour accordingly. Make an effort to help a nervous individual feel comfortable and aware that their feedback is valued.
A little self-deprecating humor can win over an intimidated person while matching someone’s enthusiasm with your own could help shed their inhibition for sharing something they are fiercely passionate about.
Being a good listener is a gift. Researchers who take a step back and intently listen will be far more successful. You must be humble - the interview is not about you or even how you relate to the subject matter at hand.
It’s about connecting with someone deeply and honestly. It’s about shedding preconceived notions and learning from being in the moment. And by talking less and listening more you may discover how pauses are effective tools that collect deeper feedback.
When someone gives an ambiguous or overly succinct answer it’s often easier to have them expand on it simply by remaining silent. In some circumstances, asking “can you elaborate on that?" or “please explain” derails their train of thought making them anxious that they’re underperforming.
Most people have a natural tendency to fill in silences so that they don’t become awkward. But don’t let these moments backfire by awkwardly staring or drumming your fingers on the desk. Take the pause as an opportunity to jot down a note, take a sip of coffee, or simply share a smile and a nod.
This is one of the biggest factors separating a good interviewer from a bad one. Be aware of the facial expressions you make when you’re thinking, when you’re confused and when you’re surprised.
If you squint, frown or appear disappointed in any way your interviewee will notice and may become defensive or less open with their responses, especially if they think you’re judgmental or disinterested. It takes practice to be conscious of your expressions. Try to look neutral but friendly, encouraging but relaxed.
Building rapport with people is essential if you want to capture their true feelings and raw emotions. Interviews should never create a power dynamic where the participant feels their feedback could be ignored or dismissed at the facilitator’s discretion.
Instead, work towards cultivating a teacher-student relationship where the participant is the all-knowing guru and the researcher - a receptive and impartial pupil.
The best interviews are when questions and answers start to flow and take on a conversational rhythm. Avoid academic wording and reading questions word-for-word off a script. Design your questions so that if an interviewee says something of particular interest, you have the freedom to explore that topic further.
Think of it as a structured conversation instead of an unstructured interview. This approach will let you discover different avenues and may reveal compelling patterns or insights that exceed the limits of a conventional interview.
This may seem counter-intuitive if the session is supposed to flow like a conversation, but good interviewers censor their own opinions and personal anecdotes in order to not influence responses. It’s a delicate balance that takes years to finesse but like your poker face, offering minimal input while remaining relatable and hospitable will produce thoughtful, candid - and most important - unbiased responses.
With ethnography, the ethnographer herself is the research instrument. An effective interview does not hinge on the latest technology and recording tools. Comfortable rapport is more important than any gadgets an interviewer may come armed with.
When connecting with people on a personal level, a computer is a distracting physical and mental barrier between you and the person you’re talking to. You may see it as a convenient and fast way to take notes, but it could reinforce their perception that you’re only interested in them as a potential dataset, not a person.
If you are using your phone’s recorder, place it face down and off to the side. Otherwise, leave the phone in your pocket. The best recording tools are simple and unassuming. A small notebook is far less obtrusive and will force you to listen rather than type away word-for-word.
Bear in mind that some interviewees will become anxious when they notice how much or little you write, and may even match their responses to what they think you want to hear. In some cases, jotting down a few doodles will maintain a conversation’s momentum and help assure them that they’re sharing valuable information.
The surrounding environment plays a big role in interviews and often dictates how receptive people are and thus the quality of the findings. If your interviews occur ad hoc or “in the field” try to find a quiet, public place nearby, which is the safest option for both the researcher and the interviewee in situations with no previous contact.
For second or third meetings the choice of location tends to be more flexible, but it’s important to remain thoughtful of your audience and choose a location that won’t be intimidating. Coffee shops are a great place for interviews: a free coffee and pastry functions as both an incentive and icebreaker. And ironically, background noise provides more anonymity for shy interviewees than a private, empty meeting room.
For sensitive topics, locations play a far greater role in the success of the interview. Talking about someone’s health, political and religious views or illicit behavior may require a private location to protect identity, like their home. If in doubt, always ask participants where is most convenient and comfortable.
You’ll need about 45 minutes to an hour immediately following an interview to collect your thoughts and clarify or expand upon any notes. This is also a good time to record similar observations or themes emerging from your research. Do this while the interview is fresh in your mind to not forget the little details - often those are the most important and most insightful.
Through the use of effective interviews, skilled researchers are able to reveal how products and services are perceived and why that’s the case.
Implementing interviews as part of your research process helps create a strong connection with your user base and is absolutely essential if issues are to be caught before they become problems, and if insights are to be leveraged into innovative and rewarding user experiences.