Talking is one of our most primal and basic functions, yet when presented with an interview or data on a computer screen, more and more people are choosing the impersonal interaction.
User research has always held a high place within design but it now has come to the forefront with more people competing for customer attention. While a number of user insight approaches exist such as A/B testing, heat mapping, and expression tracking, these all tend to get overly complicated and are better suited for later in the design process. They also rely exclusively on technology to solve a non-technical problem that is understanding what your users feel.
With so many alternative research methodologies, why bother actually talking to your customers at all?
Because people inherently don’t trust a screen but will open up to an empathetic stranger in a matter of minutes. The need for interviews stems from the complex nature of people being people and the fact that we can’t always be defined by numbers or predicted by patterns.
Forget Your Assumptions; YOU ARE WRONG
Research methodologies were born out of the sciences, they were designed to provide validation on hypothesis, concepts, ideas, and statistics. Due to this, most questions result in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers which provide a direct response to the hypothesis but do not explore the emotions or journey that got the user there. Unfortunately, the answer to ‘why something works?’ is then based on a pre-determined combination of prior knowledge, demographics, and psychographics. Interviews, on the other hand, have the flexibility to be structured in a way that makes no assumptions and goes to the heart of what the customer is actually feeling.
During customer research for our stock 3D model company, we assumed that artists were purchasing stock 3D models to simply fill out their scenes. That stock models were not core elements of their designs. Through a combination of in-depth conversations and literally sitting at their desk asking questions while they worked, we learned that our customers weren’t using stock to simply fill out backgrounds, but as critical components of their designs. The majority of customers were actually using stock models as ‘mostly’ complete skeleton of their project, then modifying it to meet their requirements. We had been aware of this use, however, the research data we had showed that this wasn’t really a big use scenario. It wasn’t until speaking with 3D artists that we learned that the existing academic data we had was entirely superficial and didn’t really understand the job that 3D artists do every day.
During these conversations, it was revealed that since we weren’t the only platform for our customers to purchase 3D models, they would open multiple browser tabs to look at us and our competition. They would then search all platforms and buy the 3D model that was the closest to their needs. Our assumption was that they searched one site at a time and hunted around, spending quality time in our store. In hindsight – should have been obvious – we were blinded by our assumptions and missed something that helped us rethink how we shared our product offering – from site design to marketing positioning.
Fill in the Knowledge Gaps
One of the great advantages of in-person interviews is that they enable you to discover things about your product that you didn’t know existed, or was needed. This can come from suggestions by the user, from you discovering new lines of inquiry during the interview and sometimes even when the user misunderstands a question. Discovering something that you aren’t looking for it is part of the conversation that always brings a new perspective and avenue for exploration every time.
Users = People
Interviews can be really hard on your ego, especially if you have staked your hypothesis on your assumptions. This is because your assumptions are about to be tested. You are now able to check if the personas you have created are actually representative of your audience or if you are introduced to a new group of users who you hadn’t considered before. You are able to connect with these people and understand the challenges they face not just with your product but also in their life. This is where empathy comes in, to make the emotional connection between your offering and the user’s problem. Ultimately, it enables you to better integrate your product into their lives.
So if interviews can reveal far more intent and understanding than other research methodologies, why aren’t more people conducting user interviews and why do most interviews end up being a waste of time?
Assumptions Instead of Goals
One of the biggest mistakes made while planning a user interview is not defining the purpose of the talk. Without clarity on why you’re talking with users, the whole exercise turns out to be futile as there is no set direction and it ends up becoming a generic mess of nothingness. You’re not a reporter doing a human interest story, you have a specific reason for requesting someone’s time.
There is no need to get into the weeds here, you just need to define the problem that you are trying to solve. If you can’t put it in a single sentence then you should probably keep refining it, because everything you do after will have to be validated by whether it helps you reach the stated goal.
Less Specific, More Open Ended
When you have your goals clearly defined and expectations established, it’s now time to develop the framework of the interview. There is no need to develop a detailed set of questions as these will add too much structure to the conversation which can choke off spontaneity and new discovery. While this sounds unstructured (it somewhat is), the worst thing you can do is to wing it; it doesn’t work. You eventually end up losing track of what you needed and everything looks like a great insight, it is only later that you realize that nothing of value was gained from the interviews.
The interview framework should be divided into sections based on the main questions that need answering and it should include follow-up questions to enable you to dig deeper into the ‘why’ of your user to understand what they’re feeling. Using a defined framework and accepting an unstructured approach that will be contained within the established framework will open more doors to insights you and your team might never have thought of.
While it is important to get to the bottom of why something works/doesn’t work, you really don’t want to annoy your user by asking a follow-up question to every answer. You’ll need to strike the right balance between getting to the core of something and getting thrown out.
During your interview, it is inevitable that you will have the realization that you missed something of real importance. This makes adaptability a very important tool; you need to be willing to throw out the framework and explore this new revelation. As we discussed with Journey Mapping, you can treat the first few interviews as trials and revise the framework based on the feedback. This will not only help make the framework more complete but also help structure it based on the flow of the conversation.
While we all agree on the value of these user interviews, how do we get users onboard to spend their valuable time talking to us about our products?
Sadly, design isn’t a major concern for society, most people don’t really think about it until something doesn’t work and then all hell breaks loose. There isn’t enough time in an interview to educate the user on the design thinking process and quite frankly, they probably don’t care. However, what needs to be done is to convince the user that having these conversations results in a better product for them. The user only needs to understand that since they are the ones using the product, they are the best people to suggest how to improve it.
A conversation would be useless if the user doesn’t open up and answer the questions candidly; a disengaged user will give answers that they feel are the most unlikely to generate follow-up questions. To start, you’ll need to ‘warm up’ the interview by starting with general lines of inquiry about topics the customer is comfortable talking about before you jump in and make it about your product. This will ensure that when the ‘why’ questions approach, the customer already has the momentum going for them.
It is easy to lose focus during these interviews because external distractions can come up and the fact that the customer might go off on a tangent can easily pull both of your focuses away. While this can be great to develop a better overall understanding of the customer, spending too much time on non-core issues is counterproductive, it could even dilute the research.
As mentioned with Journey Mapping, have two people conduct the interview along with audio and video recording. This way one person can lead the conversation giving the customer their full and undivided attention while the other can take detailed notes. In case of a single person, it’s best to allow the recording equipment to keep track of the conversation while you lead it, building the rapport and learning about your user’s problems.
While interviews are a great way to gain insights, without proper care and attention they end up being a gimmick and a waste of everybody’s time. Interviews are a design exercise in their own right and they should be treated as such. So instead of just conducting interviews next time, design them.