Formulating the questions
Interviewing users require a lot of effort and planning. Depending on how extensive the research is, you might spend several weeks preparing for the sessions, several days talking to your users and several hours capturing and organizing your notes. You want to make sure all that effort won’t be thrown away because you didn’t take the time to properly plan your questions.
Start by defining broader themes
This may sound a bit obvious, but the first step is to really think through what you are trying to get out of the interviews. At this point, think about themes you are trying to uncover, not specific questions just yet. Make sure you are aligned with the rest of the team that those are the topics you want to touch upon when talking to users.
A few examples of what these themes may look like:
“Why do people shop online?”
“How do people shop online?”
“For your customers, what is the difference between online and offline shopping?”
Break down your questions to make them answerable
The themes above sound similar, but there are fundamental differences between the topics each one is trying to uncover. Make sure you align with your team on the broader goal of research; this can save everyone tons of time later in the project.
The examples above are themes, and not the actual questions you would ask your users — if you did, you would get answers that are just too generic or vague. The next step is to break down, for each theme, the specific questions you want to ask your users:
“Why do people shop online?”
“What types of product do you buy online?”
“What types of product do you avoid buying online? Why?”
“What do you like the most and the least about the checkout process?”
Don’t ask questions that will influence the answer
A common mistake when framing questions for the interview is to rush things out and try to get to the expected answers as quick as possible. When you walk in the room for an interview, there is a good chance you already have an idea about the answers users will give you — but don’t let that intuition get in the way of extracting impartial, unbiased results.
“How anxious do you feel when an online purchase can’t be completed successfully?”
“Try to remember the last time an online purchase couldn’t be completed for some reason. How did you feel then?”
Ask about specific moments in the past
Answers become less generic and more accurate when user are thinking about a specific time in the past when that situation happened. They are more likely to give you more genuine and detailed answers — and they will try pretty hard to remember that specific occasion. Make sure your question is prompting that moment in the past:
“What goes through your head when an online purchase fails?”
“Tell me what went through your head the last time you tried to buy something online and the purchase failed.”
Prioritize open-ended questions
Some users feel very comfortable in interviews, and will give you thorough and complete answers, even without too much prompt. But in some cases, users will answer only what is being asked. Not because they’re lazy or mean, but just because different people have different personalities.
To avoid unproductive interview sessions (or sessions that will end too soon), make sure your questions are open-ended. Give users some room to elaborate their answers, as opposed to making super binary questions.
“What was the last thing you bought online?”
“Tell me about the last time you bought something online.”
Learn how to ask good questions.
When you talk to users, your goal is to learn about them and their problems; to do that, all you have to do is ask! I’ve put together my favorite question-asking techniques below to hopefully kick-start your ability to do more user research.
This is my number one secret to asking good questions:
Don’t ask a question at all; instead, urge the participant to tell you specific information.
I call this question-asking format “curious commands.” Here are some examples:
- Tell me about…
- Describe a time…
- Share with me…
- Talk some more about…
- Help me to understand how…
- Explain what you’re seeing here…
- Show me what you would do next…
- Share with me what you were thinking…
While perhaps a bit “softer”, my personal favorite curious command is, I’d love to know…. I’ve found it to be a great conversation starter because it has a level of a kindness and empathy while still being direct about what I want to learn.
If you’re not feeling totally confident in your interview skills, curious commands help you project confidence and clarity. They say, “I am leading this conversation, and this is specifically what I want to learn from you.” If you seem confident and clear with your expectations, it helps the participant relax and start to have a more natural conversation.
Curious commands also help you ask questions that are short and easy to understand. When you’re nervous, it’s easy to ramble on and accidentally ask a question that confuses the participant (see double-barreled questions). If that happens, try rephrasing in a curious command format.
Asking questions that get the participant to tell you a story is a great way to learn how users think from start to finish.
For example, try to learn about how a user does something:
- Imagine you just got budget to hire a new designer. How would you go about advertising the job?
- Tell me how you would work with your hiring team on this job?
- Can you demonstrate how you use this website to check the performance of your job post?
- When you [are in this situation], how do you get started?
Or ask the participant to chronologically recount events from their life:
- Tell me about the last time you took a picture on your phone. What did you do first?
- When you planned your last vacation, how did you get started?
- Walk me through a normal day at work, from when you arrive to when you leave.
Storytelling questions have great bang-for-your-buck; you only have to ask one question to generate a lengthy response from your participant.
Discussion Guide: Focused Questions
● Be sure to gently segue from the opening
questions to the questions relating to your
research goals. For example, if you are looking
to validate the need for a pizza delivery app, you
might first ask about food preferences.
● To elicit specific and accurate information, ask
users about a specific time in the past when
they were in situation.
● Example: Describe what went through your
head the last time you decided to order a pizza
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