They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the field of user experience research, a quote is worth a thousand data points. While hard quantitative data provides valuable evidence of how users interact with a product or service, qualitative insights – especially in the form of users’ actual words – add unique texture to the numerical data. Good UX is all about empathizing with the audience’s problems and proposing solutions, but it’s challenging to empathize with numbers alone.

That’s where user interviews come in. Sitting across from real users (or representative users) and asking them a series of questions not only yields insightful insights, but also creates a deeper understanding of user behaviors, beliefs, and needs. Whether conducted at scale for developing personas and user pathways or as a one-off exercise to address specific workflow issues, user interviews play a vital role in designing products that genuinely resonate with people. 

In this article, we’ll explore what user interviews are and how to execute them effectively. 

The role of user interviews in research

User interviews are a UX research method during which real users, or representative users, are asked a series of questions. (“Real users” are ones who already use the given product or service, whereas “representative” users are people who fit the demographic or behavioral profiles of a product or service’s desired user base.) 

Interviews generate insights that can be used to inform the product development process in a variety of stages. There are a few variables to consider with user interviews, including where and how they’re conducted, but no matter what, the general process involves a moderator asking questions and a participant being given time to answer each of them. Afterward, you take the results of the interview – whether you conducted one or many – and synthesize them into broader findings. 

Among other possible outputs, user interviews allow you to:

  • Delve deep into an individual’s particular area of expertise

  • Generate behavioral insights

  • Ask follow-up questions

  • Build empathy with users

  • Probe areas of uncertainty

  • Identify pain points for users

  • Validate assumptions from earlier in the research process

It’s important to remember that all of these are qualitative in nature, meaning they work particularly well when paired with more quantitative analysis, whether via web analytics, wide-scale surveys, or broader user testing. Additionally, it’s worth keeping in mind that user interviews, by their very nature, produce self-reported insights, meaning that they are highly influenced by the user’s subjective experience. But if that’s what you’re after, there’s no substitute for making time to ask real people thoughtful questions. 

Read more: Qualitative vs quantitative research

When to conduct user interviews

User interviews

When compared to other phases of the product development and design process, user interviews are a fairly low-stakes and cost-effective way to generate usable insights. Although there are helpful tools, all user interviews really require is a moderator, a participant, and some recording equipment. For this reason, they’re a sensible pick for many phases of the research process. However, they’re most often used in the following contexts. 

Exploratory research

User interviews can be conducted as a part of exploratory research to better understand users' experiences, preferences, and behaviors. This can be helpful when entering new markets, developing new products, or targeting specific user segments.

Early stages of product development

User interviews can be conducted during the early stages of product development to gather user insights that inform the design process. This helps ensure that the product meets user needs and expectations.

Usability testing

User interviews can be used as a part of usability testing to observe users interacting with a product or prototype. This allows for real-time feedback and understanding of usability issues.

Iterative improvements

User interviews can be conducted to collect feedback throughout the product development process and during continuous product discovery. This iterative approach helps refine your product in real-time.

Types of user interviews

While at their core user interviews are pretty uniform – a moderator asking participants questions – there are a few variations to think through. 

The first variable relates to the structure of the interview:

  • Structured interviews

  • Unstructured interviews

  • Semi-structured interviews

The next variable relates to the purpose of the interview: 

  • Generative interviews

  • Contextual interviews

  • Continuous interviews

The last variable relates to the location of the interview: 

  • Remote interviews

  • In-person interviews

Let’s look at each of these interview types in more detail.

Structured interviews 

Structured interviews follow a predefined set of questions and a rigid format. The questions are designed in advance and are typically asked in the same order to ensure consistency across participants. This type of interview is useful when seeking specific information or when conducting quantitative research, as it allows for easier comparison and analysis of responses.

Unstructured interviews 

Unstructured interviews have no predetermined set of questions or a fixed format. Instead, they provide a more open-ended and conversational approach. As the interviewer, you encourage participants to freely share their thoughts, experiences, and perspectives. 

Unstructured interviews allow for exploration of unexpected insights and an in-depth understanding of participants' viewpoints. They’re particularly useful in exploratory research and when the interviewee is an expert on a given subject, in that it allows them to lead the conversation. 

Semi-structured interviews 

Semi-structured interviews strike a balance between structure and flexibility. They involve a predefined set of core questions or themes to be covered during the interview, providing a level of consistency. However, there’s also room for additional probing and follow-up questions based on participants' responses. This allows for deeper exploration of specific topics while still maintaining some structure. In general, this is the most common format for user interviews. 

Generative interviews 

Generative interviews focus on generating new ideas and insights, and are a generative research method. They aim to uncover users' needs, preferences, and aspirations by exploring their experiences and thought processes. They often employ open-ended questions and encourage participants to think creatively and share their ideas. These interviews are commonly used in the early stages of product development or when exploring new opportunities.

Contextual interviews 

Contextual interviews are conducted in a participants' natural environment or context, such as their homes or workplaces. (If you’re designing a cooking app, for example, observing people in their home kitchens could be invaluable.) Contextual interviews provide valuable insights into how users navigate their environments and help identify opportunities for improvement.

Continuous interviews 

Continuous interviews involve conducting interviews with participants over an extended period of time. This longitudinal approach allows you to gather insights and observe changes in participants' behaviors or attitudes over time. Continuous interviews can be valuable for tracking the impact of interventions or the adoption of new products or services, and they provide a longitudinal perspective that one-time interviews may not capture.

Remote interviews 

Remote interviews are conducted with the interviewer and interviewee in separate locations, typically using video conferencing or other online communication tools, allowing participants and interviewers to interact without being physically present in the same location. Remote interviews offer convenience, flexibility, and the ability to reach participants in different locations. 

In-person interviews 

In-person interviews are conducted face-to-face, where the interviewer and participant are in the same physical space. They provide additional opportunities to notice non-verbal cues, a more personal connection, and the ability to observe participants' body language.

User interviews vs user testing vs focus groups

Although user interviews are similar to focus groups, they’re distinct in that they only feature one participant answering questions. In a focus group, the presence of additional participants changes the dynamic dramatically: ideas are proposed and countered, a consensus can develop, and people can influence each other. A user interview, on the other hand, is entirely about better understanding one individual’s subjective experience. 

It’s also worth distinguishing between user interviews and user testing. In user testing, you observe the user while they interact with a product or service, often sitting behind them and taking notes. You encourage the user to narrate their actions and what they’re noticing, but in general your presence is minimized so that the user can operate without being directed one way or the other. This provides clearer information about how the particular user interacts with the product being tested. 

User interviews, on the other hand, are heavily interactive. As the interviewer, you’re encouraged to build rapport with the interviewee, and they’re often conducted before a product has even been designed. 

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How to conduct user interviews

User interviews

Ready to get started? In many ways, conducting user interviews is a straightforward and fairly logical process. Let’s consider three phases: before, during, and after the interview. 

Before the interview

1. Set goals

Check in with other stakeholders to set a clear intention for the interviews. Is it to generate ideas for new features for a preexisting product? Would you like feedback on a prototype? Are you hoping to understand some of the problems and possible use-cases with a specific audience? The more specific you can make this goal, the better.

2. Solidify the target audience

A random sampling of users may be useful in generating broad-scale feedback. However, if the purpose of the interview is to better understand a very specific audience slice – say, millennial women who work in large cities – that will change how you should recruit interviewees. 

Read more: Check out our guide on identifying your target audience and recruiting participants.

3. Write questions

If you’re doing a structured or semi-structured interview, the next step will be writing questions. For a structured interview, you’ll want to phrase these very carefully, as the entire point of a structured interview is minimizing the variability of the interview experience. With a semi-structured interview, it can be helpful to write clusters of questions around individual topics. Consider putting questions of higher importance in bold, or otherwise marking that they take high priority and should be fit into the interview.

Read more:

4. Consider location

Interviewing in your own office can bias the user to be more favorable, whereas interviewing them in their own environment can yield insights about how they go about their day-to-day tasks. For a remote interview, consider your background and presentation, and additionally whether there are any requirements about where the user is.

Read more: Check out our recommendations for the top online interview scheduling tools to make organizing user interviews easier.

5. Test tech and prep materials

Every interviewers’ worst nightmare is conducting a full user interview and finding that for whatever reason it didn’t go well – the recording technology didn’t work, follow-up questions fell flat, etc. Before sitting down with the user, double-check all technology and tools are working as expected. 

During the interview

1. Build rapport

While it’s not your goal to become the user’s friend, building some rapport by making light small talk can help them open up. Start with a few softball questions – as simple as what they’ve been up to that day – to get them talking, and share a little about yourself to minimize the clinical nature. 

2. Practice active listening 

Make eye contact, nod at answers, and provide light verbal affirmation that you understand and empathize with their responses. Don’t interrupt interviewees and allow yourself to become very comfortable with silence, as these can be moments in which they’re processing a new thought. 

3. Manage time

Make sure you’re getting to all of your questions in the time allotted. This is particularly important in a semi-structured interview, in which some questions may be essential but tangents can be encouraged. 

4. Take notes and record

While automated recordings are helpful, jot down additional notes, including interviewee mannerisms and areas you may want to circle back on. It might be helpful to invite an observer to sit in on interviews and assign them the role of notetaker.

After the interview

1. Transcribe and organize

Automated transcriptions are common these days, but if those services aren’t available, listen to the recording and write down notes and direct quotes. Keep all of these notes organized. In structured or semi-structured interviews in which multiple interviews provide answers to similar questions, a spreadsheet can be helpful. 

Read more: Check out the best UX research tools to help you streamline your work.

2. Identify patterns

After all the interviews have been transcribed and organized, read through everything to identify patterns. Is the sign-up process particularly onerous for new users? Has a potential new audience segment revealed a particular branding preference? Highlight all of these findings.

3. Present findings

Go back to the original goal and extract the most relevant insights. If users were testing a prototype, this may be clustered into major positives (“Users loved the search function”) and negatives (“Users found the layout busy”). If this is a more exploratory project, it could be highlighting problems potential users need you to solve (“Shopping for complex ingredients stops users from attempting complicated recipes”). And if this an ongoing, longitudinal interview, it could be a recent trend (“Longtime users find the app isn’t updated enough”). Put all of these findings in whatever format is appropriate for your colleagues – perhaps a one-page brief or a presentation – and deliver the goods. 

Organize user interviews with Lyssna

User interviews

Interviewing is a skill like any other: it gets easier with repetition. Some people are naturals and occupy the “interviewer” role easily, while others take a few reps to get used to it. Eventually, you’ll find your interviewing style. This is a valuable skill across teams, and worth developing, as the insights and rewards generated by these conversations can be widely applicable across projects.

At Lyssna, we enjoy helping our customers conduct remote tests and gather valuable feedback to enhance user experiences. Now, we’re excited to add user interviews to the mix. We’re constantly striving to improve the UX research process and know how important it is to reduce manual processes and have access to all the user research tools you need in one place.

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Frequently asked questions about user interviews

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