How to run in-depth interviews

One of the main things I do as an ux-researcher is conduct in-depth interviews. Conducting interviews is a basic skill that will help with looking for pains in current products and formulating an improvement plan, as well as conceptualizing new products. Without interviewing, it is difficult to create and develop a competitive product.

This article will be useful for aspiring ux-researcher, product manager and product owner. I will try to cover the basics so the reader can get an idea of how to use this research method.

Types of in-depth interview

  • By purpose: narrative (understanding the market being researched), problematic (identifying customer pains in using a particular product), solving (determining the demand for the product);
  • By time spent: regular and express interviews;
  • By interviewee: user and expert. User — a person who uses the product. Expert — a person who is knowledgeable about the product being researched (bloggers, product sellers, product developers);
  • By structure: structured (the list of questions for the interview is determined in advance), semi-structured (except for questions determined in advance free communication with the client is allowed), unstructured (only general questions are determined, the interview is conducted in free format);
  • According to the number of interviewees: individual and group (for example, if we speak to the director of the company and the accountant at the same time);
  • By organization of the interview: personal, telephone, video communication programs, etc

In-depth interviews are not used to gather statistical information or test the interface. There are quantitative surveys for that. In-depth interviews are also not used to evaluate the interface of a solution, there is ux-testing for that.

In-depth interviews help make management decisions and are relevant at all stages of the product lifecycle. In the development phase, you can use interviews to find customer needs and validate the product concept. In the growth phase of a product, you can use interviews to increase satisfaction with the product, as well as look for related, unmet needs. In the decline phase, you can extend the life of the product by identifying pain points.

The algorithm for the in-depth interview

Identifying the stakeholders

Defining the goals and objectives of the research

Together with the goal, the objectives are defined — these are specific actions aimed at achieving the goal (conducting in-depth interviews, confirming the results of interviews on quantitative research, etc.).

It is not always possible to formulate goals and objectives by the customer of the research. UX-researcher, acting as an expert, should help in this.

Defining the target audience

For narrative interviews, it is worth looking for typical market representatives and enthusiasts (customers who demonstrate a strong interest in new solutions). Our task is to understand how they make decisions in situations where your product is useful. We need to find out what needs are important to them in this case and why these needs are not fully met. Skeptical customers may not give the information that will form the basis of a new product or improvement of the current one.

For problematic and solving interviews, you can single out your audience of interest by different criteria:

  • User experience (has experience using the product, has no experience using the product, has experience using a similar product);
  • Role in the company (e.g., manager, accountant, or analyst);
  • Working for an organization in a particular industry (banks, oil production, e-commerce);
  • Working for a company of a certain size (small, medium or large business).

Submit the target audience to stakeholders’ approval and move on to hypothesis formation.

Hypothesis Formation

An example of a hypothesis: respondents cannot calculate the exact time to get from the hotel to the airport.

A qualitatively constructed hypothesis has the following characteristics:

  • Brief;
  • Binary (can be confirmed or disproved);
  • Valuable for business.

In the next step, we will provide questions to test the hypotheses. The questions should help confirm or refute the hypotheses. There may be no hypotheses in the study, in my practice it happens quite often.

If there are many hypotheses, it makes sense to separate them into different studies. You can use ICE Scoring or RICE Scoring to rank the order in which hypotheses are tested.

Forming a list of questions

  • Read customer complaints and appeals;
  • Read customer opinions on review sites;
  • Study the product’s metrics (sales volume, NPS, CSI, etc.)
  • Talk with staff involved in supporting the product;
  • Read documents describing the business processes related to the product;
  • Review competitor product sites.

Once you’ve immersed yourself in the context, you can begin to form questions. Almost any interview can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Introductions — Introduce yourself and talk about how the meeting will go. At this stage, it’s important to establish a relationship of trust with the respondent;
  • Ice breaking — here you can ask abstract questions about the weather, the mood or something else. Our task is to get the user to start talking to us, even on a distracted topic;
  • General questions about the topic you’re researching — formulate questions in general, about the area your product works in. If you’re talking about a credit card, it’s worth talking about how the customer manages their money. Answering these questions will give you more information about the context in which the customer uses your product;
  • Questions about the product — Questions about the product itself should focus on identifying the customer’s pains, expectations and needs;
  • Hypothesis testing — if you didn’t get information on your hypotheses at the previous stages it’s worth to have questions that will confirm or disprove your hypotheses;
  • Summing up of the meeting — at this stage it is worth to summarize what the client told you and to provide follow-up questions.

If we know what we want to find in the interview, we can create a detailed list of questions and use follow-up questions to clarify details. If we do not know what we want to find (such as design thinking interviews), then the list of questions will be less rigorous. It is necessary to ask the respondent about the topic under investigation in a free-form manner and to ask clarifying questions in the course of the story.

The same principle of forward and backward funnels is used in composing the questions. “Straight funnel” is used for well-understood topics (use of technology, travel, work). General questions are asked first (to identify meanings, barriers, drivers) and then private questions (revealing details). For less conscious topics (quality of life, dreams), a “reverse funnel” is appropriate: first the private questions are asked (to create a context from which to draw), and then the general questions (explaining the motivation for the clients’ actions)

General guidelines for question composition:

  • Avoid “closed-ended” questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No.” The user should be motivated to tell life stories with open-ended questions;
  • Professional terms and acronyms should be avoided in questions unless respondents themselves use these words;
  • Use neutral coloring of questions. The questions should not lead the client to answer anything, for example: “Is delivery time important to you?”

The list of questions is agreed upon with the stakeholders, so that no conflicts arise between team members during the research process.

Recruiting users

We agree in advance who will recruit the respondents: stakeholders, a marketing agency or an ux-researcher. In case of a marketing agency, it is recommended to clearly define the goals and objectives of the research, the maximum possible duration of the recruiting, the number of respondents, the list of respondents’ characteristics, the time of the interview with the client, the format of the meeting (online or offline), the permission for audio or video recording, etc. On the basis of these components the cost of marketing agency services is calculated and it will be problematic to correct something in the future.

If you are recruiting clients on your own, you can use your existing client base or find the most suitable audience on specialized sites. Depending on the country, the list of such sites may be different.

When recruiting, it is important to convey to the respondent: the value of the meeting, information about the date and time of the meeting, the format of the conversation, information about the necessary equipment or software (if it is a remote interview). The day before the interview it is advisable to call and remind about the planned meeting.

Conducting the interview

If only the client speaks at the beginning, it may feel like an unequal exchange: the respondent gives more than the interviewer. So, take time for your own introduction, for example: talk about yourself, what you do, the purpose of the interview. To maintain a balance in communication, the interviewer can give the respondent: a good mood, a sense of importance, an express consultation on the product after the interview, a discount on the product.

It is important to remember that this is a new experience for the interviewee. You need to put them in their comfort zone to gain their trust. To achieve this, talk briefly about yourself, talk about the timing of the conversation, outline a list of topics you will discuss. Separately, you should say that you do not expect from the respondent socially desirable answers, you are interested in their opinion, regardless of whether it is positive or negative.

In the interview process, it is important to look for stories from the client’s life, not concepts. To get good results from the interview, you should ask more about the client’s actions, thoughts, and feelings. You can use the TEDW (tell me, explain, describe, walk me through) framework to get more information from the client.

Our goal at the end of an in-depth interview is to identify insights. An insight is seeing a situation in which the client demonstrates interesting behavior. After the interview, you understand the reasons for this behavior and see the need/pain that lies behind this behavior.

Additionally, you should pay attention to the needs, pains, and reasons for the behavior. The “5 Why’s” technique is used here, which helps in finding the client’s root motivation. Questions are asked until the true reason for the client’s actions is found.

The approach is to consistently ask “Why did this happen?” until the true cause is found, by eliminating which, the problem will not arise in the future. For example, during the interview process, the store owner is unhappy with the timing of the product delivery contract:

  • Why are you dissatisfied with the timing of the contract?
  • Because it increases the delivery time of the goods;
  • Why is the delivery time important to you?
  • Because we sit and just wait for the goods;
  • Why are you not satisfied with waiting for the goods?
  • Because I can’t sell the merchandise I bought right away and purchase a new shipment. I’m losing money because I’m waiting.

In the example above, we got to the root cause of the customer’s pain — the store owner is annoyed by losing money due to a lack of funds to purchase the product for sale.

The timing of the interview depends on the topic of the conversation. If we are talking about topics in which the respondent is well versed, we can keep it to 40 minutes. If sensitive topics are discussed (finance, health) or poorly understood topics (creativity, self-realization), it is worth allocating an hour and a half. Of course, during the interview you should be guided by the respondent’s state of health, if you see that the person is tired, it is better to finish the interview.

During the interview the researcher mostly engages (by asking clarifying questions) and motivates the respondent (using active listening techniques).

Analyzing interview results

I will try to give some general recommendations that will be suitable for the analysis of any interview. The method of thematic networks is almost always applicable. The main purpose of this analysis is to identify the main themes, group them and display quotes that are easy for the researcher and the reader (stakeholders) to understand. The result of such groupings is a web-like network, which reflects all the highlighted topics and the connections between them. We group the previously selected basic themes into closely related ones and summarize them under one common “organizing” theme. The name of this topic contains a generalization for the entire group of its constituent topics. It should be understandable. Combine closely related organizing themes under common “global” themes. It usually includes 2–3 organizing topics and becomes the final part of the network.

You can use XMind or the Miro service to create such a network. You can see an example of such a map in the picture.

Miro service to createa network

Using ungrouped quotations of clients, you can easily draw conclusions about the topics of the interview.

Conclusion

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