Skip to main content

I’d argue that user research interviews are the most powerful tool for understanding your users and gathering qualitative data to improve their experience with your product or service. There are tons of other research methods, but there is nothing quite like sitting down with the users that you serve and getting a true, conversational glimpse into users’ needs, behaviors, and pain points—plus, whatever else comes up! 

If you’re in some way responsible for the user experience at your company or organization, interviewing users is nothing short of a superpower. Let’s dive in and define user interviews, explore when it’s worth investing in them (spoiler: often!), go over how to conduct them according to best practices, and understand how qualitative research methods like user interviews fit into a broader strategy when combined with quantitative data.

What Are User Research Interviews, Exactly?

A user interview is a conversation between a researcher and a user, with the goal of learning more about the user’s experiences, behaviors, and needs related to a product or service. User interviews can take many forms, from structured questionnaires to open-ended discussions, and can be conducted in person or virtually. 

More than when and where the important thing to understand about interviews is that they are conversations between human beings to generate understanding around things that you simply cannot see in your quantitative data. That being said, they aren’t exactly like having coffee with a friend—there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct user interviews.

When Is It Worth Investing In User Interviews?

While I firmly believe that interviews are among the best user research tools anyone can use, interviewing users costs both time and money. So before you start scheduling sessions, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on whether the investment will help you answer your most pressing questions about users at the current moment.

User interviews are most useful when you’re looking to gain deep insights into user needs and behaviors, and that can happen at various stages of the product life cycle, no matter where you are in the product design process. For example:

  1. You’re at the very beginning - you know which types of users you want to serve, but you need to understand more about your target audience in order to generate ideas for products, services, and/or features.
  2. You’re well on your way - you have product market fit, but you need to make decisions about what’s next when it comes to your product or service.
  3. Something just isn’t right - you’re struggling to achieve product-market fit or to explain some other issue with user behavior. 

The insights that you gain from interviewing in all of the above situations can save you time and money in the long run by helping you build a product that truly meets user needs.

Is there ever a time when investing in user interviews doesn’t make sense?

If you’re asking me, I’d say that it’s fairly rare. However, if customer feedback about your overall product is positive and you feel pretty certain that you’re meeting user needs, but you have questions about things like UX of specific features that could really make an impact on your bottom line—other methodology, such as usability testing, maybe a better investment currently.

Overall, you want to make sure that the set of questions that you have about users relate to things like behavior, needs, motivations, and overall experience. If yes, then you can almost certainly benefit from conducting user interviews.

How Do You Conduct User Interviews?

Anyone in the field of UX research (another common name for user research), myself included, will tell you that learning to conduct great interviews and qualitative analysis in order to generate actionable insights is a real skill set. There are a lot of misconceptions around this, with some product professionals assuming that it’s somewhat intuitive. If you came here thinking so, it’s time to throw that notion out the window.

I’m going to walk you through the basic steps of conducting a set of user interviews so that you’ll have a basic knowledge of how the process works. 

Get the latest from the brightest minds in CX, UX, and design thinking.

Get the latest from the brightest minds in CX, UX, and design thinking.

  • No spam, just quality content. Your inbox is safe with us. For more details, review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Step 1: Define your research questions according to your research goals

Before conducting user interviews, it’s important to define your questions for this particular research project. What do you want to learn from your users? What assumptions do you want to validate or invalidate? Defining your research questions will help you stay focused during all of your interviews and make sure that you have not only a nice conversation but data on the topics that are most important to you. 

Have a list of your research questions available as you move through the following steps. For example, let’s say that you work for a company that has a to-do list app for parents. An example of a research question could be something like: What helps parents move through their to-do lists when everything feels overwhelming? 

Take some time with other stakeholders to really define the questions that you’d like to answer. This guide offers some great guidance about how to create good research questions if you’re feeling stuck. 

Step 2: Define the ideal research participants and decide on the sample size

Before you begin recruiting participants for your study, take a look at your research questions and think about what subset of users make the most sense to interview. For example, if you’re looking to uncover reasons that users stopped paying for your service and switched to a competitor, you probably don’t want to interview your power users who are still using your platform. Or, perhaps, your target audience is vast and you want to focus your research on one or two specific personas.

Make a list of participant criteria that you can bring with you to the next step, which actually (finally!) involves making contact with users.

Now you know which types of users you’d like to interview—but how do you decide how many users to interview? Unfortunately, there isn’t consensus on this in the UX research community, or even among academics.

In lieu of an easy answer, I highly recommend the Nielsen Norman approach of starting small—around 5 or 6 interviews—and then reassessing. Generally speaking, I find that my sample sizes range from 10-25, depending on my research goals. In all likelihood, you can expect your sample size to be in that range as well.

Step 3: Recruit users and schedule your interviews

Once you’ve defined your research question and ideal participants, you’ll need to actually recruit participants for your interviews.  There are several different ways to do so—check out our chart below:

infographics of user interview participant recruitment methods

Tip: if you aren’t using a third-party participant recruitment tool, I highly recommend sending users a link to a calendar, such as Calendly, where they can sign up for a time to interview with you. Otherwise, the back-and-forth of trying to find a convenient time can prolong the entire project.

Step 4: Create your interview guide

An interview guide is a list of questions and topics that you plan to ask during your interviews. It’s completely true that not all topics and all questions will be relevant to each specific user, and it could also be the case that you and some users go off on useful tangents that don’t allow you to get through your entire guide.  It’s still important to create your interview guide before you start interviewing, and here’s why:

  1. It’s important to reflect, and cement in writing, what topics are going to lead you to useful information that relates to your research questions
  2. When you first start interviewing, you’ll find that you really rely on the guide to make sure that you’re asking questions properly and in the right order
  3. Sometimes, your conversations don’t flow super easy and you need your guide to help you move from topic to topic.

Don’t skip this step! Write your interview guide, and have a colleague look over it to see if they have anything to add. Make sure to include both specific, closed questions and open-ended questions, so that you’ll be sure to get the data you need—but also give your participants the time and space to talk to you about unexpected things that may yield useful insights.

Step 5: Conduct your interviews

You’ve finally made it to the fun part—it’s time to interview users! Take some time to build rapport with your interviewees and let them know what to expect. For example, after some introductory conversation, you may say something like: “I really appreciate you joining me today! I’m a product manager here at XYZ Company, and today I’m going to ask you some questions about XYZ. Do you have any questions for me before we start?”

That’s it! After our step-by-step guide, we’ve dedicated a whole section to common pitfalls and things to remember when interviewing users, so keep on reading!

Step 6: Analyze your data and extract actionable, valuable insights

Often, inexperienced interviewers will assume that after conducting their actual interviews, they’re done. They can just try to remember some of the main points that came up over and over again, and begin brainstorming with the team in terms of what this means as far as their product goes.

Here’s the thing: nope! We all have internal biases, and there is a limit to how much information and detail you can remember after a series of interviews. It’s nearly impossible for any human to produce reliable insights without using qualitative research methodology and dedicating ample time to do it.  

The good news is that while the analysis of interview data does have to be systematic and thorough, it doesn’t have to be complicated.  You can find a method that works for you and inform yourself via online research. My favorite go-to method, especially for beginners, is affinity diagramming.

More User Interview Best Practices To Keep In Mind

Conduct the interview in an ideal setting: If you’re face to face, make sure that you’re in a place where you can hear each other. If you’re on Zoom, make sure that there won’t be any interruptions on your side.

Build rapport before you get started: Introduce yourself. Talk about the weather. In other words, do whatever you have to do to get the conversation flowing before you jump into your interview questions. Make eye contact to let your participant know that you’re engaged in the conversation. The more comfortable your participant is, the better chance you have of them opening up and giving you the information that you’re looking for.

Embrace active listening: This is a critical skill for conducting successful user interviews. Make sure to listen carefully to what the participant is saying, and ask follow-up questions to clarify their responses. Don’t leave data on the table!

Record your interviews: Recording the interview allows you to focus on the conversation and take more detailed notes later. Be sure to get the participant's permission before recording the interview.

Common User Interview Mistakes To Avoid

Scheduling too many interviews in one day

Active listening is hard work! Though user research is my full-time job, when I’m interviewing users, I generally never go beyond 2-3 interviews per day. This allows me to stay fresh and present with each user that I’m interviewing.

Leading questions

Leading questions are questions that suggest a particular answer or response—which can really interfere with your ability to collect accurate responses from your interviewees. For example, asking a user whether they think that it’s frustrating to find a good recipe leads them to dwell on their frustrations. Asking a user, simply, to tell you about their most recent experience in looking for a specific recipe allows them to define the experience and gives you a better sense of their reality. A good rule of thumb is: if there is a potential answer to your question, you’re leading.

Not following up on responses

Follow-up questions are essential for understanding the participant's perspective in more detail. If you don't follow up on responses, you may miss important insights. If something sounds like it’s scratching the surface and you want details, ask!

Asking users to predict their future behavior

In general, people don’t do a great job of predicting their future behavior. If you ask them what they plan to do in the future, or how they would react to something in the future, their responses are based on how they feel today or could be more aspirational than they are rooted in reality.  For more accurate qualitative data, try to focus on present and past behavior, which are way more concrete.

Bridging Qualitative Insight and Quantitative Data

So how does qualitative insight from interviews relate to quantitative data, like user behavior metrics? Qualitative and quantitative data are a match made in heaven for all product professionals—you need both. Generally speaking, your user behavior metrics tell you the what, and your qualitative data tells you the how and why.

For example, if you have a web platform that provides users with presentation templates, you can know from your quantitative user behavior data which templates are the most popular. However, qualitative insights can help you figure out why the popular ones are popular (and why the unpopular ones are unpopular) so that your team can optimize your templates to better meet your users’ needs.

As you start your journey doing user interviews, get comfortable with using different types of data to answer different types of questions.

Want To Learn More About User Research Methodology?

Hopefully, by now, you’re both inspired to learn more from your users and feel capable of getting started with user interviews. All fields that touch product development, from UX design to product management, are geared toward meeting the needs of real people. User research, with user interviewing at its core, is a great way to make sure that you’re really doing that to the largest extent possible.

If you want to go beyond this guide and learn more about UX research, either by delving even further into interviews or learning about other methodologies, you can consider taking a course or finding a user research mentor.

Lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to the CX Lead newsletter, where you’ll get fresh insights related to user insights on a regular basis.

Happy interviewing!

Related read: Best Qualitative Data Analysis Software

Need expert help selecting the right Customer Experience Software?

If you’re struggling to choose the right software, let us help you. Just share your needs in the form below and you’ll get free access to our dedicated software advisors who match and connect you with the best vendors for your needs.

By Cori Widen

Cori Widen currently leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research.