Interviewing users

Interviews help you learn more about users, how they use a service and what they need from it.

Use interviews when you want to:

  • learn more about your users and relevant aspects of their lives and work
  • get a deeper understanding of any problems that users tell you about
  • explore users' understanding or perspective on a topic

Interviews are an important research method in the Discovery stage. But you’ll keep using them through the service design and delivery process. They will help you to get in-depth information about users.

In Alpha and the later stages you’ll often combine interviews with usability testing.


Meeting the Digital Service Standard

Conducting research with users will help you meet the following criteria:

The Digital Service Standard guides teams to build services that are simpler, clearer and faster.

How to plan interviews

Interviews usually take place with 1 user at a time. But you can also speak to people in pairs or small groups if they use a service together. For example, you might interview:

  • family members who help each other
  • members of a team who work together

Work out how much detail you need

Interviews can take between 30 minutes and 2 hours. The length of time depends on the complexity of the subject and the number of questions you have.

Longer interviews will give you more detail. But they may make it harder to recruit participants. It is also important to manage participant fatigue in longer interviews.

Choose a location for your research

Interviews can take place almost anywhere, for example:

  • a user’s home or workplace
  • over the phone
  • a research studio
  • a cafe
  • a public library

Make sure the participants can access the location. They may need to know how to contact you for entry to the building. They may need to use a lift rather than stairs.

Recruit research participants

There are different ways to find people to participate in user research. These people should be current or likely users of the service you’re researching.

Plan for any incentives you’ll pay to the participants.

Arrange interpreters or assistants for participants who need them.

Prepare consent forms

Make sure you have informed consent from the participants before you interview them. It can be a good idea to send out consent forms before the session. This gives people time to read and think about what they are consenting to.

Think about whether you need to record the session. If you do, make sure the consent forms cover this.

Note takers and observers

Arrange a note taker and consider whether to invite observers for each session.

Observers are important for certain kinds of research, like lab-based usability testing. But think about how their presence may affect the participants. Sometimes you should not invite observers (aside from the note taker) into the room.

We recommend you have the researcher and 1 observer or it can feel like a panel interview. Doing research with at least 1 other person apart from the participant is good for safety. It ensures you get more than 1 perspective on the session.

Structuring interviews

To create an interview structure:

  1. review the research questions you’re trying to answer
  2. think about any processes or technology you want to see (for example, existing products people are using)
  3. write a list of the topics you want to cover
  4. order the topics to create a logical flow

For each topic:

  1. write starter questions to introduce the topic
  2. add possible follow-up questions you might ask to learn more
  3. test your questions and structure by conducting a practice interview (also known as a pilot interview) with a colleague, friend or family member
  4. revise any questions that aren’t clear and re-order your topics if the practice interview doesn’t flow well

If you are doing usability testing as part of the interview, the structure will be different.

Write open and neutral questions

Write open and neutral questions. Starter questions might include:

  • 'How do you …?'
  • 'What are the different ways you …?'
  • 'What do you think about …?'

Avoiding confirmation bias in interview questions

Work on questions with your team to avoid confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when the way a question is asked limits answers to those that confirm research hypotheses.

Learn about confirmation bias and other cognitive biases in user research.

Create a discussion guide

Once you have questions, create a discussion guide. This should include:

  • your introduction script — this tells the participant who you are, explains the research and includes a prompt for the researcher to ask the participant for consent to talk to them and record
  • the interview questions  — it can be good to start out with a few simple questions to get the participant talking and build rapport. For example, 'Tell us about you and your work?'
  • a planning checklist to make sure you have all the equipment and facilities you need on the day

Use the discussion guide to:

  • stay on track during interviews
  • ensure any other interviewers cover the same topics so you collect comparable information
  • review interview sessions with your team
  • keep a record of what you did in this round of research

Do the interview

Once the participant is settled and you’ve started the session:

  • make sure you have the participant’s informed consent
  • cover everything in your introduction script — you don't need to read this word for word. Speak in a natural way rather than reading directly from your guide
  • start with a few general questions to help the participant relax (for example, ask them about their journey or to tell you about their job)
  • take time to adjust to their conversation pace and style

Use your discussion guide and encourage participants to give more detail with simple follow-up questions like:

  • ‘You said … when/why/who was that?’
  • ‘Can you tell me more about …?’
  • ‘In what way …?’
  • ‘Could you elaborate on … to help me understand …?’

During the interview:

  • focus on stories and real examples — avoid generalities and talking about how things ‘should’ happen
  • make sure you really listen — show the participant you’re interested in what they’re saying
  • make sure you understand what the participant has said — ask more questions if you’re not sure
  • don’t change the flow of the interview — if a participant goes off topic, wait for a natural break and gently bring them back to what you want to talk about
  • be comfortable with silence — the more you talk, the less your participant will talk
  • don’t stick to your discussion guide — let the conversation develop naturally and dig into any new and interesting issues
  • keep in mind the main questions you need to ask everyone in that round.

Once you’ve finished:

  • thank the participant
  • reconfirm consent
  • make sure any personal information you’ve collected (on paper or in recordings) is stored securely
  • pack away your equipment — use your planning checklist

Taking notes and observing

The interview will usually have a note taker, and maybe 1 or more observers. If you are not taking notes you should just watch and listen.

Take the opportunity to introduce yourself to the participant if the lead researcher doesn’t.

Focus on the participant and avoid creating distractions

Get to the session early and don’t leave the room during a session. If possible wait until the participant leaves before you do.

Be careful about using a laptop to take notes — this may be distracting and make the participant uncomfortable. You may be able to join the session via live streaming if you prefer to take notes on a laptop.

If you are using a laptop or phone to record the session make sure you turn off any notifications during the session.

Be mindful of video/audio recording and of what you say during, before and after a session.

Take notes

Think about the specific things that the team needs to understand — the goals or objectives of the research.

Write down anything interesting or relevant that you see or hear during the session. Write down:

  • direct quotes — use quotation marks to show that this is what they said, not your interpretation
  • behaviours and patterns — write ‘appear to’ or ‘seems’ so you know this is your observation
  • design problems (pain points)
  • ideas and suggestions (gains)

Use a single note for each observation and write exactly what you see or hear not what you think it means. This way, the notes will be unbiased and can represent the voice of the user.

Note time stamps for anything important — this will make it easier to find this part of the recording.

If you have recordings, make them available so people can confirm their observations and get verbatim quotes.

Hold your questions until you are prompted

Don’t feel tempted to answer or correct any questions the participant asks back to the lead researcher.

Write down any questions you might have for the participant. Save them until the end of the session, unless the interviewer asks you.

Discuss the interview later

Don’t discuss the participant or details from the session outside of the research session (for example, in the bathroom or hallways). Participants could hear you.

Don’t analyse what is happening during an interview or between sessions — analysis comes later. You can use this time to make sure your notes captured comments from the previous session.