Engage Users in a Dialogue

by Megan Fath

Both conducting and participating in a research interview can feel a bit like a first date.

The exchange is a thoughtful one as each party is in the process of learning and accessing. A good rapport creates comfort, more freely flowing conversation and opportunity to open up. Extra care is taken to not say the “wrong thing” or jump to certain questions too early (that might trigger a bolt for the check and the door). Ever been asked how many children you wanted on a first date? Like a date, the interview dialogue has a flow and dynamic as it evolves over the course of the event.

Regardless of whether your research is exploration or concept validation, start broad and slowly “funnel” or narrow your way down to product-level or design specificity. Below are some guidelines that start at the top of the funnel and work their way down.

Build Rapport
Get to know your participant by starting off with a few opening questions that aren’t too specific to your research topic, this will get them comfortable. A bit about their occupation and family will help you understand the context in which they live and a sense of their priorities. The information this elicits will also help dimensionalize your participants when you share insights with your team later. A few minutes in you’ll observe more relaxed body language thus setting up the stage for the next step into the dialogue.

Problem Understanding Before Problem Solving
Before jumping into a series of questions directed at helping your design team solve a problem, step back and ask questions aimed at understanding the problem. Imagine that you are beginning at the top of the funnel and start broad.

Gain Perspective
Understand the user’s perception and context of problem space. Ask questions to help understand and define the problem through the user’s eyes. This will help contextualize the problem and impart meaning. Example scenario: suppose you are trying to create an improved online shopping experience for music. Before jumping to the current site or proposed new solutions, begin the conversation by understanding the participant’s passion and habits around music. This will help contextualize your site concepts within a larger set of experiences, activities and tools.

Adopt Their Language
Discovering the user’s language is an invaluable insight for future design development. As part of a project team, you likely have developed your own set of words and prescribed meaning. These may not be the same as your intended user’s. Be aware of the language you are using during an interview and adopt the language of your interviewee.

Draw Comparisons
As the dialogue proceeds down the funnel from problem understanding to a series of questions aimed at problem solving, participants may struggle to articulate their thoughts. Keep in mind that they do not have backgrounds as designers. To aid the dialogue, it is helpful to draw on examples, stories and scenarios shared earlier in the interview. Also bring several different visualizations. Comparisons are a helpful method to elicit insight. For example, using the previous music scenario, ask the participant to also walk-you through other online retail music sites that they use (not just your client’s).


Funnel of Specificity

Use this as a reference to create your own research discussion guide.

Image courtesy of Jason Bacher


Quick Tips
1. To help create a natural flow, prepare and practice the interview ahead of time. Use your partner or a friend as a test subject. This will help you visualize the conversation.

2. Be flexible during the interview. Following the order of questions on your discussion guide will feel forced. If the participant begins mentioning a subject you planned on discussing later, go with it. And be prepared to go off script.

3. Follow-up questions with these: Why? Tell me a story. How did that make you feel? Tell me more.


Dig Deeper!
1. Check out Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (Ethnographer’s Toolkit) and The Ethnographic Interview.


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  1. Pingback: Parse.HowDesign.com | User Research Interview Techniques

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