A Compendium of User Research Interview Rules to Live By

I've been working with a client on doing some UX research. I'm pretty new to the formal practice of UX and it's associated literature, so I've been making notes along the way.

If you've done user interviews or have been doing your own research you already know there are many pitfalls to avoid as the interviewer. There are so many ways in which you can decrease the quality of feedback from your interviewees.

In preparation for the round of user interviews that we're about to run I've put together a compendium of rules and advice from what I felt were the best resources I've come across.

Many of these are lifted directly from the articles I found them in so I've made sure to cite my sources. After each rule or piece of advice you'll find the author's name which links to the article it was pulled from. There's a lot of good stuff in each article that didn't make it in and you'll no doubt want to get context for each rule.

So without further ado.

User Interview Rules and Advice to Live By
  1. When recruiting thou shalt focus on behavior, not demographics. - Dana Chisnel
  2. The focus on behavior also extends into the interview. Don't just accept what people say. Have them show you if you can. - Jakob Nielson
  3. Don't ask what they’ve done in the past. People have poor memories. => People don't have reliable insight into their mental processes, so there is no point asking them what they want. - Jakob Nielson
  4. For crying out loud don’t ask what people want. People don't know what they want. - Charles Liu
    • Instead ask the following
    • What are you trying to get done? Why?
    • Can you show me how you currently do this? => Watch!
    • Can you show me what’s frustrating about your current process?
  5. Don’t be afraid to not accept the first answer. Ask why until you fully understand the interviewee. - Michael Margolis
  6. Tell them “we’re not testing you, we’re testing x. There are no right or wrong answers.” - Leigh Grey-Smith
  7. Don’t ask about the future. - Jared Spool
  8. Don’t ask how’d they’d design a feature or content. - Jared Spool
  9. Shut up and listen. Let the person think. Silence is okay. Effective with people that may be shy or have not organized their thoughts. - Michael Margolis
  10. Minimize biased/leading questions - Michael Howley
    • Bad: How did you like the login screen?
      Good: What do you think about the login screen?
      Bad: Is the feature helpful to you?
      Good: Is the feature helpful or not helpful to you? Why?
      Bad: Would this be a good idea?
      Good: How valuable would this be to you in your job?
  11. Be friendly, have a conversation, don’t follow the interview script like a robot.
  12. Don’t forget non-verbal cues. People communicate just as much if not more through tone, body language, etc. - Michael Howley
  13. Use the reflection interviewing method where you repeat in other words what the person has said to you to keep things on track and make sure you understand. Phrases like: “So in other words…” or “I hear you saying…” - Rick Cook
  14. Reduce the conversation to writing and then show it to the interviewee. This is the last chance to make sure you understood properly. - Rick Cook
  15. Answer questions with questions. - Michael Margolis