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The interviewer in the room

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Interviewing people is a fundamental user research skill. As user researchers, we want to find out about people, what they think, how they do things, what they find easy, what they find difficult... We want to understand their experiences.

There are a lot of different aspects to interviewing and different ways to perform interviews - too many for a single blog post! But I would like to share a few ideas about being an interviewer and the reasoning behind the methods I use.

For me, the most important thing to realise when interviewing people is that the interviewee is not the only person in the room. You, as the interviewer, are there too. You are part of the conversation and it's important to understand this from the start.

An interview

It's easy to bring a lot of preconceptions and expectations to an interview and I'd like to show you some ways that I acknowledge these and try to reduce their effect, through some simple tips and techniques.

A lot of what I describe is shamelessly borrowed from phenomenological social psychology (try saying that out loud, fast). This branch of psychology focusses on people's day-to-day experiences of life in order to understand the stories they tell.

1. Gather rich data

Allow people to describe their experiences in as much detail as possible using their own terms. As an interviewer you should be talking as little as possible. This can be difficult to get used to at first, as we naturally want to feel like we're contributing to interactions.

Try not to interrupt unless the interviewee has gone way off topic and time is running out. It's important to pay attention to the interviewee, so they feel you value what they say. It's easy to get distracted by thinking about what to ask next.

A good discussion guide can help here as you can refer to it rather than rack your memory for questions. A guide doesn't have to be complicated - it can be a simple list of topics you want to cover.

In my opinion, recording interviews is really important. It's really hard to keep up if you're taking notes. Even if you have someone to help out, it's easy to miss the subtle nuances to what people say and possible for bias to creep in, as we naturally emphasise what is interesting to us.

2. Suspend your preconceptions

Try to suspend your preconceptions and prior understandings – this is really hard! Set them aside during the interview as much as you can (the technical term for this is 'bracketing'). The aim is to approach the interview open to the experiences of the interviewee.

You might find that some things the interviewee says really resonate with you. For example, a previous interviewee, or even you personally, might have encountered a similar situation. When this happens it's easy to focus on the similarities of the experience to such an extent that you miss the details of what the interviewee is actually saying, which may be completely different to your expectations.

It's virtually impossible to completely suspend your preconceptions, so it's important that you acknowledge the impact you have as interviewer – see tip 4.

3. Avoid early interpretation

Don't try to understand what's going on right there in the interview, instead devote your attention to the interviewee and go with their flow. For example, you might find your previous experiences suggest potential reasons for an interviewee describing a particular issue, but those reasons won't be the same for each interviewee. A more accurate interpretation may only be gradually revealed throughout the course of the conversation or when the interview is later analysed.

Similarly, try to avoid prioritising between the experiences the interviewee describes; what you consider to be more important may not match the interviewee's priorities. Instead consider everything they say with equal importance until you have time to reflect in the analysis. The term for this technique is horizontalising.

4. Understand your impact as interviewer

When carrying out any user research you'll have an impact on all aspects of the process. It's important to develop your own self-awareness, to understand how you're reacting to research participants and what they say and do.

Both during an interview and in the analysis afterwards your preconceptions will inevitably influence how you interpret the data, you might make assumptions and impose your own beliefs. It's useful to make reflexive notes in order to crystalise your own thoughts and reactions as you analyse the data, and then revisit the original interview data to ensure you haven't strayed too far from what the interviewees were saying.

Interviewing people is a surprisingly tiring activity, even though you may not be speaking that much. Maintaining sustained attention is not something that comes naturally to many people and requires practice. It's often hard for other team members to realise just how difficult it can be unless they try it themselves.

Over to you

If you have any tips on getting the most out of research interviews, then please share them with us in the comments below.

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