In-depth contextual interviews are one of the most important techniques in a user researcher’s toolkit.
Speaking to the people who will use, or are using, your service helps you discover their goals, motivations and behaviours.
It also lets you create a list of user needs on which to base the design of the service.
Researchers need to create good quality interviews to get good quality data. Get it wrong and you’ll get poor insights, which can lead to services being designed and built for the wrong thing.
But performing good interviews isn’t easy. Becoming skilled at interviewing is a long-term project that takes practice.
A good interview is one that:
- has as little bias as possible
- gives you as much information as possible
- helps you answer your research question
- leaves the participant happy
Get the planning right
Good interviews are well planned and well thought out. Have a clear question that you want answering, otherwise it could be confusing for the participant and difficult for you.
Get off to a good start
A lot happens at the start of an interview and it sets the tone for the rest of the session. Get informed consent, take care of the participant’s needs and comfort, then set out what’s going to happen in the session.
This is your chance to build a rapport with the participant – to gain trust so they feel comfortable to talk freely.
When talking to people about their experiences with public services, we often hit on things that are sensitive or embarrassing. These answers can be the most useful, but you need to tread carefully.
My biggest mistake has been asking about these things too early, when no one is relaxed. The participant might tell you some things, but the interview can become awkward and the answers less insightful.
Ask the right questions
Asking questions is a hugely important way to get people talking about their experiences, but there are dos and don’ts.
Don’t ask leading questions
Be wary of leading questions – those that imply an answer and introduce bias. An interview with many leading questions shouldn’t be used.
Do ask open or closed questions, as appropriate
Closed questions can be answered with a yes or no, a single word or short phrase. Open questions can't.
Closed questions are useful for establishing facts. They don’t require much thought or long answers. ‘Have you applied for a passport before?’ will only ever have a yes or no answer.
Open and closed questions need to be used in the right context. A useful open question is to ask when something happened. It’s usually reasonably easy to answer and gets the participant thinking back to that time, ready to answer a more detailed open question.
I used to open my interviews with ‘Tell me about yourself.’ This was too open, the participant didn’t know what I wanted and it didn’t really encourage them to talk freely.
I’ve now ask 1 or 2 closed questions to establish facts, then follow up with an open question related to the interview topic.
Do ask more questions
You’ll have planned some questions, but others will follow from the participant’s answers. Use follow-up questions to delve into their experiences and understanding.
Sometimes it’s better not to ask a follow-up question – a prompt such as ‘go on’ can be more encouraging. Repeating a key word they used can be useful, as can paraphrasing something they’ve said and waiting to see if they say more.
A participant might contradict themself, or say something unusual. Tactfully challenging this can help you understand areas of confusion or complexity. Although it’s difficult, not challenging is a missed opportunity.
Do check you’ve understood the answers
Summarising what the participant has said lets you check you’ve understood and gives them the chance to correct you if you’ve not.
You might think there’s some meaning behind what the participant is saying. Raising that can be helpful. For example, ‘It sounds like you were quite angry about waiting that long for a response.’
Don’t be afraid to say nothing
And sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all.
If a participant is silent, it could mean they’re thinking. Waiting 4 or 5 seconds lets them consider what they’ve said and perhaps continue.
Do listen… really listen
Listening is important. It tells you where to go next and when to delve deeper into someone’s experience.
However, while you’re listening, you also need to think about your next question. All while showing the participant that you’re listening to, and are interested in, what they’re saying.
Do be neutral – but be encouraging
Most conversations are not neutral. In a conversation, one person reacts to the other with their body language, voice and words. They communicate agreement, disagreement, judgment and emotion.
You should try to strip away these things to remove bias, while being careful not to unsettle the participant. (It’s a good idea to be a participant in research sessions, to remind yourself how it feels.)
As researchers, we try to react in an encouraging but neutral way, to make the session feel like a normal social interaction. Positive body language can help – sitting the same way as the participant, nodding in response to answers.
And finally, don’t take notes
Writing things down in an interview can imply that some things are more important that others – why did you write down that thing the participant said and not the other? Use video or voice recordings instead.
Types of questions to ask – or avoid – in research sessions
Those that imply an answer. For example:
‘Were staff rude to you at your appointment?’ This prompts the participant to consider someone’s behaviour as rude. It introduces rudeness as a possibility.
A better way to ask that question is, ‘What were the staff like at your appointment?’
Those that encourage the participant to explain their thoughts, experiences or opinions. For example, ‘Describe what happened when you first arrived in the UK’, ‘Tell me about your relationship with technology’, ‘How did you feel when that happened?’
Those that are answered quickly, usually with a simple fact. For example, ‘When did you first come to the UK?’ and ‘How long have you worked in this job?’
Those that pick up on something a participant has said. For example, ‘Why was that?’, ‘Tell me more about…’, ‘Can you give me an example of…’