Product Discovery

How to Conduct User Interviews That Uncover Valuable Insights?

Whether you want to build a new product, or improve an existing one, one of the best ways to understand what people need, is through user interviews. But how do you conduct a user interview that goes beyond hyotheticals and one-worded answers? How do you make sense of the nuggets of information and dig deeper?

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Ondrej Prostrednik
June 2, 2023
12 minutes
  • Start by defining your interview goals. To come up with the right goals, ask yourself what you need to learn from  your users and how that knowledge will influence your design process.
  • Come up with ideas for opening questions based on your goals. Always try to ask about their past behavior, to avoid hypothetical answers.
  • Master probing follow up questions to go deeper into the interesting nuggets of insight you come across.
  • Analyze what you've learned after each interview to identify patterns in user behavior.
  • Repeat this process until you have a good understanding of user needs and have identified potential opportunities.
  • Conduct informal interviews, whenever you meet with an existing user or a potential one. Always be curious!
  • User interviews are a continuous process, so make sure to keep talking to users and extracting valuable insights.

This article will arm you with the right tools to uncover valuable insights whenever you talk with users and show you that user interviews don't have to be formal, boring, hour long affairs.

In this blog post, I'll share some tips on how to conduct a user interview that uncovers valuable insights. I'll cover how to prepare for the interview, what questions to ask, and how to listen for key information. By following these tips, you can get the most out of your user interviews and gather the information you need to improve your product.

Define your interview goals

Setting user interview goals will make it easier for you to craft the right questions during the interview and stay laser-focused on what's relevant for you.

How do you come up with the right goals?

When you're just starting out with a product, try setting broad goals so you can gain a good understanding of all the possibilities in your field. As you learn more, refine your goals and dive deeper into particular opportunities that relate to different user segments. This way, you can get the most out of each user interview.

To help you determine the right goals, consider these questions:

  • What do I need to know about our users to make our product better?
  • How will that knowledge influence my design process?

Here’s an example

Let’s say that you are building a to-do app and you are conducting your very first set of interviews. Your goals could look like this:

  • Understand general attitudes towards keeping and managing to-dos.
  • Understand general attitudes towards to-do apps.
  • Discover which apps people currently use to track their to-dos.
  • Find out what features users desire in their to-do apps.

How do you ask the right questions?

The first thing to realize is that your goals are not your questions. You can’t find answers to your research goals by turning them into questions. If it was that easy, you wouldn’t be reading this guide. The problem is that people are pretty bad at answering hypothetical and generalized questions.

For example, if I took one of my goals, say "Understanding general attitudes towards keeping and managing to-dos" and turned it into a question, like "What do you think about keeping and managing to-dos?" I would get aspirational answers. The person might tell me that they think it's important. But this doesn't tell me anything about their behavior or how they actually manage their to-do list.

So how do you ask the right questions?

Ask about specifics

Rather than asking about generalities, it is much more helpful to ask about specific actions from the past.

For example, asking questions like "Tell me about the last time you had too many tasks on your list - what did you do?", or "How did you decide which tasks to prioritize?" will give you much more useful and actionable insights.

Don't rely on people's estimates

Graph showing exaggeration over time

People have a hard time answering questions asking for facts (how often, how much…). We usually exaggerate and try to portray ourselves in the best possible light.

For example, instead of asking “How often do you use your to-do app” you could ask a question such as: "When was the last time, you used your to-do app?” and follow up with “What did you use it for?”

This type of question allows you to gain an understanding of the process that was used to get to a solution and allows you to learn more than if you were simply asking a general question. Additionally, it can provide insights into the thought processes of the person you are asking and can lead to more meaningful conversations.

Uncover the full story

In real life, we often change the subject of our conversation if the story isn't interesting. The topics we discuss during user interviews are not always interesting, but there is important information hidden in the details. To find this information, we need to encourage the person we're talking to share more.

For instance, you might ask them: “What was the last thing you added to your to-do app?"

Their answer might look like this: “I added a task related to my personal project.”

That’s not a great story, is it? But you can learn more if you prone a little. For instance, you could ask them to give you additional context. “What were you doing when you added this item? Set the scene for me?“ They will share a few more details and this will give you more to go on from.

Ask contextual follow-up questions

Understanding why something happens takes more than a single answer. The famous 5 WHYs methodology allows you to get an in-depth understanding of the context by asking 'why' multiple times - and although it's not necessary to ask five questions, using this framework can help guide your follow-ups for optimal results.

Other contextual questions you can ask:

  • Who was with you?
  • What challenges did you encounter?
  • How did you overcome that challenge?
  • Did anyone help you?

Finding People to Talk to

Ok, so you have your goals and are ready to ask questions, but how do you find people to talk to? It's not like everyone is interested in talking about your to-do app!  

Your user interview subjects should meet two criteria: they should fit your target user segment and they need to have an opinion on the subject at hand. The easiest way to find people who meet these criteria is through social media platforms and communities online. Think forums, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook groups.

You can try reaching out to people directly, but I find this rarely works. People don't like to be bothered by strangers asking for their time. Instead, take a more "give first, ask later" approach.  Contribute to the communities first, by sharing some learning or observations you've made that could be helpful to them.

For example, in the case of our to-do app, I could join productivity communities and write a short review about a new to-do app that just launched. I can use this to tease out some of the features I don't like and solicit feedback from users. Once people engage and comment, I can reach out to them directly and ask them for a few minutes of their time.

They are far more likely to say yes because we have a subject in common that we both care about.

Here's a list of ways to find people to talk to

Social Media
Joining conversations in forums and on social media can help build relationships. The key is to give value to the community, such as by answering questions or providing useful insight. After a few interactions, it will be easier to ask for a favor.

Ask for references
After each interview, if you think the interview went well, ask your respondent if they can introduce you to someone who is in a similar situation as them.

Conduct unexpected interviews
Unexpected interviews (i.e., those that are not scheduled) can happen during everyday encounters. If you think of interviews as something strict and formal, you may miss out on chances to talk with people. It's also much easier to get useful information in a casual atmosphere.

Collect emails through a landing page
You can take two approaches:

1. Gated content. Create valuable content, place it behind an email gate & use social media ads to promote it.

2. Launching soon landing page to collect emails. Be aware that your pitch may skew results. I recommend using this approach only in later stages.

Blogging, or writing a newsletter
Creating a blog or a newsletter can help you grow your audience. It takes some time, but it's worth it. You can also get an almost immediate advantage. If you contact people with your blog's email address and they check out your blog, they will recognize you as an interesting person and be more likely to communicate with you.

Recruit users of your product
If you already have a product, you can recruit users of your product to participate in an interview. Contact them via email or right inside your product.

How to structure and run a user interview?

When I was getting started with user interviews, I'd create a formal interview scenario and follow it to the dot. My interviews felt too rigid and I wasn't uncovering real insights.

Because of the formal interview structure, I had a tendency to go through the questions one by one automatically. I wasn't paying attention to what the user was saying and instead focused on the next question. As a result, I wasn't able to ask follow-up questions and dive deeper into their answers.

I could not get the person to open up and I wasn't uncovering real insights. The interview felt more like an interrogation and less like a conversation.

Leave room for true discovery

Instead, you want to create room for discovery. This is best achieved if you keep the interview unstructured and stay as conversational as possible.

Have a few go-to questions on your list to kick off the user interview process, listen intently to their responses, and think about follow-up, probing questions.

From there, let the interview take its course, making sure you stick to your initial goals.

How to structure your interview?

  1. Before the interview, visit your goals and consider a few topics you want to discuss. These could be general ideas if you are starting to learn about a certain topic, or more specific questions if you are doing a follow-up interview.
  2. Create opening questions for each topic - ask about specifics and anchor your questions on the user’s past behavior rather than hypotheticals.
  3. Start the conversation like you're talking to someone you find interesting. Don't worry about being too formal - throw in some icebreakers to make the other person feel comfortable.
  4. As naturally as possible, work your way from the introduction to the first topic on your list.
  5. Ask your opening question.
  6. From there, let the topic take its own course by actively listening to what the user is saying and asking your follow-up questions.

Analyze and interpret your data

To get the most out of your interview, analyze what you've learned right after each interview, while your experience is fresh. Your goal is to identify and interpret patterns within those responses.

Identify Opportunities

These are the golden nuggets you're looking for.

Did the person share a pain they've tried to solve in the past and couldn't figure it out? Are they outgrowing their current solution? Do they have a need that is not being met at a price that's acceptable for them?

These are all opportunities for further exploration and could potentially turn into products or features. But, let's not get ahead of our skies. We just need to capture the opportunity and leave it at that for now.

Go beyond capturing solutions

Make sure you don’t capture the opportunity as a solution.

People often tend to propose features, your job is to uncover the need or pain behind a requested solution. There might be better solutions to the problems people have.

A good way to uncover the needs behind solutions is to ask “If you had that feature in a product, what would you use it for?”

Capture additional context

Has the user shared some information you find interesting, but don't know what to do with it yet? Capture it as an insight. These are all the key points of information that you have gathered which do not fall under needs or pains.

Over time these insights can be turned into opportunities as your research grows more in-depth.

Make sure to capture the person's name, a few quick facts that distinguish them, and if you can, their photo. This will make it easier for you to recollect the interview in the future.

Pattern matching

Once you've done a few interviews, you'll start to see patterns emerge. Similar opportunities will start popping up. These are the seeds for your next round of interviews. Go back to your goals and rewrite them based on what you've learned and repeat the process. Pretty soon you'll start to shape your own informed solution to your users' pains and need.  

User interviews are a powerful tool for uncovering valuable insights into user needs, pains, and opportunities. By taking the time to structure your interview process, actively listening to what users have to say, and analyzing each conversation for patterns, you can get an invaluable understanding of how people use products and where there might be gaps in current offerings.

It's a continuous process

User interviews are a continuous process, and the more you talk to users and extract insights, the stronger your understanding of what they need will be. This is essential knowledge when it comes to designing better products that solve user problems in meaningful ways.  

Need more help?

A screenshot from the User Interview Toolkit on iPad

I've got a free User Interview Toolkit that builds on this blog post. It's a step-by-step guide to running succesfull user interviews. You'll find an interview template, a database to manage your insights and a video and written guide to tight it all together.

Thank you for reading – happy interviewing!

User Interview Toolkit
Run interviews that uncover real insights