One of the most popular methods in UX research, a user interview is a technique designed to get qualitative information directly from users. This is a one-on-one session where a researcher asks questions about any user-related topic. Few other methods can give such a level of insight into a user’s motivations, feelings, or daily routines.
At UXPressia, we provide an online customer journey mapping tool for global audiences, so it’s only logical that we usually conduct user interviews online. When you know what to ask, how, and when, an online interview can be as informative as an in-person meeting.
Without further ado, let’s go step by step throughout the entire process of conducting a remote user interview to help you make it more efficient and maximize the impact of your research.
Before the interview
Preparation is key. The better you prepare (select respondents, develop questions, choose tools) for the interview, the better results you’ll get.
Identifying the right respondents
Recruiting the right participants is the first and perhaps the most important step, this is why many find the services of companies like the Perelson’s Utah County staffing agency very usefull. No matter how well your interview is structured, it won’t bring you the results you need if you focus on the wrong audience.
Depending on the objectives, we usually recruit users who can provide valuable insights on the topic interesting to us. Important note: sometimes you have to look around and ask yourself who else can give you the information you need.
For example, if you want to research the problem of user churn, it’s not enough to interview just those who left. Interviewing also those who stayed will give you a fuller picture and better understanding of the underlying reasons for the churn.
The recruitment process can look different for different companies — from simply inviting previous customers to launching targeted email campaigns. Some companies even leverage Craigslist to recruit respondents, but it’s more for B2C businesses.
Being a B2B business, we need real customers for our research who use our product. That’s why we turn to our own user base to select respondents who fit the criteria. We also have a specialized landing page where visitors can fill in a Typeform and further be included in a user research group.
Once we define the research parameters, we send an email to those who match with an invite that has a direct link to an interviewer’s calendar in Calendly. This way, users can choose the day and time slot that fits their schedules. In addition, our support team sends an email directly to the participants offering to choose the date and time for the interview.
We use Airtable to keep the list of participants. But sometimes the list is too long and we need to narrow it down. In order to further qualify the candidates, we send a link to a Typeform with clarifying questions. Once we review the answers, we can make a more informed decision whether a person is the right fit for the interview or not. And if they are, they will see a link to the calendar at the end of the Typeform.
In our experience conducting interviews, users participate for different reasons. Some users love our product and appreciate what we do, so they want to help us get better. Others participate for incentives like an Amazon certificate or a pro plan subscription, among other things.
Preparing the questions
A successful interview is more than a simple Q&A session, it’s a conversation. So, it’s important to keep questions open-ended, also known as curiosity questions. This way, instead of a yes or no answer, a respondent is encouraged to dive deeper and tell you a story.
And these stories always take time — that’s why it’s simply impossible to fit a lot of questions into an interview. This is, actually, one of the most common mistakes of first-time interviewers who try to squeeze in as many questions as they can. Some make lists of up to 25 questions. But even if they manage to ask them all, they’ll have to do with some short and superficial answers, which is not the goal here.
A good rule of thumb is to prepare 8 to 10 questions, considering that almost everyone will have some clarifying or follow-up questions. That means that an interview is not a list of questions but rather a list of topics you can explore with your respondents.
However, there are a lot of pitfalls to avoid, like asking framing questions during an interview. Here are some tips to overcome them:
Take the bias out. Questions must not be leading or in any way suggesting what you want to hear;
Do not ask for compliments or take an aggressive position (i.e., asking “What’s wrong with that feature?” when a user is expressing their dissatisfaction);
Keep the tone of your questions as neutral as possible but with a pinch of curiosity to encourage an interviewee to tell a story from their perspective;
Actively invite people to share by asking a “How so” question (i.e., when a person tells you that they do certain things, follow it with a “How so” to learn even more)
We discuss more pitfalls and how to avoid them at our Power of Interview workshop.
Now it’s clear that you should always start with preparing a list of what you want to learn and only then move to writing the questions. If you do it the other way around, chances are you start fixating on the correct wording and see just the text in front of you and not the nuances.
Choosing an interview tool
At our company, we use Zoom, but you can use whatever tool is more familiar to your respondents. Some companies, for example, approve only specific solutions like Microsoft Teams. On a general note, make sure the solution you choose allows you to make recordings of your interviews.
Since our respondents are well-versed in using Zoom, we do not provide any additional instructions. However, that’s not always the case, and if you are not sure whether your interviewees are well familiar with the tool you are going to use, instructions are definitely welcome.
Practice also shows that it’s worth reminding users about the upcoming interview. Some respondents forget and don’t show up despite the invite and the allocated time slot in their calendar. Others do not forget but tend to reschedule at the last moment.
To better plan your time, it’s good to ask users in advance if nothing has changed and, if their plans did change, offer them to reschedule. Calendly allows us to reschedule with ease — a respondent just follows a link from an invite and selects another time slot.
Assembling an interviewing team
An interview is generally conducted by an interviewer and a researcher who can also be an interviewer. You can also augment the team with an observer who performs the role of the second pilot, and if an interviewer becomes hesitant, an observer can step in. An observer can also be making notes, which is extremely helpful if the respondent did not provide permission to record the interview.
Since we use Zoom which allows us to record interviews, we have one interviewer conducting user interviews and several researchers who then watch and analyze the recordings.
Training before an interview
If you don’t have enough experience in conducting interviews, then it’s definitely worth having a trial run with your colleagues. A mock interview will help you see how you can better tune the questions to maximize the effect.
If you don’t have an opportunity to run an interview trial, sync with your team members after the interview to get feedback and adjust your approach.
Screenshot from an interview session
During the interview
Here comes the most interesting part — talking to the participants and getting to know their stories.
Starting off the right foot
With so much going on in everyone’s lives, users can forget what the interview is all about. So always state the purpose of the interview and, if the interview includes sensitive topics, make sure to tell a respondent that they can always put the interview on pause or even stop it if they feel uncomfortable.
Then follow by describing the basic rules and asking the respondent’s permission to record the interview. Do not forget to mention that a respondent will have time for their own questions at the end of the interview.
Now it’s time to move to the interview. To make respondents feel more at ease, start with general questions. We usually ask about the respondent’s experience with customer journey mapping, their role, etc., and you can ask similar questions in the context of your product or services. Also, both interviewer and interviewee should have cameras to see each other during an interview. But if a respondent for any reason cannot turn the camera on or doesn’t have one, make sure your camera is on.
Stop worrying and help respondents do the same
Even the most experienced of us can feel nervous during an interview. If you do, the first step to overcome it is to acknowledge the feeling and be open about it with a respondent. This won’t take the stress away but will help make it more manageable.
Participants can feel nervous, too, so try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. If you see that a respondent is very anxious, pause and ask if the interview questions make them so uneasy.
Recording the interview
As we have mentioned already, we use Zoom which has recording functionality. But if a respondent does not agree for the interview to be recorded, you can take notes or ask an observer to do that for you.
One of the advantages of an online user interview is that a respondent is usually in a quiet place, which results in a high-quality recording.
More listening, less talking
Less experienced interviewers are very afraid of pauses and moments of silence. But you don’t have to because a pause can simply mean that respondents are just collecting their thoughts to answer the question. Do not rush to fill those silent moments as participants may just be thinking over the question at hand.
Do not hesitate to ask again if something is not clear. Use a close-ended question to clarify what a respondent meant (e.g., I just want to make sure, did it happen last night?).
Closing on the right note
Keep an eye on the time. If the interview is supposed to take 40 minutes, then 40 minutes it is. And when you get closer to the end, you’ll see what topics have been covered and what not.
When you are running out of time, let a respondent finish the thought and then ask the last question while clearly stating so. This will give an interviewee a better understanding of the timeline. Once they are done, thank them for participation and move to answering their questions, if they have any.
Sometimes when respondents tell their stories, they can also give you valuable insights not directly related to the topic of the current interview. You may want to follow them up with some additional questions to learn more — ask for their permission to do so.
Genuinely thank respondents for their participation and if any compensation or a present is due, explain how and when they can get it.
After the interview
The interview is over, but your job is not done yet. The post-interview stage is all about getting the feedback, analyzing the results, and tuning your strategy.
Performing a retrospective
Retrospective can be very helpful, especially if you don’t have enough experience yet. You can share the recording with someone more skilled and ask for their feedback regarding what other questions you could have asked.
If it’s teamwork with several people conducting an interview, then the retrospective should be carried out in iterations after 1 or 2 interviews. Every discussion will help adjust the interview structure and tune the script to make it more effective (e.g., add more relevant questions or omit irrelevant ones).
If you conducted an interview by yourself, review the record after some time to correct any mistakes and work on your approach.
This is an obligatory step where we send an email to thank the respondents for participation and answer any questions that they had at the end of the interview, but we didn’t have time or couldn’t provide an answer at that moment.
We use Temi, an automatic transcription service, for transcribing interviews. If this is a short-term project, you can just sit and write down the main thesis.
But since we have long-term projects, it’s important for us to keep transcripts and properly structure them. We use Airtable for that. This way, we can always revisit transcripts whenever we need them and derive more valuable insights.
When working with transcripts, identify the main ideas and topics. If the tool you are working with allows you to use tags, structuring your notes can be even simpler.
Depending on the objective, you can use these insights for different purposes — from introducing new functionality to enhancing your custom journey map to identifying patterns for your personas.
The bottom line
On a final note, no online interview is possible without a reliable Internet connection. Take adequate measures of precaution like having a mobile modem or a smartphone ready to use a mobile hotspot.
As you can see, a lot goes into planning and conducting an effective remote user interview. But such meticulous preparation always pays off in the form of deep, actionable insights, better product design, and ultimately enhanced customer experiences.