I recently completed a project's research phase which took me deep into lengthy discovery interviews with a wide swath of participants. Initially nervous about leading hour-long face-to-face discussions (via webex) with so many strangers, I soon was enthralled by the passion people had for their jobs and the lovely unexpected human moments that emerged.
So how do you interview properly? How do you ask open enough questions that also get you what you need? How do you stick to a standard script but also allow flexibility to go with the flow of a wandering human conversation? How do you face another human being on the other end of the line? How do you get everything you need without being extractive?
An intentional research process can help answer these questions. One cannot overlook the holistic design process that research fits into. But I will save further talk on broader holistic design processes. In this post, I will mainly focus on tactical interview tips that stood out to me and what to do when you're sitting across from someone else (even if it is virtual).
These are 8 tips that I've found helpful for my style of interviewing:
Let both of you warm up. Starting the interview can be tricky. Although you have a script and the right people in the room, I find it hard to prepare for different types of energy that you might encounter. There's nothing wrong with starting on script just to get the ball rolling but don’t feel obligated to stick to it as you both get more comfortable. Start with your easy human questions to get started. Establish that there are no wrong answers and that you want to hear their stories, their unique pain points, their under the table work-arounds.
Is the participant giving very short to the point answers or are they rambling on and on? You can adjust from there, but starting from a similar place for each interview can help you establish your baseline and create a uniform starting point across interviews allowing the unique elements of each interview to shine through. Don't worry about discovering robust insights in the first 10 minutes.
Slow down. One of the challenges of being prepared with a robust script or list of question is that you try to fit in every question. The downside of being prepared is getting too locked in and not going with the flow. Furthermore, if you are trying to hit every last question, you can speed through your lines and cut off the participant to the detriment of the honest conversation. Remember that trust is key in this exchange. There's a reason this interview is an interview and not just a static survey with sequenced questions.
One tendency that I fight is my desire to fill every silence. I thought that wasted minutes was wasted time. However, this kept me from feeling the flow to the conversation. I found that pausing as I collected my thoughts on where the conversation was turning was helpful. I even began to acknowledge where I needed time by saying:
"You said something really interesting that I want to explore further, and I'm just trying to figure out how to phrase my question..."
Ultimately, these points of deviation are what give life to our interviews. Why not announce in the conversation that you are going in a new direction?
Don’t double/triple stack questions. In order to fill up space or to sound like an expert, I find myself embellishing and overly complicating what I'm trying to say.
Instead of asking:
"So tell me, what is you biggest challenge?"
I'll mistakenly ramble:
"So tell me, today, if you were to describe to a friend, what would be the biggest, or most prominent, challenge in your job or your role? or in your day to day activities? or it could be from when you first began your job?"
While I always fall into this trap of trying to sound smart, I know that I'm ultimately coming across as unconfident and confusing when I ask around about questions in 5 ways. While it may seem helpful to dangle as many questions in front of the participant to get an answer, I've found that it leads to more confusion than anything.
Lean into silence. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. If you need time to think of the right followup question, acknowledge it. If something the participant said was impactful and you need time to absorb it, give yourself the space to take it in. A common trap has been the need to fill up space which leads to the interviewer awkwardly filling in gaps with choppy dialogue.
While it may seem counterproductive, leaning into silence can help communicate that you are hearing what the participant is telling you. Rather than jump straight to the next question as if I wasn't listening to what was said before, intentional pausing can give time to figure out a response and communicate that you are absorbing what they say.
Purposeful pausing also shows that you are confident. While confidence may seem like an odd superficial quality to establish in an interview, it is actually essential to establish trust with your participant, who has the burden of being vulnerable in the interview. The interviewee wants to know that you know what you're doing, that what they share is important, and that you are a safe person.
A Co-Facilitator could be helpful. I get caught up focusing on what I'm going to say next. Crafting the perfect next question takes me out of the conversation and makes me miss potential opportunities to sit with the spoken words and surrender to the flow of the conversation. This is where having a co-facilitator can help ease this stress.
I've found it helpful for a co-facilitator to jump in with a few timely questions to give myself a reprieve from thinking of questions. But be wary of expanding the number of people on the interview. If your subject matter is sensitive and there are already other people listening in on the line, it could be overwhelming for the participant to feel like they are the only ones talking to a panel of judges.
Does it feel like a test? Are you only getting out of the box answers? This question can help you gauge how deep your interview is going if the answer is yes. If possible, you can try to pivot and change tactics, but this is also hard to do on the fly.
Ultimately, it may be difficult to pivot and insert ‘authentic depth’ half way through an interview. But also remember that not every interview needs to be stellar and how the lack of answers could still bring insight.
Acknowledge what they say. Don’t just say ‘cool’ or ‘awesome.’ At the beginning of each interview, I attempt to convey the importance of ‘no wrong answers here’ to try to break the pressure that the participant is getting tested or that we are after a predetermined answer.
I find that each response is another opportunity to reinforce this message of ‘no wrong answers.’ How can you react to show that you are learning something from them? If something they said was surprising to you, you can acknowledge your surprise and show that you are interested in learning how your expectation is off:
“I would have expected xyz because of a few reasons, but you said it was more like abc. Can you tell me more why it’s abc?”
Think beyond transactional: I'm including this tip because this is where can think about how we evolve the field of design. Interviews can be so extractive. We ask participants for their time, expertise, and knowledge, but also their trust, vulnerability, and humanity. It is a red flag to not offer any compensation for this. A cash or gift card compensation is a good place to start. But what else can you offer research participants to keep it from becoming an exploitive process? Are there other forms of compensation beyond gift cards? Perhaps a donation an organization of the participant’s choice or a donation to a participant’s educational stipend. Think about how you can compensate for their hours. How does their organization recognize non-work development time? Is there a way this could become a piece of their performance so they get the proper recognition?
Furthermore, you can think of other softer things that you can offer. Can you offer to share as much as they do in an interview? Can you offer to share their story and narrative? Can you offer to meet them at a location where they feel most comfortable? Can you offer more ownership of the process?
Many of these points lead us to think about how can we truly co-research and co-create as designers. By rethinking a ‘co-research space,’ we can think about how power and design work. What would would this space look like if we used ‘co-researcher’ instead of (the passive) ‘participant?’ What more could we discover? What new dynamics and interactions could emerge?
This last point makes me excited to think about where the field of design can go. Overall with these tips, I hope that these tips can help you think about your own style of reaching people and new forms of interaction in research and design. Some questions to think about are:
How do you like to interview? What works best for you? What is your style?
What terms do you use in research? Researcher? Co-Researcher?
What new dynamics can you create by changing the way you interview?
To return to on interviewing tactics, I found that preparation ultimately only went so far. Talking about how you’ll behave and react has its limitations and pales in comparison to the real world experience of talking to another human being. I learned the most about the style that works for me when I was in the moment, not on the sidelines. I encourage you to spend time away from best practices and theories to get real experience interviewing someone.
However, if you do need to read more; here are some further readings on design research:
For more on tactical design research, I recommend you check out The Design Sprint from Google Ventures. This in-depth guide is helpful on the go in planning and deploying traditional design activities in quick productive sprints.
For more on co-research and community design, I recommend you check out Beyond Sticky Notes: Co-Design for Real Mindsets, Methods, and Movements by Kelly Ann McKercher. I wrote about in a previous post on design process. Nick Bowmast, Author of USERPALOOZA, describes the book as “required reading for emotionally intelligent, socially responsible research and design teams. This book bravely flies against the fashionable fetish for speed and the illusion of predictable process in design and research. Beyond Sticky Notes refreshingly acknowledges the importance of space, time and experience in crafting deeper meaning for design outcomes over using craft materials for lightweight tomfoolery and show.”
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