The Case Study for User Interviews


I have two tips for learning how to conduct effective user interviews:

1. Keep your mouth shut.
2. Forget your ego.

We are, in many cases, a world of "I."

Thankfully, the user interview is the one place where you get to take a break from yourself. (As awesome as you may be).

Below, I'll share how this project influenced my research process, specifically with user interviews.

We wanted to know: Should we build a product?

We completed: 1 survey and 11 interviews

The answer to your burning question, "Should we build a product?"

At this time, no.

For the full story, read on...

I was part of a team that was tasked with researching the viability of a "potential product" that would, in theory, streamline a process that was created to help ensure employees are meeting the goals and outcomes of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. If that sounds confusing, it's because it is. This is government, folks. We are very well intentioned but have an unfortunate tendency to be as clear as mud.

The survey as it turns out, didn't tell us much beyond what we already knew. People were unsatisfied and had some bones to pick with this process, but we weren't entirely sure why. 

After I completed the interviews I found that people wanted the following three things:

  • Clear communication and transparent deadlines.

  • Management board preparation to give useful feedback.

  • An overall simplified process.

The end result was that the research really only told us that we needed to go back to the drawing board to revise the process people were going through. It was too fresh, and people were frustrated with the inconsistencies. We decided to revisit the research after changes were made to the process (which is still ongoing).

Even though the project didn't go the way we expected, I still gained a lot from the experience. 


Lesson #1: Transcribing interviews tests your listening skills.

The process of transcribing interviews was enlightening because it allowed me a second chance to take a step back and really listen to what people were saying.  What was their tone when they said that? How frustrated were they? Was it sarcasm... or not? Sometimes having that granular level of detail isn't needed. In this case, I found that direct quotes helped sell (and tell) the story.


Lesson #2: People won't always be receptive. Speak anyway.

In a perfect world, we'd all agree. The truth is, user research can be polarizing. When push comes to shove, it's the researcher who is put in the hot seat of defending their work. It's not always comfortable but I found that going back to your data is the rock you can lean on. I was challenged, and that's okay. If the end decision is not yours to make, that's okay too. Stand by your work and the rest will fall into place. (Maybe not the place you imagined, but a place nonetheless).


Lesson #3: Keep your mouth shut. Forget your ego.

Keep in mind, this lesson applies specifically to user interviews. Except the ego part. Most people could do with a little less ego. When conducting interviews it is your job to establish a connection with someone in a limited time frame. Often, this is someone you've never met before. How can you build trust in a way that isn't forced or fake? (If you know, let me in on your secret). For me, I remember this one universal truth: people just want to be heard. During my interviews I made a concentrated effort to build upon what they were saying. 

"I noticed you mentioned..."
"What did you mean when you said..."

 Let people know they've got your undivided attention and they will open up to you.