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On User Interviews

4 min

Most of us suck at taking good interviews. I used to suck at taking good interviews too.

Five years of design research helps you learn a thing or two. I've learnt that the trick is in asking better questions. Better questions lead to better answers. It's as simple as that.

Here's what I've learnt in acing the user interview process.

There is no objective truth when it comes to interviews.

It's all just perspectives.

We can only understand how someone else has experienced 'THEIR' truth.

It's always helpful to carry some topic outlines (OVERARCHING QUESTIONS) before heading out to an interview.

I carry a checklist of assumptions before the start of any conversation. Preparing the exact questions and prompts for a structured interview mostly backfires.

If there is more than one person conducting the interview, assign roles. Who would be the note-taker? Who will be the interviewer?

Questions can make or break interviews.

There are three traps which we can be mindful of before getting into interviews:

Double barreled questions

A question that touches upon multiple issues, and yet requires only one answer. ❌ How much do you enjoy collecting and analysing data?

Leading question

❌ Were you in Los Angeles last week?

✅ What did you do last week?

Bias lead questions

❌ Why don't you eat meat?

✅ How do you decide what foods to cook?

Another example of a bias lead question —

❌ Do you think most people in your school don’t talk about sex and condoms because they are afraid of being seen as promiscuous?

✅ What do people in your school community say about sex and condoms?

In general, it's advisable to keep the questions open-ended and not closed.

❌  Do you see flowers or trees?

✅  What do you see when you look at this picture?

It's dangerous to use checklist of questions during interviews.

You let the interviewee guide your questions, and NOT the checklist. You can always improvise and adapt.

Sometimes, the whole structure of an interview might make the interviewee more rigid. This might prevent them from sharing something.

Best insights I've got while researching has actually NOT in an interview.

It's mostly the long dinners and casual walks. Keeping it candid helps.


Lastly, the ethics of an interview are also important.

1. Seek permission and remind that interview can stop at any time.

2. Talk about how you will deanonymize the data if sharing with other people?

3. Be wary of sensitive questions that might make people uncomfortable!

Lastly, great interviews are well thought of. It's helpful to write detailed interview guides.

This is an example from an interview guide prepared by my teammate at Noora Health.

Here are some snippets from the interview that you might find it interesting.

How Might We section

There is an 'How Might We' section that you're exploring through the interview. And that's clearly depicted such as the one here–

It might also not be the case that we have all the questions chalked out in advance to the level of detail you might expect. In most cases, the questions are usually impromptu and are guided based on the user's responses.

Exploring themes

It's helpful in this case, to go for a semi-structured format consisting of broader themes–

Intro guide

The type of introductions which you can have before the interview starts can also be detailed in this guide–

Thanks for giving us your time today! My name is (FIXME) and these are my colleagues (introductions). We’re designers and researchers from Noora Health.  We believe in putting people at the centre of our efforts so instead of working in our studio and coming up with ideas by ourselves, it’s very important that we  go out and speak with people so that we understand real needs, and real experiences.
For this current project, we are conducting some early research and are just looking to understand people’s needs and experience around ‘care’ – how you define it, where and how you get and give it, and what it looks like in different parts of your life. So having said that, we are not here with any ideas about what we expect to hear, and there’s no right or wrong answers.  The purpose of this interview is to gain a deeper understanding of ​you​ and ​your experiences. The process will be the most productive and fun if you can be as open and honest as possibly can be.
This session will take about 2.5 hours (including travel time). There will be a mix of a Q&A, as well as some structured activities. You may hear me ask the question ‘​why’​ a lot. We ask this question because it helps us to get to know you and your needs better.

Apart from this, one could also interweave adequate number of activities apart from the questions asked to probe even deeper.

What one might say, is different from what one might feel, is different from what one might think. To get to all these levels of interpretation, it's important to have various different levels of enquiry through a series of activities.


A lot of design research activities are compiled here for inspiration.

Behavioural Interviews
Working document for people to collaborate on the design research guide

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