Originally published on IndieHackers.
Maybe you’re thinking about starting a new project. Or you have a project that’s not getting results. Or you’d like to improve an existing project. Interviewing users is the best place to start! With a few quick and easy small steps, you’ll get all the information you need to get started on your next adventure.
So what are user interviews?
You’d interview 3 to 8 people for approximately 15 to 30 minutes each. Your goal is to discover who these people are, and what they need. You’ll find out their goals, the circumstances they face, and their motivations for their goals. Most important, you’ll discover their pain points. User interviews are the best way to define problems that your prospective users face.
Who am I?
I’m a software engineer in Portland, OR. I am also a designer and a user experience researcher. In addition to conducting research for my employers over the years, I’ve run several projects on the side. My most successful so far was a popular card sorting site. My current project, Sagefy, is an open-content adaptive learning platform. I’ve used user interviews extensively to help guide my projects. Even with Sagefy, I wish I had interviewed users sooner. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I will offer practical advice based on what I’ve learned about interviewing users. I’ve interviewed both real and prospective users.
Why conduct user interviews?
I have five great reasons.
The hardest part of keeping a project going is (1) motivation. Hearing from real people will give you a reason to keep working on your project. When I was in a slump on building Sagefy, I knew I had a very real problem with my tools that allow users to create content. Someone wanting to create content offered me practical feedback. That was enough for me to get back into gear and working on the project again.
The number one reason why businesses tend to fail is a lack of (2) product-market fit. The most common issue is: no one wants to use what you’ve built. By interviewing users, you start off your project already knowing your target.
User interviews can help you get started on the right foot, or they can help to correct your current path. When I was researching for Sagefy in the beginning, I conducted some user interviews. These interviews helped me find that most people faced similar issues with online learning: the content was too hard or too easy. And after I finished building my “minimally-viable product” for Sagefy, there was almost no response. After asking a few people to try the site, I interviewed them. It became immediately clear that I need to focus on developing content over developing tools.
Another great reason to interview users is (3) low cost and high reward. With less than five hours of work, and no money involved, you can get plenty of information to get the project started. It’s a low investment if you end up realizing this isn’t the project you want to take. The worst thing to do is work on something for months, possibly years, only to realize you aren’t building the right thing. User interviews can help you figure out what path to take right from the beginning. And if you’ve been on the fence about an idea, less than five hours of your time can get you moving.
A common problem founders have at the beginning of the project is everything feels abstract and overwhelming. User interviews are a great way to get more (4) concrete. Your users will become actual humans to you. Their goals and pain points will become real to you. And you’ll know what to focus on and what tasks to prioritize. When I was working on ConceptCodify, I would get many support tickets a day. I interviewed a few of the people who wrote in, and that process made my users and their needs much more real to me.
My final major reason to interview users is it will help you start and build a (5) network. You will need people as you build your project to give you feedback. And you will need people in the industry to help promote your project. It doesn’t matter how small or how big you get, you will need feedback. In fact, many large corporations have teams of employees devoted to interviewing and researching users.
How do I find people to interview?
First, you’ll need to figure out who you’d like to interview. You want to find people as close to your prospective audience as possible. Try to find different perspectives on the same process. For Sagefy, I’ve targeted post-secondary teachers, instructional designers for corporate training, and independent adult learners who have taken courses on other sites.
For finding people to interview, there are many options. You can ask friends and family members if they know anyone in your target audience. You can look up people on the web or through social media, and find their email address. You can also try going to various local events. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to be interviewed. I would guess at least 80% of people say yes.
You should try to interview about 3 to 8 people. You’ll start noticing trends around the third interview, and by the time you hit 6 or 7 people you’ll have more information than you can process. Make sure you recruit more people than you need. I would recommend trying to get 10 people to say yes and on the schedule, because a few will flake out.
When you ask people if they are open to an interview, make sure you tell them the purpose of the interview. Make it clear that the interview will not be more than 30 minutes. You can do the interview in person or over the phone; for most people over the phone is easier. If the person agrees to an interview, be the first one to suggest a specific time and date. If you leave it open-ended, that will make it harder to get the interview on the schedule.
An email thread asking someone for an interview may look like:
Me: Hello, I am Kevin and I’m thinking about building a learning platform. I’m interviewing people who have taken online learning courses to find out their goals and needs. Would you be open to a 30-minute phone call? Thank you!
Response: Yes, I’d be open to it. I’m on vacation most of next week, so this week is best.
Me: Thanks so much for your help. Would 3pm on Friday this week work for you? Feel free to suggest another time.
Now that you’ve gotten about 10 or so people on the schedule, you’ll want to prepare the questions.
What questions should I ask?
You’ll want to prepare some questions in advance. If it helps, create a checklist. Especially if you are new to interviewing users, your nerves will be higher and having a list will make the interview smoother. You’ll want to limit your number of questions. 5 to 10 is plenty.
Each interview will follow the three stage process of (1) introduction, (2) main questions, and (3) wrap up.
Don’t skip the introduction. You want to open the person up before getting into your set of questions. Tell the person who you are and what you want to get out of the interview. One time I skipped this part. Part of the way through the interview I had to backtrack. The interviewee didn’t understand the purpose of the interview, and their answers were off-track. After we went back through the introduction steps, the questions were much easier to answer.
If you want to do an audio or video recording, make sure to get permission first. I’ve never felt the need to record, but some people do.
Assure the interviewee confidentiality. Let them know you won’t go blab to their employer or colleagues about what they say. Pain points can be rather political for many organizations.
As part of the introduction, make sure you know who you’re interviewing. Ask the person about their background, role at their employer, as well as their technical familiarity. Asking these questions before you get to the entree will help you when you want to ask follow-up questions.
The questions you pick for the main section will determine what you get out of the interview.
You need to be realistic about what you can and cannot get out of a user interview. User interviews are great for figuring out who the person is, what their goals are, and their pain points. User interviews are not a good way to get specific implementation details. Don’t ask them what copy to use, which colors to use, how to lay out your navigation, or which specific features you should build. Focus on identifying problems instead of trying to come up with solutions. You are there to learn and listen; not to inform and solve. There’s other ways like usability testing on wireframes to get more specifics later.
You’ll want to focus on open-ended questions rather than closed form questions. If the person can answer it yes/no, then the question is not open-ended. So instead of, “would you use a learning platform that adapts to your prior knowledge?” you want to ask “when you are looking at a potential learning experience, what do you look for?” Closed-form answers will not get you the result you’re looking for.
Another huge call out is the difference between opinions and behaviors. People will love to share their opinion with you. However in practice, you’ll find that often the opinion doesn’t match the behavior. Your questions should focus on what people do, and not how they feel. For ConceptCodify, I had some problems on my sign up form. People would tell me that it was no problem, that they would understand what I had. But in reality, it was difficult to use because when using the site, the person is not actively thinking, but doing.
There’s a few pieces of information you want to focus on: goals, motivations, values, expectations, pain points, circumstances, resources, and attitudes.
For goals, the basic question is “what do you need to get done?” The goal is self-evident, but it’s important to establish the user’s goal before asking other questions. If you jump to pain points without knowing the goal, you’ll miss a huge piece of context. Another way to phrase it is, “what are the main things you need to get done each day?”
Once you’ve established this person’s goals, the next piece is to understand their motivations and values. The question here is “why do you need to get it done?” When you ask “why,” the person will also expose their values around the goal. Sometimes the motivation will seem obvious to you. But when you ask the question, you get a different perspective than you might initially expect.
To clarify the user’s expectations, you can ask the question “how do you currently get it done?” Usability is almost completely based on familiarity. People expect things to work the way things currently work. So how the person currently completes their goals is very likely how they expect to complete their goals in the future. Anything different from their expectations is going to be a more difficult sale. The further you go from what the person already knows, the more you have to work. By asking for the current state of things, you’ll understand what the person expects. Sometimes you need to read between the lines; not all of their expectations are going to be clear to themselves. We forget our expectations despite holding on to them anyways.
The next question is probably the one you initially think to ask: “What’s wrong with the current way you get it done?” This question reveals the person’s pain points. It is tempting to skip right to this question. But without understanding the person’s goals, motivations, and expectations first, you won’t have the full context. The previous questions help frame the interviewee’s mind as well. This is the most important part of the interview, so pay full attention and listen.
Those questions might be plenty for one interview. If so, skip to the wrap up. If time and energy allows, you might want to ask some follow up questions. A few good topics are circumstances, resources, and attitudes. These questions are in the form “How much…?” and “How often…?”. Clarify the situation the person is in when they work towards the goal. Ask them about how much time, money, people, and effort they expect to use to complete the goal. Ask them about the attitude people tend to have towards the goal and the current way of doing things.
I’ll give an example set of questions. For Sagefy, I was starting to work on building new content creation tools. I asked these sorts of questions to some instructional designers:
- Goals: “When you’re creating learning content, what are the main things you are trying to accomplish?” “What types of content do you usually build?” “On a typical day, what sort of activities do you do to build content?”
- Motivations and Values: “Why are these the things you try to accomplish when building learning content?” “Why do you spend so much time on that activity?” “Why do you focus on these types of content?”
- Expectations: “Walk me through your current content creation process.” “What tools do you use to build learning content?” “What are the steps you follow?”
- Pain Points: “What do you wish were different about your current process and tools for creating learning content?” “What do you wish other instructional designers did as part of creating learning content?” “What could be better about your current workflow?”
At the end of the interview, you should ask the interviewee if they’d like to ask you any questions. Some of the more common questions I get at the end of the interview are “what’s the next step you’re planning to take?” and “what can I do to help you?” My common answer is I’ll follow up with them after I finish the interviews and organize my thoughts. Which I would recommend doing as well!
And of course, always say thank you to the person. They’ve given up some of their time to help you. “Thank you” is a simple way to keep the connection going with the person.
- It takes practice to get good at interviewing people — don’t be too hard on yourself at first. (I’m still getting better at it too!)
- Focus on listening — don’t interrupt or try to change their mind. Don’t try to ‘teach’ who you’re interviewing.
- Ignore solutioning — look at the underlying problems. Don’t ask about potential solutions, you’re there to define problems.
- Demographics are largely worthless — look at the circumstances. What situation is the person dealing with when they are trying to accomplish their goal?
- People don’t always remember everything out of context. You need to have reasonable expectations about what people are going to remember. And you can also tell them they can follow up if they remember anything else.
- Facilitate — keep the person on track by using questions to come back to the focus, what you want to get out of the interview. When a person started to get too theoretical about learning, I asked a question about the task at hand to bring them back.
- Be casual, don’t be formal. I had a few nervous interviews before… practice makes it easier to be casual.
- Say please and thank you.
- Take notes after the interview, not during. I find note taking to be very distracting when I’m trying to listen. As long as you take your notes right after, you won’t forget anything important. The larger point is you are looking for patterns in responses, and not just one person’s take.
- Follow up with the person a few days later, thanking them for the interview. The person will be more likely to help you out later if you do.
Don’t try to get it perfect your first try. The most important thing is just to get out there and start talking to people in your prospective audience. Everything in this article is just advice based on my own experience. You’ll find things that work better for you as you go. Stop ‘thinking about’ or ‘planning’ your project. Stop worrying about how you could theoretically make things better. Get out there and just talk to some people. Interviewing users is the best way to get started right.