Asking the right questions during user research, interviews and testing

Interviewing users is an art — whether you are running usability testing, focus groups, ethnographic research or whatnot.

Here are some good practices for asking users the right questions, and asking the questions the right way.

Formulating the questions

Interviewing users require a lot of effort and planning. Depending on how extensive the research is, you might spend several weeks preparing for the sessions, several days talking to your users and several hours capturing and organizing your notes. You want to make sure all that effort won’t be thrown away because you didn’t take the time to properly plan your questions.

Start by defining broader themes

This may sound a bit obvious, but the first step is to really think through what you are trying to get out of the interviews. At this point, think about themesyou are trying to uncover, not specific questions just yet. Make sure you are aligned with the rest of the team that those are the topics you want to touch upon when talking to users.

A few examples of what these themes may look like:

“Why do people shop online?”
“How do people shop online?”
“For your customers, what is the difference between online and offline shopping?”

Break down your questions to make them answerable

The themes above sound similar, but there are fundamental differences between the topics each one is trying to uncover. Make sure you align with your team on the broader goal of research; this can save everyone tons of time later in the project.

The examples above are themes, and not the actual questions you would ask your users — if you did, you would get answers that are just too generic or vague. The next step is to break down, for each theme, the specific questions you want to ask your users:

“Why do people shop online?”
“What types of product do you buy online?”
“What types of product do you avoid buying online? Why?”
“What do you like the most and the least about the checkout process?”

Don’t ask questions that will influence the answer

A common mistake when framing questions for the interview is to rush things out and try to get to the expected answers as quick as possible. When you walk in the room for an interview, there is a good chance you already have an idea about the answers users will give you — but don’t let that intuition get in the way of extracting impartial, unbiased results.

“How anxious do you feel when an online purchase can’t be completed successfully?”
“Try to remember the last time an online purchase couldn’t be completed for some reason. How did you feel then?”

Ask about specific moments in the past

Answers become less generic and more accurate when user are thinking about a specific time in the past when that situation happened. They are more likely to give you more genuine and detailed answers — and they will try pretty hard to remember that specific occasion. Make sure your question is prompting that moment in the past:

“What goes through your head when an online purchase fails?”
“Tell me what went through your head the last time you tried to buy something online and the purchase failed.”

Prioritize open-ended questions

Some users feel very comfortable in interviews, and will give you thorough and complete answers, even without too much prompt. But in some cases, users will answer only what is being asked. Not because they’re lazy or mean, but just because different people have different personalities.

To avoid unproductive interview sessions (or sessions that will end too soon), make sure your questions are open-ended. Give users some room to elaborate their answers, as opposed to making super binary questions.

“What was the last thing you bought online?”
“Tell me about the last time you bought something online.”

Starting the interview

You’re finally walking into the room to start the interview, with your script in hands. It’s time to meet the user and make sure they feel as comfortable as possible being interviewed — a situation that can make most people nervous. Here are some tips to break the ice before you get the questionnaire going.

Get into character

You’re not the designer anymore. You are a researcher, who is overall very curious about how people behave online, and is particularly excited to hear that one story from that one user you are about to meet.

Take a few minutes before the interview to get into this new character. Breathe, stretch your facial muscles, and leave all the skepticism and attitude that are typical of designers outside of the room.

Keep the right posture

Your body language should reflect the fact you are sitting there to learn as much as possible from your user. Make eye contact, lean your body forward, don’t cross your arms, and keep your facial expressions always positive — regardless of what you are hearing back from the users.

Most importantly: remember to smile. Smiling makes your voice and attitude seem friendlier, which will certainly make the user more comfortable and open to being honest on their answers.

Explain there’s no right or wrong

This sounds a bit obvious, but it works every time: let your user know, right from the start, that there is no right or wrong answer. Make sure they understand you are not sitting there to test their ability to do something; you are testing your product’s ability to be clear, useful and easy to use.

Start with warm-up questions

Start your session with simple, friendly, lightweight questions before diving deep into the topics you want to uncover. In general, these warm-up questions should be related to the broader theme of the session, but should not be too specific of elaborate.

“What do you do for a living?”
“Can you tell me about your hobbies?”
“How often do you use your computer at home?”
“How often do you buy things online?”

During the interview

You are on a roll, now. Hopefully at this point the interview is flowing quite nicely, you are following the script you had originally set up, and are also able to adapt the questions according to the direction the conversation is heading. Now here are some tips to make sure you can keep the momentum going.

Don’t try to sell your product

You are running the research study to gather people’s honest feedback about your product, not to convince them that your product is the best thing they have ever tried. Don’t even try.

Control your reactions

Make sure you control your reactions, even when receiving negative feedback about something you are passionate about. If users sense you are being defensive about the feedback they are giving, they will stop giving you honest answers — which can defeat the purpose of doing user research in the first place.

Give yourself time to listen

You should not be doing most of the talking. Ask your question and quickly stop talking, so that users can actually answer it. There might be an awkward moment of silence (and an impulse from your side to fill that up), but shhh.

Paraphrase what you heard

You are meeting that person for the first time, so communication will be hard at the beginning. Every time you gather a new insight from the participant, take the time to summarize it and repeat it back to them. This will give them a chance to either confirm or clarify, and will keep you from going the wrong direction later in the interview.

Answer questions with questions

It’s natural that participants get stuck, especially if you are leading a usability test where they are asked to complete a certain task using your product. They will ask you questions (“Should I click here?”), but resist the temptation of giving them the answer. Instead, answer with another question:

“Where would you click in this case?”
“How do you think that would work?”
“How might you get assistance to figure this out?”

Watch out for non-verbal clues

Pay attention to facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. A lot of the feedback users give come in a non-verbal way. That awkward frowny face users do while browsing your website probably means they have a question and don’t feel comfortable asking. Ask them what it is.

A continuous learning process

Running user interviews, like any other skill, only gets better with time. You have to try and fail, try and fail — several times — until you get the right confidence to get things going more fluidly. Hopefully the tips above will give you a head start.

Originally published at

Fabricio Teixeira