Conversing with Users: 3 Types of User Interviews

06-30-21 Merani Cosme

Improve UX by gathering data directly from users. Learn three user interviewing techniques: structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and contextual inquiries.

One of the best ways to identify a problem within an experience is to research the people who are using the product. User interviews are a great UX research method to gain more information about our users’ needs. Interviews allow us to empathize with our users, effectively define the problem we’re trying to solve, and create a better solution that is supported by unbiased data instead of our own preconceptions.

Why Conduct User Interviews?

When we start a project at Sparkbox, we aim to talk to real users during our Discovery process. If a project’s scope includes UX, we suggest getting more information from direct users to better define the project’s goals and the product’s opportunities. Once we define the goals for a project, we might suggest doing a round of usability testing or user interviews depending on where the project is at and what we think will get us the information we need.

By conducting user interviews we’re able to

  • reduce the risk of building the wrong thing
  • ensure we understand our user’s needs
  • get unbiased first-person information from our users
  • define our user’s habits or mental models
  • establish trends in our users’ needs

3 Types of User Interviews

There are three common types of user interviews. Most commonly, we conduct structured interviews, where we have a 1-on-1 conversation with a user and ask a series of questions. We also conduct contextual inquiries, in which we see the user’s environment or tools they use, which helps us better understand them and how they use the product we are designing. Less often, we’ll do unstructured interviews.

Contextual Inquiry

A contextual inquiry is when you observe a user doing a specific set of tasks with a product or an experience. For this type of interview, you have to prepare a well-thought-out set of questions that you can ask the user before, during, and after the interview. The benefit of contextual inquiries is that you can observe in real time how people use a product or go through an experience in their own environments. For this type of interview, make sure to actively listen and observe what the user is doing.

These interviews work well for products that users will interact with in conditions that can be hard for us to imagine, for example, a factory or retail setting. Contextual inquiries require us to first-hand observe people working in the final product environment, helping us envision what it’s like. At Sparkbox, we use these interviews for projects in which we need to better understand the environment and circumstances a user is in.

Structured Interview

A structured interview is when interviewers ask a set of predefined questions in a standardized manner. For this type of interview, you must have a set of well-thought-out questions as well as a discussion guide that will allow you to stay on track during the interview. The benefit of structured interviews is that since all the questions are the same for all users, it’s a great way to easily accumulate data and identify trends between all conducted interviews.

These interviews work well for projects that have multiple team members conducting user interviews, as they provide a predetermined structure that everyone can easily follow. For this type of interview, make sure to carefully plan your set of questions and your discussion guide before the interview. At Sparkbox, we mainly use structured interviews because they give us enough information to keep moving forward with a project while also giving all of our team members a solid interview structure that keeps us on the same page.

Unstructured Interview

An unstructured interview is a conversation-based interview where you have general topics you would like to cover but don’t have a specific set of questions or a predetermined structure. For this type of interview, you don’t necessarily need as much planning as you would with the other interview methods. But I would recommend at least having a list of general topics you would like to talk about. The benefit of unstructured interviews is that it allows users to communicate more openly. Because this is more of a conversation than an interview, users will likely feel more comfortable to provide feedback about a product or an experience.

These interviews can work well for projects that don’t need as many interviews and are tight on time or budget. For this type of interview, make sure to have a general idea of what themes you would like to touch upon. Actively try to make the interview feel like more of a conversation than an actual interview. At Sparkbox, we rarely use this method because, with how unstructured these interviews are, they make it hard to keep all of our team members on the same page. These kinds of interviews are beneficial when you’re interested in gathering background information to better understand users or are looking to identify problems in a timely manner.

Choosing the Right Type of User Interview for Your Project

When choosing an interview method for your project, I would suggest asking yourself the following three questions. The answers to these can guide you to selecting the interview method that makes the most sense for your situation.

  1. Where are you in the UX process? Is your product new, or are you refining an existing experience? Are you trying to identify a user problem, or are you adjusting the product to solve for an already existing issue?

  2. What kind of interview method would glean the type of information you need? Do you need to observe people going through an experience, or will a conversation suffice?

  3. What practical aspects might affect your interview method decision? What is your project’s timeline and budget? How many people on your team are going to play the role of interviewers? How are you planning on synthesizing and presenting your data?

Keep in mind that just because one interview type worked well for a project, it won’t necessarily work well for another one. Plan ahead and make sure you pick the type of interview that will benefit you and your client the most.

Understanding Your Users Creates Better Products

When you’re making an investment in new design and development, doing user research like interviews greatly reduces the risk of building something that your audience doesn’t want, and frankly, it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort. Gaining empathy for your users’ challenges and seeing your product or website through their eyes helps you build something with more value for the end user. And with that, you’ll see greater returns on your design and development investment.

We know it can be hard to find people to interview. We have a resource to help you find and recruit user research participants. Check it out!

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