Designing solutions that perfectly align with user expectations can feel like an impossible task. After all, how can product teams be expected to understand every nuance of a user’s experience?
Well, while reading minds isn’t possible (yet), conducting user interviews is a close second for building a truly user-centered and user-informed product.
You can hear directly from users about what they need and expect from your product; bringing clarity to your product development and design process, helping you create seamless user experiences.
In this article, we’ll break down the art and science of conducting user interviews, with actionable tips to analyze the interviews, interpret the data, and turn feedback into strategies.
What are user interviews?
User interviews are conversations between UX researchers and target users that explore the latter’s preferences, motivations, and behaviors when it comes to your product. They can be structured, unstructured, or semi-structured—more on that shortly.
This qualitative UX research method gives you rich insights for building personas, creating journey maps, and designing the user experience.
User interviews are a critical part of the product development process because:
- They help product managers understand and analyze how users think about your product and interact with it
- Interview data about specific product functionality can guide teams to iterate their UX design process
- These conversations can also validate or disprove hypotheses, helping design teams prioritize ideas
- Firsthand user insights can align overall business decision-making with core customer needs
The bottom line: user interviews are critical to building products that truly resonate with the intended audience and build customer satisfaction.
So, let’s look at all the types of interviews you can conduct for user research.
What are the types of user interviews?
User interviews collect qualitative data by interviewing users remotely or in person. You can design these interviews in different formats based on two key parameters: structure and purpose.
Here are all the options to structure your interviews:
- Structured: In structured interviews, you ask every participant the same set of questions. Most questions offer multiple-choice answers or a rating-based scale, however, they can also be open-ended questions. This interview format produces comparative data.
- Unstructured: Unstructured interviews don't follow a planned script. Users can steer the conversation, and interviewers can take any route based on the responses they get. These free-flowing interviews collect qualitative, in-depth insights and allow for greater insight discovery through natural conversation.
- Semi-structured: Semi-structured interviews are a hybrid of the two models above, where researchers map out a basic plan for the conversation. They prepare a set of questions and ask relevant ones based on the interviewee’s responses.
Besides these three formats, you also want to consider the type of data you’re trying to collect, (aka, your purpose):
- Continuous: Continuous interviews involve interviewing the same user across a period of time in order to gather continuous data. This format maps the difference in users' thoughts. These open-ended interviews help in collecting ongoing insights for agile product development that keep user needs at the forefront of the process.
- Generative: Generative research aims to discover new insights about user behavior, challenges, and expectations. These exploratory interviews—that see you discuss topics with a wide variety of participants—are ideal for identifying pain points and defining the problem statement for further research.
- Contextual: Contextual interviews combine observation and interview to understand how different users behave in a specific environment or context. These interviews get answers to specific how and why questions by putting interviewees in a particular context.
Now, that’s the what—let’s take a closer look at the how.
How to conduct user interviews: step-by-step
Interviewing users is a lot like ice skating—it looks easy, but requires careful planning, practice, and balance.
From recruiting the right participants, preparing interview questions, navigating the conversation, and, perhaps most importantly, analyzing the responses—conducting interviews is a detailed process.
We’ve outlined the six key steps to help you get the insights you need from your user interviews.
1. Set your goals
Start by defining what you want to achieve from this research process. Are you launching a product and want to understand user expectations? Are you validating a new functionality or feature for your product? Are you collecting customer feedback to optimize the user onboarding experience?
These goals will guide your research in the right direction and ensure everyone’s on the same page. What’s more, all other aspects of planning this research—like the type of users you interview and the questions you ask—are closely tied to your objectives.
Involve multiple stakeholders in goal-setting and collectively outline what you’re trying to learn or answer, and how that will help you achieve your end product goal.
Let’s look at a quick example of a good research goal.
Imagine you're building an AI-powered design tool to simplify and accelerate the UX design process. You want to test your assumptions about user behavior and refine your foundational ideas for this app with user interviews. So, the objectives of your user research process will be to identify:
The shortcomings of current design tools
- Primary use cases for AI-powered design features
- Users’ expectations from an AI design solution
With goals like these, you’re looking at holding semi-structured, generative user interviews to find out more about user experiences and expectations.
2. Prepare your interview questions
Once you're clear on the research project's purpose, you can start outlining your interview scenario. This will include a basic script for how you want an interview to pan out. Divide this plan into segments for every theme or topic you want to cover.
Coming up with the right research questions involves a lot of effort—and your first set of questions likely won’t be the same as the questions you ask your last interviewee. You have to constantly refine the questions based on people's responses to get valuable insights, so consider question creation a continuous effort.
User interview question best practices
Here are some best practices to ensure you hit the nail on the head with your interview questions:
- Revisit your goals: Circle back to the research objectives you defined in step one and outline your focus areas. Ensure the questions you’re asking will answer and provide context for your objectives.
- Use filtering techniques: Sometimes users may need some guidance when opening a conversation–it’s okay to help them get going, but be careful to not influence their opinions. For example, if you find research participants are unable to name shortcomings of other AI tools off the top of their heads, consider asking about their experience with specific features—like the drag and drop tool or content upload feature.
- Dialog-provoking: Every question should nudge interviewees to share their thoughts and experiences openly. Instead of restricting them to a few options with closed questions, give them the space to talk in detail.
- Review and iterate: Creating a first cut of questions is only half the job. Share it with your team and collect feedback to make every question more relevant and laser-focused. This also helps ensure your questions collect comprehensive insights for the entire team.
- Aim for clarity: Vague or complicated phrases can prevent users from giving relevant answers. Use plain language and edit for wordiness to help users understand and respond quickly.
- One question, one detail: Lengthy questions covering multiple angles can confuse and overwhelm participants. Stick to one focus area per question and create follow-up questions to gather more information.
Creating effective interview questions isn’t a simple process, especially when starting from scratch—so utilize the tools available to you. Maze’s Question Bank has over 350 ready-to-use research questions to help you hit the ground running.
3. Recruit participants for your user research
When you’ve done this initial legwork, it’s time to find the right candidates for your interviews. Before you start searching and recruiting participants, study your target audience and create ideal user personas for your product.
These fictional personas will tell you the characteristics to look for when shortlisting candidates. They'll also help in filtering out those who don't fit the bill, saving you the effort of interviewing the wrong users.
You can also go back to your goals and define the types of users you want to interview.
For example, if you want to introduce your product to a new market, you can interview prospective customers that fit your personas to understand their expectations for your product. However, if your goal is to assess the effectiveness of your self-serve support setup, then you have to talk to your existing users.
Here's the tricky part: finding the right users that match your defined personas. There are many ways to recruit participants for UX research, including:
- Spreading the word in relevant communities with project details and incentives
- Amplifying the message on social media channels and among your network
- Leveraging guerilla testing tactics to approach your target audience
- Checking out participant databases or working with recruitment agencies
An example post calling for research participants
For example, the Maze Panel offers a quicker and more convenient option to find testers for research. You can browse a massive pool of over 280 million participants and narrow your search based on demographic and campaign engagement metrics.
What’s more, with Reach, you can go beyond recruitment to implement your complete outreach workflow from start to finish. Analyze individual profiles, create and send custom recruitment campaigns, and make your research process a breeze.
4. Introductions and build rapport
Before conducting your interviews, ask participants to fill out a research consent form. UX research ethics and best practices require informed consent to ensure participants have a complete understanding of their role in the study, its expected outcomes, and how their contributions will be used.
Once you’ve taken this written consent, you can start the interview by introducing yourself and sharing more context about the conversation.
Without delving into too much detail, briefly explain what the interview is for and your role in this project. Then, start with some lighter questions to learn more about each participant before moving on to your main points.
Pay attention to your body language, whether it's an in-person interview or a remote one. Your actions can make a huge difference in the interviewee's comfort and confidence. Consider these pointers when chatting with interviewees:
- Open with a smile and shake hands with interviewees (if in person, of course)
- Call interviewees by their name to build a connection
- Share some info on yourself to put them at ease e.g. your job role
- Be mindful of your body language and how it influences their perception of you
Overall, you want to maintain relaxed eye contact, nod frequently, take notes, and use empathetic, person-centered language.
5. Conduct the interview
This is what you’ve been working toward—it’s interview time. Both you and your participant should be ready to move into the interview stage after some introductions and chit chat.
Switching from small talk to the interview should be seamless—you don’t want participants to suddenly feel like they’re under pressure. Ease into the interview; it’s even worth considering whether there’s a way you can link your first question to some expected small talk. This way, you know you’re consciously transitioning into the interview, but the interviewee feels it’s a natural progression of the conversation.
How your interview will pan out depends on the type of interview you’re conducting. If it’s structured you’ll likely rattle through the questions one at a time, but if it’s unstructured it’ll feel more like an open conversation. If it’s semi-structured, you’ll find yourself somewhere between these two.
It’s a good idea to keep your interview goals front and center of mind when conducting interviews. You can’t get interview moments back—and you don’t want to find yourself wishing you’d asked an insight-packed follow up question once you’ve completed the interview.
As with the introductions, keep your body language and tone positive and open. Keep participants engaged by using their name from time to time, and try to keep the interview as conversational as possible.
6. Wrap up the interview
As a final step, debrief participants about the interview and thank them for participating. You can also encourage them to ask any questions about the project or get additional information.
This is also a good time to confirm the participant’s continued consent. Although they gave it at the start, they now know the full context of the interview and are in a better position to give complete, informed consent.
You should also discuss the next steps at this stage—like the incentive you promised or the project timeline. This quick debriefing round aims to keep them informed about the study and end on a positive note.
7. Analyze your user interview data
You’ve done all the heavy lifting to conduct user interviews. Now what?
The next and most critical step in the process is analyzing the interview data. You have to revisit all the inputs collected from participants and break them into actionable insights to find patterns, distinguish good-to-haves from essentials, and lots more.
While there’s no proven playbook for analyzing user interviews, you can map out the main steps for extracting insights from this raw data:
- Transcribe interviews and organize these scripts
- Perform thematic analysis and find common themes
- Categorize the data using codes, keywords, and tags
- Identify recurring ideas and highlight crucial information
- Visualize findings and prioritize them based on your goals
Doing each step manually can take days—maybe even weeks. Take a look at the detailed data mapping process that Amber Westerholm-Smith and their team at the Ministry of Justice created when building user personas for people incarcerated in UK prisons.
This was just one step of the insight extraction process following user interviews; it’s a long and detail-focused task. However, using a one-stop solution like Maze Interview Studies speeds up the assessment process to organize your data and derive meaningful insights.
With Interview Studies, you can manually upload sessions or integrate with Zoom to create transcripts. The AI-powered tool will process these interviews and share auto-generated conversation summaries, labeled speakers, and reports with critical learnings tagged, timestamped and organized in a tailored dashboard.
Maze also generates rich evidential support by adding video clips for each insight. So, instead of juggling between tools to complete each of these steps, you can consolidate the analysis process to cut the hassle and win time back.
Easily tag themes and categorize insights with Maze Interview Studies
So, that’s the step-by-step process—but what about some tips on conducting user interviews?
Best practices for user interviews
Ready to conduct your next research project? Note down these best practices to hit your goals every time, with a well-planned interview process and thoughtful questions.
Getting participants' consent is a non-negotiable in UX research interviews. This written consent has a twofold purpose: first, it informs users of what they're interviewing for and how their data will be used, and secondly, it ensures researcher accountability when it comes to protecting participants.
Researchers of any kind have a duty to protect research participants from any type of psychological or physical harm. During user interviews, you’re held to the same ethical standards as any other researcher; obtaining informed consent is a key step in the user interview process.
Don’t ask closed, leading, or biased questions
Another key factor of an effective research interview is asking neutral questions without influencing users’ responses. Instead of leading users to a specific response, frame your questions in an unbiased style.
So, this question, “Why is X your favorite product?” will become, “How do you feel about X compared to other products?”
Avoid asking closed questions with a yes/no response—unless your research goals specifically require it. Let participants express their thoughts freely by asking open-ended questions.
Pro tip ✨
Want the full breakdown on how to ask the right questions, the right way? Check out our tips on how to ask questions during user interviews.
Make your interviewee comfortable
A good way to get authentic responses is to make users feel relaxed during the interview. Instead of hosting the session as a strict interview, carry it out like a relaxed conversation. Acknowledge their responses to help them feel confident and comfortable. Interviews can make participants feel under pressure—do your best to put them at ease.
Remember that too much note-taking, while useful, can be distracting for both you and the participant. Consider recording interviews to watch back later, instead. It frees up your attention, doesn’t distract interviewees, and also makes user interview insight analysis a breeze—since you, your team, and stakeholders, can rewatch interviews as many times as needed or use AI to generate transcripts and conversation summaries quickly.
Ask follow-up questions
Spend some extra time brainstorming possible responses for each question in your list. Then, create follow-up questions to get more information from users. Keep updating these questions based on your interviews. Also, don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions as they occur to you—sometimes an answer will lead you naturally to another question.
Prep more questions than you think
It’s better to have too many questions than not enough—but this is a difficult thing to gauge before you start conducting interviews. ‘Better safe than sorry’ definitely applies here—plus, prepping too many questions (provided you don’t turn the interview into an hours-long interrogation) can only lead to more insights.
Now we’ve shared all the tips and tricks to interview users, let’s look at the pros and cons of this research method to decide if it’s the right fit for your goals.
The pros and cons of user interviews
Get streamlined insights and increase the value of your user interview data
Conducting user research will take you halfway, but it’s analyzing the data you collect and deriving crucial insights that will take you over the finish line. Without insight extraction, all you’ve got are conversations.
Collecting insights from the interviews you’ve conducted is the most important step for improving the user experience—but it’s also very time consuming. This is where Maze Interview Studies come in.
Transcribe and analyze all interviews automatically, then extract critical learnings from each session. Plus, you get a custom dashboard to document and organize all your insights in a shared location, so the whole team and every stakeholder can collaborate.
The insights you gather from user interviews are essential for improving your user experience—but this can’t be done without the processes and tools to ensure you don’t miss out on key learnings.
Frequently asked questions about user interviews
Why are user interviews important?
Why are user interviews important?
User interviews are important because they give product teams a way to speak directly to users to improve and optimize the user experience. These interviews heavily impact the UX design process, whether you’re building something from scratch, conducting usability testing, or enriching an existing product.
How do you run a user interview?
How do you run a user interview?
Here are the steps for running a user interview:
- Set clear goals for your research
- Prepare questions and follow-up questions beforehand
- Recruit participants for research based on user personas
- Establish rapport with participants and make them feel comfortable
- Conduct the interview
- Wrap up and end the interview with a debrief
- Analyze the interview data
How do you recruit participants for user interviews?
How do you recruit participants for user interviews?
Here’s how you can source high-quality participants for user interviews:
- Use a platform like the Maze Panel to get a database of users
- Post on online communities about your project
- Share an announcement on social media channels
- Tap into your personal network and ask for recommendations
- Work with a recruitment agency to directly connect with participants
What are some follow-up questions for user interviews?
What are some follow-up questions for user interviews?
Follow-up questions can be contextual, such as:
- Can you share some more details about that?
- How did that make you feel?
- Can you shed some light on this?
- How would you respond in an opposite situation?
Take a look at this question bank of over 350 ready-to-use research questions to help you hit the ground running.
What to ask in a user interview?
What to ask in a user interview?
Good user interviews include open-ended questions encouraging participants to share their thoughts and experiences. Instead of asking leading questions, ask dialog-provoking questions to keep the conversation going.