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#UX / UI #Product Development

How to nail user interviews in a UX, HCD or Design Thinking process

Great! You’ve got your design brief, areas of interest you want to look into, and some interviews lined up. But what‘s next?

This article provides you with hands-on advice on why and how to conduct interviews in your UX process.

Some of the recommendations you are going to read might seem trivial and obvious but neglecting only one of them can ruin your entire interview. Trust me, been there, done that… 😉

How I failed

Only in recent weeks, I’ve conducted dozens of interviews for some client projects at Hinderling Volkart. The last one I did, I completely messed up! I assumed my interviewee had already been on-boarded and informed about why he got interviewed. So, I skipped a proper introduction and jumped right in! «Here we go! Let’s start! Tell me about yourself!»

That was a big mistake…

«Why the hell are you even talking to me? Do you even know who I am?», my interviewee furiously complained. I didn’t really know… As it turned out, he was an influential opinion leader in his field and the head of…

Well done! The mood was low and the energy down. The interviewee resent my questions and the interview became one of my longest hours ever…

If you DON’T want to fail like this, keep reading!

About interviewing people

If you are familiar with interviews and what they are good for, you may also skip this chapter.

Reason and goal for interviews

User interviews are a research method applied during the discovery phase of a human or user centred design process.

They help you gain a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and their reason why they do what they do. In the best case, interviews reveal insights that help you answer your question.

Insights are the dormant truth about an issue, one’s motivation, wishes, or frustration regarding a specific topic.

«Creating services or products based on your own needs is easy! However, is very unlikely that you will ever design a product for yourself. If you want to make a product or service that meets your end user needs, listening to your users is essential. Interviews are just one way to do that in a effective and efficient fashion (Daniel Santos, FutureEverything)».

Make sure you know why you interview people. Have a clear problem statement set and know what you want to find out.

User interviews often don’t give you all the answers you need. Sometimes they are the wrong instrument. They may fail when you are trying to ask people to remember how something happened in the past or speculate on a future use of something (nngroup, 2010).

You want to find out about people’s struggles and delights. Make interviewees recall specific critical incidents. This may be pain points or moments of pleasure. They help you reveal what lies beneath them.

Semi-structured vs. structured Interviews

I am not fully going into details, but there are various types of interviews. This article refers to semi-structured interviews, but it can be applied to other interview types, too.

Structured interviews have a rigorous set of questions which do not allow one to divert. Semi-structured interviews on the other hand are more open. They allow new ideas to be brought up during the interview as a result of what the interviewee says (Wikipedia).

Be aware that user interviews are only one research method among many others. Check out this great overview of other design research techniques:

It’s about the interview experience

I recently bumped into Swiss documentary film maker Paul Riniker (Link to Wikipedia entry – German only). He’s produced over 70 documentaries, he’s been a journalist, and he’s been lecturing for more than 20 years. A thing he told me over a beer struck me:

«I don’t interview people. I have conversations with them (Paul Riniker).»

Whether you call it an interview (I’ll keep referring to it that way) or a conversation, conducting interviews is about providing an experience to the person you want to learn from.

Getting this experience right is crucial to making your interviewee feel comfortable and to getting the most out of it.

Interview team setup

From my experience, it is best to conduct an interview accompanied by a partner. First of all, facilitating and leading the interview becomes easier. Secondly, sharing each other’s thoughts and impressions after the interview provides another perspective.

This person leads the interview and conducts it. It is important to focus on the interviewee. Apply active listening principles to do so. Pay your full attention to the interviewee and to what this person is saying and doing.

Note taker:

This person remains mainly quiet and takes notes. The note taker should get the chance to follow-up with questions. This works best if done at the end, initiated by the facilitator. Thus, one does not break the flow of the conversation.

Sometimes, there are other stakeholders taking part in an interview. This can be valuable to get them involved. Make sure that there are not too many people attending. This can be intimidating for the interviewee. Also, make sure they remain in the background and hold potential questions to the end of the interview.

If you do not have anyone to assist you, record the interview. Paying full attention to your interviewee and taking notes at the same time is challenging. Furthermore, your attention to the interviewee dwindles.

Interview User Journey

An interview is like a user journey in three phases:

Pre-Interview & On-Boarding Interview Post-Interview & Off-Boarding

You could extend this and add more phases or touch points over the entire experience.

1. Pre-Interview & On-Boarding

Once you have recruited interviewees, instruct them and provide a smooth onboarding process.

Some days before the interview: 

Communicate actively. Provide all relevant information (place, time, duration of the interview, potential preparation, etc.).

Just before the event of the interview: 

Prepare the interview space (in case you are not visiting them at their place), arrange proper seating, drinks, maybe snacks and have any document ready you might need e.g. NDA, interview guide, recording device, camera, etc. In the case of remote interviews make sure the required tech, apps, connection, etc. up and running for both sides.

At the arrival of your interviewee: 

Greet your interviewee by the name (it’s likely you have it) and introduce attendees. Provide a warm welcome, initiate some casual small-talk, offer drinks and ask them for potential needs during the interview.

Furthermore, you want to have a written interview guide prepared. It serves as a guideline to ensure the consistency throughout your interview process. This is especially valuable if different people conduct interviews.

As you do in an agile process, it helps to do test-interviews, practice and iterate your interview guide.

2. Interview

Provide a more formal and transparent introduction once both parties have made themselves comfortable. Then, start with the actual interview questions.

2.1. Introduction to the interview

An introduction could include the following components. Apply the bullets in the order that suits your flow:


«Hi again, it is great to meet you…»

A token of appreciation

«Thank you for taking your time…»

Quick introduction of yourselves, role and institution 

«Let me introduce ourselves… I am… Working as a…. for…»

Project background, context and reason why

«In the scope of our project… we would like to find out… how people… that’s why we want to talk to you…»

Convey value and appreciation

«This is not a test. You cannot do anything wrong. We value your honest expert opinion…»

Assure confidentiality and build trust

«Your opinion is important to us and will be treated with confidentiality. It will only be used for…»

Obtain agreement for documentation (have a written agreement to sign ready)

«The interview will be documented (e.g. photos, video, notes etc.)…»

Opportunity for up-front questions

«Do you have questions before we start… (answer if necessary)?»

Thank again and transition to interview questions…

«OK, Thank you again and let’s get started…»

Here is an example script for a potential introduction:

Hello (name of the interviewee),

It is great to meet you (maybe add some casual chat if needed again).

Thank you for taking your time and doing this interview with us.

Before we start, we would like to give you a quick idea of what this is all about.

We (name of you and your colleague) are (description of your roles) with (name of your organisation — maybe quickly talk about it). Our job is all about understanding people, their needs and designing and creating products and services that meet these needs!

And that is exactly why you are here and why we would like to talk to you in the next hour (provide a clear indication of time).

In the scope of our project for (be as transparent as possible while complying with potential NDAs) we would like to find out…

HOW people do/use/think etc.…. (your HMW question, challenge or greater question you want to get answered)

This is not a test. Please be aware that you cannot do anything wrong. We highly value your honest and transparent opinion. If you feel uncomfortable about any of our questions, you can always say so. You may always refuse to answer.

Your opinion is important to us and will be treated with confidentiality. It will only be used for internal purposes inside our organisation, among involved people and our client (obviously tell what applies).

To document this interview, we are going to take some notes, photos and audio record the conversation. Recordings, notes, photos, etc. will only be used for… (transparently list what applies and have interviewees sign a corresponding interviewee agreement).

Do you have any questions before we start this interview (answer if necessary)?

Great. Thank you again for your participation.

So, let’s get started! (move over to the actual questions)

2.2. Interview structure & content blocks

I usually structure my interviews in three parts:

Intro – About the interviewee: 

Let interviewees freely introduce and talk about themselves (job, education, likes or whatever may be related to your research topic).
«Tell us about yourself, your job, your role etc.»

Main topics – About your research topics: 

Define areas of interest you want to cover based on your main topic, allocate and order your questions within a topic to create a natural conversational flow.
«Let us talk about topic XYZ. When did you last…»

Outro – Time for comments and questions: 

Leave time for questions and comments at the end of the interview. Let interviewees reflect about what you talked about and encourage them to add their thoughts. You sometimes get the most revealing inputs here.

«Before we conclude… Do you have any comments, questions etc…»

2.3. Interview questions: DO’s and DON’Ts

Here is a list of things you should take into account when you ask interview questions:

Using a visual card sort to find out about people’s sentiments towards different donation methods – img/illu/project credits to Manish KC, Radina Doneva, Laura Morley, Shirley Sarker. Illustrations by Laura Morley

Start off with the easy questions:

«When did you last use service XYZ?» It does not matter when they did, but it provides an easy start to follow-up on. E.g. «Why did you use this service in this moment?»

Ask for extremes:

«What did you like most about…» and «What did you dislike most about…». This is where you want to start digging deeper.

Use open-ended questions – WHY, HOW, WHAT, WHEN…:

«Why did you…», «How did you…» and «What did you…»

Use follow-up questions to create a conversational flow: 

«Since you mentioned XYZ… This raises the question about… How would you describe…?»

Ask questions you think you know the answer for:

You might be wrong and might get a fresh perspective.

Use analogies: 

They may help your interviewee express thoughts: 

«If you this service, is it more of a Mercedes or a Volkswagen».

Use hands-on tools, methods and exercises: 

Card sorting, prototypes, photos, artifacts etc. make an interview more interactive and abstract questions more tangible. Example: Rather than mentioning six different services and let an interviewee rank them, give them cards to sort.

Do not stick to your questionnaire too rigorously. 

Try to maintain a natural conversation and flow instead.

Do not ask closed questions

«Do you like XYZ?»

Do not ask leading or misleading questions:

«If you could have this for free, would you take it?»

Don’t correct, teach or educate your interviewees. 

Your interviewees are here to teach you something, not the other way around!

Off-Boarding & Post-Interview

After the interview, thank your interviewees again for taking their time and point out the value of their presence.

Engage them in some casual small talk once again before you see them off. This might give you the chance to get some extra information.

Do a follow-up with your peers and start downloading and sharing your findings while they are still fresh. It is helpful to use color-coded Post-it®s with different categories such as:

Observations Problems Opportunities Needs Quotes

An interview download to happen right after the interview using different colored

One general rule to that 

«One thought per Post-it»

Last but not least, send a follow-up message to your interviewees. Say THANK YOU again and let them know they can always connect back to you.

That’s it… You are done!


User interviews are a powerful tool to generate insights and help you evaluate and hopefully solve a problem.

Have a clear goal in mind when you plan and set up interviews. Look for a «why» rather than a «yes» or a «no». Make your interviewees feel comfortable. Show them your appreciation and gratefulness at any point. Ask open questions (Why and How) and let them talk.

You wanna learn from your interviewees and not the other way around.

Feel free to recommend this post, share it, follow me on Twitter or get in touch: or

Thanks for the support and collab on this article Davis Levine, Daniel T Santos, Manuela Miksa, Tamar Hächler, Adrian Zumbrunnen.

This post is based on my personal professional experience and additional learnings gained at Hyper Island and via collaborating with IDEO’s Matt Cooper-Wright


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