Summary

Includes defining your research objectives, choosing and recruiting participants, designing the interview, creating a discussion guide, running a pilot and recording the interview.


Interviews are an important way to find out about the lives, needs and behaviours of your users.

You can use interviews at different phases of your project for different reasons. For example, at the start of a project you may use interviews to collect basic user needs about the service you’re designing. Half-way through you may want to combine interviews with usability testing of your prototype service.

Steps to follow

Spend time planning so you get high quality results from the valuable time you share with your users.

Define the objectives

Identify what the high level objectives are for the interview and how this relates to the project.

Choose the participants

You normally interview one person at a time. You can also interview people in pairs or small groups if they use a service together. For example, family members who help each other or members of a team who work together on tasks.

Recruit the participants

These should be current or likely service users and they should represent a range of people relevant to your service.

The difficulty of recruitment is often underestimated. For busy or hard-to-find groups this can take time and requires you to be flexible.

Find more information on:

Design the interview

Create a logical structure — the interview will run more smoothly and give better results.

  1. Make a list of the questions you’re trying to answer.
  2. Think about any processes or technology you want to discuss.
  3. Write a list of the topics you want to cover.
  4. Order the topics in a logical flow.

For each topic:

  1. Write starter questions to introduce the topic.
  2. Add follow-up questions you might ask to learn more.
  3. Test your questions and structure by interviewing a colleague.
  4. Rewrite any questions that are not clear and re-order your topics if the interview does not flow well.

Questions may cover sensitive subjects. Consider carefully how you’ll introduce and word these questions.

Create a discussion guide

A discussion guide should include:

  • your introduction script — this tells the participant who you are, explains the research and reminds them about things like recording
  • the interview topics —​ including starter and follow-up questions, instructions for any activities and rough timings for each topic
  • a planning checklist to make sure you have everything you need on the day

Read the example discussion guide to help you get started.

Use your discussion guide to:

  • use the time efficiently and stay focussed throughout the interview
  • review the interview results with your team
  • keep a record of what you do

When repeating the same interview for different users, make sure interviewers cover the same topics. This will help you easily compare findings.

Consider how long the interview may take. They normally last between 30 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the complexity of the subject and number of questions.

Longer interviews will give you more detail but may be harder to recruit participants. They’re usually also tiring for both the participant and the researcher. Consider splitting long interviews into 2 or more sessions.

Choose the place

Interviews can happen almost anywhere – a user’s home or workplace, a neutral place like a research studio, café or public library, or remotely by phone or video call.

No place is completely neutral so try to be conscious of what message the venue brings. A research studio might seem neutral to an interviewer, but feel intimidating for some people. A café might seem casual and relaxed, but a participant might not be comfortable discussing sensitive topics in a public place.

Make sure participants can easily find, enter and use the venue. If appropriate, arrange for interpreters or assistants to help.

Read about helping people take part for more information on choosing the right place for your interviews.

Run a pilot

Run some pilot interviews to check your discussion guide works. Make sure the order of topics and questions makes sense, and the timings are reasonable.

How to record the interview

You should decide how you want to record the interviews. Ideally you should invite a note-taker.

You might also want to invite observers. For example, when you want to help stakeholders understand and hear the problems users might have, or to train staff on how to do interviews or take notes. Be careful not to include too many observers as this could be intimidating for the participant.

Make a detailed record of what happens in the interview. You can do this by taking notes and photos, recording audio and copying things that participants use or refer to — like notes, forms, or instructions.

However you decide to record, make sure that your participants agree to it by getting their consent.

Taking notes

Written or typed notes are the most common way to record an interview.

Always try to invite an observer who can also act as your note-taker. This will let you to focus on conducting the interview.

Typed notes are the easiest to keep and analyse later but it can be difficult for the note-taker to keep up with the conversation. Pen and paper are more flexible but your notes will take more effort to interpret and transfer later.

What to record

There will be a lot of information to capture so you should concentrate on:

  • things people do —​ tasks, tools, problems and barriers
  • how they think —​ goals, choices, reasons, knowledge and gaps
  • how they feel —​ desires, reactions, fears and frustrations

Stick to these observations rather than your personal thoughts and interpretations —​ you can add them later.

It might not be easy the first time, but note-taking does improve with practice.

Audio recordings

Audio recordings offer a reassuring backup to written notes but they take more time and effort to review. They’re also less useful for interviews that involve physical interaction, like usability testing.

If you use a laptop or smartphone, try to find an external microphone to give good sound quality. Make sure you have enough battery power and storage space for the length of the interview. Test your set-up at the start of the interview to make sure it can pick up everyone who speaks.

User research studios and laboratories often offer audio recordings of interviews and workshops, but check before you book.

To record phone calls, use a conference call service or application that lets you record the call. This will also allow other participants and observers to join the call.

Getting transcripts

Creating a text version of your interview takes time but is valuable for later analysis. You can do this yourself or hire a transcription service.

Transcription services typically offer different levels of transcript:

  • full verbatim —​ this gives you all sounds, including repeated words, filler words (like ‘you know’ or ‘sort of’) and non-words (like ‘um’ and ‘ah’)
  • intelligent verbatim —​ this gives you all speech but with repeated words, filler words and unnecessary noises edited out
  • summary or notes —​ this gives you the general meaning of what’s said, but not the exact words

Different transcription services describe these levels in different ways, so check before you book.

It’s usually best to ask for intelligent verbatim. This provides readable detail that’s faster to use.

Once you get a transcript, add a brief description to the top of the document to help you identify it. For example, date, research aim and interview number.

Do the interview

Once you’ve started the interview and the participant is settled:

  • get the participant’s active informed consent
  • run through your introduction script and start any recording device
  • start with general questions to help the participant relax – for example, ask them about their journey or their job
  • take time to adjust to their pace and style of conversation

With reference to your discussion guide, get participants talking with open, neutral questions like:

  • how do you…?
  • what are the different ways you…?
  • what do you think about…?

Draw out more detail with simple follow-ups like:

  • you said… when/why/who was that?
  • can you tell me more about…?
  • in what way…?

During the interview:

  • focus on stories and real examples —​ avoid generalities, talking about how things ‘should’ happen and what other people might do
  • make sure you listen, showing the participant you’re interested in what they’re saying
  • make sure you understand what the participant has said —​ ask follow-up questions if you’re not sure
  • do not abruptly change the flow of the interview —​ if a participant goes off track, wait for a natural break and gently bring them back to what you want to talk about
  • stay quiet —​ the more you talk, the less your participant will talk
  • do not stick too rigidly to your discussion guide —​ let the conversation develop naturally and be prepared to explore anything new or interesting that comes up

After the interview

Reserve time at the end of the interview to:

  • ask the participant about anything they said that you did not understand
  • check if they have any final thoughts

Once you’ve finished:

  • thank the participant for their time and what they’ve helped you learn
  • explain what will happen with your research
  • ask them what they thought of the interview, so you can improve next time

If you’ve finished for the day:

  • make sure you securely store any personal data you’ve collected, on paper or in recordings
  • check the room to make sure you don’t leave anything behind