Interviewing with purpose through force and finesse

If we are not collecting the information we intend to from research participants our findings will be incomplete or worse, irrelevant and misguided. To ensure validity, keep the interviews on track and satisfy stated objectives it is imperative to know when to realign interviews by applying subtle methods and when brute force; since both have their place.

Granted that best interviews find their own flow and that over-scripting discussion guides will severely limit the wiggle room needed to reach the golden “a-ha!” moments, determining and establishing research expectations from which value to further project development will be derived is a must.

We have gathered here today to…

By outlining to a research participant what all you intend to cover with regards to the type of information you are after as well as the format which you will be pursuing not only sets an expectation of what needs to be accomplished, but also gives you a

  • Leveraging point in realigning the discussion as needed
  • Motivational tool through displaying empathy in understanding their problems
  • And lastly, preset condition and justification to terminate the interview

Avoid bonding and being friendly

Friendly banter is one thing, conducting an interview is another. If we are to make the user feel comfortable and motivated in participating, let’s show genuine understanding and interest in solving his or her problems and exhibit a desire to address the same, and let’s not talk about sports and tabloids. We are here with a clear task and limited time to accomplish it.

motivating user research participants

In your role as a researcher or a moderator, you need to set the expectation that you will be gathering the information and the participant will have the role of aiding you through their knowledge, experiences and attitudes. As such I find it helpful to consider the interview session as an interrogation rather than a discussion.

This leads to an immediate passive positioning of the participant stating and or affirming their approval of or excitement with an idea, rather than leading to it and reaching a conclusion. So that when you are appraising a new feature you are more likely to hear,

“I haven’t even thought of it in that way, that’s a great idea” or
“I should be doing that…”

instead of participants imposing their priorities

“I’ve always done it this way, and it just works for me”

Or worse forming opinions and expectations solely based on your exploration.

Sticking to the stated objectives

When you are justifying your research to the stakeholders, clearly stated concerns you intend to address is what will grant you support. Formats and methods in which you approach said concerns differ.

Targeted outcomes

Already identified frictions or stated business needs provide clear targets. Hitting them drives most value back to the project.

Generalized format may be “What all X is needed to accomplish Y?”; providing extrapolation opportunities by tying in the task-process relationship via “How would that make your job more effective… or yields in more value, higher engagement?”

In the following example, I am to determine what data points are of most value to the user to see as the performance indicators of content they create using a landing page builder.

Hence, my research objective is:

Determine what data points are most relevant and drive most value for the user

Participant’s initial attitude (a common one at that) is:

None, I wouldn’t look at the data here, I would do so in my analytic platform.

If I was lazy I could leave it at that, and note “users do not want any performance indicators” but that would severely diminish expected engagement with the platform, let alone the value we intend to provide to users through incorporating said data points.

Through leading the participant on an exploratory journey and evoking reactions via associations I reached much more valuable conclusions.

The conversation starts with “I wouldn’t look at performance in here” but by sticking to and enforcing the theme, I am able to extract exactly what are the most valuable data points and how they will be utilized to drive engagement with the platform, as well as further optimize performance of content.

Contextual tasks

When contextually observing the user (e.g. thinking aloud) setting the tact is crucial as participants may skip over your objectives. “Can you go back and repeat the step” and “What if you tried doing that in another way” allow us to keep the user in the driving seat while we set out the track and road signs for them.

In the next example with the stated goal of

Determine the most engaging and viable template selection process

The participant goes through the task-flow rather rapidly

“I usually select this template, because it works well”

Allowing me to conclude that template selection is not as impactful as we’ve originally thought. But I need to understand why and force the participant to step back and elaborate. Which yields in the realization that she was not even aware of the available template selections, simply because she hasn’t scroll down far enough on the page.

Further underlying the significance of the template selection process…

“I often select one template, start working with it, only to go back and select another one”

As you will note the participant gets a little shaken up after taking direct instructions. Affirming to the user what they have stated themselves not only closes the loop but also alleviates forceful approach traumas as it leads them to the infamous “That’s what I meant” and previously mentioned “I ought to be doing that…”

Boolean objectives

Questions you intend to answer with clear-cut, yes or no, true or false, x or y, are ideal in confirming and completing themes, which is to say progressing the discussion.

Would doing X improve Y?
Is accomplishing X easier by doing Y or Z?

Having a lengthy list of these types of questions on a separate sheet, associated by themes you intend to cover, serves as a good checklist of what was and what wasn’t covered in the course of the interview.

As answers to most of these should emerge naturally, you may cross them out when they do, leaving you with a quickfire round of summations.

Get what you need, not what you can

Any one participant will not be suited to your entire set of your objectives. Establishing personas based on roles of those participants (e.g. decision maker vs. worker bee) aids you in considering which of the objectives you are to focus on and which to avoid in a particular interview.

Mapping research objectives to the persona types and traits can be a bit of a hassle but it pays of significantly.

Target thy participant’s context

Introducing the interview via exploring usage applications with regards to participant’s needs allows, if not forces you to personalize your approach. A simple

Tell me about the ways in which you use X

allows you to listen for a few minutes and determine the flow of the interview by circling the themes which emerge from the response on your discussion guide.


There may be an unwarranted temptation to ask as much as you can, and to fill out the full scheduled session but in doing so you are running a risk of including corroded research into your findings, save time etc. If there are no more valuable goals to target because the participant is not well suited, or they are simply not in a good mood… you’re just wasting time.

If a participant is not experienced with and or informed about the topics you wish to cover, or despite your best efforts to steer the topic he or she decides to focus on things important to them, or if you start wondering, “Well, what do I ask them now?” it is best to simply thank them for their time and input and then politely terminate the interview.

Analyzing findings and deriving value

If you’ve kept what you want to achieve in mind from the start it should be pretty easy to cross of the right items from your list of objectives, finalize and analyze the findings with the stakeholders.

Irrelevant and or insignificant data has been discarded, your stated hypothesis have been confirmed or disproved and you have a straightforward indication on how to inform further development processes.

Thanks to your active conduction, the concerns you’ve sought to resolve have been addressed and you may start defining a clear approach to implementing the findings – which is what I will cover in the next article.