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How content designers can get the most out user interviews

As a content designer you’ll occasionally get a chance to interview users. Jump on these opportunities! It’s a way to find out what language your customers actually use and get a glimpse into their mental model of the problem space.

Here are some tips to help the process go well.

Warm up the subject

Warming up the participant helps them feel safe and comfortable around you. The more comfortable your participant feels, the better answers you’ll get from them. Warm up the participant with some easy, small-talky questions to get them talking, to warm up their voice, and to build rapport.

  • How was the traffic coming in?
  • What did you have for breakfast today? (A classic sound test question)
  • Have you done user testing before? Tell me about the experience.
  • Is there anything you’re feeling apprehensive about?
  • Is there anything you need right now? A shot of tequila?

Establish a collaborative rapport

I’ve been on both sides of a user interview. Sometimes it can feel like you’re being interrogated. When the participant feels interrogated, they can respond in a defensive way and that’s not helpful.

You need the participant to feel safe revealing that they don’t understand a part of the experience or that something is confusing. Believe it or not, this is the hard part. Humans are hardwired for connection. Even for strangers they don’t want to hurt your feelings.

We are also wired for ego. We don’t want to admit we don’t understand something. Especially when an expert is sitting in front of us, asking us questions.

Spend extra time at the outset establishing the process as a collaboration and not an interrogation.

  • Help the user understand that you’re evaluating the software.
    • This is quality control, not an exam. We’re not testing you, we’re testing the software”
  • Remind the user that the software is a work in progress.
    • If something is confusing, you have full permission to say so. We’re still working things out. We know everything isn’t perfect.”
  • Remove yourself from the process.
    • You won’t hurt my feelings. I didn’t make this particular experience, I’m just here to talk to you.”
  • Remind the user that there are no right answers
    • We just want to get your reactions, this isn’t an evaluation so just think out loud.”

Listen to the user

When the participant is talking and says something interesting you might be tempted to interrupt with questions on it. Never interrupt the user! Let them talk. When users are interrupted it makes them feel like they are doing/saying something wrong and they may feel less forthcoming.

  • Don’t take notes as they are talking: listen faithfully and take notes from the recording
  • Don’t go through your list of questions in a robotic way: listen to your user and respond to what they say. Make it feel like a conversation
  • After they finish talking, wait 5 seconds. Resist your urge to say anything. Actually count (in your head) one-thousand one, one-thousand two… it will feel really long, but do it. Your participant will often have ideas in this space.
  • The more you are talking the less you are learning. If something the user said sparks and interesting anecdote or idea in your mind, squash it.
  • Repeat back what the participant said.
    • So what I hear you saying is… that the navigation bar is confusing. Did I get that right?”
    • Allow them to clarify if necessary.

Don’t ask why

Why” is not a good question to ask participants. Why puts users in a defensive posture because many will interpret this as a prompt to justify their behavior and choices. When humans have to justify their choices, their threat level goes up, which causes stress. Folks under stress get tunnel vision and can’t think in a diffused way. That’s just not useful for research.

Don’t ask users why. Instead, help them get specific about how and what. How and what challenges your participant to think in terms of the experience whereas why, shifts them to a narrative based around their character.1

This is more work for you as the researcher, but it pays off. Every why” question should be rephrased as a how or why question.

Why What & How
Why did you close that window? (“I didn’t need it anymore.”) What made you close that window? (“It was blocking the messages beneath it.”)
Why do you start your day on this page? (“I don’t know, I just do.”) How does this page help you start your day? (“This page tells me which messages I haven’t read yet.”)

Be prepared to jump between categories

Divide up your questions into categories. That way when you’re in the middle of the conversation you can easily glance at the headings as the subject moves between topics and find questions within the topic to jump into.

Don’t bulldoze through your questions in order, an error I see all the time:

Interviewer: how do tabs help you respond to tickets?

Participant: they don’t really. I tend to rely on this dashboard, even though I’m on the only one on the team who does.

Interviewer (bulldozing on to the next question on the list): what are some things you’d like to see tabs do?

Hello? The user just revealed a potentially fascinating line of questioning. They use another tool to do the same work and they recognize that it’s strange. I would jump all over this:

Participant: They don’t really. I tend to rely on this dashboard, even though I’m on the only one on the team who does.

Interviewer: Interesting! Is there something unique about your work that makes you rely on the dashboard [mirror back their exact language]?

Participant: Yes. I solve the high-priority tickets which require…

And now you have learned something.

Normal conversations aren’t linear. Your questions are a map to help you keep oriented as you follow the participant’s mind around. Remember: they are driving, you’re just along for the ride.

Don’t ask double barrelled questions

A double barrelled question is one that asks two different things in a single statement. It’s hard to answer.

Is it easier to navigate the home page or the views page?

It’s better to split these into two questions.

Don’t ask leading questions

This is very easy to do. If you are a PM with under two years of experience, you will do this without noticing because you are fishing for a particular answer. (Seasoned PMs rarely do this.)

Content designer, don’t develop this habit. Don’t lead the witness. A leading question presents assumptions as given in the question:

How much easier is it to navigate settings now that there is a new design?

Whether settings page is easier to navigate is what you’re trying to figure out. Ideally, you’re inferring this from the user’s ability to complete tasks. You don’t need to ask them outright.

Sometimes leading questions are very sneaky:

Which part of the UI do you feel is the most important to completing this task?

This constrains the problem space to the UI, and we don’t even know what the user is thinking. Instead ask a more open-ended question:

What’s important to you to complete this task? Consider any part of the experience.

Practice embodied listening

Don’t take notes while talking. Don’t take notes while talking. Don’t take notes while talking. Don’t take notes while talking.

Record the conversation or have another person take notes.

  • Practice parasympathetic breathing
  • Don’t daydream, be present
  • Put yourself in their shoes and imagine feeling that way
  • Concentrate on the feeling behind what they are saying (not content)
  • Don’t formulate your response while they are talking
  • Don’t interrupt or finish their thought for them
  • Dig to find the motivation (goal) behind what they are asking for
  • Don’t judge. Stay neutral
  • Brain dump after the interview (and before watching a recording)

Listen for surprises

I don’t know about you, but the entire point of user interview is to learn something. You’re not looking for emotional validation or confirmation of things you already believe.

(Unless you work for a mid-sized tech company. Sigh.)

Try to key into surprising or unexpected insights. You can do this by encouraging the user to speak as much as possible, especially about their emotional state.

If something is confusing, weird, or surprising lean into that. That’s where the insights are.


  1. If you take nothing else from this article, remember this. This misunderstanding is behind the tragedy of modern product design research: the idea that a user’s expressed narrative equals their true mental state. UX design is applied cognitive psychology, not market research.↩︎

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