How to Effectively Conduct Product Research Interviews

Mario Iannuzzi

Mario Iannuzzi

Lead Design Researcher

July 13, 2022

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

“To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

Steve Jobs

In part one, How to Effectively Prepare for Product Research Interviews, I did just that. Taking you through some best practices that can help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls of this method of data collection. However, preparation can only take you so far. 

You can certainly mitigate risk and increase your success if you prepare and plan, but that all becomes relatively useless if you’re unable to execute your plan; and in this case, the execution looks like a successful product research interview. 

As it would be cruel to only share one and not the other, allow me to take you through what all of your preparation is for in the last article as I share how to get the most from your participants anytime you use this method. 

Build Rapport and Active Listening

To elicit valuable information and insight from your interview subject, you need to build trust. And to do that, you need to build rapport.

There are a lot of aspects to building rapport, but it is an incredibly important piece of the interview puzzle—particularly with anxious interviewees. If you do not take the time to build a safe and comfortable atmosphere with your interviewee, they may not trust you enough (or relax enough) to open up and give you their fullest, most honest answers; and without that, you might be leaving information—or the truth—on the table. 

One aspect of building rapport is how you act. In short: be calm and welcoming! Begin with some small talk and banter with them from time to time; you can even ask them about their day. In other words, show them you’re a person, and that despite what they may be feeling, this is not a test. 

Another aspect of building rapport is making sure to introduce both yourself and the project so that they can start building trust with you (and understand why you are asking the questions you are). You can even detail what you’ll be discussing and what the goal of the interview is to orient them with even more context. 

If you plan to record, I cannot stress enough that you must ask their permission first. Aside from the obvious ethics of the matter, you will also make the participant nervous if they suddenly hear “this meeting is being recorded” from a random disembodied voice, and they will retreat into their metaphorical shells. 

Finally, active listening can go a long way toward building rapport. Make eye contact, even if it’s virtual; look like you’re paying attention, and give occasional affirmative noises to indicate that you’ve heard them and that you’re following along (e.g., “mm-hm”). 

While building rapport is advised in interviews, it’s counter-productive when it comes to usability testing. In a usability test, you’re trying to observe a user as they interact with a product or interface to assess how intuitive or user-friendly it is, so rather than be chatty and friendly, the facilitator should try to fade into the background as much as possible. 

Believe it or not, Rusty gives excellent tips for this in Ocean’s 11; or for a more in-depth comparison of usability testing and user interviews, view the chart on this Nielsen Norman Group page.

Control the Velocity

In the wonderful world of physics, velocity is described as the magnitude of how quickly something moves (distance over time) in a certain direction. When you’re facilitating an interview, you need to keep track of and control each of these three pieces of velocity: distance, time, and direction. Let’s start with the simplest of the three: time.

Time

Controlling the timing of the interview is imperative: cherish it, respect it, and keep track of it. Your time in the interview is limited, so leave no important stone unturned, and proceed under the assumption that you will never have an opportunity to speak with this person again. 

You also need to ensure that you don’t make a habit of going over time. Respect the fact that your interview subjects have lives, and that they’ve only budgeted a finite amount of their time to answer your questions. 

To ensure your timing is solid, find a colleague to practice a dry run (or several) prior to the real thing. In addition to helping flag ambiguous or leading questions, it will also give you a sense of how much time you’re likely to take up. 

Direction

Earlier in this article, we talked about setting a goal and making sure all of your questions ladder up to it. But when it comes to the live event, tangents and digressions are liable to pop up all over the place. This means the responsibility is on you to guide things back to the main line of inquiry.

One way to respectfully redirect the participant back towards the relevant topic is to use “marker” words. Markers are words that the participant has said in the context of topics that you’re interested in. Using these words, you’ll be able to steer the conversation back to where you want it. 

Participant: “Oh yes, about my banking, I have 3 credit cards with them, and I also get my daughter to go to the bank with me sometimes. You know, my daughter is great with that kind of stuff. She helped me open a chequing account, and also a savings account that has a good interest rate.”

You: “That sounds lovely! A while back, you mentioned credit cards. Could you tell me more about your experience with them?”

Distance

Last but not least, you need to control the “distance” you cover in the course of an interview: how much information you’ve managed to glean from the participant, as well as how much there may still be to go. 

As you move through the interview you’ll start to get an overall picture of how much of the participants’ potential knowledge of this subject there is to be elicited. This, in turn, will allow you to determine how far you still have to go down each line of questions. 

As mentioned above, some folks may require some extra coaxing to get details out of them—that’s what the follow-up questions are for. And as mentioned in the context of building rapport, don’t forget to make sounds that indicate to the participant that you’re listening and interested in what they’re saying. This will encourage them to go deeper on the subject.  

In some interviews, you may reach a point where you’re out of scripted questions on the particular topic, or don’t have a prepared follow-up question (after all, you can’t predict everything your participants might say), but you know that there’s more information to elicit on the subject. In cases like this, the TEDW framework alluded to earlier is an excellent guide to helping you improvise unscripted follow-up questions. As the acronym suggests, TEDW questions are those that begin with “Tell me more…,” “Explain…,” “Describe…,” and “Walk me through…”

While some subjects may be shy, others may be the opposite. The most effective way to achieve distance with chatty subjects is to show them that you’re about to interject. Almost counterintuitively, the way to do this is to use those encouraging sounds again (“mm-hm,” etc.). Instead of using them occasionally, you can increase the frequency of these “encouragers” in order to discourage them from continuing to speak and to signal that you’re going to interrupt.

This approach needs to be balanced with respect for these people’s times. This is especially true if the interview is about a sensitive subject. If they’re sharing something that’s emotionally charged (e.g., a traumatic memory), then you must hear them out as empathetically as possible without cutting them short. Let them tell their story.  

That’s it! Now what?

The product research interview, when executed properly and paired with diligent preparation, can be a well of valuable information and insight. And hopefully, when it comes to the preparation and execution of them, you feel a little more confident and able with the considerations discussed in these two articles. 

Now you can go forward with confidence and begin planning and executing interviews, driving insight, gathering data, and mitigating challenges before they arise.

If you are curious and have any questions regarding the insights from this series, please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

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