How to Effectively Prepare for Product Research Interviews

Mario Iannuzzi

Mario Iannuzzi

Lead Design Researcher

June 28, 2022

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

“To find ideas, find problems. To find problems, talk to people.”

– Julie Zhou

In the world of product development, research interviews are almost a way of life. While they’re only one way to gather information, they are incredibly popular —and for good reason. Stakeholder needs must be understood, subject matter experts (SMEs) must be consulted, and product users must be thoroughly heard. Research interviews are a crucial and relatively easy way to get all the aforementioned data and more!

Yet as valuable as this method of info gathering is, the research interview does not always go according to plan. Have you ever tried to run one and come away without the information you were looking for? Or found that the participant wasn’t talkative enough? Or perhaps was too chatty, but not about the subject at hand? All these challenges and more have affected even the most practised of interviewers, yielding insufficient or inferior data and, with it, the risk of an inferior product.

And they can usually all be avoided through proper preparation. 

But how do you effectively prepare for a product research interview? 

Well, like this. 

Define your goals

While a research interview is technically a conversation, you should not forget that it is a targeted conversation: you are trying to obtain specific information or insight. To ensure you achieve your goal, it helps to make that goal explicit and with as much clarity and specificity as possible. That way, when it comes time to formulate your questions and guide the conversation, you’ll know what helps you achieve that goal and when things are leading astray. 

While an interview can have multiple goals, it’s important not to have too many or to let any of them be too broad. If your goal is too broad or your attention is split up by pursuing more than two or three goals, it will make it hard to set a direction for the conversation, and you likely won’t have enough time to get all the information you need. On the other hand, if your interview goal is too narrow (or specific), you may miss out on contextual pieces of information.

Write goal-oriented questions

Now that you’ve established your interview’s goal (or goals), it helps to break that goal down into individual chunks of information based on the different aspects of your topic. Then, try to figure out what questions you might need to ask to get to that information. All of the questions you develop should serve that higher purpose. 

If it helps, you can use a visual hierarchy (as shown below) as a reminder that every time you create a question, that question should lead back to or otherwise support your goal.

Write lots of questions. AND follow-ups

When thinking about what questions to include, always have more questions than you think you might need. Because at the end of the day, there are two types of interview participants: those that love to talk and those that need a lot of prompting. And while the need for lots of questions is obvious for those who don’t talk much (you need material to keep the conversation going), it’s equally important in the case of chatty subjects. A solid list of questions will ensure you stay on track and get the answers you need before the digressions eat up all of your time.

To add volume to your list of questions, think about how participants might respond to the questions you already have, then write some “follow-up” questions around those responses. Not only will this help fill out your list—it’ll help keep the interview fluid and relieve some of the mental workload mid-interview: you won’t have to think on your feet as much.  

Relate questions to the present

In the case of user interviews (although potentially useful for stakeholder and SME interviews as well), the closer your questions relate to present-time events, the more likely it is you’ll get accurate responses. Try to avoid asking questions either about the distant past or hypothetical future behaviour.  People are spectacularly fallible at rememberingthe past (especially as you go further back) and notoriously bad at predicting hypothetical future behaviour—especially in the case of technologies that don’t exist just yet.  

If you ask someone whether they could see themselves using a not-yet-designed bank app, for instance, it’ll be hard for them to answer; but if you ask them to tell you about the last time they used a real bank app, you’re more likely to get reliable (and relevant) information – especially if it was a recent experience!

Keep the questions open-ended

It’s also important to write mostly open-ended questions—ones that can’t just be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Each question is an opportunity to pull information, context, emotions, and reasoning around a subject, and you’re not likely to get that with a one-word answer. Unfortunately, they also tend to close down the conversation, reducing the likelihood of follow-up questions (whether pre-planned or on-the-fly) and the great nuggets of information they can turn up. 

As a rule, the broadest and most open-ended questions can go at the beginning—then home in on more specific aspects of your topic. The TEDW framework is an excellent, easy, and memorable way to make sure you’re asking open-ended questions.

Closed questions are not inherently bad, but they have limited power to build understanding, nuance, and rapport, and are usually better suited for surveys than for interviews. 

Avoid leading, misleading, or ambiguous questions

Though closed questions aren’t bad in all contexts, some kinds of questions are. You might accidentally ask questions in a way that suggests an answer to the participant, for instance, or in a way that biases the participant towards responding one way or another, thereby corrupting the data (“leading questions”). 

You might also unintentionally ask questions that are simply vague, ambiguous in meaning, or otherwise confusing when the last thing you want is for your subject to understand the question in a different sense than the one you intended. Other categories of poorly worded or poorly framed questions are “loaded questions” and “double-barreled” questions. There are many excellent articles on this subject across the web (many of them with examples), so I won’t go too deep into it here. Allow me to simply offer two quick tips that will help reduce the likelihood of these questions sneaking into your interview.

  • First, make sure you run through your questions with a colleague or a friend prior to interviewing any participants. You might be asking ambiguous or leading without even realizing it, so another set of eyes can do wonders. 
  • Second, try to avoid questions with adjectives, adverbs, or words that add a subjective evaluation to an objective experience (e.g., “How was your experience with our –amazing- customer support team?”)

That’s it! Now what?

Trying to convey the value of product research interviews was not my intent; rather, how to maximize that value through preparation. More specifically, six considerations that will increase the likelihood of a successful product interview. 

But what about the interview itself?

While preparation is great and incredibly useful, it could all go to waste if not utilized in an effective and efficient interview. 

Which makes the perfect topic for my follow-up article, How to Effectively Conduct Product Research Interviews. Stay tuned!

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