10 Tips for Conducting a Great User Interview

Blogger: Joel Worthington, Strategic Innovation Designer | Chicago, IL, USA
September 19, 2016

Recently, an old healthcare administration colleague and friend inquired about how my colleagues, HDR’s Strategic Innovation team, approach engaging end users of services. Whether he knew it or not, he was setting me up to write this blog post (thanks Phil!)

User research can happen in a number of ways at various times throughout the design process. We often conduct interviews, observe spaces and behavior, distribute surveys, lead focus groups, and use remote tools. My friend, who has had trouble getting valuable information from interviews in the past, was particularly interested in how we conduct one-on-one interviews.

So, with that in mind, I have compiled my top 10 tips for interviewing users below.

  1. Know what you’re working toward. The main goal is for interviewees to “open up” over the course of the interview, name problems that go beyond the surface, think differently about possibilities, and make them feel (and actually be) heard.
  2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Develop a field guide—a loose script for how the interview will go and the questions you will ask or activities you will use. Think about activities or materials you might need. Consider recording the conversation (with permission of course; you’ll need a release form) in order to review, clarify, and substantiate particular points or quotes later. We often compile video snippets from interviews to tell a powerful story straight from the users’ mouths.
  3. Build rapport to build trust. Get to know the respondent a bit. Set the tone for a casual conversation where they feel comfortable opening up.
  4. Prime the pump. This is not your typical “call-and-response” interview. Start broad and open-ended to create space for exploration. Prime their thinking because it’s very difficult for people to move past what’s on the surface unless you help them think about it first.
  5. Be casual. Have them tell stories, provide examples, and think out loud.  You can listen for the particular things that you are most interested in and make note of them: pain points, workarounds, challenges, opportunities, hopes, possible solutions, etc. It’s okay to talk about something off topic, especially if it’s in the flow of conversation…just remember to get back on topic without too much delay.
  6. Be empathetic. People LIKE to feel like they are being heard and have a voice in the process. Paraphrasing what they’ve said back to them solidifies this feeling and makes it more likely that they will keep opening up as the conversation continues. Really understanding (or trying to understand) what the interviewee has been through, and why they think what they think, will open up possibilities for solving problems even tackling problems you didn’t even realize were problems in the first place.
  7. Don’t judge. You are trying to open-mindedly learn what users really think and do.  Don’t let your opinion cloud this. Being empathetic and neutral is a tricky balance, but the key is really to let the interviewee’s words guide the conversation.
  8. Listen actively. This is not just something a teacher tells an elementary school student—this is real, and it’s critical. Try to not to interrupt or even speak too quickly after you think they are done speaking. Often they will have more to say after they’ve primed themselves, which can lead to expected insights that can unlock possibilities.
  9. Have interviewees recap. At the end of the conversation, have the interviewee summarize. For example, consider having them describe how they see healthcare being delivered in the future without constraints. It’s helpful to think about the ideal state first and then work back toward reality over the course of a given project.
  10. Analyze and synthesize. No single interview or point made is the end-all-be-all. Name observations. Find and cluster themes. Develop insights. Put possible early solutions in a list to the side. Use this output as a foundation for the next steps of collaborating and iterating with your project team toward solution concepts.

User research isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in healthcare. I’ve heard many very personal stories about journeying through treatment after a difficult diagnosis, losing a loved one after months (if not years) of enduring, and parents caring for children who couldn’t talk or lift up a spoon. Armed with the tips above (as well as the right personnel for executing difficult and sensitive conversations), you too can navigate engaging end users to better understand the problems that will open you and your organization up to new solutions. User research is far from the end of the design process, but it’s a fantastic, foundational beginning.

Let us know how you’re thinking about using user research and the design process in your organization. Comment below or email me at joel.worthington@hdrinc.com

Reader Comments (2)

Why don't you just use patient satisfaction surveys?

Hi Charles.  Great question!  In my previous experience as a hospital administrator, while patient satisfaction scores can be useful for highlighting areas of concern, they provide little information about what actually happened during the care experience or how to fix what went wrong.  For example, asking someone how satisfied they were with their wait time doesn’t provide any insight into how to address and solve the issue if someone waited an abnormally long amount of time other than shortening it (what did they do while they waited?  what would they have rather done?  what would make for a great wait experience?  what's the right amount of time?  what would people be willing to do while waiting?  what operations is needed?  technology?  space?).  User interviews leverage open-ended questions as a more effective way to discover and identify previously unnamed needs that lie beneath the surface and extract meaningful insights about what really bothers or delights users. If you are interested in learning more, I hope you'll download a new book published by HDR that explores new thinking in reinventing patient care. It's available at www.hdrinc.com/delta.  Thanks for your comment!

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