The Awkward Secret to Meaningful User Interviews

This article is about user interviews, which I use to supplement remote testing tools. I have learned a lot by talking with our users – both unexpected and crucial in the development of our product.

Here at 10Clouds, I work as UX Designer on one of our long-term internal products. I have everything I could dream of: an interdisciplinary full stack team, iterative workflow, ability to experiment and users at arm’s length. In fact, the beta version of our product is already being used by trusted companies that provide us with constant feedback.

Foundation for user interviews

This article is about user interviews, which I use to supplement remote testing tools. I have learned a lot by talking with our users – both unexpected and crucial in the development of our product. By asking the right questions and showing the participant that you are willing to listen, you can get the right flow going. It’s the foundation of every User Research method. With that being said, once I got started, it occurred to me that the trickiest part was, to put it simply, keep my mouth shut.

Chit-chat vs. interview

It seems natural to think that interviews are similar to a casual chat between two mates. However, when people interact with each other, they don’t really concentrate on what their friend has to say. They focus mostly on how they want to present themselves and try to find ways to entertain each other. In many situations, people often make the conversation as shallow as possible in order to avoid entering into awkward silence.

There are tons of courses available that you can enrol on so you can gain the skills necessary to make small talk. To be honest, making small talk is pretty much how both the business and dating world operate. It may also be the reason why interviews are so easily classified by interviewees as regular chit chat. In the end, isn’t the person being interviewed simply talking about themselves?

Although this is a valid point, an interview has its own specific formula, and there are very few rules from real life that can be applied here. For instance, researchers with very little research experience can easily make a very basic mistake. Some of these mistakes are caused by the person’s unwillingness to let the interview go dead silent and descend into feelings of awkwardness.

Two scenarios

At first, an interviewer doesn’t know how to engage in conversational rhythm with the person being interviewed because they aren’t familiar with that person. As a result, they try to recognise reactions. It is also tempting for them to suppress silence while a participant processes a question. The thought of ending the question and waiting silently for an answer can be extremely nerve-racking. At this point, the interviewer ends up adding guidelines, the interviewee loses their focus and provides answers based on these new suggestions.

Another scenario appears when an interviewee ends their answer and they look at you. You stare at them back and a few “long” seconds pass in silence. This is when you probably think, “Bingo! Now I will ask my next question!”

If it wasn’t for a book by Steve Portigal that fell into my hands, I would be unaware for ages. The author wrote something so simple yet it changed my point of view and that was to Accept the Awkwardness because it is a natural element of an interview. There is no need to fight with it. With that knowledge and a few tries, you can finally make your interviews more effective.

Silence is good, awkwardness is even better

The first scenario shows that people need time to process a question when they are asked. The trick is to know that processing information manifests differently when speaking with different people. For example, a person may look intensively at the wall, frown or stare at you with no expression.

You need to remain concise, ask your question and give space to the person being interviewed. Do not speak. If your interviewee is lost, they will ask you to repeat yourself. Just be sure the participant knows that their experiences, not their person, are under scrutiny. Otherwise, they could feel insecure and not be honest with their answers.

People talk in paragraphs. After closing one part of a speech, they need to pause, breathe and put thoughts together. Some people may take longer to do this and if so, let them! If you rush with your questions, you risk losing important information. Even when you think that a full answer was given, bite your tongue and wait for a few more seconds. Very often that’s the moment when some hidden, yet very important thoughts occur in your interviewee’s mind.

Let the chips fall where they may

Interviews are challenging for those on both sides. Without a proper introduction, the interviewee would not have a clue about the reason for the interview not to mention, its formula. Our natural behaviours want to take the lead. However, an interview has its own rules where silence is crucial and awkwardness is inevitable. Try to hold your horses and let an interview be about an interview. All in all, you are the conductor of the meeting. It is essential to show the other side that the interview will go as planned and everything is under control.

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