User interviews - A basic introduction

by Alistair Gray on 1 August 2008

So you know your users. You understand them, what they do and what makes them tick. Really?

It's surprising how few people have a real understanding of who's using their site. Yes, there is demographic data but to really know your users you must have direct contact. Knowing your users means you know what to do to keep them happy, and keep them returning to your site. Knowing your users is the first step in a fast track to a successful site.

Why interviews?

The aims of interviews are to discover:

  • Users' needs and goals
  • How users complete tasks on your site (or would do if functionality was available)
  • What users think the site offers them (and what more they really want/need)

Interviews help guide future site development by highlighting user needs through increased understanding. This understanding helps you make better decisions, both in general site management and when developing your site further.

“Why not just put out a questionnaire? I'll get the opinions of more people.” You will, but interviews give you so much more detail. It's depth versus breadth. Interviews give you access to greater levels of information and a more complete picture than you could ever gather from a questionnaire.

Questionnaires help you know about users, interviews help you understand them.

Planning and recruitment

It's best to run user interviews with specific targets in mind. What do you hope to gain? This can be simply one or two questions that cover your aims. For example, “Do people understand our delivery options?” or “What do people need from the redesign of our site?”

The number of people you interview depends on several factors:

  • How long you can put aside for the interviews
  • How detailed you want the data
  • What the aims of the interview are

Try and get a group of interviewees who fit each of your key target market segments. You want to talk to at least 4 people per segment, but the basic rule is to interview people until you stop getting new insights. It's also vital that you interview some people who are not existing users of your site. If you can understand why people don't use your site you're well on your way to knowing what needs to change.

Getting in touch

Take care when recruiting. What are you looking for in people who use your site? Do you want people from the marketing industry? Must they have an interest in conservation? You must have an idea of the demographic split of users you are looking to survey, encompassing everything from gender to their level of education. Essentially you need to find a balance between being too prescriptive and too open.

Finding current users should be relatively easy. Raid you customer/client database and mailing lists for potential “victims”, ask directly on your site and offer incentives. Non-users are harder to get hold of, friends and family can be a possible source or try placing requests on some related forums. If all else fails get a professional recruiter involved.

Remember your interviews can only be as good as the quality of the interviewees.

During the interviews

You want to hold the interviews on neutral ground if possible. You're less likely to get people to talk to you about all the terrible things your site's doing when they're sitting deep in the site headquarters!

When interviewees arrive try to put them at ease. You're about to ask them to give their unbiased opinion on your site, and they're only going to do that if they trust you. Give them a drink, maybe even some biscuits. Tell them what's coming, that you want to have an informal chat about “X company” (please note not “my company/the company I work for”). Break the ice, tell a joke or an amusing fact about yourself and talk about something else at first to get them used to talking to you.

During the interview, your full attention should be on the interview itself. Don't take copious notes, write 1 or 2 word reminders of key points. Get your thoughts down in-between the interviews. If you can, record the interview audio so you can refer back when required.

Don't use a list of questions in the interviews as questions restrict the direction of the interview too much. Create a list of topics you'd like to cover, and work your way through them in whatever order they arise. Remember this list of topics can always be amended as you progress with the interviews. Go with the interview flow as every interview will be unique. Don't worry if you don't cover all the topics but adapt on-the-fly as you make new discoveries.

Ask interviewees what they do, and get them to talk you through step-by-step. “Who”, “how”, “what”, “where”, “why”, “when”. You'll use these words a lot as you interview. You want to find out as much about the interviewee as possible, their processes, their pressures, and their world.

You need to get your interviewees talking! Don't ask leading questions or questions that have yes/no answers. Instead of “do you like the new colour scheme?” try open questions such as “how do you find the colour scheme?”

After the interviews

Once you've concluded the interviews you can start to pull the results together. This is a crucial step and can easily go wrong. Care must be taken to ensure you don't distort the results. It can be easy to quickly come to a conclusion, focusing on a specific aspect and ignoring (often key) details. Bear in mind that summarising the results can take longer than the interviews themselves.


Interviews are a great way to find in-depth information about your users. They're fairly easy to organise, need very little facilities, and can be a lot of fun! Without understanding your users, how can your site possibly fulfil their needs?


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