If you’re responsible for helping make a product reality, then it’s also your responsibility to uncover what’s going to make that product useful, usable and valuable, to both users and to your client’s business. In other words, it’s your job to identify the strategy behind the work you’re doing and make sure you’re solving the right problems.
The best way to do that, of course, is the UX Interview. Talk to the people who have the most to gain (or lose) from your work: stakeholders and users. These interviews are typically the place where you begin planting seeds of UX success — or failure. There are only two possible outcomes here:
- You correctly identify and address user needs and business objectives, and you deliver an experience that is the answer to someone’s prayer.
- You don’t do enough digging, or skip the interviews and guess wrong, and you end up solving problems no one on either side really cares about. Which turns the product into everyone’s worst nightmare, including yours.
There are 5 rules I follow religiously for making sure that last scenario doesn’t happen. Here they are:
1. Let go of every preconception you have.
They will only serve to alter your perception of what you’re hearing. Objectivity is not impossible; it’s actually little more than ingrained habit that comes from discipline. While you’ll certainly form an immediate opinion of how to make something better when you see it, you must practice the art of putting those impressions, ideas and opinions aside.
These reactions are based solely on instinctive personal preference, not on any hard evidence regarding what users expect or what the business hopes to achieve. You don’t know they’re important — you’re guessing they are. Put them aside, because that guesswork will not help you or your client.
2. Listen more than you talk.
Your role here is not to solve problems or suggest solutions, it’s to get unbiased information. So don’t give the interviewee advice or try to push them in any particular direction. Just let them answer the question and listen.
Even when a client is telling me something I think I already know, I never say “right, I’m aware of that.” Instead, I assume there’s some part of that story that hasn’t been told yet. And more often than not, those additional details come out when I remain patient and listen. And those details are almost always damn important.
If I interrupt and indicate this was already covered, those additional details are never spoken.
3. With users, ask how, not what.
Valuable UX interviews result from asking open-ended questions about how people do what they do. Leave the “what” out of the equation. In other words, you ask “walk me through how you accomplish [ task X ].” No more than that. You don’t want to say “how do you you use [ system or specific tool ] to accomplish task X?”
That’s because the second question is leading: it focuses their answer on the tool instead of why they’re using it and what they need or expect to happen. You want to know what they do — with or without the software in question. If you provide too much detail in your question, if you give context, you won’t hear about all the things they do outside of the software to get the task done. Which, in my experience, are the things that present real opportunities for improvement. If you’re too specific, you won’t hear about the workarounds they’ve created that will suggest new features, new functionality or changes that need to be made to workflows.
Forget about the software or app or the site — you want to find out what their motivations and expected outcomes are.
4. Assume you know nothing.
You don’t know everything there is to know about any given problem, or industry, or product. Or the people that you’re trying to reach, for that matter. No matter how long you may have worked in a particular industry or even for a particular client, I guarantee you there is, with every new project, a laundry list as long as your arm of very significant things that you don’t know. So follow rule number four and assume you know nothing.
And if you ever find yourself doubting rule number four, remember rule number five:
5. Shut up and listen.
Don’t be afraid of awkward silence — it’s what does the heavy lifting in a UX interview. Silence invites, gives people necessary space to work through the answer. So when you ask a question, allow the silence and repress the urge to fill it with your own voice.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a great place to start. My new book, Think First, digs deeper into the mechanics of conducting UX interviews with users and stakeholders. My goal with the book was to clearly illustrate that there is no magic formula for this stuff — it’s a matter of asking the right questions and knowing what to do with the answers.
Follow these five rules and I guarantee that you will see a big difference in the volume of useful information you get from your UX interviews. You’ll also see a clearer connection between those needs and project requirements. And above all else, you’ll feel a lot more confident when it comes to making IA, UX or UI decisions — because your decisions will be informed by facts instead of guesses.
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