How to conduct an effective user interview

At Matter, we are all about a human-centered, prototype-driven design process. Why human-centered? Because humans are the users. They drive the desirability, and ultimately, the success of your product. Getting them on board is one of the greatest challenges, but this also makes them the greatest resource. While it takes work to extract rich, insightful nuggets of feedback, there are secrets to striking gold.

Recently, we invited product strategy expert and early Matter supporter, Hamish Chandra, to come over and reinforce the human-centered, prototype-driven approach that our entrepreneurs learned their first week of the program.

Here are some of Hamish’s rules of thumb when it comes to gathering user feedback:

Explore, don’t just Test. “Product and usability testing are great, but if you wait until then to talk to your users, you’re only going to get reactions to the ideas you’ve already decided upon.” For example, your interviewees may give you some good tweaks for your scheduling UI if you’ve already spent time building it, but it’ll be harder for them to tell you that trust, not scheduling is the real issue. Talk to them early to get an overall lay of the land, to figure out what parts of the problem are actually important to people. This is where you’ll see what people really care about and where technology and services could offer a dramatically better solution.

“You also get a sense of the context in which your product will exist.” And by context, Hamish doesn’t mean iOS or Android, he means what’s happening in your users’ lives. Often the competition is not another service or app — it’s all the other (fun, productive, familiar) things in life they could be spending their time on.

Choosing to be open to feedback is the first step, but choosing whom to interview is just as important. In terms of users, Hamish advises to “bias towards users who know a little more than the average bear.” People who are familiar with and interested in the category or problem are inherently going to be super-invested in what your product does. They will be the ones who break the product (which, no matter how painful, is the most productive) and find the places where the product doesn’t meet their needs or its own potential.

“Bias towards users who know a little more than the average bear.”

Consider interviewing people who are “selectively smarter” than you. The average person is “really good at telling you about the past, sort of good about telling you about the present, and very bad at predicting the future.” Academic experts are good at talking about the future, but don’t necessarily know how to act on it. They can provide you with educated estimations of future trends and behaviors, and in return you can give them vicarious agency. Community leaders are important because they have direct access to powerful emotional data. “It could be a specific organization or it could be the nerd who runs a Yahoo group.” They are experts on people because they are unconsciously conducting exploratory research by the very nature of their position.

What you ask is just as important as how you ask. Hamish likes to approach user interviews with the idea of “purposeful flirting.” It’s not like dating casually; it’s like dating to find a partner (do you value career? do you want to have kids? do you like the outdoors?). You don’t want to find yourself an hour into a date only to have talked about weather. Come into the discussion with some topics you want to cover, and be specific to get to the core of what people actually do.

For example, instead of asking, “what do you usually do when you get up in the morning?” ask, “what did you do when you got up yesterday morning?” If you go the first route, people will respond by generalizing behaviors to the average, skipping over important, extraordinary moments. They’ll say, “I usually make a cup of coffee and then take the bus to work,” instead of “I like to make myself coffee in the morning, but my coffeemaker broke, so I was actually late to work yesterday.”

And just like generalizing their own behavior, people like to make conclusions about identities and communities of which they feel representative, but again, generalizations don’t lead to insights. If someone says, “I think most women don’t actually like pink,” ask them, “do you like pink?”

The second most important thing is to be open to the other person leading the conversation in interesting directions. You think you know what’s important to uncover, but they may have things that are important to them that you didn’t even think about. If the person you’re interviewing brings up a new topic, how do you know if you should ask more about it or keep going? Do a gut check and see if it feels actually interesting to you, personally.

“Ask them to tell you more and then shut up.”

And lastly, never underestimate the awkward silence. If getting answers out of your user is like pulling teeth, then “ask them to tell you more and then shut up.” — for at least 4 seconds. People will rush to fill the silence because they don’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation. Voila, it’s that simple.

If you haven’t reached a moment of intense emotion, your product is not worth using. Once you’ve got some powerful, specific behaviors out of people, ask them, “why?” Their feelings and motivations are going to be much more important because unless the problem you’re solving is really important to people, they’re not going to use your product. “You must strike an emotional chord.” Find the frustrations, the contradictions, the pain points.

“You must strike an emotional chord.”

Why do we care about eliciting emotion from the user? Hamish points out that just like physics, there’s a certain activation energy to get users on board because at the end of the day, people don’t make decisions purely rationally.

Even if your product is ultimately easy to use, it takes a lot of effort for people to initially try a new way of doing things or to switch products. To make it worth that effort, you often need to address an issue of emotional importance (“I need to be a better son and take care of my mother”) than merely one of convenience (“I want to schedule a doctor appointment for mom in four clicks, not five”).

In many ways, the emotional data can be harder to tap into. So make people cry, find out why, and then design around those insights. Repeat that process over and over again.

And remember, bring tissues.

Each week we have the privilege to invite like-minded, mission-driven individuals from all different sides of entrepreneurship, media, and design to speak at Matter. For more info about Matter and our program, visit