How To Nail User Interviews in a UX, HCD or Design Thinking Process

The full guide

Great! You’ve got your design brief, areas of interest you want to look into, and some interviews lined up. But what‘s next?

This article provides you with hands-on advice on why and how to conduct interviews in your UX process.

Some of the recommendations you are going to read might seem trivial and obvious but neglecting only one of them can ruin your entire interview. Trust me, been there, done that…?

How I failed

Only in recent weeks, I’ve conducted dozens of interviews for some client projects at Hinderling Volkart. The last one I did, I completly messed up! I assumed my interviewee had already been on-boarded and informed about why he got interviewed. So, I skipped a proper introduction and jumped right in! «Here we go! Let’s start! Tell me about yourself!»

That was a big mistake…


«Why the hell are you even talking to me? Do you even know who I am?», my interviewee furiously complained. I didn’t really know… As it turned out, he was an influential opinion leader in his field and the head of…

Well done! The mood was low and the energy down. The interviewee resent my questions and the interview became one of my longest hour ever…

If you DON’T want to fail like this, keep reading!

About interviewing people

If you are familiar with interviews and what they are good for, you may also skip this chapter.

Reason and goal for interviews

User interviews are a research method applied during the discovery phase of a human or user centred design process.

A further developed version of my Revamped Double Diamond design process originally published here.

They help you gain a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and their reason why they do what they do. In the best case, interviews reveal insights that help you answer your question.

“Insights are the dormant truth about an issue, one’s motivation, wishes, or frustration regarding a specific topic.”

Creating services or products based on your own needs is easy! However, is very unlikely that you will ever design a product for yourself. If you want to make a product or service that meets your end user needs, listening to your users is essential. Interviews are just one way to do that in a effective and efficient fashion (Daniel Santos, FutureEverything).

Make sure you know why you interview people. Have a clear problem statement set and know what you want to find out.

User interviews often don’t give you all the answers you need. Sometimes they are the wrong instrument. They may fail when you are trying to ask people to remember how something happened in the past or speculate on a future use of something (nngroup, 2010).

You want to find out about people’s struggles and delights. Make interviewees recall specific critical incidents. This may be pain points or moments of pleasure. They help you reveal what lies beneath them.

Semi-structured vs. structured interviews

I am not fully going into details, but there are various types of interviews. This article refers to semi-structured interviews, but it can be applied to other interview types, too.

Structured interviews have a rigorous set of questions which do not allow one to divert. Semi-structured interviews on the other hand are more open. They allow new ideas to be brought up during the interview as a result of what the interviewee says (Wikipedia).

Be aware that user interviews are only one research method among many others. Check out this great overview of other design research techniques.

It’s about the interview experience

I recently bumped into Swiss documentary film maker Paul Riniker (Link to Wikipedia entry – German only). He’s produced over 70 documentaries, he’s been a journalist, and he’s been lecturing for more than 20 years. A thing he told me over a beer struck me:

“I don’t interview people. I have conversations with them (Paul Riniker).”

Whether you call it an interview (I’ll keep referring to it that way) or a conversation, conducting interviews is about providing an experience to the person you want to learn from.

Getting this experience right is crucial to making your interviewee feel comfortable and to getting the most out of it.

Interview team setup

From my experience, it is best to conduct an interview accompanied by a partner. First of all, facilitating and leading the interview becomes easier. Secondly, sharing each other’s thoughts and impressions after the interview provides another perspective.

Sometimes, there are other stakeholders taking part in an interview. This can be valuable to get them involved. Make sure that there are not too many people attending. This can be intimidating for the interviewee. Also, make sure they remain in the background and hold potential questions to the end of the interview.

If you do not have anyone to assist you, record the interview. Paying full attention to your interviewee and taking notes at the same time is challenging. Furthermore, your attention to the interviewee dwindles.

Interview user journey

An interview is like a user journey in three phases:

  1. Pre-Interview & On-Boarding
  2. Interview
  3. Post-Interview & Off-Boarding

You could extend this and add more phases or touch points over the entire experience.

1. Pre-Interview & On-Boarding

Once you have recruited interviewees, instruct them and provide a smooth onboarding process.

Furthermore, you want to have a written interview guide prepared. It serves as a guideline to ensure the consistency throughout your interview process. This is especially valuable if different people conduct interviews.

As you do in an agile process, it helps to do test-interviews, practice and iterate your interview guide.

2. Interview

Provide a more formal and transparent introduction once both parties have made themselves comfortable. Then, start with the actual interview questions.

2.1. Introduction to the interview

An introduction could include the following components. Apply the bullets in the order that suits your flow:

Here is an example script for a potential introduction:

Interview structure & content blocks

I usually structure my interviews in three parts:

2.3. Interview questions: DO’s and DON’Ts

Here is a list of things you should take into account when you ask interview questions:

Using a visual card sort to find out about people’s sentiments towards different donation methods – img/illu/project credits to Manish KC, Radina Doneva, Laura Morley, Shirley Sarker. Illustrations by Laura Morley

Off-Boarding & Post-Interview

After the interview, thank your interviewees again for taking their time and point out the value of their presence.

Engage them in some casual small talk once again before you see them off. This might give you the chance to get some extra information.

Do a follow-up with your peers and start downloading and sharing your findings while they are still fresh. It is helpful to use color-coded Post-it®s with different categories such as:

An interview download to happen right after the interview using different colors.

One general rule to that (also check out these 5 pro tps for using post-its by Davis Levine):

One thought per post-it

Last but not least, send a follow-up message to your interviewees. Say THANK YOU again and let them know they can always connect back to you.

That’s it… You are done!


User interviews are a powerful tool to generate insights and help you evaluate and hopefully solve a problem.

“You wanna learn from your interviewees and not the other way around.”

This article was originally published on Dan’s Medium page.

Thanks for the support and collab on this article Davis Levine, Daniel T Santos, Manuela Miksa, Tamar Hächler, Adrian Zumbrunnen.

This post is based on my personal professional experience and additional learnings gained at Hyper Island and via collaborating with IDEO’s Matt Cooper-Wright.

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After finishing a Digital Experience Design Master’s programme at Hyper Island, Dan is joining Swiss agency, Hinderling Volkart, as Experience Director UX. He teaches as a part-time lecturer and for almost ten years, has held positions in the digital field at agencies such as Jung von Matt/Limmat, Publicis and Scholz & Friends.

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