It’s easy (especially if you haven’t led many interviews) to convince yourself ‘It’s just a conversation. I have conversations all the time.’ But this way of thinking ignores one critical piece of information: the way we have conversations follows a strict set of rules.

And just like a casual conversation, an interview has rules, only these rules you probably haven’t learned through a lifetime of observation and participation. But fear not, they’re pretty simple.

In the following video (and blog post if you’re not in a video-watching mood) we cover our Product team’s top tips for mastering interviews. Why the Product team? Because they know user interviews like bees know honey. Ready? Here we go...


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How to master interviews the Hotjar way

Let’s get back to daily conversations. A chat with a friend can be delightfully free-wheeling, both of you talking over each other, feeding each other answers, finishing each other’s sentences, with no real arc.

An hour can go by with some agreement, some conflict, and not a single hypothesis tested. Unfortunately, this is the complete opposite of an interview. But that doesn’t mean your natural ability to hold a conversation won’t help you here, it just needs the support of a little technique.

With these five foundational rules of interview technique, you’ll be leading interviews like a pro in no time.

1. Ask unbiased, open-ended questions about the past

If we ask a closed-ended question in an interview, we limit the possible answers our interviewee can give, and we make it more likely they’ll tell us what they think we wanna hear – which can be worse than no answer at all.

“Don’t you hate pineapple on your pizza?” will almost guarantee an answer of: “Oh yeah, of course! I’m not a freak.

If we really want to know whether people like a fruity pizza we should ask something like: “What kind of pizza did you order last time you had one?” And follow up with: “Which toppings did you enjoy the most? Why?”

It might seem simple, but there’s a lot to unpack here. In the first question, we’re not only biasing the response, but we’re also going to get a simple “YES” or “NO” as an answer.

In contrast, with our set of open-ended questions, we’ll learn all about the pizza preferences of the other person without giving them any kind of hint or discriminating any responses even if you (quite rightly) think adding pineapple is a travesty.

Wait, then: can’t we just ask what they would order and save ourselves some time? It’s better not to.
People are great at making incorrect and over-optimistic predictions. Ask me how often I’ll go to the gym next month, I’ll tell you I’ll be in there three times a week. Ask me how many times I went last month, you get a very different picture.

So, open-ended, non-biased questions based on what did happen, not what could happen. Got it. What else?

2. Try to keep neutral, positive body language during the interview

Remember to smile, user research sessions aren’t police interrogations! To get great answers, you’re going to need to put the user at ease. Being interviewed is nerve-wracking, but you can help build rapport quickly and easily by smiling or making them laugh.

It’s also important to look at our own body language: crossing your arms, frowning, or laying back in your chair could halt the flow of conversation. Instead, make eye contact, slightly lean forward and show the other person you’re interested in what they’re explaining.

Occasionally nod to show you’re understanding what they’re saying, and repeat phrases and words they’ve used to demonstrate you’re hearing them.

Finally, keep your reactions neutral to avoid reinforcing certain responses, but remember, neutral doesn’t mean cold. This isn’t a poker game.

3. If they make a ‘mistake’, roll with it

Nothing kills the flow of a conversation quicker than being corrected. If the user talks about your product using the ‘wrong’ words, pronounces something incorrectly, or describes what you do in a way that doesn’t match up with how you’d describe it, don’t correct them.

This is a valuable experience in seeing your product through their eyes. Where it makes sense, adapt to their way of describing things, mirror their words, and dig deeper to see why they’re describing it that way. You never know, you might get the inspiration for your next marketing campaign from this true user view.

And a quick note on jargon: it really doesn’t matter if they don’t know all the abbreviations and acronyms that you use. And if they can’t remember any of them, it’s a good sign they aren’t very memorable in the first place.

4. Listen more than you talk, and embrace silences

Shhht! Can you hear that? It’s our new best friend: silence. To master interviews, we need to learn the delicate skill of shutting up and letting the other person talk.

But silence is about more than giving space, it’s your interview secret sauce. A long deliberate pause after an answer is probably the most effective technique to let the other person know you want to hear more about what they just said.

Leaving this silence is challenging, so don’t be surprised if it takes some time to get used to. One way to get started is by counting to 3 when the other person has finished their response instead of rushing to fill in with the next question.

Humans need time to think, especially with topics they normally don’t get asked about!

5. Plan your interview structure, not just your questions

Finally, let’s talk about the user interview’s structure. Easy, right? You have your questions and/or tasks, join the session, ask them, leave. That’s what we call the arrow approach because you’re firing the questions off individually, like arrows.

It feels efficient, but the interviewee will feel rushed, and you won’t get good answers. Everything has its time and process. For interviewing users, we recommend using the arc approach instead:

  • The warm-up: start with a few elevator questions to get the conversation flowing in a natural, easy way. Set the expectations of what’s gonna happen, what you expect from them, and build rapport – you don’t have to become friends, just enough to get them relaxed.
  • The interview: more or less halfway through the session, we know enough about the person and have earned the trust to get into the thick of it. We’re at the top of the arc where we can ask them our core questions or present them with tasks.
  • The cooldown: when finished, progressively cool down with some reflection and future-oriented questions. Give thanks. Give thanks again and wish them a good day. That closes the arc.

So, next time you run a user interview just follow these simple rules and hopefully you’ll end up with more valuable answers and a happier user. Just don’t expect to get it 100% right the first time: practice makes perfect!

If you want to reduce your time to mastering user interviews, I recommend watching the recordings of your previous sessions, and even playing Interwingo: a simple game I made so you can check how much of the good stuff you’re already doing (and so you can keep improving)!

Happy researching 😀

Complement your interviews with Recordings

See what your user sees and build hypotheses that you can test in your interviews.

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