User interviews: why you must do them

Published on
September 15, 2020
in
Perspectives
Joe Roberson
Why user interviews are important for any digital project. How they are not about ‘getting feedback’. What your questions should focus on.
Woman on laptop with headphones

It's safe to say that 2020 will be mainly remembered as the year of COVID-19. But for hundreds of charities it’ll also be remembered as the year they did their first user interviews. Whether in a Design Hop, the Explore programme or the forthcoming Discovery programme, it’s what many charities will have been doing this summer and autumn.

They’ve been doing it because it's a key part of what any good digital project should do. And of course digital projects and online services have grown massively since Covid. If you’re planning a digital project or online service then you should be doing user interviews. 

What this blog will do

This blog will help you understand why user interviews are important, how they aren’t about ‘getting feedback’, and what your questions should focus on. 

Next week in part two we will dive deeper into what makes a good and bad question. 

The main user research event

User interviews are the main event in your user research. User research is the first stage of any digital project, where you’re researching, investigating the problem and gently testing an idea or two. 

Whatever your digital project you need to do user research. Whoever the users are. Whatever the project type. User research will help you:

  1. Understand the problem you are investigating and how people experience it 
  2. Understand how people behave, what they need and why (their experience of your service may or may not be part of this)

Six interviews may be enough

The best way to understand these things is to observe what people do. However, unless you want to observe them using a website or app, that can be difficult with Covid restrictions. So that leaves user interviews as the best way to do this. 

You don’t need to run many interviews. Six may be enough to start with. Later on you might decide to do six more using different questions, or you may ask a different stakeholder group, but your users are the first and most important group. 

5 reasons why you need to do user interviews

At Catalyst we believe you should always do user interviews. This is why:

1. To avoid the problems of surveys and focus groups

You might think focus groups or surveys are enough. It’s tempting to revert to what we know. But surveys and focus groups have big flaws and don’t surface the insight you need in deep or reliable ways. 

User interviews are different. Group dynamics disappear, 1-1 connection becomes possible and users feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their experiences. This generates deeper and more reliable insights.

User interviews are also easier to organise than any group, because you can do them at a time to suit each participant. Even though they are a big event, they are quick and cheap to do. Anyone can do them - no expertise is needed. All you need is to ask for a half hour chat on the phone or video, and to do your prep well. 

2. You need to build empathy more than get feedback

You might think that the purpose of user interviews is to get feedback on your service. But its not. Interviews are about understanding your users’ needs, about building empathy for their experiences. This means you need to explore their life beyond their experience of your service. 

User interviews give you a way to do this. You get to learn about their life in a more rounded way. A way that gets you under the skin of how they experience it. This generates insight into the context in which they are living, their habits and behaviours and the emotional highs and lows of a typical day. 

This builds empathy. It brings you closer to them. It brings them closer to you. 

3. Staff insight isn’t enough

You might also believe you don't need to do user research because your staff know your users so well. Some staff may have been working with them for a long time. 

But your staff will still have things they don’t know. And interviewing them about their observations on your users is much less reliable than asking people themselves. And people's lives change. What we knew last month may no longer be the case. 

4. We are full of assumptions

“User interviews help break the power dynamic that can exist around assuming we know users' lives and what’s best for them without having recently listened.” - Ab Brightman, CAST

We all make them. We’ve written about these in depth. Assumptions are normal. And they need to be challenged. This includes your assumptions about the problem, the issues and your users’ experiences and behaviours. Talking to your users is the only way to start. 

“Before we had discovered ‘assumptions mapping’, it’s fair to say we used our gut instinct. A lot. We’d make relatively sweeping statements about what carers wanted or needed, and it wasn’t that we were wrong per se, but we were relying a lot on anecdotes and assumptions.” - Janine Woodward-Grant - Deputy Chief Executive & Digital Lead at B&NES Carers' Centre (read her great blog on user research

5. It creates foundations for the big decisions

Your digital project will be built on the insights and understanding you gain at the start. If your insights aren’t reliable then your foundations will be weak. And if you build on weak foundations then sooner or later things tend to fall down. 

So do the groundwork and run user interviews. Collect evidence of what your users need. Then you can be confident about what to build and how much to build it. 

“Realising what we don’t know makes it really clear what we need to find out from carers in order to design a service which works for them. This process revealed that we don’t know what would make them feel confident. Without that knowledge, how can we design successfully?” - Janine Woodward-Grant

Why we use the word ‘user’ 

Some people don't like the word ‘user’. In this case we define a user as someone who is experiencing the problem you want to solve and is, or could become, a user. 

But I’d suggest that in the case of designing services it’s actually helpful. It makes us focus on the fact that they are people wanting to use a service to get something done. They have a need and a goal, and they want your service to help fulfil these. By focusing on this desire you can create a better, more humanising experience for them. 

Focus your user interviews

Next week we will explain how to ask questions in an interview. We will show you how to focus your questions on:

  • Relaxing the interviewee - so they feel more comfortable talking
  • Understanding past behaviour - this is more reliable than predictions or views and opinions
  • Understanding their experiences - how they feel about a thing they are doing, seeing, hearing, using, experiencing. Or what they are doing, seeing, hearing, sensing. 
  • Why they want what they want, believe what they do, think what they do - it’s difficult to make decisions based on views and opinions, but easier when you understand their underlying drivers and motivators 

You’ll fall in love with user interviews

Right now user interviews might feel like a big change in how you work. We know that, for many charities, shifting to user interviews and the curiosity mindset that goes with user research is a process not an event. We’re here to help you through it. Use a Design Hop to get started, or even a Digital Candle call for some 1-1 support. 

And if you think this article could be useful to others, please share it.

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