Interviewing humans can be challenging

Interviewing stakeholders or conducting a user interview can be very challenging to do for UX researchers. There are a lot of things outside our control that can tank an interview. There are also ways that we end up shooting ourselves in the foot.  A user interview can be disrupted by the smallest inconvenience or much bigger events.

For example, I had an interview that resulted in unusable data because the participant would not concentrate on their answers due to their over-excited canine. On a more serious side, I traveled two-thousand miles to a data center and upon arriving, found that the entire IT department indisposed due to a “fire drill”. It turns out, all of their mission-critical servers, running all their revenue-generating services, stopped and would not restart. Since the IT department was the subject of our investigation, our entire day was a loss. These kinds of incidents are unavoidable, despite our best-laid plans. We design our research efforts in a digital world but execute them in the analog. In other words, stuff happens.


The interviewer makes all the difference

There are, however, things that an interviewer can do that will also cause a user interview to sink into an abyss of one-word responses and dead-end questions. One reason an interview can degrade into a doldrum is that the interviewer treats it as an interrogation. They ask questions that make the interviewee defensive of their own opinions, actions, or thoughts.

Defensiveness can actually result from a few different interviewer actions. It can be because of a rapid firing of questions without following-up, or a recitation of questions without considering the context of the current interview. Alternatively, it can be due to a feeling of inequality between the interviewer and the interviewee. Defensiveness can be mitigated early in the user interview by establishing an environment of trust. However, most investigations have more questions than there is time to ask. An unprepared interviewer may forego the building of trust to ensure they have time for all their questions. I have done this myself in the past and feel guilty about the data I probably left on the table.


Why not ask Why?

One of the other ways that I see interviewers put their interview on its heels, is when they ask the question “Why”. One of my early mentors taught me to avoid “why” questions. Now, after years of interviews, I finally think I understand what makes asking why such a conversation killer. “Why” is part of the traditional journalistic big five questions, “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “When” and “Why”. They are staples for reporting on the news. However, in a 1:1 interview, asking the question “why” pushes the interviewee to provide a justification for something that they just said or an action that they have taken.

This feeling of being judged makes the one being interviewed more aware of what they are saying. It makes them second guess their responses for fear of being judged, again.

There are specific times where asking “why” is appropriate. For example, using “why” to understand the context of something that happens outside the control of the interviewee. Asking why in that case allows a conversation into the reasoning behind their decisions. However, using “Why” to investigate things that are under the control of the interviewee is essentially asking them to justify themselves. It can snuff out the atmosphere of empathy and put the interviewee on the defensive.


There are many other ways to ask “why”

So, how do I overcome the question “why”? I practice my “why” transformations with my everyday conversations before I do interviews. Here is an example, “Why did you do that?” becomes, “What made you decided to do that”. This small change moves the focus away from judging the interviewee’s actions and explores the context of their decision. With some creativity, I have found that I can almost always come up with some alternatives. For example,  “Why did you think that?” becomes “What made you think that way?”

Here are some other transformations:

Great interviews happen in an environment of trust and empathy. Asking good, insightful questions is already a challenge. However, in order to maintain an optimal interview environment, the interviewer needs to be aware of how they are perceived. People do not give great information to people they think will judge them. I know that my interviews have improved considerably since I have tried to eradicate the question, “why” from my repertoire. You may find that your interviews will be more insightful and engaging if you reframe your “why” questions. It certainly doesn’t hurt to give it a try.

Have you found the question “why” to be a conversation killer? How do you mitigate defensive feelings in your interviews? Let us know.  If you found this article useful sign-up for our newsletter to get more tips and tricks for improving your research skills.