Interviewing Users How to Uncover Compelling Insights

***** Nov252013

I am a web developer at a mid-sized travel/e-commerce company. We don’t have a dedicated web designer, nor a user experience team, so I often find myself making design and feature decisions in a near-vacuum. I have never interviewed a customer or a prospective customer, and I would very much like to change that. Thus, I found Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users both assuring and intimidating. Assuring because the author presents interviewing as just another skillset that can be honed with practice and study, not a magical, god-given ability to intuit what users want and need. Intimidating, because it is clear that user research of this kind is not just a matter of having 5-minute conversations with random passers-by on the street. It takes time, organization and planning. Decision-makers in the company have to be convinced it is valuable.

Assuming you can accomplish that, or if your company already knows the value of in-depth user research, this book will guide you through each step in the process — from achieving the right frame of mind for interviewing, to analyzing and presenting your findings. Reading Interviewing Users is like getting some great advice from a trusted friend, who also happens to be an expert with years of experience.

Interviewing is a Skill

The central theme of this book is that interviewing is not just having a conversation or asking someone questions — it is a unique skill that must be studied and practiced just like sketching, or wireframing, or coding. Just because you’re the life of any party doesn’t mean you’d make a good interviewer, and conversely just because you’re a quiet, reserved person doesn’t mean you’ll be a terrible interviewer.

In fact, to be a successful interviewer, the author insists, you have to abandon many of the habits you may have developed over the years that allow you to have pleasant, natural conversations with friends and strangers. For example, in everyday conversations each person is an equal participant, sharing talking and listening time. When interviewing:

The goal here is to make it clear to the participant (and to yourself) that they are the expert and you are the novice.

Thus, as they are talking you are not waiting for your turn to talk, or thinking of what to say next, but rather absorbing what they have to say (perhaps this is how an everyday conversation should flow as well, but let’s be honest…).

A somewhat surprising recommendation is to “Be Selective When Talking About Yourself.” In casual conversation, we might share information about ourselves to build trust and common ground, or even just to seem interesting. An interviewer, Portigal suggests, must be more circumspect about sharing, as it can come across as being “more interested in talking about yourself than listening to the other person.” At times, though, revealing something about yourself may help build rapport with the participant.

More than Just a Survey

Just as there are many tools for and ways of prototyping, there are many types of questions you can ask and ways of asking them. Chapter 6 provides a number of tips to get more out of your participants, including a “Palette of Question Types,” and the unexpected benefits of silence.

You can even go beyond questions altogether. In Chapter 4, Portigal describes other ways of interacting with users — not just grilling them with questions. Presenting wireframes and prototypes, or sketching and mapping together, can spark conversation and yield informative reactions. Another approach is to give participants homework such as taking notes on a task before you arrive, or to collecting artifacts from their everyday activities.

There is a lot more to this book as well, including how to handle various interview hiccups and a brief look at analyzing and presenting your research.


Interviewing Users is not about collecting data that can be looked at by the numbers. It is about learning about another person’s world, and most importantly, trying to understand it from her point of view.

If you are getting ready to try your hand at user research, or perhaps you’ve already conducted a field study or two but don’t feel you’re getting the insights you should, Steve Portigal’s book may be the field guide you need.

NB. The in-depth focus on a single branch of user experience design and research makes this an excellent follow-up to Leah Buley’s broad survey of UX methods in User Experience Team of One.

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Author(s)Steve Portigal
PublisherRosenfeld Media

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