Answers to common questions about conducting user interviews.

The phrase “user interviews” may sound serious, but it’s a very simple concept. In short, user interviews are simply structured conversations with the target users of your product, service, or experience. User interviews are closely related to the design thinking methodology, which puts the user (or customer) at the heart of the decision-making or design process.

The purpose of user interviews is to understand more about the people you want to serve through your product. Through your interviews, you aim to understand their pain points, hopes, and needs. All of this information helps you design more relevant, meaningful, and desirable experiences.

The purpose of user interviews is to understand more about the people you want to serve.
The purpose of user interviews is to understand more about the people you want to serve.

In the past, it was commonplace for many companies to design products or experiences without this critical perspective. Instead, decisions were based on gut reactions or the business bottom line above all else—What does our internal team think we need? What is our boss telling us to do? Or, what can we do quickly?

None of these approaches starts with the most important person—the end-user. The design thinking mindset encourages everyone involved with creating something— whether that “something” is an app, a retail experience, an online service, or a medication—to approach their work first from a place of empathy. And one of the quickest, most effective ways to gain empathy is through user interviews.

When is it a good time for user interviews?

User interviews are conducted throughout all stages of a design project or initiative. However, the goals behind your research and the type of questions you ask will shift depending on where you’re at in your work and what you want to accomplish.

Here are a few examples of when to conduct user interviews:

  • At the beginning of a project: When you first kick off an initiative, it’s definitely time to host user interviews with a representative group of customers. During this phase, the goal of your user interviews is usually very generative and open. You want to understand your product or problem space from the users’ perspective.
  • In the middle of a project: A project’s mid-point is also a great time for user interviews. At this point, you hopefully have some concepts (even just sketches or basic wireframes) or prototypes to show your users. The goal of the user interviews here is to ask questions that will help you refine your ideas to align with what the customer/user wants and to understand if you’re going in the right direction.
  • When you’ve launched something: User interviews don’t stop once you’ve produced an experience and put it out into the market. In fact, your user interviews might become more important now. At this point, user interviews help you perfect and refine your existing product and test out new or future features.
  • During a Design Sprint: At Voltage Control, we are experts in facilitating the five-day Design Sprint method. This a one-week process, originally developed at Google Ventures, leads a team through a collaborative set of activities to create a solution to an existing business problem. In five short days, you do research, insight gathering, concepting, and prototyping. On the Friday of a Design Sprint, you typically interview five users to get their feedback on your rapid prototype.

What are the benefits of user interviews?

1. Get learnings before it’s too late

When you don’t conduct user interviews and you jump right into designing solutions, you might head off in the wrong direction. This can be a costly mistake. Talking to users upfront helps point you in the right direction and focuses your efforts on solutions that you have a strong hunch will be useful to your customers or end-users.

2. It only takes a handful

User interviews don’t have to be a lengthy, time-consuming part of your design process. You can gather such rich information in a few days or a week of interviews. You don’t need to interview 20 or 100 people. Interview 5–10 people with different perspectives, ages, and backgrounds. You’ll start to hear common themes and issues from this small subset of users.

3. Get out of your routine (and the office)

Another benefit of user interviews is that they shake up your typical modes of working—meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Talking with your users is incredibly inspiring and can reenergize teams. It’s even better if you can interview people outside of the office and in their homes or another neutral setting.

4. Back up your ideas with stories

A final benefit of user interviews is that they provide stories, quotes, and narratives that you can use to back up your ideas when you are trying to “sell” a feature or experience. When you can tell your colleagues that you created something specifically because a user showed a need for it, your ideas will have more power and weight.

How do you structure a user interview?

Before you hold a user interview, you’ll have to write an interview guide or protocol. This is the list of questions and topics you want to cover in your conversation. Be sure to think carefully about how you want to open and close your conversation, as well as the topics you need to hit in the time you have with your participant. (Typically, interviews are somewhere between 30–90 minutes long.)

In the Design Sprint, we follow something called the “5 Act Interview” when we talk to people about the prototype. It’s a basic interview structure that covers all the essentials and can be easily adapted or tweaked if you are doing another type of research. If you want to learn more about the 5 Act interview, I’ve outlined it in this article.

If you’re running interviews as part of a Design Sprint, and even if you’re not, we designed a scorecard that helps you take interview notes and synthesize the findings coming out of user research.

Taking notes
Discussion between group

How do I find participants for user interviews?

When you’ve been sold on the need for, and benefits of, user research and you’ve done some preparation, it’s time to find and schedule your interview participants.

There are many ways to find participants for user interviews, some more formal than others.

Option 1: Friends and Family
Write up a simple description of the type of people you’re looking for (i.e. millennials who don’t have smartphones) and then send emails out to people you know and/or post your request on your social media feed. Consider creating a simple survey through something like Google Forms, Survey Monkey, or TypeForm to make sure that people have the qualities and background you’re looking for.

Option 2: Recruiting Companies
If you need more help or if your users are very niche and/or hard to find, you can also consider hiring professional recruiting agencies to find and schedule your interviewees. There are many companies out there, both old and new, local and national, but we’d recommend checking out dScout and Respondent.

Do you want expert help with user interviews, innovation workshops, or a Design Sprint? Let’s talk.

Voltage Control facilitates events of all kinds, including design thinking workshops, innovation sessions, and Design Sprints. Please reach out to us at for a consultation.