Avoiding Hard-to-Answer Questions in User Interviews

Interviewing People to Identify Their Needs

It’s a mistake simply to ask people what they want or accept what they tell you without questioning it. People can tell you about the problems they face and the things that annoy them, but they have a difficult time articulating what they want or need. While research participants sometimes offer suggestions for what they think would solve their problems, their ideas don’t always lead to the best solutions.

How to Understand Users’ Needs

Observing and talking with people while they perform tasks in their natural context is the best way to discover their true needs. When people suggest solutions, don’t simply accept them at their face value, but don’t dismiss them without considering them either. Find out more about people’s problems and the reasons behind their requests. Ask them about how specific problems affect them, what they’re trying to achieve, and how they think their solution would solve their problem. Having that information will help you to develop a design that solves their problems and meets their needs.

Asking People to Imagine How Something Would Work

Don’t ask people to envision or comment on design concepts they cannot see or use. People usually have difficulty imagining a design solution, feature, or interaction simply from a verbal description. Even if you’re able to provide a good description, how can you know that participants have the same understanding as you do? Showing participants something concrete is always better than a description, but their simply seeing a design is not enough. To give you the best feedback, participants need to be able to use a prototype.

How to Gather Feedback on a Design

Give people a prototype they can see, use, and react to. It’s much easier for people to provide feedback on something concrete with which they can interact. But consider the limited fidelity of prototypes when assessing participants’ feedback. Some complex or novel interactions are difficult to simulate with lower-fidelity prototypes, making it harder for participants to get a realistic sense of how certain elements work.

Asking People to Envision an Improved Design

Very few research participants are designers. So they can tell you what seems to make sense, what confuses them, and why a particular design is frustrating. They can tell you what works and what doesn’t work, but they’re usually unable to provide specific design solutions. While they may be able to suggest some simple improvements, asking them to suggest big improvements usually leads to silence.

How to Discover Design Improvements

Since users aren’t designers, you shouldn’t expect them to make design decisions for you. The purpose of usability testing is to gather information about what works and doesn’t work, then use that information to improve the design. Don’t ask participants for solutions. Focus on finding out about the problems they encounter, then use your own judgment about what design changes to make. Finally, test your design changes with participants to see how well they work. Validate that your changes were actually improvements.

Asking People to Distinguish Unimportant Design Differences

Some project teams try to solve every design dispute by saying, “Let’s test that.” Of course, it’s great when your teammates believe in the value of usability testing, but some teams take this too far and try to place the burden of every design decision on test participants. The purpose of usability testing is not for participants to tell you what to design or to resolve every design dispute.

In fact, such disputes are sometimes about differences that are so minuscule that test participants can’t tell the difference between them and don’t really have a preference. Sometimes you may even sense that participants are thinking, I don’t really see much difference between these designs. Why are you even asking me this?

How to Test Multiple Designs

You can conduct comparative usability testing to get feedback on alternative designs. When participants see only one design, they may have a hard time envisioning how it could be different. But when they can compare two or more designs, they’re usually able to provide much more useful feedback.

However, don’t test more than two or three versions of a design during the same usability study. Participants would likely find trying to compare too many different versions difficult and confusing. Ensure that design differences are meaningful. Again, don’t use comparative testing to solve every design dispute. Make design decisions first, then test your designs with users.

Asking People to Explain Their Behavior

Observation lets you see what people do, but it often doesn’t answer the more intriguing question: why? While people don’t typically know the reasons for their actions, if you ask about them, they’ll rationalize to come up with a plausible answer. They aren’t consciously trying to deceive you; they just aren’t aware of all the subconscious reasons for their actions.

How to Understand Participant Behavior

Because participants can’t accurately explain their actions, some UX professionals have advised paying attention only to what research participants actually do and not what they say. I think this is a little extreme. Observing behavior gets you only so far. You must try to discover the reasons for people’s actions.

Careful questioning and having participants think aloud as they perform tasks during a usability-test session can help you understand their actions. When participants think aloud, this gives you immediate insights into what they’re thinking as they perform the tasks. Later, you can ask follow-up questions to get additional insights. I don’t think it hurts to ask people why. Even if participants don’t have any insights into why they’ve done something, their answers can still help reveal their mental models. Just remember, don’t blindly accept their explanations as the truth. Instead, consider their answers as a means of getting insights into their thinking.

Things People Can Easily Discuss

In user research, participants provide the most accurate and useful information while they’re performing their typical tasks in their usual context. Observing participants in their own context lets them show you exactly what they normally do. In usability testing, participants provide the best feedback when trying out and comparing design solutions rather than simply looking at designs and providing their general opinions. By asking specific questions immediately after participants perform tasks, you’ll get the best responses.

When doing user research, put more emphasis on observing what people actually do rather than on what they say. Of course, you should listen to what they say, too, but take what they say with a grain of salt. By understanding what types of questions people have trouble answering, as well as those that elicit the best information, you can avoid wasting time asking unproductive or misleading questions and focus instead on asking the right questions. 

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