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User interviews: The way you ask really matters

Natalia Álvarez
February 3, 2020

Every researcher has their own style for asking questions. But it’s crucial to be aware that the way you formulate them is going to affect and could totally change the user’s response.

User interviews are a valid research technique during the whole design process, but they are generally conducted during the early stages of design. If we do interviews before starting prototyping we get essential information to address real needs instead of hypotheses. We get all the important info from the user's mindset: behavior, motivations and frustrations.

Benefits of user interviews

  • It's an easy way to get a general understanding what is important to users and what ideas for improvement they have.
  • It's a good technique to use before starting the design. To generate information that encourages the creation of Persona, Journey Maps and other necessary tools.
  • It is also useful to do user interviews to add more depth to field research. If we have the possibility of observing our user’s natural context, we will learn valuable information about their context and behavior. But asking the right questions in that environment is also key to creating a better user experience.
  • Asking questions at the end of a usability test gives us more information about the users' behavior and opinions. A few examples could be: why did the user do that? Where did he/she find difficulties? What emotions did she/he feel?...

Limitations of user interviews

We get only the data the user wants us to get. That can be a great thing when they feel like sharing but users can also be inaccurate with their responses.

In behavioral research we can observe the user's actions to contrast with their wording, but during interviews, their words are our only source of information.

This can lead to:

  • The users may forget facts
  • Giving irrelevant information to the interviewer. Users don't know the research questions, so many times they are unaware of the information we are looking for and they can sometimes give us unuseful information.
  • It can be more difficult for some users to express general opinions or beliefs that come from real experience than when reacting to a test. They feel their opinion gets more personal when it comes from past experiences or opinions.

User interviews done right​

1. Start with a little rapport

As personal information and opinions will be shared, it is important to dedicate some time at the beginning of the interview to create a friendly environment. The interviewed should feel comfortable sharing. The time can vary between users. Asking easy questions helps make users feel more confident and ready to give more information.

How is your job? What hobbies do you have? What’s your daily routine?... for example.

2. Understand the difference between research questions and interview questions.

The most important thing before deciding the research method is to have a clear research question to answer. It's so important to understand what the stakeholders want to find out to create the research questions. Try to involve them as much as possible in the decision.

As the Nielsen UX expert Maria Rosala states "If you want to understand people’s thoughts, impressions, or perceptions of an experience, then there’s no better method than performing a well-run interview."

3. Knowing what types of questions you can ask is essential for gaining the information you need.

Asking open questions is essential to gather useful information. Also for creating a sense of conversation with the user, so it is easier for them to communicate their thoughts and feelings accurately.

Closed questions are easier when you need to analyse big amounts of data (quantitative research).

According to Sarah Doody, Harvard UX expert, there are four different types of open interview questions:

  • Customer intro questions: These questions get more information about the user’s day to day life. It also helps filtering gaps that may have not been answered or clear in the screener.Examples:
    • What does your typical day look like?
    • Tell me some of the apps and websites you use daily.
    • When do you normally first use the Internet in a normal day?
  • Topic specific questions:  These questions help you understand the problems users have with the product/service. They tip you on how to improve them or create solutions to the user’s needs.Examples: 
    • How much time do you usually spend on [problem / task]?
    • Why do you keep doing [problem / task]
    • Why is it important to you?
    • What are you currently doing to make this [problem / task] easier?
    • How does this [problem / task] impact other areas of your life / work?
    • What other products or tools have you tried out? 
  • Product opportunity questions: This type of questions are useful when you are showing a demo to the users, in order to get their reactions, spontaneous opinions. This questions help you validate the value of your product/solution.Examples: 
    • Why do you think someone would use this product? 
    • Would you use it? Why? Why not?
    • How do you think this is going to help you? 
    • To which products / services does this remind you? Why?
  • Product reaction questions: These are asked after the user has had contact with the product/service. Their aim is to identify their suggestions or ideas to improve it.Examples:
    • What’s the hardest part about using this product? And the easiest?
    • Did you find it appealing? Why? Why not?
    • What would you do to improve it?

4. Strive for transformative listening

Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of the most popular TED Talk of all time, explains that we have three types of listening:

  • Evaluative listening: responding immediately with our personal opinion
  • Interpretative listening: we are trying to understand
  • Transformative listening: we want to really understand the mindset and are willing to change our point of view.

Transformative listening is the only way to truly understand what the users want and need and how to cover for those needs. This skill is important for UX research because we are trying to get into people’s mindsets as much as possible.

5. Be mindful of non verbal communication

It’s important to pay attention to user’s body language to discover truths or untold nuances to the user’s speech.


As you can tell, user interviews may seem as a very easy or natural research. But it's important to be mindful of its strengths and weaknesses to be able to get the most of it.

If you want to know more detailed information about how we do  in-depth interviews take a look at this (https://www.teacuplab.com/services/user-research/in-depth-interviews/)


  1. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/open-ended-questions/
  2. https://uxdesign.cc/interviewing-more-than-a-user-research-method-81ab92420497
  3. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-interviews/
  4.  https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-user-interviews-fail/
  5. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/harvarduxgroup/files/ux-research-guide-sample-questions-for-user-interviews.pdf


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