The Importance of an Interview

Design thinking explained in simplest forms is 99% of the time explained as “human centered problem solving” (that other 1% is because there are always people who argue with definitions and the meaning of words.)

In order for designs to be human centered, you have to actually talk to humans. This means you have to set up interviews with real users in order to understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations if you wish to innovate for him/her.

In history class we have been going through a design challenge for the last few weeks in regards to constitutional debates currently taking place. This challenge has had me doing more research work in terms of why and how to do interviews with people. While I’ve done a good number of design thinking interviews, you can always learn more and a little more research never killed anyone.

I ended up looking at a few articles, a video, and a slide deck that all have to do with interviewing tips and the importance of empathy. Personally I couldn’t help but laugh that so much of my research pointed me back to the Stanford d.School. (I don’t know why this makes me laugh, but just the fact that this one organization has managed to make such an impact on a larger community never to amaze and inspire me. I can’t wait for ID to get to work with Stanford students on a design challenge next spring!!!)

The goal of having an interview with someone is to observe, engage, and immerse yourself in their stories to learn about their needs and uncover insights that can help guide designs. I really like how Aarron Walter described empathy back in September when I went to Creative Mornings and heard him speak about empathy: “to journey into the emotions of another.” If you try to design something without first working with a user, then you could be designing a product that doesn’t actually help anyone and therefore it’s just a waste of time to even design it at all. Innovations are considered to be so great because they help people in ways never before imagined. If you aren’t helping people, then you aren’t innovating: this is why we interview people.

Personally I think the hardest part of interviewing in finding who to actually speak to. The best person to speak to would be an “extreme user” someone who has very strong opinions on a topic. For example, my design challenge is around public art and the freedom of speech, so an extreme user could be one of the government leaders who suggested the new regulations on public art work. However, this isn’t a perfect world, and you aren’t always going to get to talk with an “ideal user”. In actuality, it’s more likely than not that at least one of the people you interview may just be a “dud”- someone who isn’t really great at telling stories and it’s really hard to pull insights from them to help with you challenge. It’s perfectly normal to end up in this situation once or twice, so the trick is to recognize when you may be talking to someone that just isn’t the right user for your challenge, and to be able to politely wrap up the interview.

However, you will never know if you are interviewing a helpful user if you aren’t prepared on your end to be a good interviewer. People’s time is precious, and you don’t want to waste your user’s time. We have to prepare for an interview so that we can help the conversation flow more smoothly in a small amount of time.

To prepare, first you need to make sure you really understand who you are talking to: do some research. The more you already know your user, the easier it will be to ask questions and dig deeper into their stories. Your research also often helps you brainstorm questions.

When brainstorming questions, first you want to just go for volume. Think of as many questions as you possibly can that may help with your challenge. Sometimes it even helps to make a time limit on this brainstorm, just to make sure you keep moving forward and don’t get caught spending all of your prep time brainstorming. You can’t get stuck brainstorming the whole time because after you brainstorm, you need to go back through your questions and start narrowing and organizing your list, since you won’t have time to ask every question.

When preparing for an interview, you have to figure out what questions would be most valuable to ask and figure out an order for those questions. Valuable questions are not yes or no questions, instead valuable questions and those questions that encourage users to tell stories. Stories are one of the most valuable things in the world. One story can inspire an entire design, but you have to hear those stories first.

From my research and experience I’ve learned a couple of tips about types of questions to ask:

  • When asking questions you need to think about asking “simple” questions that don’t require extra explaining.
  • These questions should be asked in a neutral way without any suggested answer so that your user doesn’t feel swayed to just agree with you.
  • Don’t ask questions that start with “usually” because they lend to a very general answer, and you want specific stories.
  • When in doubt, a designers favorite word is “why?”

Preparation can only help so much though, because eventually you actually have to have the interview. When in the interview there is a kind of story arch that I created with the help of a few sources mixed together that may help:

  1. introduce yourself

  2. introduce your project

  3. shift the focus to your user

  4. evoke stories

  5. explore emotions

  6. question statements (as in new questions you’ve thought about during the interview)

  7. thanks & wrap up (Don’t forget to thank your user for their time and stories! Not thanking a person could completely change how they think about you for the future.)

Meanwhile, the whole time CAPTURE EVERYTHING!!! Interviews are great, but you won’t remember everything, so you need to capture the insights you find so that you can come back to them later. Capturing can take the form of pictures, sticky notes, journal notes, video clips, or whatever you can figure out. Furthermore, when you capture, it is important to note not only what a user is specifically saying, but to also look for inconsistencies, physical movement, and potentially consider what they may be thinking or feeling in a given instance. The key is to write down only enough so that you can remember it later, without wasting too much time writing instead of listening or questioning.

Not all silence is awkward though. Sometimes it can be good to have a little bit of silence to allow everyone to really digest their thoughts. Silence isn’t something to fear, so don’t feel the need to fill the silence with some little quick question that takes value away from a conversation. Personally, this is something I really struggle with and know I need to get better at.

I don’t consider myself to be a master interviewer. In fact, I often find myself struggling with the interview section of design thinking while actually in the moment of an interview. Sometimes no matter how much you research the only way to truly improve is to actually practice. So while these tips I’ve suggested can be helpful to know, I’d encourage anyone wanting to improve their interview skills to just go out and conduct a bunch of interviews. Learning from experience, both failures and successes, can often be the most helpful way to learn, and learning how to interview to gain empathy for users is a very important life skill to learn.


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