How to Ask Effective Questions in User Interviews

How to Ask Effective Questions in User Interviews
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash

You might be a PM, UX or solo founder. You might not be a seasoned UX Researcher with a PhD in Psychology.

Me neither. Here are my practical tips for us 'normies' that I've collected over the years, on how the get the most insights out of user interviews.

Asking questions is a fundamental part of product discovery.

Unfortunately, not all questions are created equal. Some questions are insightful and lead to fruitful discussions, while others are "dumb questions" that waste time.

Hard truth. Being able to tell the difference between the two is key.

If you don't want to call them dumb questions, you can call them empty questions. Because they fail to fill your user-insights-bucket.

These tips have helped me not look like a fool in front of more experienced interviewers. - anonymous

So, how do you start asking good interview questions?

The answer lies in thinking like an interrogator.

Interrogators are trained to ask questions that extract specific information from a person, and they do it with intentionality and precision. By applying some of the techniques used by interrogators, you can improve your questioning skills and avoid asking empty questions.

Here are my top 5 tips. They should be enough to get you started.

If you want the more subtle (pro) considerations in shaping questions, continue reading below.

  1. Start with open-ended questions: You've heard this one before. So I'll keep it brief. Instead of asking "Do you want to buy this software?" try asking "What features are you looking for in a software solution?"
  2. Use calibrated questions: Calibrated questions can help you uncover the other person's underlying motivations and concerns. Instead of asking "How much are you willing to pay?" try asking "How important is this software to your business, and what impact would it have if you didn't have it?"
  3. Mirror and label: This one is powerful, try it 💪. Mirroring and labeling can help you build rapport with the other person and show that you understand their perspective. If they say "I'm worried about the cost," you can mirror by saying "You're concerned about the cost?"
  4. Ask "how" and "what" questions: These types of questions can help you understand the other person's needs and concerns more fully. Instead of asking "Why do you need this software?" try asking "What specific tasks or processes would you like this software to help with?"
  5. Use a summary to clarify: Summarizing the other person's needs and concerns can help you avoid misunderstandings and ensure that you're on the same page. For example, you can say "So if I understand correctly, you're looking for a software solution that will help streamline your sales processes and provide analytics to help you make data-driven decisions. Is that correct?"
don't overthink your questions either. like this guy

Crafting good questions is to consider the desired outcome.

What do you want to get out of the other person?

Do you want to understand what problem they're currently facing (tactical), or how emotional the problem is for them (emotional)? It's important to be specific and clear about the information you want to extract.

If you're looking for tactical information, focus your questions on minute details. Ask the other person which Google search they entered to find solutions, or what steps they took to solve a problem. By asking specific questions, you can extract more detailed information that can be used to solve problems.

For emotional information, prime your questions with empathy.

Frame your questions with emotional terms and observations to signal that you're talking on that level. For example, you might say, "I'm often frustrated when I can't do this. How about you?" This shows that you understand how the person is feeling and can lead to more meaningful discussions.

The second aspect to consider is informational density. Good interviewers or interrogators control the pace of the conversation to extract the information they need efficiently. It's important to establish rapport and create a safe space, but don't overdo it. Get to the hard questions quickly and keep the small talk short.

Here are 3 ways of building rapport quickly

  1. Use active listening: Active listening involves paying close attention to what the other person is saying and showing that you understand their perspective. This can involve paraphrasing what they've said, asking clarifying questions, and using nonverbal cues like nodding and eye contact.
  2. Find common ground: Building rapport involves finding areas of common ground or shared experiences with the other person. This can help create a sense of connection and trust. For example, you might comment on something you noticed in their office or on their social media profile, or share a personal anecdote that relates to the topic at hand.
  3. Use positive language: The language you use can have a big impact on the other person's perception of you and the conversation. Using positive language and avoiding negative or confrontational language can help build rapport and reduce tension. For example, instead of saying "That won't work," you might say "I see where you're coming from, but let's explore some other options that might be a better fit."
Me trying to keep all this in mind while having a 'natural' conversation

When asking questions, it's important to be intentional.

The simplest point, yet the most important.

Don't ask questions mindlessly or without purpose.

Duh, you say. Well, most user interviews I've seen (and many I've conducted) lacked intentional questions.

Write down a set of good questions that you think will lead to insightful discussions. Some questions are better than others, so it's important to learn and iterate. Refine your question catalogue after every third interview.

The best, and most obvious way to avoid leading questions and other "empty questions" is to write them down in an interview guide before the conversation. This ensures that you stay on track and ask the right questions.

And if you stray off the track, which will happen, you have a guide to get back to.

Summary and Further Reading

I've applied many of the principles I've picked up during my Psychology and the interrogator stuff I picked up reading Never Split the Difference.

While the book is a bit heavy on the storytelling, I can recommend it. I tried to extract the valuable parts (for me) in this article.

When asking questions, it's important to be intentional and not ask questions mindlessly or without purpose. One should write down a set of good questions that lead to insightful discussions, refine them regularly after interviews, and avoid leading questions by writing them down in an interview guide before the conversation.

By doing so, one can stay on track and ask the right questions. It's important to remember that no one is perfect, and it's okay to stray off track, but having a guide helps to get back on track.

Ultimately, crafting good questions is a skill that can be learned, and with practice, anyone can become proficient at it.

And starting to talk to users is way more important than having great questions crafted. Don't let perfection be the enemy of getting into contact with your users.

Want even more tactical tips? I've collected templates over the years, that help me daily. They help me onboard faster with teams, brainstorm more collaboratively and communicate outcomes in a crisper way.