What Is A User Interview?

Maybe you've heard that user interviews are essential for product discovery, but you're not exactly sure what a user interview looks like. This blog post explains what a user interview is and gives a short example transcript of a successful user interview.

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A user interview is a form of one-to-one customer research where one person asks open-ended questions to discover how the other person solves specific problems today.

Good, open-ended questions that interviewers ask during user interviews are:

  • Tell me about the last time you did x?
  • Can you tell me a little bit more about why you did that?
  • How did you feel when you did x?

Founders, product managers, and user experience professionals generally conduct user interviews within the customer discovery phase of product development. In other words, when the product or business is nascent, preparing for a pivot, or is developing a roadmap. That said, successful agile companies regularly conduct user interviews throughout the product lifecycle to integrate continuous feedback into their product. One user experience expert explained that he had success in the past by conducting user interviews every four to six weeks, regardless of the product's progress since the previous set of user interviews.

A user interview lasts between 15 and 45-minutes. Typically, businesses do somewhere between five and twelve of these with their target market before moving forward. That said, one product manager told me that her team conducted dozens of user interviews when they were setting the product roadmap for the upcoming year. In my experience, doing eight user interviews is generally good for a short sprint of feedback before building the next iteration.

Here's An Example of the First Few Minutes of a User Interview:

Software engineer Sarah has hypothesized that many restaurants are not adequately equipped to handle online ordering and thinks she might be able to help by building a new platform where restaurants can host ordering experiences on their website rather than paying expensive fees to Uber Eats and Grubhub (this). Before Sarah quits her job and creates the platform, she knows that she needs to talk to some local restaurant owners to see if this is a problem. She walks into her local bakery and asks bakery-owner Bob for 20-minutes of his time to answer some questions she has. Fortunately, Bob agrees, and they sit down at a table in the back of the bakery to chat.

Software Engineer Sarah: Thanks for your time today; I appreciate it. I'm conducting research for a product that I think might be able to help restaurants like yours. Can you tell me a little bit about the last time someone ordered online?

Bakery Bob: Sure thing, it was just a few moments ago. I got an alert on our POS system that someone ordered a loaf of sourdough.

Sarah: That's cool; do you know how the user ordered the loaf?

Bob: Probably Uber Eats; that's where most of our online orders originate.

Sarah: Can you tell me a little bit about your Uber Eats partnership?

Bob: On one hand, we get way more orders because people seem to prefer it to calling in, but Uber takes a significant margin on every order, so we're hardly making any money on orders from Uber.

Sarah: What kind of a margin does Uber take?

Bob: I think it's 30% on every order.

Sarah: Have you ever asked or had any conversations with Uber about the margin?

Bob: I've called them a couple of times, but they say it's standard and they won't change it for me.

Sarah: I went to your website and noticed that you don't have online ordering on your site. May I ask, why is that?

Bob: Honestly, we paid an agency a couple of years ago to build the site, and it took them ten months and cost so much that we just don't have the time or money right now to invest in a new website.


What Sarah Did Well:

  1. Sarah asked open-ended questions such as, "can you tell me a little bit about "Can you tell me a little bit about the last time someone ordered online?"

  2. She asked follow-up questions to dig deeper and get specific details, even if she thought she knew the answer.

  3. She was starting to get to the heart of why Bob decided to partner with Uber Eats and some of the concerns he had with having his own online ordering system.

Now that you have an idea of what a user interview is, I recommend understanding how to conduct an effective user interview. The post goes into way more detail than the brief example above.

Authored by:
Mike Chirokas