Interviewing Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights

At first, Interview Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal was not a comfortable choice to me. I flipped through some pages and was partially tempted to dismiss it:

Oh, it is just a recipe book for field interview. Nah, I know how to have conversations with people. After all, for probably as long as I can remember, people around me have always said that I ask very good questions and I am good at having meaningful dialogues with people. I have just completed approximately a dozen of in-depth technical interviews with engineers and scientists in the last few weeks. Having troubleshooting type of conversations with engineers/scientists and managing the progress of multiple projects simultaneously on a daily basis through dialogues were an essential part of my role in leading a team. Oi, STOP being arrogant and narrow-minded. After all, I had not much experience of conducting business market research. There must be a lot to learn in this field. Hmm, should I read this or not? The opportunity cost of reading this book is that I will not have time to read one of many others on my list this week. Most of those were highly praised and recommended to me specifically. But this is the first textbook that one of my lecturers at Stanford said we should read at least some key chapters. Maybe I will give Chapter 6 How to Ask Questions a go. Well, I think it would be beneficial to do that before my first scheduled interview. I can always just shelve it afterwards and pick it up later when I need to consult such a recipe book.

That was me talking to myself in my mind before I started reading it. Soon enough, all pages of Chapter 6 were turned. Then I found myself back to the first page of the book Dedication till the end of the book. I am certainly very glad that I made the decision of reading this book.

After I was able to settle into reading this book, I found it is not only insightful and practical for people who plan to conduct field interviews, but also to improve your conversations in general. It shows the dynamics of dialogues, explains with examples on how to establish one’s role through the usage of verbal language and physical presence to maximize the insights one could extract from the field interviews, what to say or do and what not to, provide many advices on how to interview well. Furthermore, it demystifies the process of a field interview by presenting a framework for interviewing, guiding through the preparation phase, introducing many methods for conducting productive interviews, how to manage the roles and navigate through the interview stages, how to document the interviews, and finally how to use the captured data to present to your organisation and make an impact.

While reading the book, I pictured myself as either the interviewer or the interviewee in the examples given in the book; to see, feel and think from their perspectives, which in turn helped me to understand where these guidelines recommended by Steve actually were distilled from. I also spotted mistakes that I made in both professional and personal conversations. Here I share with you a few guidelines that either resonate most with me or could do with improvements on my part:

  1. It is not necessary to give voice to every thought that comes into your head. Try not to descend into the lecture mode and be a teller instead of a listener.
  2. Restrain the urge to help the interviewees have the best experience using your products by describing certain features that they missed or demonstrating how to operate some functionalities. General advice is to not jump in to correct or educate the interviewee as it defeats the purpose of the interview to learn from the interviewee and gain insights on how he/she uses/perceives of the product. Instructing the interviewees or sharing your expertise too early might turn the field interview into an expensive technical support house call. That type of helpful information should be reserved until the end and anything that might help the interviewee can be shared after the interview.
  3. Ask short questions and pause to wait for answers instead of elaborating too much. Embrace the silence (for an appropriate amount of time). Try not to feed your interviewees with answers by giving multiple choices, which might restrict the scope of what they would share with you.
  4. When it comes to dialogues, we humans only work in serial fashion and simply do not have a magical multi-threaded or many-threaded capability. It helps to swiftly jot down the topics popped up in your mind during the conversation but that are not high enough priority to ask immediately. If time permits, you can always follow up on those topics. Alternatively, they may be valuable enough to be incorporated to future interviews.
  5. There are bound to be some awkward or uncomfortable moments during which you are not sure what to do or concerned about what the interviewees might be thinking etc. Take a deep breath and accept the awkwardness. It is important to pay attention to the ebb and flow of the interview and adapt. Meanwhile, it also helps to try not be too self-conscious. A lot of times in the interviewing settings, there is no right or wrong. There is no precise recipe of conducting an interview. It is a willingness to share and to keep that conversation going that count most.
  6. While documenting the interviews, be sure to separate the observations from the interpretations. Information that surfaces later might change your interpretation of what you have heard earlier. Including a gross misinterpretation in the notes would completely defeat the purpose of the interview.
  7. With good quality documentation and some diligence, interviewers can easily produce many pages of detailed notes after the interview that emphasize a great deal about the narratives alone rather than insights learned, business implications and conclusions. I recently went to an artificial intelligence conference and came back with dozens of pages of notes highlighting the key points (in my view) from each presentations and also the conversations I had with the other participants. The process of keeping those notes helped me to structure my understandings and the thoughts provoked significantly better than it would have otherwise be. Being reasonably good at blindtype also allows me to stay engaged with the speakers. But I missed one vital step: writing a short off-the-top-of-my-head summary and drawing the ideas that popped into my mind during and right after the stimulation. It is common that many of us do not recognise our own notes a few days later after making them. So it is important to document the thoughts and write a short summary as well as noting down the descriptions and details of the interviews.  

By no means, these are the only pearls that I found in this book. There is a lot of other very practical guidance. Generally speaking, if you do not know how to do a field interview or market research, this would be a good book to start with. If nothing else, it helped me to visualise myself in many of interview examples, and to become mentally prepared for challenging situations. It is also very reassuring to know that even though interviewing might be partially a practice of art, there are a lot of practical methods that you could deploy to improve the quality of your field research and its business impact.