Six Tips for Observing User Interviews

By Kathlyne Taylor, Strategist

Companies, big and small, recognize the critical importance of putting their users at the center of what they do. In order to create products and services that customers love and engage with long-term, there needs to be an increased investment in user research.

As you journey through the multiple phases of product development, the stage which plays one of the most critical roles is user research; particularly research that involves end-user interaction. This is the first time you will be able to see how customers will react to a new product or service idea, and the stakes are high. At this point you have invested a large amount of time, hosting various stakeholder meetings in attempts to sell a new product or service vision to your fellow colleagues. You are hoping to collect valuable evidence from an outside source to prove the potential value of a product or service in order to move forward with approval by your core stakeholders.

A proven process that we recommend is for the lead user researcher to share proper observer etiquette with the team before the user interview, to ensure that observers don’t unintentionally interfere with the research results or run the risk of delaying overall project progress. To that end, we have gathered a list of the 6 most important things to keep in mind as you observe user interviews:


  1. Focus on the participant

It’s really important to turn your attention entirely on the user interview so that everything the participant is saying is heard. It is equally important to observe facial expressions, body language, and tone, as often the most honest feedback is shared non-verbally.

Keeping quiet is also important for observers watching the study remotely, be it online or from an observation viewing room. Make sure mics, phones, and computer notifications are muted. Once the interview is complete, run a debriefing session immediately following its end, instead of exchanging comments throughout. This allows observers to share any interesting observations with researchers and other stakeholders.


  1. Save all questions for the Q&A session

If observers have questions for the participant as the interview unfolds, it works well to add them to a shared document, so the facilitator can get to the question towards the end of the user interview. This helps the facilitator stay on track with the session flow and avoids any chance of derailment from the study design. The facilitator should also be sure to ask the question in a way that is not biased and allows for the participant to get their unbiased response across.


  1. Avoid accidentally biasing participants

It is perfectly normal to want to discuss observations from a prior study with colleagues while heading to the restroom or walking down the hallway to the kitchen. But discussing any observations outside the observation room in a scenario where participants potentially are sitting around the corner puts the integrity of the study at risk. To avoid possibly biasing new participants, observers should only discuss study related topics in the observation room.


  1. Have empathy and respect for all participants

Participants may not always find a prototype intuitive or easy to use, and they may not like the product that is being developed. Additionally, they may not understand its purpose or its functions. If a participant, i.e., a potential customer, simply doesn’t “get it”, there is more work to do in developing the product. It is important that observers try to keep an open mind, put themselves in the participant’s shoes and focus on why the user is having trouble understanding the concept in the first place.


  1. Take notes

Observers are encouraged to capture notes of all interesting quotes, surprising behavior, or revealing facial expressions. Great notes are very valuable as they ensure that no key observations are missed for the debriefing session, as the project progresses, and it can help speed up the analysis process.


  1. Attend more than one session before drawing conclusions

Although challenging, observing at least 3 sessions before starting to draw conclusions and patterns from the research is significant. Viewing more than one session gives observers more exposure to the data and allows them to better identify patterns versus one-off occurrences.


There you have it! The six tips above will set observers up for success. By adhering to these tips, observers can avoid putting the integrity of the study at risk and can contribute to a more productive user interview.

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