How to Conduct Virtual User Interviews        

How to Conduct Virtual User Interviews

May 25, 2020

When it comes to the product design process, user interviews are essential. They help you understand users’ needs early in the process and shape future iterations of your product based on their experience with prototypes. At Beyond Design, user interviews are integral to our entire process.

But with the current global climate, conducting in-person user interviews isn’t always possible. Running user virtual-interviews is an option, but you’ll need to take care to ensure that these interviews are as effective as in-person interactions.

Here are some of the keys to conducting a successful virtual user interview.

Be Prepared

When it comes to virtual interviews, there are more opportunities for things to go wrong. You can have issues logging into your conference or video chat service, the internet connection may be spotty or weak, or your audio equipment or video camera can fail at the worst possible time.

This potential for error makes it especially important to be prepared well in advance of your interview. For every technical aspect of the upcoming interview, ensure that you have a specific and easily executed backup plan. Send two sets of videoconference info to the user— the initial plan, and the backup. Make sure that you’ve tested any headphones, microphones, and cameras used in the virtual interview beforehand. Also, avoid conducting interviews from unfamiliar locations, or are known to have weak internet connections. Even if you’re not disconnected entirely, long delays or pixelated images can make your user feel less comfortable and at ease with sharing their thoughts and opinions.

If you plan to share files or images with the user during the interview, make sure that you have a plan in place for that. Many video conferencing apps have a built-in function for file sharing and text chat. If not, make sure that you’re ready.

Have a Strategy

There’s just something about virtual user interviews that feel more casual than interviews conducted in person. People might feel more comfortable dressing casually, or doing less preparation than they otherwise might if they were meeting someone in person. 

While you can’t control your user’s level of preparation (though you can encourage it along the way), you can be conscious about your planning and strategy ahead of time. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my level of preparation if this were an in-person interview?” 

Have you vetted your questions and tested their phrasing to get the most useful, unbiased response? Do you have an understanding of your users and know where they sit in your potential audience? Have you avoided leading questions or too many yes/no questions? 

Your interview strategy should be just as robust (if not more so) for a virtual interview than for an in-person one.

Help Your User Feel Comfortable

When conducting an in-person interview, you have a chance to greet users personally, have a direct interaction, and make them feel at ease. In a virtual interview, this isn’t always so easy. Your user is meeting someone far away whose image is likely at least somewhat pixelated. It may be more challenging to make them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you about the product if they cannot read your body language due to pixelation. Keep this in mind during the process.

Communicate Clearly

Even in the best-case in-person user interview, there is a potential for communication breakdown. People don’t always express their thoughts accurately, or have trouble putting their opinions into words that make sense to others. This lack of clarity goes both ways— we as interviewers can sometimes phrase questions poorly or communicate expectations unclearly.

These issues become amplified in a virtual interview, which puts up an added barrier between cues like body language, voice inflection, and others that the human brain uses to help detect meaning.

What does that mean for you? That ensuring you’re communicating clearly (and your interviewee has what they need to communicate clearly) is more important than ever. Encourage your interviewer to be as specific as possible in their feedback and thoughts, and be sure to ask for clarification anytime you’re unsure of their meaning.

Follow Standard Principles for User Interviews

The best thing you can do to ensure your virtual user interviews are successful? Follow many of the same principles you use in in-person interviews. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when conducting a user interview, in-person or otherwise.

Ask open-ended questions

Asking ‘yes or no’ questions can only give you one of two answers. Asking open-ended questions that allow users to talk out their thoughts will often lead you closer to the real truth of their experience with their product. Don’t ask, “Did you find the product easy to use?” Instead, you could ask, “Can you share with me how the product is working for you?”

Approach questions from unique angles

Sometimes rephrasing a question multiple ways throughout an interview can yield productive results. It gives users a chance to express themselves differently and might help you tap into insights you might have missed if you’d only addressed an element of your interview from one direction.

Avoid making or communicating assumptions

Making assumptions about your user’s opinions or communicating your own beliefs to your user can significantly strain the validity of your user interview. For example, let’s look at two ways of phrasing a question about user-friendliness:

Option A: “Did the product work as it was supposed to?”

Option B: “What was your experience using the product?”

The first option mentions your desired outcome, leading the user towards that answer. The second is entirely open-ended and allows the user to say anything that comes to mind about their experience. You’re much more likely to get a useful, unbiased response.

Assess your success

A set of user interview questions isn’t something you create at the beginning of a process and then never analyze again. After a few interviews, you may find that certain questions are falling flat, aren’t getting you useful responses, or are leading users in a certain direction without allowing them to share their unbiased opinion. Remember that you can drop questions that aren’t useful to you or adjust them to provide better insight.

Excellent product design doesn’t have to be put on hold just because the circumstances of the world have changed. Always be willing to adapt.

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