What is interviewing?

Interviewing is asking people a series of questions and asking for their response.

Key elements of interviewing

1. Ask productive questions.

Steve Portigal offers the following palette of useful questions:

  • Ask about sequence. “Describe a typical workday. What do you do when you first sit down at your station? - Then, what do you do next?”
  • Ask about quantity. “How many files would you delete when that happens?”
  • Ask for specific examples. “What is the last movie that you streamed?” – Compare this to “What movies do you stream?” The specific is easier to answer than the general and becomes a platform for follow up questions.
  • Ask for the complete list. “What are all the different apps you have installed on your smartphone?” – This requires a series of follow up questions, e.g., “What else?” because few people will be able to generate an entire list of something with some prompting.
  • Ask about relationships. “How do you work with new vendors?” – This general question is especially appropriate when you don’t even know enough to ask a specific question (e.g. in comparison to the earlier example about streaming movies). Better to start general than to be presumptive with a too-specific question.
  • Ask about organizational structure. “Who does that department report to?”

Questions to probe on what's unsaid

  • Ask for clarification. “When you refer to “that” you are talking about the newest server, right?”
  • Ask about code words/native language. “Why do you call it the ‘Batcave?’”
  • Ask about emotional cues. “Why do you laugh when you mention ‘Best Buy?’”
  • Ask why. “I’ve tried to get my boss to adopt this format, but she just won’t do it-” “Why do you think she hasn’t?”
  • Probe delicately. “You mentioned a difficult situation that changed your usage. Can you tell us what that situation was?”
  • Probe without presuming. “Some people have very negative feelings about Twitter, while others don’t. What is your take?” – Rather than the direct “What do you think about Twitter?” or “Do you like Twitter?” this question introduces options that aren’t tied to the interviewer or the interviewee.
  • Explain to an outsider. “Let’s say that I’ve just arrived here from another decade, how would you explain to me the difference between smartphones and tablets?”
  • Teach another. “If you had to ask your son to operate your system, how would you explain it to him?”

2. Listen to what people say (the “rapport engine”).

  • Ask your question and then stop.
  • Maintain eye contact and open body language.
  • Show you are listening.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Reference earlier statements. “Earlier you said that…”
  • Circle back when necessary. “I want to go back to what you said earlier.”
  • Be careful about your body language (like nodding) and sounds (like “mmm-hmm”). You want to balance encouraging participants with seeming like you’re judging their statements.
  • Be selective about when you talk about yourself or your opinions. Remember, this interview is about them, not you.
  • Avoiding interrupting. Let there be a little bit of silence.

3. Manage the flow.

  • Progress between phases:
  • Warming up
  • Establishing the basics
  • Diving deeper
  • Key questions
  • Summing up
  • Reflecting and verifying
  • When you’re changing topic, say so.
  • Let participants be winding and pick up disparate threads later.
  • Let participants know what your goal or “arc” for the session is.
  • Give people an out if they get uncomfortable.
  • Give people an opportunity to ask their own questions as well. Those questions can be revealing.

4. Don't only ask questions.

Instead, ask people to:

  • Complete tasks.
  • Get reactions to a sketch, website or objects.
  • Sequence cards or sticky notes that represent their experience.
  • Write down a few key points.
  • If you can watch them complete a task.

5. Look for patterns, not outliers

  • Use as close to verbatim notes as you can.
  • Focus on what you heard most frequently, not what was most interesting.
  • Talk about the diversity of answers, not just the most memorable one.
  • Come to conclusions, then analyze again.
  • Don’t analyze alone.


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