Part 2: How can I get better answers from my questions?

In this second post in a series on how to get more useful answers by asking better questions, I’m going to look at five things to think about during a research session.

The list is deliberately short to help me hold onto a few key tips alongside all the other things you need to juggle, think about and do within a research session.

The five tips are simple principles to help achieve better results. They have been tried and tested in research sessions with users, stakeholders and subject matter experts.

How can I get more insightful answers from my research questions? My five top tips:

1. Listen and observe more than you talk. Use the power of silence.

Many interviewers I’ve observed talk too much. Less experienced interviewers often tend to over-explain what they’re after as a way of feeling in control. Some more experienced interviewers just seem to love the sound of their own voice.

If research is about finding out information from the interviewee, then give them the time and space to talk. As a guide, for every session aim for the interviewee to be filling at least 80% of it. To check how well you measure up against this, time your sessions and play them back to discover how much time is taken up with you talking — and therefore not listening.

Get comfortable with silences, as people feel the need to fill them. Interviewees will often provide more insight when you leave a gap for them to fill.

I approach research sessions as if they will later be edited for a television documentary. This helps me remember to let the interviewee to completely finish their train of thought without me speaking over them.

2. Be aware of moderation bias. Avoid prompting, leading and confirming.

One of the challenges in any interview is to balance remaining neutral whilst needing to interact with the participant.

It is easy to accidentally put words in the mouth of your interviewee. Inadvertent nods and vocal signs of agreement or a flurry of note-taking can cause the participant to believe that what they are saying is what you want to hear. Interrupting or moving someone on to the next question can be read as a sign that you are not interested in their answer.

Interviewees want to please you. They will subconsciously adjust their behaviour to try to get more affirmation from you.

Be aware of the clues you may accidentally be giving off. Check you are not adding comments like ‘That’s great’ or ‘Brilliant’ at the end of a successful task. Ensure that you are not leaning forward and smiling when they say something relevant. Check you are giving people enough time to complete a task before moving them on to the next.

3. Ask fewer questions but go deeper. Use the five whys.

The most common question I hear when mentoring new UXers before they undertake their first user interview is: ‘What happens if the participant answers all my questions before the end of the session?’. I have to remind them that the measure for success is to acquire insight for the project and not to fill the length of the session.

There is a perceived safety net in having a lot of questions which then alleviates the fear of running out of things to say. It’s easy to convince yourself you have learned a lot by asking lots of questions.

Yet in my experience, more meaningful and insightful thoughts come from a deeper investigation, not a broader one. Writing fewer questions is a good way to force yourself to probe each one in more detail. Using the principle of the 5 whys will help you to keep digging until you get to the root cause of an issue.

4. Know your killer question and when to ask it.

Whenever I analyse the outcome from research sessions, be this by writing and sorting points on Post-it® Notes, marking up transcripts or entering notes and data into Excel, it regularly becomes apparent that the quantity and the quality of the findings are not equally distributed among the questions I’ve asked.

A consistent pattern emerges which shows up two things. Firstly, in every session there is one or two killer questions that result in the vast majority of useful information. Secondly, this question seems to be even more effective when the participant has had time to feel comfortable with you and has had an initial vent about the issues they face.

The challenge is to identify your killer question(s) and to know when to deploy it/them. Make a note of the times when you have got it right and use this experience as a guide for your next sessions.

5. Empower the interviewee. Unlock insight through interest and empathy.

As an interviewer, the most important focus for a session is developing trust and rapport with your interviewee so that they become more comfortable in opening up to you.

Beyond being actively interested and non-confrontational there are a few simple tactics that can help.

Put the interviewee in the driving seat by playing dumb.

Be upfront with the interviewee and let them know you are there to learn from their experience and expertise. I often start by setting out my stand and admitting “I’m not an expert on the subject, but with your help I’m going to be able to listen and report back to the project team I’m working with”. This tactic allows me to get away with asking what seem like innocent questions.

Make a point of reflecting some of the interviewee’s language. Whilst I stay away from mimicking an interviewee, I do find people relax into a session quicker when they feel that you speak the same language. Mirroring the language of the interviewee is a surefire way to achieve this. For example, if an interviewee refers to the main navigation as ‘tabs’ then I will use this term rather than correcting them. Likewise, I will follow their lead when it comes to referring to a specifically named product or using a more generic term. So if the interviewee talks about their ‘bank’ or uses ‘Barclays’ I will use those same terms in my questioning.

Make the interviewee feel listened to by asking follow up questions using their words.

In research sessions people become engaged when they know they are being heard. A simple way to achieve this is to ask questions beginning with something like:“You said earlier…” and then playing back verbatim phrases the interviewee has used.

What tips would you add?

I hope you enjoyed the list and you find it useful when you are in your next research session. I’d be interested in reading any tips you would add. Please use the comments below to join in the conversation.

This article was originally written by Chris How and first published on the blog of The Unit, a digital agency based in Brighton.



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Chris How

Chris How

Head of Experience Design @clearleft & Co-organiser of @uxcampbrighton. Insatiable curiosity for people, design and tech. Recovering Post-it note addict.