Interacting deeply and honestly with people who may be quite different from you is a nuanced art.
Understanding how the world looks to people who may be quite different from you and your teams is central to the practice of design research. This is true whether you’re doing B2C, B2B, or organizational change work. Interacting deeply and honestly with people in order to gain this understanding is a part of our craft that can seem deceptively simple, but to do it well is a nuanced art.
Here are some tips for conducting great interviews…
1. Create comfort
Read the situation and person. Be adaptive.
Nuance your demeanor and communication style to create an interpersonal dynamic where that encourages each particular individual to express themselves.
2. Make space
Switch from talking mode to listening mode. Minimize your airtime.
The space you create is one of your most powerful tools. Explain concisely what your focus is and the type of interaction you want to have so that participants are oriented, and start right away making room for them to express themselves.
Notice that I say “make space,” not “leave space.” When done well, you are actually creating a unique interpersonal space that encourages people to share deeply.
3. Ask real questions
Understand what you really want to find out. Be genuinely curious.
Frame your questions openly and simply. Let a question sit after you ask it–don’t answer it yourself. Leaving space and waiting for someone to process your question and give a real answer validates their thought proces and lets them know you are really there to try and understand them.
Give an interviewee space, even if they struggle at times to express themselves. Don’t put your words or perspectives in their mouth, even if you think you can help them say something or if you know something they don’t. Let them find their own ways to articulate their thoughts–you’re there to get their perspective, not to reiterate your own point of view.
Real listening is at the heart of interviewing. When someone knows they are truly being listened to, the interview becomes a collaborative process of discovery.
Deep, concentrated listening–combined with open-ended, targeted follow-up questions–triggers personal reflection and storytelling. Stories often reveal much more than “answers.”
Be deliberate about what you share and interject throughout the interaction. Sometimes it makes sense to share your own experiences and ideas, sometimes it doesn’t. Be clear with yourself about why you are doing it.
5. Lead AND follow
Great interviews are like jazz improvisation—creative exploration within structure. Balance letting the interaction guide you with guiding the interaction.
The dialogue will take you to places you didn’t anticipate; this is how discovery happens. However, it’s still your job to make the interaction purposeful and targeted.
Don’t fall into “just having a chat.” Use your interview guide like a lighthouse beacon, to know where you are in relation to the conversation you planned to have.
6. Be creative
Not everyone expresses themselves best verbally. And not every line of inquiry is best addressed through talk alone.
Use props, sketching, diagramming, role plays, simulations, etc, if it helps a person express themselves, or helps you better set up the inquiry. Context is a great tool; be observant and utilize situational details to have deeper, more concrete interactions.
Coda– Well-practiced design research is highly valuable to the design process, and on a personal level, the opportunities it provides to really experience other people without judgement or distraction can be incredibly rewarding and impactful.