Classic interviews are a waste of time

Why I don’t believe in interviews for user research

People describe interviews sometimes as the holy grail of user research. Many practitioners give complete guides about how you should do those. You should be at least two. You should record everything. You should transcript everything. You should do at least a dozen interviews. You should practice before going. You should have a big list of questions. I don’t believe in all that.

Don’t record the interviews

How do you feel when someone observes you, tracks every little thing you do and analyzes it later? You get paralyzed. In a real interview we want people to open up. So, do not videotape people when they talk to you. Just take a few notes. This is already weird enough.

Do not transcript the interview

To transcript a recorded interview you need many hours. I know it, I’ve done it. The value of what you just wrote is really small. First, because now you have too many data to analyze. And too many data is like having no data. You get lost and don’t know where to start. When you do not record and transcript you just get the essence of the interview. The main ideas, the main things you can act on. Just take 30 minutes after the interview to write down what’s still in your memory. It’s much faster. These are the interesting points and your memory did already the selection. It doesn’t take you 4 hours of writing to have them. And you don’t need an extra 2 hours of reading and analyzing to arrive just at the same point.

A date is only between two or four people

Many people tell you it’s great to be two for an interview. But like on dates, when you don’t know the other you prefer to be alone with him. If he brings friends, you bring one friend of your own too. It’s less intimidating. So just stop being weird and go alone to the interview. It’s less strange for the people who get interviewed, and it costs less to set up.

Do not practice before your first interview

I’m a big fan of the quote by Ernest Hemingway that says: 

“The first draft of anything is shit” 

For interviews, it’s the same. Your first interview sucks. You ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong information, it’s usually too long. If you practice before the first interview, you just push further the time before the first draft. To me, the first interview is the one where I understand what are the questions I should ask. That brings us to our next point:

Don’t prepare thousands of questions

An interview is not like a survey. If you have some precise question for which you need answers just send a survey to people. An interview is a conversation, or similar to a date. You don’t go to a date with a list of hundreds of topics you want to talk about. You go with a few things you want to discover about that person. Then, you let the discussion go around those things. You do that because you believe the person is interesting. Today, when I organize interviews, I first do a quick brainstorming of questions I have. Usually, I have 20 to 30 questions. Then, what I do is to create categories that summarize these question. My goal is to arrive at a maximum of 3 to 5 questions. Does questions are like meta questions. I have in my mind for each question 5 to 10 details that can be interesting for a follow-up. Usually, in the first interview, I do in a series, I discover which question do not bring anything. And which extra questions I should ask. Because if you have an interview with only 5 questions, you have plenty of time to let people answer. And there is also plenty of time for them to lead you in ways you wouldn’t have thought about.

Don’t do a lot of interviews

Interviews are useful to go down in the field, meet people and understand how people think. After just 5 interviews, you already see patterns that help you start working. Work on those patterns first. Prototype something about it and then go back to verify your assumptions. If you do too many interviews at the beginning, you will just have too many patterns to test out. You will have no more budget to do follow-up interviews. And you know what? The follow-up interviews are the ones that are super precious. The second interview confirm what you thought. The follow-up interview transforms a prototype into a service or product. If you do only “first round interviews”, you get cool prototypes. But you will never be able to test out because there is no more time.

Transform interviews in conversations

The classical academic interview is great for academic research. For user research, I recommend having just a coffee with people. I wrote a few years ago that explains how to set up interviews that feel more like conversations