Interviewing users – how to uncover compelling insights

Asking questions is easy. Asking the right questions, listening to the replies, thinking about the next question and yet keeping the overall flow and structure of the interview is far from easy and yet is an essential element of most user research projects. Interviewing Users is a new book authored by Steve Portigal and published by Rosenfeld Media. It is a comprehensive, readable and inspiring guide to the entire process of user research interviews. There are nine chapters in the 160pp book. The author starts off with emphasising the importance of interviewing users, sets out a framework for interviewing and then outlines the work that needs to be undertaken before the first interview is undertaken.

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘More Than Just Asking Questions’ and describes a range of complementary approaches to the formal interview, such as using maps, story boards and wireframes. Chapter 5 is the core of the book, and describes seven stages of the interview process from ‘Crossing the Threshold’ via ‘The Tipping Point’ through to ‘The Soft Close’.  Chapter 6 takes 20 pages to describe how best to ask questions and then Chapter 7 provides advice on documenting the interview.  The final two chapters cover trouble shooting and special situations, and how to make an impact with the results of the interviews. Throughout the book there are case stories, call-outs with tips on good practice and sample documents that will be needed during the interview process.

As with all Rosenfeld Media books the quality of design and production is very high, though I found the orange text of the call-outs a little difficult to read. Steve Portigal has been undertaking user research for well over a decade and the list of conference papers on his website is a testimony to his reputation in this area. He clearly is not only very good at asking the right questions but also communicating his experience and advice in book format. The only aspect of interviewing that is missing is how to work with users that do not have the same mother tongue as the interviewer. This is a problem I come across frequently with international projects and makes all aspects of planning, conducting and documenting the interview even more of a challenge.

If you are undertaking user interviews with little or no previous experience or support this book is essential reading and will give you all the advice and confidence that you are ever going to need. Even you regularly conduct user interviews then this book will undoubtedly add to your expertise and probably challenge some of your well-honed approaches. Finally managers about to commission a user interview project would also be well advised to read the book as it will give a very good indication of the issues that the organisation needs to address in specifying and then supporting a user interview programme.

Martin White