Coming from a psychology background I’ve had formal training in interviewing people to uncover issues or challenges they face. In contrast to the common believe, inquiry techniques used in psychology and other related fields aren’t about getting answers the clients don’t want to tell. They are about grasping the reality of the situation without leading interviewees to answer what they think you want them to answer. Some of these techniques can be applied to user research and aren’t uncommon in other fields either.
I collected some of the most common ways to ask better questions from users and will discuss them below.
Open-ended questions vs. close-ended questions
When we converse with other people, we tend to use close-ended questions. These questions are formulated in such a way as to evoke a certain response from the other person. Usually close-ended questions are ones, which you can answer with a “yes” or “no”.
“Do you think this product could be used to better your workplace well being and save you time?”
It is tempting to ask questions such as this to figure out if a user is interested in your product and can see benefit in using it. However, using a question like this will in most cases get you an answer “yes”, unless something is terribly wrong with your product (especially in Finland).
Now it might warm your heart to know that users are willing to use your product, but by asking the question, you are missing the most important point: “why?”.
Luckily there is a solution: open-ended questions.
By changing the question into “How could the product increase your workplace wellbeing and save you time?”, will force the other person to give you an answer that includes some form of explanation. Simply put, open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered by a simple response and require a more thoughtful answer.
Avoid leading questions if possible
Those well trained or experienced in interviewing will still notice a problem with the formulation of the previous example. It is what we call a leading question.
Questions such as that lead the other person to answer in a certain way. In our example, the interviewee would be expected to tell about how the product increases workplace wellbeing and saves time.
Why is that a problem?
It might be tempting to expect that your solution will work like you intended and you only need to find out why and how to increase the effect. But there’s still a small problem, you’re forgetting to ask a very basic question: “Does it do what I think it does?”.
Don’t use double barrelled questions
Before we get to the right way of asking about the product, let’s look at one more potential problem with our example question.
Double barrelled questions are questions that try to hit two birds with one stone. In other words, the question contains two separate questions, which have been blended into one question.
Once again, it might seem ecological to save words and incorporate multiple questions into one question aka. “the Finnish pride”. However, when it comes to interviewing users you want the user to speak as much as possible. Thereby asking about workplace wellbeing and time saving separately will get them to open up specifically on one subject at a time.
So just by asking two questions: “How could the product increase workplace wellbeing?” and “How could the product save your time?”, will often prompt more detailed answers on both subjects.
Asking the right question leads to unexpected insights
Ok to answer the question you’ve been dying to know. The right way to ask about the products “assumed benefits of increased work place wellbeing and time saving” is to: not ask about them.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there just isn’t a shortcut to getting the answers you want. In fact, the best way to interview users is to expect nothing. Meaning that you need to shift your whole method of approaching the subject.
Instead of trying to get the users to imagine what they could have, try starting with what they have now.
Now remember: use open-ended questions, without leading your subjects to any answer and ask one question at a time, e.g.:
“Could you describe a typical day at your workplace?”
The interviewee will then hopefully proceed to tell you about a typical day at work. At first, they might just talk about general time tables, but that will lead to more specific themes. After which, you reflect and ask another question like:
“You mentioned that you go through all the emails in the morning, could you tell me more about that?”
Theoretically someone might answer “yes” to this question, but you can usually rely on cultural norms for discussions and specify if needed.
Usually such a discussion will lead to the person telling about tens of emails they receive and how they don’t have time to read them all. That will give you insight into the busy nature of their job. The discussion can then be led towards further understanding.
Often it might seem like unnecessary to understand everything they tackle with, but the chances are, they won’t tell you all the details and are already quite selective. Therefore, by listening closely you can find surprising things that happen, such as “there’s only one computer that everyone uses”. Now this might seem like a far-fetched idea, but trust me, you’d be surprised at all the things I’ve seen/ heard of.
A client of ours asked us to investigate their potential users’ preferences for their product idea. The idea just happened to involve prisons. Now I don’t know about you, but my prior idea of prisons was that prisoners are locked in to cells and remain there unless there is a reason to visit other parts of the prison.
I was also aware that in Finland we have what we call “open prisons”. But little did I know the prisoners aren’t even locked in but are free to walk inside or outside of their “cells”, which are actually just rooms that aren’t kept locked. The prisoners need to remain on the premises, but there are no walls to keep them from walking away. The system is largely based on trust. Now what many might not realize is, that these prisoners can also go to work, outside of the prison every day, as long as they return back after the work ends.
Despite this information being publicly available, I came upon this information only by asking the right questions from the right people. If instead I went there and asked if they liked our client’s idea, they might’ve said: “yes”. If I was lucky, they could’ve told me: “that might come in handy in some situations”. Maybe even described some of the situations, but I might still be thinking that the environment is more like a traditional prison, which might influence the design decisions of my client’s idea.
The example describes a real situation where expectations might play a destructive role if you go along with them. Using the right questions can potentially reveal the difference between two normals.
This and other cases alike are the reason we so often insist to our clients that speaking to the users is necessary.