Category: UX advice / Research articles

The challenge of interviewing experts and how a funnel can help



I read an article recently that promoted a strategy for research interviewing. It said that you should avoid the formal interview approach and aim to just have a conversation instead.

It’s a great idea: conversations encourage people to open up and allow you to get great material you hadn’t considered beforehand. It’s even better when you can take an hour or so and do it in their own surroundings so they feel comfortable.

Sadly, a conversation isn’t always how interviews are able to go.

Enter the experts and senior business people

I’ve been involved in projects where we’ve had to interview quite senior and busy people located in different parts of the world. As a result the best you can usually get with them is a 30 minute phone call.

This means you start by being time limited. Already this makes it harder to have a flowing conversation with them. That also doesn’t account for any time lost to technical problems and getting calls started on time.

The other problem with senior/expert folk in their field is they can be very good at talking about what they want to talk about. In my experience people who have worked in an industry for a long time tend to have lots of stories to tell and will regularly go off on tangents.

You can quite easily spend half an hour having an engaging and interesting conversation but when you look back at your questions you can realise that none of them got answered. If every interviewee dominates the time like this you can end up with a set of interviews that cover all sorts of different topics and no thread between them.

Also many projects have certain things you set out to understand about your users. If you don’t get the answers to them then you can be left more confused rather than enlightened about the direction your work should take.

Funnel them down

To solve this issue you’re going to have to limit the amount of conversation and step in as a facilitator to get what you need. Of course doing this too much will risk a series of closed questions which can be equally unhelpful, so there’s a technique you can employ.

It’s called a funnel conversation (just to add to the other types of funnel in design work!). It’s not a brand new idea but equally I’ve not found it written about much—there is a bit on it here.

You can probably work out from the name how to do it. You start with open-ended questions (like ‘tell me about how you work in this area?’) and allow the interviewee to answer how they want to but as the clock ticks on you narrow things down. From about halfway through the interview you can use more closed and targeted questions (such as ‘what stops you from using solution x?’) to ask the things for which you need answers.

If the open part of the interview is working and your interviewee is staying on track with answers that aren’t too rambling then you may not need to do much. However if they’re not then don’t be afraid to step in. There can be an element of trepidation in interrupting a confident, authoritative voice but remember it’s your project and as long as you’re not rude they should understand that their role is to help you out.

When I’ve taught user research and told students to aim for more of a conversation, I’ve noticed they can then be afraid to facilitate the interview. Sometimes they’re worried that they might bias things too much. That’s why a funnel technique can work well: you give the interviewee a chance to cover things in their words before moving to get what you need. Ideally your closed questions should be inspired by the early answers they've given.

Keep it on time

Doing an interview in half an hour can be a challenge so don’t overfill your discussion guide with questions. Make sure you’ve identified the key things you’re looking to understand so if nothing else, you get answers to them. Always respect their schedule and wrap your interviewee up in the time you’ve agreed—let them decide if they’re willing to run over the time and talk further—even if this means skipping a question or two.

It’s amazing how often once you get people going they can be keen to keep talking (especially on a topic that they love). This can be a good chance to open the funnel back up and let the interview become more of a conversation again, so you get unexpected nuggets of information that they choose to bring up.

If you need a bit of help putting together an interview script or discussion guide, then take a look at this template.

Last updated on 10 April 2019

users / research / interviewing / interviews / conversation / technique /

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