The Carbon Five Guide to User Research: Interviewing

Nicole Thayer ·


You’ve written your script. You’ve screened your respondents and you’ve scheduled time with them (which you learned to do in our Guide to Recruiting Participants). You’ve got a big day of learning about your users ahead of you!

We’re going to cover what to do during the interview and what to prepare ahead of time. Preparation is important—he more confident you are, the more your respondents will trust you and feel comfortable responding.

Think of setting up a user interview session like hosting a party. When the guests arrive, a good host has prepared well enough ahead of time that they can relax and enjoy themselves. The more preparation you put in ahead of time the less anxiety you’re going to feel during the interview proper and the more tools you’ll have at your disposal if anything goes wrong.

Morning of the Interview

  • Print out your interview script
  • Print out a few copies of your recording authorization form (here’s an example)
  • Gather up plenty of pens and paper
  • Make sure you’ve got your respondent payment ready (Do this two days before, especially if you need company approval to get it.)

If you’re going off site

  • Make sure you have power supplies and a phone charger
  • Confirm the address
  • Make sure you’ll sufficient internet access for your test (if needed)
  • Put any pertinent information into a Google doc and share it with your team
  • Show up 30 minutes before the first interview to set up and settle in. Make you’re in a place where you can record sound

30 Minutes Before Your First Interview

  • Test your recording equipment. Make sure the sound and video playback are both working. Is your laptop charged? Does your phone or camera have batteries?
  • Get water for yourself and be ready to offer your respondent water or coffee
  • Make sure you’ve gone to the bathroom and freshen up
  • Let your office manager or a coworker who sits near the door know that you are doing a user interview so they’re prepared to greet folks and direct them to the testing room

Show Time

A user interview has three parts – Introduction and setup, the bulk of the questions, getting them out the door.


Introduce yourself, your interview partner, and restate the interview duration and conditions. Depending on the product you’re working on and the kind of questions you’ll be asking, it can be useful to specify that you’re an objective, outside consultant so your respondents feel more comfortable answering candidly.

If you’re having your respondent sign a release form (it’s a good practice if you’re going to be recording sound or likeness, or if your participants may see sensitive information), ask them to do it now.

There’s a lot of space to make small talk while people are getting situated, which can be a great opportunity to warm them up a little and let them know you know what you’re doing. There’s a lot to talk about and a lot to learn in this informal setting.

Sample Warmup Questions

  • How has your day gone so far?
  • What are you working on?
  • How did you end up in this job?
  • What do you think about [insert relevant industry news]?

Think of questions you’d ask a friend you hadn’t seen for a few months at the start of dinner.

Once they’ve signed the release form (and not before) start the camera or screen recording software you’ll be using to record the interview.

Before you start the interview in earnest, it’s helpful to outline what kind of responses you’re looking for. Respondents who have never participated in usability interviews may be nervous and feel like they’re answering questions wrong. They may fear they’re going to hurt feelings if they insult the company you’re representing too harshly. Let them know there are no wrong answers and encourage them to answer questions at length.


Now that we’ve gotten comfortable, the questions should be doing most of the work. Interview guidelines talk about establishing an emotional connection with respondents, which might feel a little robotic. The trick is encouraging respondents to elaborate when there’s something you’d like to know more about, and responding nonverbally with nods and eye contact when you’re interested in what they’re saying. You can go off script and into interesting rabbit holes as long as your respondent is passionate and willing to talk.

I find it helps to imagine yourself as a talk show host. Watch Jimmy Fallon for the way he sets up interviewees to tell stories and how he reacts to let them know he’s interested. Conan O’Brien is great at this, too.

Keep a clock somewhere easy to see and keep track of time as you go. It’s possible to go down valuable rabbit holes with your respondent and miss out on major components of your interview script. Getting back on track can be as easy as “So, I’m going to move on to the next question.” Interrupt them gently, but remember that they’re there to be interviewed.

One Major Caveat

It’s extra important to keep questions neutral and open-ended while you’re asking interview questions on the fly. Your interview subject will want to please you and it’s important that you let them come to conclusions on their own.

This can feel awkward—it feels less like a conversation and more like waiting someone out until they give a response. Making peace with silence might be the hardest skill to learn in conducting user interviews, but it’s worth it. You learn so much more that way.

Ending the interview

Make sure the person who’s recording the interview has a chance to ask a few questions. They’ve been able to spend more time observing trends in the conversation and will have a different point of view on how the interaction is going.

Before you end the interview, always ask one more question: “Do you know anyone else we should talk to?” This question often yields additional users to test with (some of whom may turn into your most passionate customers). It can also help find you additional competitors to check out, or even a potential investor.

Once you’ve run out of questions, thank your respondent for their time, shut off the recording, offer their incentive, and show them to the door like a good host.

Ending the Session

Take 10 minutes to write down your thoughts and conclusions at the end of the meeting. These rough reactions are going to help a lot when it comes time for Synthesis (which we’ll be tackling in the next post).

Debrief a bit with your interview partner and see if there’s anything you need to change about the script—did you write too many questions on something your respondents dismissed as irrelevant? Is there a topic you wish you’d touched on? Add it in for next time!

Congrats, you’ve just conducted your first User Research Interview, and if you’ve scheduled your interviews correctly you should have about four more to do today. Good luck!

PS: An informal survey of Carbon Five designers says it’s totally normal to feel exhausted by the end of a full day of user interviews. User interviews involve a lot of close listening and can wear you out. Make sure you’ve got a good night’s sleep and that you take a break for lunch.

Finally, if you could use some help interviewing users for the first time, Carbon Five can help. We’re a team of designers and product managers who have run dozens of interviews like this, and would love to teach you how to run them yourself or run them with you. Read more and get started!