How to conduct audience discovery interviews
January 22nd 2021 | By Morten Bonde
We use interviews in the Discover phase of design thinking and 5Di to explore a problem in greater depth.
Typically, we carry out discovery interviews with a cross-section of our target audience. It provides an opportunity to understand the context and details of their challenges and problems.
This guide provides practical advice on preparing for and conducting a good discovery interview.
Why do discovery interviews?
Discovery interviews are popular in design thinking because they are a relatively quick and easy way of getting an in-depth insight into a problem through the interviewee’s experiences, perceptions and feelings.
You can get amazing insights into a problem - it may be from a single comment from an interview, or it could be a recurring pattern of insights from multiple interviews. All of these will be like gold dust in the design phase and while finding solutions.
As it’s such a powerful method, we love to do them early in the discovery phase, as they can point towards things that need further investigation. That way, you can better understand the user-centred problems you need to solve before designing a solution.
There are some specific advantages to interviews as a research method. You can follow lines of enquiry as information emerges. Additionally, you can capture non-verbal expressions that reveal aspects of someone’s feelings and experience. Neither of these are possible with alternatives such as a written survey.
Above all else though, interviews are a great starting point if you find there is a lack of data about the problem you’re trying to solve, or if you’re unsure about why something is a problem for people in the first place.
How to prepare for a discovery interview
Set a goal for your interview, and even for specific questions.
You should be clear on what you want to learn from a discovery interview before you start writing questions. You may have more than one objective, and sometimes this can help you identify topics to help explore something in more depth.
You may even want to extend this to writing down what you want to learn from each question. That will also help with structuring your lines of enquiry, phrasing your questions and making sure you get the information you need.
Be realistic about what interviewees can deliver.
Interviews work best when you’re asking people about things they have experience with. Avoid asking questions about hypothetical scenarios (e.g. “what would you do/how would you feel if….?”), and try to avoid asking interviewees to recall what other people do (e.g. “what is your manager supposed to do in that situation?”).
Our memory is not always reliable– observing how someone does something is often much better than asking them to recall what they do. That said, interviews can be blended with other research methods, and can be a great way to understand how someone feels when completing or trying to complete a task you have observed them doing.
Be mindful of everyone’s time commitments.
Interviews can be as long or short as you like. You’ll need to consider the time you have and, perhaps more importantly, your interviewees’ availability (and willingness!) to participate. We tend to find between 20 and 90 minutes per interview gets the right balance between providing sufficient time to explore things in some depth without your interviewee losing interest or becoming tired.
Here at Solvd Together, we usually find ourselves interviewing between four and ten people from each distinct user group. Fewer than four can make it difficult to establish reliable patterns and recurring insights, and more than ten can substantially lengthen the time you need to spend conducting interviews and analysis of responses. It's important to remember there isn't an optimal number of interviewees. Decisions should ultimately be guided by the project and circumstances.
Tips for facilitating a group interview:
1. Bring a colleague to support with questions and note-taking.
2. Give every participant an opportunity to answer each question.
3.You’ll be asking fewer questions and won’t be able to extract as much detail, compared to a one-to-one interview, so select your questions carefully.
Aim to interview people individually as it’s easier and tends to yield richer answers. If that’s not possible, though, interview no more than about 8 people at the same time.
It’s often sensible to ask a colleague to assist with interviews in both group and one-to-one interviews. They can help take notes as well as share the burden of asking questions, following up on key details. These tasks can be difficult to juggle when you’re interviewing on your own.
How to recruit participants for discovery interviews
Seek out a cross-section of interviewees.
Consider carefully the range and diversity of people you’ll need to shed light on your challenges. There’ll often be a number of people who are involved in the area you are exploring. Each may have different roles and responsibilities, with their own motivations, feelings and insights.
Defining these different groups not only reveals the potential scope of whom you’ll interview: it can also highlight opportunities to ask different questions, depending on their role and involvement. Consider including vendors, business decision-makers, leaders, and even customers in your investigation.
Provide context and explain the purpose to potential participants.
Before they agree to take part, people need to decide if they’re comfortable talking about the subject. Telling them what problem you’re trying to solve can often motivate them to get involved, as they realise they are helping find solutions.
Resist the urge to send questions in advance.
Sometimes interviewees will ask to see the questions you want to ask before agreeing to participate. We’d advise against this, as it can lead to interviewees preparing answers they think they want us to hear. Instead, share and discuss the objectives of the interview with them. In our experience, it’s much better to talk about your aims and topics you’re interested in learning about, as it leads to more genuine, expansive and revealing interviews.
Consider what’s in it for participants.
Willing participants tend to share more information, and in more detail. If some people are reluctant to take part, consider if there’s a different way of explaining what you’re trying to do and the potential benefits of being involved. If this fails, you may want to entice people to participate with a reward (cupcakes and/or a raffle to win a prize can work well!).
Checklist: Interview Do's and Don'ts
…record your interview.
Your primary responsibility during the interview is to draw out insightful answers to your questions. Your attention will be required to both listen carefully to your interviewee and decide an appropriate question to ask next. So, while you will be able to take some notes, recording the interview frees you up to focus on collecting good answers.
Tips for putting interviewees at ease:
1. Start with simple, easy questions.
2. Smiling and informal conversation will help to put someone at ease.
3. Thank the interviewee for each answer.
4. Combat interview fatigue by keeping your energy high and showing enthusiasm for the task throughout.
…put your interviewee at ease.
Quickly building rapport during an interview can be an advantage. If someone feels comfortable and there is an established level of trust, they will be more likely to provide full and authentic answers.
…ask questions more than once.
It’s very rare for someone to provide a full answer to a big question first time round in discovery interviews. Often, asking it again later may trigger some deeper thoughts or recollection. Waiting to repeat a question after you’ve asked a few others suggests to your interviewee that they may have more to say now as their thoughts develop during the interview. Therefore, it’s useful to prepare some alternatively phrased versions of your key questions to ask later.
…ask follow-up questions.
Your pre-prepared questions serve as the backbone of the interview, but don’t overlook opportunities to ask for more details. Interviewees will tailor their answer based on what they think you want to know. If you’ve got an objective for each of your questions, you can easily check whether further exploration might be necessary to meet your needs. This may be as simple as asking someone to provide more detail, or asking a follow-up question you’ve prepared in advance, based on responses you have anticipated may come up.
…ask for demonstrations and specific examples.
Sometimes, it’s easier to ask someone to demonstrate what they mean by asking for an example. If you’re in the same place your interviewee does their work, consider asking for a physical demonstration of activities they’re talking about. Alternatively, asking someone to verbally step you through an activity can also be effective.
…pay attention to non-verbal expressions.
How someone answers something and the way they say it is important. It can provide insight into how someone feels about the thing they’re talking about, which serves as a good cue for further exploration.
…pause after each answer.
Leaving a pause when you think an interviewee finishes their response provides space for them to add any additional reflections or detail and encourages them to go deeper.
…ask leading questions.
A leading question contains words or phrases that suggest a potential answer to your interviewee. At the discovery phase of your project, your goal is to extract expansive, honest, insightful, and often surprising, answers. By suggesting answers to the interviewee, you’re therefore potentially missing out on nuggets of insight!
Leading question examples:
Leading question: “Are you spending time with the family this weekend?”
Alternative: “What will you be spending your time doing this weekend?”
Leading question: “Can you describe how you get to work each morning? For example, do you take the bus, train or walk?”
Alternative: “Can you describe how you get to work each morning?”
A lot of key information can be missed if you assume you already know the answer to something. Asking questions about basic details not only gets your interviewee more comfortable, but it can also build your knowledge, based on a solid foundation of explicit and verified information.
…mention other users, or their answers.
As with leading questions, mentioning what other interviewees have said, or that you’ve been surprised by an answer, may cause people to adjust their answer based on what they believe you want to hear. It may also damage trust and leave an interviewee less willing to share details about their personal experience for fear you’ll mention them to other interviewees.
Sometimes you will have an urge to interrupt - perhaps you want to ask your interviewee to clarify a point or pick up on something they’ve said. People often answer open-ended questions in a non-linear way, especially when they are gathering their thoughts as they speak. It’s important to be patient and give someone the time and space to fully respond. An interruption can also frustrate someone or give them the impression you aren’t interested in what they have to say. If you have a burning question, make a note of it and ask it when they’ve finished.
…ask yes/no questions.
A question that only requires a yes or no answer doesn’t belong in an interview. You can ask yes/no questions in a survey or poll. Interview questions should encourage someone to provide expansive and detailed descriptions, explanations and reflections.
…rely solely on discovery interviews.
While discovery interviews are hugely powerful, they can’t answer everything. Users will sometimes try to anticipate (often incorrectly) what an interviewer wants to hear and leave out key details or over-emphasise something. People can also have reservations about sharing details they consider personal or private, or they may have concerns about sharing details with someone they don’t know. More importantly though, human memory is flawed and may not be completely accurate.
Conducting good discovery interviews takes practice, so be sure to consider what could have gone better and, potentially, what questions might need to be left out or changed, before you conduct your next one.
A human-centred approach that begins with speaking to your audience can be difficult to justify to colleagues and stakeholders. Here are some common challenges to audience research, and some tips on responding to them.
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