The Power of User Interviews: Introduction to Interview Styles

For a newbie designer, there’s nothing more interesting than designing an attractive user interface. However, after a while, you realize the need to identify user needs, behaviours, preferences, and pain points as clearly as possible. Not just before the design, sometimes you want to get feedback from real users to ensure you’re on the right track. Collaboration with the users and other stakeholders can result in a far better product than you could have designed all by yourself because good stakeholders can point out ways to improve their product through their experience. More information from them leads you to design a more valuable product. 

However, not everyone has the best-in-class skills to conduct a good interview, and following the same methods or patterns doesn’t give you the best results in every situation. So, let’s talk about different types of interviews that you, as a designer, can use daily! 

When it comes to interviewing, you should decide on an interview style. It’s up to you to decide the flow, the kind of questions you want to ask, and the things you want to focus on during the interview. However, there are already three established interview types; you can follow those guides. There are three popular methods of interviews that you can refer to. Namely, they are unstructured, structured, and semi-structured interviews. Let’s dive deep into each type to get a better idea. 

Unstructured Interview

Imagine that you’re chatting with your mate over a coffee about how they think that the world economy has taken a hit. It was just talking, but you learned a lot during that conversation. An unstructured interview is something like that. You just have to go into the interview with your topic in mind and go with the flow. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Because in a professional user interview, you’re not chatting with a friend; you’re chatting with a stranger you don’t know much about. So, this style is usually a better fit for a person with good interpersonal skills. 

The trick in this interview style is to ask open-ended questions (“Why” and “How” questions ). This gives the interviewee more freedom to give detailed answers, and they might reply with something surprising. Whenever you feel like some answer is worth pursuing more, you can ask follow-up questions. You also have the chance to respond to their body language properly. Think of a time when the interviewee seemed uncomfortable answering your question. Then it would be better to drop that area because comfortable people usually provide better information. On the other hand, if someone seems enthusiastic about a certain topic, chances are you can get more insights about that area from them. On top of that, you’ll be able to understand their personality more with this type of interview, which would help you understand different stakeholder personas associated with your research. 

With all the positives come the negatives. One of the biggest negatives of this interview style is that the series of questions tend to vary across different interviewees. The resulting answers can be difficult to summarize. Our inherent biases could also come into play here, and they would muddy the research findings. We always try to be unbiased, but biases tend to come into play when we don’t have a proper plan and trust our gut instincts to decide the interview flow. Unstructured interviews might also tend to go out of hand. There may have been instances in a conversation where you didn’t feel like time was flowing and decided to take some turns here and there. So you have to stick to your topic and complete the interview in a reasonable time. 

Structured Interview

On the other end of the spectrum, we have structured interviews. Unlike the easygoing, unstructured ones, structured interviews tend to be more organized. Just think of it as filling out a survey verbally. Structured interviews are a bit too formal since it has a predetermined set of questions and a flow. Unlike unstructured interviews, structured interviews have closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions usually mean questions that can be answered with either “Yes” or “No.” However, this also can be applied to answers with one or few-word answers. In our experience, it is easier to conduct a structured interview because the questions and the flow are determined, thus, minimizing the need for strong interpersonal skills. 

The interviewer bias prevalent during unstructured interviews tends to be minimal in structured interviews. This is mainly because the questions are carefully assessed before the interview. Since everything is fixed, the interview stays on topic and ends at a  reasonable time. Also, the consistent questions for the interviewees resulted in answers that could be evaluated easily. 

However, as you can imagine, structured interviews tend to be stricter and, therefore, less flexible. Even if you feel like the interviewee has some interesting insight on something, you must stick to your list. Also, if the interviewees know each other and if they discuss the questions beforehand, there is a chance of receiving rehearsed answers that might affect your research. This also makes it difficult to assess the user personas, as the personality cannot be adequately reflected through the restricted answers.

Semi-structured interview

Now, let’s talk about the middle ground, semi-structured interviews.  Semi-structured acts as a trade-off between unstructured and structured. Here, we have a set of core questions, and during the interview, depending on the interviewee’s answer, we ask some follow-up questions. It’s perfectly fine to have some follow-up questions ready before the interview. However, you might not need to ask all of them every time. This gives the interview a bit more flexibility than during a structured interview. 

When it comes to the type of questions, semi-structured interviews follow open-ended questions. This allows the interviewee to talk more and provides opportunities for follow-up questions. When evaluating the answers, you have to put in a bit more effort than in a structured interview but relatively less than in an unstructured interview. Interview bias has the potential to raise its head here as well, but it’s manageable compared to an unstructured interview. 

Now you know the three standard interview styles, with unstructured and structured being at the two ends of a spectrum and unstructured between them. It’s up to you to decide where on the style spectrum you prefer for each interview. However, make sure to remember the pros and cons of each so that you can ensure the best results in the end.

In the upcoming articles, we will discuss how to prepare and conduct interviews and how to analyze the participants’ responses properly. See you soon! 

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