Wednesday 15 February 2017

Research interviews – Leading a discussion

Understanding the true problem is necessary step towards fixing it. Often you are trying to improve experience of your users to increase company revenue in case of external products or employee efficiency if internal products are in question. Let's look at one method to further this understanding - Research Interviews.

I was recently approached by a colleague to provide some advice in his quest to create the "perfect" product that would help internal process of our department. The very first point on the journey is to understand what is the problem. What is chocking the people, what are the pain points.

One of the ways to gain this information is to perform Research Interviews. Sit down with the potential users and talk "one on one" style. Have a discussion about their work, what they do, how the do it, how do they react in various situations, what skills they have, etc. Learn about them and the things they do. That's how you gain the necessary insight into the problems they face.

Of course there are other methods. For example shadowing. But for this specific project, we are putting other methods aside for now and we will focus on interviews.

The beginning

You meet the person who you are conducting interview with, what do you do? Polite gestures like handshakes are a good start. But what then?

Small talk, even though hated by introverts, is actually reliable way to quickly gain some trust from the other person. Small talk is so important part of our lives that people who do not engage in it, are often seen as rude or cold. Some question about the day so far, maybe a joke, can go long way to establishing friendly and warm atmosphere for the discussion to come.

Majority of the people don't know what research interview is. They might confuse it with ordinary interview, which is not that good. It is important to state what this session is about. Explain that you are not there to judge them or evaluate them, you are there to talk, to gather information about them and their work.

In case you want to record the session, you should ask them if its okay as otherwise it is not very polite to record them or could actually be illegal in some countries.

Ask if there are any questions, clear out misunderstandings or comments that can arise and when both sides are ready, begin the interview itself.

Easing in

It is important to remember that this is not hiring interview. This is supposed to be a discussion. You want people to open up to you and to tell you about themselves. Therefore you must let them know you are listening and that you are interested.

Don't start with the deep questions right off the bet. Hold your horses till later time. The first questions should be simple, very open. Ask your interviewee to introduce herself, describe what is she doing. Of course don't make her repeat what you already know. But let her start at the beginning.

There will be plenty of time for deep debate once you lay down the basics. Basics that will aid you tremendously. Do try to remember them as they are important.

Reason for asking

You will have certain draft of questions you want to ask. They might be group into specific units based on some pattern. If you want to lead a discussion you have to insert the questions into already existing dialogue.

This is why it is good to have those basics on the table. It is good to be able to expand on something your interviewee has already mentioned. Imagine example where you want to learn more about Project A. When the person naturally mentioned Project A, you can now use that and ask for more information. Otherwise you would need to artificially bring that topic into the discussion.

I am not saying that it is wrong to change subjects. There are some restrictions to it though. Plus, naturally flowing discussion is simply better. It shows that you are listening, that you pay attention and actually care.

Changing subjects

There will be certain subjects you will be covering during the interview. As I already mentioned it is good to expand upon already mentioned subjects. But there is other side of the coin here.

Let's say you want to cover subject A, B and C. You are talking about subject A and your interviewee mentions subject B. If you are done with the old subject A, you can take this opportunity for fluid shift towards subject B. But if you are not satisfied yet, don't change the subject.

Going back and forth between two subjects is not good. It makes a mess and feels as very chaotic experience. If you are not ready to change subject, stay with the old one. And when you are ready, then you can use the fact that subject B was already mentioned and ask more about it.

Another thing is not be afraid of changing order of subjects. If the situation presents you with opportunity to move from A to C, take it. Fluid conversation is important.

Just keep in mind to never have multiple active subjects. Stick to one. It usually doesn't matter in which order you talk about them, unless they are dependent on each other in some manner.

Same goes for questions. Transition according to what was already said. Don't make unnecessary jumps back and forth.

Lead a discussion

Making your interviewees understand why they are present and making them feel helpful will aid you. Prove to them you are interested by listening and leading a discussion, not an interrogation.

In some occasions you can joke, in some you have to be serious. It is up to you to judge that. Soft skills are required for this activity. Making people as open as possibly while not overstaying your welcome is a fine balance you have to find on your own during every single session.

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