How to Do a Thematic Analysis of User Interviews
- 1.2k shares
- 3 years ago
User interviews are a qualitative research method where researchers engage in a dialogue with participants to understand their mental models, motivations, pain points, and latent needs.
Research is the initial step in the design process. It helps you understand what your user feels, wants, and appreciates. It also helps gain insights for future designs and identify the pain points in the current solution. User interviews will help you structure your design process and deliver optimized solutions that will resonate with the users.
Design teams typically perform user interviews with the potential users of a design as part of the empathize phase of the design thinking process. User interviews follow a structured methodology whereby the interviewer prepares several topics to cover, records what is said, and systematically analyzes the conversation after the interview.
User interviews are one of the most commonly used methods in user research. They can cover almost all user-related topics and be used, for example, to gather information on users’ feelings, motivations, daily routines, or how they use various products.
The interviews often follow the same methodology as qualitative interviews in other fields but with the specific purpose of informing a design project. Because user interviews typically have to fit into a design or development process, practical concerns such as limited time or resources often play a role when deciding how to conduct such interviews. For instance, user interviews can be conducted over a video or voice call if time is restricted. On the other hand, in projects with sufficient time and resources, researchers can perform the interview in the user’s home, and designers might even be flown overseas if the users reside in another country.
While many interview methods used in design projects are borrowed from other fields, such as ethnography and psychology, some have been created specifically for use in design contexts. An example is contextual interviews in the participant’s everyday environment. Contextual interviews can provide more insights about the environment in which a design will be used. As such, a contextual interview might uncover flaws within a product’s design (e.g., the product is too heavy to be carried around the house by the user) that a typical user interview might not
User interviews can be used in different stages of product development, from discovery to usability testing. Conducting a user interview is simply a question of choosing the right user or users to interview, asking them pre-determined questions (or free-form questions if used following an observation), and then reporting on their answers to enable further decision-making.
Ann Blandford, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London, emphasizes the need to keep an open mind when approaching a user interview.
User interviews are a versatile and indispensable design research tool, serving as a gateway to invaluable insights that shape user-centric solutions. Depending on your goals and who the interview participants are, we can classify user interviews into eight categories.
Structured interviews adhere to a meticulously planned set of questions, providing a systematic approach to information gathering.
This type is characterized by its rigidity, ensuring a standardized process that facilitates easy participant comparison. Designers opt for structured interviews when seeking specific, targeted information. These interviews require an organized means of collecting quantitative data.
In contrast, unstructured interviews embrace a more open-ended and flexible approach. Participants are encouraged to express themselves freely, leading to a qualitative exploration of their thoughts and experiences.
This type is favored when the goal is to uncover niche insights that may not emerge through predefined questions. This allows for a deeper understanding of user perspectives and motivations.
Semi-structured interviews balance the rigidity of structured interviews and the flexibility of unstructured ones.
Designers prepare a set of predetermined questions but allow room for participants to elaborate on their responses. This format combines the benefits of both worlds, offering depth and consistency while accommodating the richness of qualitative data.
Here’s Ann Blandford with more on semi-structured interviews and how they differ from structured and unstructured ones.
Contextual interviews unfold in the user’s natural environment, providing a unique perspective on how they interact with products in their day-to-day lives.
This type ventures beyond the controlled setting, uncovering insights that might be missed in a traditional interview setup. Observing users in their context allows designers to identify specific pain points, preferences, and behaviors that influence the user experience in a real-world scenario.
Expert interviews involve engaging with individuals possessing specialized knowledge or experience relevant to the design context.
These individuals could be industry experts or professionals with specific domain expertise. Their insights contribute a layer of knowledge to the design process. These interviews help refine solutions with experienced perspectives that are not apparent through user interviews alone.
In the era of digital connectivity, remote interviews overcome geographical constraints. They leverage technology to facilitate conversations between designers and participants.
This type is particularly convenient when engaging with users located in different regions. Remote interviews ensure accessibility and flexibility, allowing designers to gather insights without the limitations of physical proximity.
Group interviews involve the simultaneous participation of multiple individuals, fostering dynamic interactions. This format encourages participants to build on each other's responses, unveiling shared experiences and diverse perspectives within the group.
Group interviews are beneficial when exploring collective opinions and group dynamics or seeking insights into how individuals influence each other's perspectives.
Stakeholder interviews extend beyond end users to include individuals with a vested interest in the project's success. These could be internal stakeholders, decision-makers, or individuals representing different organizational departments.
Engaging with stakeholders ensures alignment between design goals and broader organizational objectives. This also helps foster a holistic approach that considers the overall impact of the design solution.
Understanding the applications of these eight types of user interviews empowers designers to strategically choose the most fitting approach based on project goals and the specific information sought. Each type brings a unique flavor to the user research process and contributes to creating designs that resonate with user needs and expectations.
User interviews are powerful for extracting meaningful insights, but their success depends on careful planning and execution. To ensure a fruitful user research process, designers must navigate potential hindrances that could compromise the authenticity and depth of the gathered information.
Avoid steering participants toward specific responses with leading questions. Instead, try to craft questions that are neutral and open-ended. This encourages genuine and unbiased insights. Leading questions can unknowingly influence participants, compromising the integrity of the data collected.
Be vigilant about using language that may introduce bias into the interview. Phrasing questions in a way that favors a particular response can distort the authenticity of participants' answers. Designers should aim for neutrality and clarity to ensure participants feel comfortable expressing their thoughts.
Resist the temptation to overwhelm participants with excessive information before or during the interview. Providing too much context leads participants to tailor their responses based on what they think the interviewer wants to hear. In contrast, user interviews aim to make participants express their natural thoughts and experiences.
Build rapport and create a comfortable environment in a user interview. Refrain from rushing through questions without allowing participants the space to share their thoughts. Acknowledge their experiences and be genuinely interested in their perspective to foster open communication.
Ann Blandford offers practical tips on how to build rapport with interviewees through the structure of questions.
Steer clear of assumptions regarding the user's knowledge or familiarity with the product or topic. Clarify terms, avoid industry jargon, and ensure that participants fully understand the context are some of the key pointers. This prevents misunderstandings that could impact the accuracy of their feedback.
It is vital to balance guiding the conversation and allowing participants to express themselves freely. Avoid dominating the dialogue or interrupting excessively. You should create an environment where participants feel valued, listened to, and are encouraged to share their experiences without interruption.
Explore contradictions or inconsistencies in participants' responses with appropriate sensitivity. There may be occasions where people contradict their statements. These variations can offer valuable insights into the complexity of user experiences. However, when you question them on such discrepancies, they might get defensive or uncomfortable. Approach these contradictions carefully and delve deeper to uncover the nuances that might not be immediately apparent.
User interviews extend beyond verbal communication. Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Neglecting these cues may result in overlooking subtle yet significant indicators of a participant's sentiments or attitudes.
Avoid separating user insights from their broader context. Consider external factors influencing participants' responses, such as cultural differences or situational circumstances. It is crucial to account for these factors to avoid misinterpretations and incomplete understandings of the user experience.
After the interview, resist the urge to immediately move on to the next task. Take time for post-interview reflection to analyze the gathered data, identify patterns, and uncover more profound insights. Skipping this critical step may result in overlooking key findings and hinder the overall impact of the user interview process.
In this next video, Ann Blandford shares some precautions to consider during the analysis.
By removing these pitfalls, designers can elevate the quality of user interviews. This will ensure the data collected is authentic, unbiased, and representative of the user's experiences.
While user interviews are a go-to method in user research, time or budgetary constraints may make it difficult to conduct interviews. Here are some other research methods to consider under such circumstances.
Focus groups offer a dynamic alternative to one-on-one interviews. Bringing together a small group of participants fosters group dynamics, allowing researchers to observe interactions and gather collective insights. This method is particularly effective for exploring diverse perspectives, uncovering shared experiences, and understanding group dynamics that might not surface in individual interviews. Remember that your designs will be used by multiple users different from one another.
Usability testing involves evaluating the effectiveness of a product's interface through real-time user interaction. This alternative method employs prototypes or actual product versions, allowing researchers to observe users navigating the system. Usability testing provides insights into user interactions, pain points, and preferences in a controlled environment. By incorporating prototypes, designers can assess the functionality of specific features, ensuring a user-friendly design. This method is especially valuable for refining the user experience iteratively, based on direct user feedback, ultimately leading to more robust and user-centric design solutions.
In-person observation involves directly witnessing users' behaviors and actions in their natural environment. By immersing researchers in the users' context, this method unveils nuances that may be missed in a controlled setting. The in-person approach provides a holistic understanding of how users integrate products or services into their daily lives. Designers should conduct the observation without external influence on the subject user’s behavior.
Market research extends the scope beyond individual user experiences to broader market trends and preferences. This alternative leverages quantitative data, surveys, and statistical analysis to uncover patterns at a larger scale. Market research complements user interviews by providing a macro-level understanding that informs strategic decisions and market positioning.
Discovery research focuses on the initial exploration of a problem space or a new product idea. It involves gathering insights from various sources, including user interviews, surveys, and secondary research. By combining diverse methods, discovery research lays the foundation for understanding the landscape before diving into more targeted investigations.
Rather than relying solely on one method, integrate various user research methods to understand user needs comprehensively. You can get insights from different angles by combining interviews, usability testing, and surveys.
This eventually results in more informed and user-centric design decisions.
Take the IxDF course User Research – Methods and Best Practices to learn more about interviews and other qualitative research methods.
For a concise overview of user interviews, watch How To Conduct Effective User Interviews, a Master Class webinar with Joshua Seiden, Co-Author of Lean UX and Founder of Seiden Consulting.
User interviews for UX research: Refer to this article to learn how User interviews are incorporated into UX research.
User Interviews 101: Learn about all the do’s and don’ts of User Interviews.
To learn how to make sense of all the qualitative data, see How to Do a Thematic Analysis of User Interviews.
Successful research interviews hinge on a systematic approach. The basic steps include defining clear research objectives, selecting appropriate participants, crafting well-structured and open-ended questions, ensuring a comfortable environment, actively listening to participants, documenting findings accurately, and conducting thoughtful follow-up analysis. These steps collectively contribute to the success of a research interview. They foster genuine engagement, extract meaningful insights, and lay the groundwork for informed design decisions. Designers should also carefully consider selecting the research methodology that best suits their objectives. Selection of the sample groups to conduct the interviews is also vital to maintain the research context.
Watch this video to learn about the interview analysis process.
A user interview focus framework is a practical plan that ensures we create things people genuinely need. It aligns with the idea that people don't just buy products; they buy solutions to their problems. This framework consists of five straightforward steps: find the right people looking for a solution, share your idea with them, check if they're willing to pay, make sure your solution works, and, if successful, grow and automate. It's a smart way to use user interviews to build things that truly solve real problems.
Conducting user interviews involves a systematic approach. Begin by defining clear research objectives and identifying the target audience. Craft open-ended questions to encourage participants to share their experiences openly. The next step is to choose a suitable interview format. Depending on the research goals, it could be structured, unstructured, or semi-structured. Ensure a comfortable environment for participants, whether in-person or remote. Listen to responses, ask follow-up questions for depth, and document findings meticulously. Post-interview, analyze the data, identify patterns and iterate the design process based on the insights gathered. By following this structured approach, you can conduct an insightful user interview.
The number of user interviews needed depends on the research goals and the project’s complexity. While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, a common rule of thumb is to conduct at least five to eight interviews per user segment. This typically uncovers recurring patterns and provides a solid foundation for decision-making. However, the ideal number may vary based on the project's scope, the diversity of the user base, and the level of detail required. Iterative testing and continuous feedback loops may prompt additional interviews as the design evolves. If you continuously upgrade your designs based on your research insights, consider conducting another round of interviews after every significant update.
User interviews are generally safe when conducted ethically and with the well-being of participants in mind. Researchers should prioritize informed consent, clearly communicate the purpose of the interview, and ensure participants' anonymity when necessary. Protect sensitive information and adhere to data privacy regulations. Remote interviews should be conducted on secure platforms, and any incentives offered should be reasonable and ethical. By following ethical guidelines, user interviews can provide valuable insights while respecting participants' rights and privacy. Questions asked in the interviews should be carefully curated to avoid hurting any participant’s personal, emotional, or cultural sentiments. After considering the above factors, user interviews can be safely used for design research.
User interviews offer a personalized and in-depth understanding of user experiences, allowing designers to uncover insights beyond quantitative data. They facilitate empathy by connecting directly with users, leading to more human-centered designs. The qualitative nature of user interviews is invaluable for exploring motivations, pain points, and emotions. Additionally, the adaptability of user interviews, whether in-person or remote and their ability to uncover contextual insights make them a versatile tool for various stages of the design process. User interviews can be used in multiple types and areas of research design. Choosing user interviews empowers designers to create solutions that authentically resonate with user needs.
Here’s the entire UX literature on User Interviews by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into User Interviews with our course User Research – Methods and Best Practices .
How do you plan to design a product or service that your users will love, if you don't know what they want in the first place? As a user experience designer, you shouldn't leave it to chance to design something outstanding; you should make the effort to understand your users and build on that knowledge from the outset. User research is the way to do this, and it can therefore be thought of as the largest part of user experience design.
In fact, user research is often the first step of a UX design process—after all, you cannot begin to design a product or service without first understanding what your users want! As you gain the skills required, and learn about the best practices in user research, you’ll get first-hand knowledge of your users and be able to design the optimal product—one that’s truly relevant for your users and, subsequently, outperforms your competitors’.
This course will give you insights into the most essential qualitative research methods around and will teach you how to put them into practice in your design work. You’ll also have the opportunity to embark on three practical projects where you can apply what you’ve learned to carry out user research in the real world. You’ll learn details about how to plan user research projects and fit them into your own work processes in a way that maximizes the impact your research can have on your designs. On top of that, you’ll gain practice with different methods that will help you analyze the results of your research and communicate your findings to your clients and stakeholders—workshops, user journeys and personas, just to name a few!
By the end of the course, you’ll have not only a Course Certificate but also three case studies to add to your portfolio. And remember, a portfolio with engaging case studies is invaluable if you are looking to break into a career in UX design or user research!
We believe you should learn from the best, so we’ve gathered a team of experts to help teach this course alongside our own course instructors. That means you’ll meet a new instructor in each of the lessons on research methods who is an expert in their field—we hope you enjoy what they have in store for you!
We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.