The Art of Interview

Design can begin with understanding. Understanding a product or a service yes, and understanding the lives of people interacting with these products and services.

Research interviews can be a helpful start to understanding the needs, desires, aspirations, hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties of people we are designing with.

The following heuristics are drawn from research interview experience and I hope they can inform yours as a designer and researcher.

1. Interview as personal interaction

Reframing an interview from being about ‘data collection’ to being a personal interaction between you and another human being can be more rewarding.

I love the stories people share during an interview. It is these narratives from the the lives of the people we are designing with in context, that reveal richer insight for more strategic design.

There are many methods to invite people to share with us details of their lives that can help us build context. One frame I have found particularly useful is the Johari Window. The model articulates differences between what we are willing to share about ourselves and what we may share when invited. Using this model, interviews can be structured for different types of sharing. For example, purposefully conducting contextual interviews with projective and reflexive techniques to encourage more open dialogues.

2. Establish empathy

Empathy is a primary interview dynamic. Jon Kolko highlights the role of empathy in acquiring feelings for designs people will love. Empathetic interviewers seek what is being experienced emotionally by people, listening carefully to what is being shared both spoken and unspoken. Making sense of gestures and silences, as well as what’s being said. Empathy is curiosity and asking what’s life like for you? Ultimately, it’s about letting go of the self.

3. Embrace dialogic exchange

Interviews as a dialogic rather than dialectic exchange. Dialectic exchanges can feel static. Dialogic conversations drive forward, expanding on our understandings and pushing for richer insights in our interviews. Dialogic interactions can diverge into unforeseen directions, we can share hypotheses and discuss contexts. The interviewer inquires how particular themes play out in people’s lives? How else could this theme play out?

4. Nurture subjunctive mood

Richard Sennett describes subjunctive mood as establishing space for diversity and strangers to dwell with one another. I like the idea of research being about creating this kind of a space for people to open up into. Exploring and experimenting with the topics of inquiry. Civility underpins subjunctive mood. A few of my favourite phrases to nurture a subjunctive mood during interviews are: Perhaps? I would have thought? I suppose? If you like? Is it something like this?

5. Start broad then converge

Structuring a line of inquiry in your research is critical for building context. One frame I have found useful is the following:

Art of the interview graphic
We can begin a line of inquiry by understanding the lives of the people we are interviewing, at a broad level. Their needs, desires, aspirations, hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties.

Secondly, we interview to understand ‘the theme’ for which the research is being undertaken. How does the theme align/not align to the needs people have?

Lastly, we converge on our world. The realm of the service and the organisation people are interacting with. Insight is revealed in understanding how the service, the organisation and the theme can better meet the needs and aspirations of people.

The outline of the shape is intentional. Increasing the depth and breadth of our insights can result from spending more time in the world of the people we are interviewing. We need to recognise the tension and temptation to plunge directly into the world of the organisation and the task at hand and balance it well with the need to understand more deeply.

6. Ask ‘W’ questions

If we have a frame for a more artful interview, what’s the content?

We create the content by asking open questions about people’s feelings, thoughts, behaviours, actions, and events. These can be in the form of ‘W’ questions, such as what, when, and where. However, be cautious of asking why questions. This can create what Dave Snowden refers to as retrospective coherence, as people try to explain what they do rather than what they actually do.

A few more open questions: What happened? When might? Where could? What do you like?  Do you like?

One more thought on line of inquiry. Feel free to ignore it! Go off script. I like improvisation in interviews and I like it even more in music. It’s spontaneity with structure that can deliver something beautiful. It’s unique, every time. Robert Poynton’s improvisation mantra of ‘Notice more, Let Go, Use Everything’ feel like great heuristics for a more artful interview.

7. Ladder to motivations

Getting to the core of a topic means exploring motivations for what people do. Rational and emotional. So how does laddering work? It’s about understanding the understanding, in order to explore the needs, aspirations, hopes or fears that could underpin behaviour. For example, ‘convenient’ is word people can use to describe a service. But, what is convenience about for the person, within a specific context? What does it mean in terms of their needs and their aspirations? Laddering is a dialogue between people, rather than analysis.

“You pick up on the intention, the context, make it explicit and talk about it.”
Richard Sennett

8. Observe and capture

Observing to explore context is crucial. Ask people to demonstrate what they do. Include show and tell as part of your interview guide. Film where possible. Collect artefacts. All these inform context.

As in laddering, it can be important to explore the meaning of context collaboratively with the people you are interviewing. Dave Snowden discusses the principle of distributed cognition where people add layers of meaning to their experience rather than having researchers attempting to interpret the content.

9. Being comfortably uncomfortable

Nourish emotional dialogue. It can be difficult to ask people how they feel about an experience, yet it can be vital to true understanding. The rational tail wags the emotional dog in the words of Jonathan Haidt.

We need to get underneath to what people are really feeling.Projective techniques can help. A favourite of mine is asking people to find an original image that describes their current experience. And of course, discuss what it means for them. Also helpful for a line of inquiry is asking people to describe their ideal experience. This question seems to enable more emotive dialogue and can reveal unmet needs in current experiences.

10. Getting real

Interviewing partners of staff to reveal more about an organisational culture is one example. Tightly define the group of people you are researching. Or not. Edges can be interesting for emergent behaviours and aspirations. It can also be important to identify influencers. Researching participant and influencers, together and, or apart can add insight.

I like secret confessions and diaries. There are multiple auto-ethnography tools to help. Recently, we have started using Experience Fellow to journey map individual experiences and capture the visceral at the moment in time. Once again, reflexive interviews with people about their diary or journey map is important to build ‘layers of meaning’.

Remember to switch off the recorder at the end of the session. Some of the most insightful dialogues I have had are ‘after the interview’. Steve Baty talks about the embodiment of ‘putting down the pen’, which can signify intent to really listen. People can often feel more comfortable in these moments to reveal a little more about their experiences with additional candidness and honesty.

While talking about recorders, there is much technology available to assist. So much technology. A small but hopefully helpful suggestion is a lapel mic and a good recording app for your mobile. You can achieve a lot with the basic.

Parting thought

An artful interview is just one technique for understanding. Mix and make hybrids of methodologies. Thank you. And of course, let me know your thoughts and feelings.

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