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Michelle Kon

Sep 23 · 7 min read

Photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels

Does anybody remember the movie Shrek? (Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me / I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed…) It’s a light-hearted kids movie, but there was one statement Shrek made which has a lot to do with UX design.

“Ogres are like onions. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. You get it? We both have layers.”
— Shrek

That’s true for our users as well: every user has layers. In navigating the complex world of our service ecosystems and the way that our customers interact with them, how do we design for their needs that they know they have, but also the ones that they don’t know they have? Using user interviews as a tool, we can peel back those layers and start to really hear what our users are saying.

First thing to note is,

Unless you interview them in their natural environment, this would be the case most of the time. From the moment you greet them at the door, to guiding them towards the room, they are already internally processing that this interview is something that is arranged, and not what they would do in the natural. It is important to keep that in mind when conversing with them. The answers that they give would tend more towards what they think you want to hear, rather than what they are really feeling — which is a very natural and human reaction to have when put in that environment.

Therefore, we should aim to make the interviewing process as natural as possible. The closer they are to their natural environment, the more accurate the results. (That’s why if resources allow, a good complementary study area would be field research)

As designers and researchers, we always remind ourselves not to forget the human element when designing experiences. The same standard should also be applied when doing user interviews — don’t forget the human element in interviews.

Try to design an environment similar to conversing with a friend. Think about it. When having a conversation with a friend, it’s not one-track. A friend doesn’t follow a script and moves on from one question to the next methodically. If that’s what we want to achieve, we can simply use online forms. As humans, we have abilities to steer the conversation, to pick up interesting points and delve a little bit deeper from there, to have reasoning and interest in what the interviewee is saying. That leads me to my next point.

In order to use that, you need to be crystal clear of what your goal is. With that in place, questions are just a means to an end.

Like every good researcher, you would have prepared a set of questions to ask your interviewee. However, remember that those act as guidelines and something for you to fall back on when you want a reference point during the interview itself. Try not to go through them rigidly, or to take them as your main guide.

If the set of questions are not your guide, then what is? Two things are: your main goal of the research, and your human quality of curiosity. You have a set of questions, you know those are good questions which lead to interesting answers. Every user is different, and once you have an interesting response that brings you closer to your goal, pick up on that and follow where that path leads. It’s a little bit like picking at a thread until the whole thing unravels.

There are many specific ways to do this, and one commonly used technique is the 5 Whys technique as made popular in the Lean Startup methodology. The idea is to ask the question ‘Why’ 5 times, in order to get to the root of the problem. The answer to the first ‘Why’ will form the basis of the next ‘Why’.

For an example, if we know an interviewee has a goal of owning his or her own business, we can use the 5 Whys technique in this way:

  1. Why do you want to own your own business?
    Because I can decide how I want to spend my own time
  2. Why do you want to decide how you spend your own time?
    Because I want to have flexibility in my working hours
  3. Why do you want flexibility in your working hours?
    Because I want to do things that are important to me
  4. Why do you want to do things that are important to you?
    Because I want to spend more time with my kids
  5. Why do you want to spend time with your kids?
    Because my family is the most important thing to me

From the exercise above, we can find out what the underlying motivations and attitudes are for our users.

Remember that the interviewee is always acutely aware that they are in a staged environment, and that has effect on the answers that they give as well. If you have been successful in pulling back the layers and making them a little bit more comfortable, then you are in a good place. However if you are still trying to work at that, then remember that what interviewees say might not be what they mean.

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say”
— David Ogilvy

Think about our daily lives. How difficult is it for us ourselves to really say what we feel, and to really mean what we say on a regular basis? There are so many factors at play in any given social situation in our lives, how much more can be said for a user interview session?

So, how do we really get as close to the truth as possible? I would say that — if resources allow again — to not just rely on one method of research. User interviews can be complemented with behaviour mapping, contextual interviews, shadowing and observing, and so on.

Also, during the user interview session itself, don’t just take their word for it, observe what they do. Look at their reactions. Pick up on the micro-expressions. Hear what they are saying and question that. Observe what they are not saying, and build on that.

I try to enter every interview and pretend that I know nothing. When doing a piece of research, all that you know about the users are assumptions, and they should remain that way until you have strong evidence that can prove you otherwise.

You might think a certain statement is true for everyone because it might be a sentiment you strongly believe in, or everyone in your social circle has the same sentiments (e.g. ‘Everyone is interested to improve themselves’). However, we need to be able to differentiate a personal opinion from a proven statement.

What is the opposite of an assumption? An insight. If we approach every research project pretending that we know nothing, we can walk away with enlightening insights because we can see things from points of views other than our own.

Having those insights are invaluable, because those are the starting points of what we know to be true for the user, and we can set a clear and focused path on where, and how, our products can meet a real need in the market.

As with all design things that we do, context is important to consider as well. In this case, it is keeping in mind the cultural undertones when it comes to interviewing Singaporeans.

Generally, Singaporeans are not really expressive people. If they react positively, loudly and dramatically to your idea, get ready to accelerate and be first-to-market with this idea, because Singaporeans are rarely ever excited. Singaporeans are pretty mild when it comes to expressing themselves, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a markedly positive reaction. As a rule, I always ask for quantitative answers to my questions just to get a better sense of how well a solution meets their needs.( e.g. On a scale of 1–7, how useful is this feature or this concept is for you?) You will find that although a feature might be really useful for them, they might not show it outright.

Another point is that Singaporeans can sometimes be guarded. To get to the root of their motivations and attitudes, we need to be even more aware of the four points mentioned above, and be sensitive to where the interview is heading in order to pivot accordingly.

That pretty much sums up the main things that I look out for when conducting user interviews. Looking at user interviews as a whole, I believe that our attitude towards this part of the design thinking process should not be ‘user interviews are just deliverables that I have to account for at the end of the product cycle’. If we understand the true value of user interviews, there is a lot of potential that we can unlock. If we are able to employ the right techniques to peel back these layers, then we can really hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding the present condition.


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