Overlooked User Interview Questions

What are the most overlooked questions in user or customer interviews?
User interviews, or customer interviews, are one of the core qualitative research tools in the product development toolbox. Metrics can characterize behavior, but often don’t explain it. Asking questions and observing users interact with your product in real-time can teach you
why
users behave a certain way.

I asked experts across User Research, Design, Product Management, and Venture Capital for their Most Overlooked User Interview Questions. Below are the
27
questions they came back with.

Meet the experts
1
kerry.jpeg
Developer & Former UX Researcher
cliff.jpeg
Design Manager @ YouTube
niko.jpg
Managing Director @ General Catalyst
sarah.jpeg
General Partner @ Greylock
helena.png
Design Lead @ Coda
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CEO & Co-founder @ Reduct
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PM @ Coda
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Senior Manager: UX, Product and Business Research @ Netflix
shiva.jpeg
VP Product @ Facebook
ryan.jpeg
CEO @ UserLeap
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Principal Product Manager @ Cars.com
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Senior Product Manager @ Sana Benefits


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1

Ask why twice (or more)

Asking 'Why' reveals valuable evidence you never thought you needed. Asking it twice can reveal users motivations for choosing your product over competitors. One time my team was looking at quantitative experimental data that showed the arm of the experiment with a more "browseable" experience actually was causing searching to go up - we had expected a drop with the new design. Our researcher saw this and said she had seen this behavior in the lab from a participant. Thankfully she had asked the user why multiple times. The new "browsable" experience had introduced a topic that made the participant think about a subject that they had never thought to search for before. The new UI had broadened their mental model of the app. Even seemingly mundane user responses like "I like it" when followed with a couple of "why"s can give you insights useful for marketing your products' benefits.

@Cliff Curry



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14
2

Silence

Sometimes the best question is no question at all. When you've carefully written your interview script, and feel attached to the importance of every one of your questions, it's tempting to rush through them and move on to the next question as soon as the user has stopped speaking. But, sometimes they are just pausing for thought, and if you can pay enough attention to understand when that is happening, you can avoid interrupting their thought process just as they are about to come out with the most useful insight of the whole interview. If you must say something, make it an encouraging sound or a few words that indicate you are still listening.

@Kerry Rodden



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11
3

Hacked together solutions

I love hearing about how users have hacked together solutions before one's product existed. This speaks to the huge need that this product is solving for.

@Niko Bonatsos



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9
4

Dream screen

"Imagine this was launched and you were about to show it to a friend - describe what you would really want to show them?"

Google Earth is my favorite example. When Google Earth came out, what was everyone's dream demo? They would go their friend and say "Hey, did you see this amazing new tool? Give me your address, I'll show you your house from space!" It was near universal. So as the team built it, they really needed to make sure that hero demo went well, since it was the key to their peer-to-peer spread.

@Shishir Mehrotra



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7
5

Be the Coach

"Imagine you had to coach someone on accomplishing this same goal, but with existing tools. What would you have them do?"

It's often hard to separate the idea from the tool. For example, I've shown
to people and they love it. But then they might decide to implement it by just asking people to put their initials next to questions in a Google doc. Now we know what we're up against.

@Shishir Mehrotra



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6
6

How do you get this done today?


Asking about the current workflow allows you to see if this is an issue that a person currently has. It also allows them to talk clearly about how they do it and wether they actually think it’s a pain point or not. It can help to map it out this flow, and later highlight how your solution might reduce steps or cognitive load.

@Helena Jaramillo



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6
7

Tell me about the last time you...

When you ask people generalized questions like “What time do you usually wake up?“, they might give more generalized answers than their reality. Similarly, if you ask something like “What was your favorite example of…” a user might feel pressure to choose something good. Instead, try asking a specific question like “What time did you wake up this morning?” or “Tell me about the last time you…“. It’s always easier to generalize from a set of specific stories uses tell you rather than come up with specific examples from broad generalizations.

@Angad Singh



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8

What would make it challenging for you to adopt this product?

I like to ask this question this way, because it
assumes
that adoption is difficult. I believe that most software is collaborative today, and the jump from single-player to multi-player mode is where so many SaaS companies get stuck. The most common response I've heard is "people and organization issues." Some classic questions in user research, such as following the "five whys" or asking "how would it make you feel?" can be misleading in this situation, because convincing teammates to adopt new software often causes potential users to have feelings they don't like to express, such as insecurity, and it involves team dynamics people are uncomfortable speaking to ("the dev team doesn't really talk to our team"). Asking a team to adopt a new tool requires users to stick their necks out — it costs early adopters social capital, a reason why brand and community around new tools is so important.

Quip's early adoption model was a great example of diagnosing and addressing this — when they had critical mass of happy users in a team who had adopted in single-player mode because of the great multi-platform experience, they could tip into teams, and when they had influential leaders and teams in a company, they could tip into wall-to-wall adoption. But a common answer to this "challenges to adoption" question initially was, of course, "We're a Google shop. How could I convince my team to use something else, when there is such a strong default?" They did many things along the way to consciously address challenges to adoption, including supporting prosumer use cases, making presence of other users visible in Quip, and building a strategic account success team.

I've rarely seed a startup fail by building a tool that was "too thin" or "beloved but not valuable enough." I've seen hundreds of startups fail by building something that requires their customer to climb too tall a mountain to get the gains, usually involving too much workflow change in multi-player mode without enough social currency or value for the end user. Digging into the dynamics around team adoption (or in the enterprise world, "barriers to deployment") is overlooked in user research.

@Sarah Guo



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9

The Before and After

I ask this question for tools and utilities. Assume you are using us to achieve X. What would you need to do before and after using us to achieve the solution? Often people are blind to how they fit into the larger “job to be done” and as a result, don’t realize that their magical tool to do X is blocked by frictions prior to or after using it. In fact, it's great to always keep an eye on the before and after tasks because sometimes that's a clue for when you should vertically integrate to truly delight someone.

@Shiva Rajaraman



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10

What I've heard you say is...

When wrapping a usability test or concept evaluation, I generally end with a summary of what the person has said and ask to confirm if my interpretation is correct, by saying something like: so, what I heard you saying is... and paraphrase what the participant has told me based on my notes.


However, I once tried a variation of this by asking the participant to describe the feature or activity we had just gone through to a friend or relative who had never tried anything like that before. How would they do it and what advice would they give? This is a novel way for the participant to provide their own reflection of the experience they just tested out, their perspective around the concept, and what they value or should be improved in their own words, instead of just accepting the moderator's interpretation.

@Catalina Naranjo-Bock



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11

What pain are you willing to accept?

User interviews often suffer from the
— when you ask questions about a problem, you put focus on it, the problem becomes important. But in a users's actual life, it may not be an important problem. As Shreyas points out in the thread above, this illusion can be really damaging, and can cause complete product failures.

This question around pain acceptance will give you a clue into what kinds of problems are important for your users to solve, and which problems they can accept & put up with. Super helpful for informing product trade-offs.

(By the way, this is a great question for hiring too: it tells you what "pains" are deal-breakers to people vs. something they are happy to live with..)

@Prabhas Pokharel



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12

What question should I have asked you that I didn't?

It is an open secret if you are doing ethnographic-style field studies that the best insights often come after you officially "end" the interview. A common practice is to kill the video recording, but leave the audio rolling when you do your goodbyes, because the participant will sometimes say something invaluable.

This is hard to replicate in Zoom-land, so I often end interviews by asking this question. It's a more active version of "Is there anything I missed?" and often a great way to discover "unknown unknowns" — something salient to my participant that I didn't even to know to ask about.

@Prabhas Pokharel



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5
13

Give a goal

Taking a little time to not interrogate a user can deliver greater insights than trying to find answers to a discrete set of questions. Questions can have a priming effect that distorts how the actual unaided experience may unfold. Not asking a question (other than "what are you thinking"), just giving a user a goal, and just watching and listening to see if they organically, recognize, use and enjoy a new experience can more accurately help you understand how real world users will perceive your designs. I have seen teams say "Our icon is good", "10/10 users completed the flow", etc., yet when asked if the new features matched their mental model for the app or surprised or delighted them there is no information.

@Cliff Curry



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3
14

How did that make you feel?

Every decision we make is at least partially emotional. If a user is sticking to describing the facts of a story, asking how something made them feel can help them to think about or share the emotional side. It’s also a great tool in terms of building empathy, for example from “feature X is hard to use” to “our product makes people feel stupid”.

@Angad Singh



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3
15

Repeat their last sentence

You often get the best input when you just let users talk about what’s important to them rather than asking them questions. However, some users might think they are being rude by talking too much and might try to end their monologues for you to ask questions. In those cases, repeating their last sentence back to them as a question is a great way to make them feel reassured and get them to keep going with the story.

@Angad Singh



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16

Saying vs doing

Often users say one thing, but do something else.... So I love to compare the facts from what their answers were + what the metrics tell us.

@Niko Bonatsos



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17

What's one feature you wouldn't be disappointed if we removed?

Sometimes features we place a lot of priority on for our users aren't the same ones they care most about. This question helps close the gap with our customers and helps narrow in on the specific job they have enlisted our product to do.

@Ryan Glasgow



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18

When wouldn’t you use this?

I often find user research participants to be very friendly and positive. This question helps uncover alternative features and products that better meet participant needs for the considered scenarios. I’ve often discovered new competitors I was not previously aware of through this question, or more deeply clarified what the participant is looking for.

@David Kossnick



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19

Body language

When conducting a user interview, I make sure to pay extra attention to the participant's body language, and follow up accordingly. Moderators can easily overlook this, especially when conducting an interview in a remote environment, but probing on certain gestures can unlock deeper insights that otherwise might have been ignored. For example, better understanding why someone is laughing or rolling their eyes when testing a product experience can help us understand moments of delight or frustration that might not have been overtly expressed otherwise.

@Catalina Naranjo-Bock



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20

How would you describe this?

Naming a product is tricky. While you shouldn’t expect a user to name your product well, you should pay close attention to the language they use to describe it. Look for ways to echo their language back in the product, whether it’s in the product name, onboarding, button names, and so forth. You could even record all your participants descriptions and
to bubble up some of their most common feelings. I find user’s own descriptions of a product form good “corners of the tent” for the space names that resonate.

@David Kossnick



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21

No words - ask the question with your face

One of my most effective "questions" in user interviews is silence. Holding silence is awkward in American culture--so the participant will fill the silence by digging deeper into the topic at hand.

To make this most effective, I recommend practicing "asking questions with your face." When I was taught how to interview by
, he started with an exercise: a two minute "interview" you conduct almost entirely without words. You ask a question to kick the interview off, but after that, your participants speak and you respond with purely with your facial expressions!

@Prabhas Pokharel



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22

Set context

“This is just a conversation for me to understand your story and the language people use around X, so there are no right/wrong answers. Are you ready to get started?” I say this before the interview starts, to help people relax. This is straight out of
interviews.

@David Krell



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23

What's one feature you'd be disappointed if we removed?

People aren't always consciously aware of the value they are getting from a product until they imagine losing access. It's a great jumping off point for follow-up questions to understand exactly what it is they get out of your product and why they value it. Follow up with - Why is this feature important to you? What problems does it solve for you? How does it make your life easier?

@Ryan Glasgow



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24

What's the Story You'll Tell 5 Friends?

Why or why wouldn’t you share it? How would you describe it to them - tell me that story! What's useful here is that by asking someone to put it in their own words you can see whether they struggle with that challenge or light up and get excited. If they can teach someone the value of your product in their own words, that's magic. A follow-up reality check on the above is to give the user three invite codes to share (and measure whether these are actually redeemed in aggregate).

@Shiva Rajaraman



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25

Who else to talk to?

“Is there anybody else at your company/group that you think I should talk to?” If yes, then ask for a warm introduction. This really increases the number of interviews you get.

@Alex Dou



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26

Can you explain that to me but pretend you’re talking to a 5 year old?

Ask them to use simple words. Helps clarify what people are saying while making them feel like the expert.


@David Krell



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27

Is there anything else I’ve neglected to ask you?

If the answer is yes and there are repeated themes, add their answers as a line of questioning for future interviews. 🙂

@Alex Dou



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