Don’t Say That: Phrases you should avoid in user interviews

2023-08-26T09:46:20+05:30By |UX Research|

As a UX researcher, I know how important it is to conduct effective user interviews.

My experience as a UX researcher for a global UX research agency allowed me to learn from diverse participants in India and the United Kingdom through in-depth interviews. However, some of these interviews lacked the rapport that I anticipated, which affected the quality of the data collected.

That’s why I was interested to read a book called “The Moderator’s Survival Guide” by Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada. This book is full of practical tips and examples of how to handle various situations that can arise during user research sessions.

One of the interesting things I found in it is what phrases to avoid during a user interview. The authors explain how some common phrases can bias the participant or damage rapport. For example, they advise us not to say:

  • “Let me give you a hint.” This phrase reinforces that the participant needs help, which can make them feel incompetent or frustrated. It can also introduce bias into the data, as you are influencing their actions or opinions. Instead of giving hints, try to encourage them to think aloud, ask open-ended questions, or restate the task if necessary.
  • “Why would you want to go there?” or “What made you do it that way?” These questions imply that the place the participant wants to go, or did go, is not correct. They can make the participant feel defensive or judged, which can affect their willingness to share honest feedback. Instead of asking why, try to ask how or what questions, such as “How do you usually find what you need?” or “What are you trying to accomplish here?”
  • “Talk to me about …” Depending on how it’s said, or how much it’s overused, this phrase can sound commanding or condescending. It can also be too vague or broad, which can confuse the participant or lead them off-topic. Instead of telling them what to talk about, try to invite them to share their thoughts or experiences, such as “Can you tell me more about …” or “I’m curious to hear your perspective on …”
  • “No, don’t (do/click) that.” This phrase reinforces that the participant is doing something they shouldn’t, which can make them feel embarrassed or discouraged. It can also interfere with their natural behaviour or workflow, which can affect the validity of the data. Instead of telling them what not to do, try to observe and probe their actions, such as “What are you expecting to happen when you <do/click> that?” or “How does that match your goals?”
  • “We/they did that because (special case could happen or special constraint limited us).” This phrase implies that you were part of the design team, and/or are defending the design choices. It can make the participant feel like you are not interested in their feedback, or that you are trying to justify or explain away the problems they encounter. Instead of giving reasons for the design decisions, try to focus on the participant’s experience and needs, such as “How does that affect your experience?” or “What would you prefer to see instead?”

These are just some examples of phrases that you should avoid during a user interview. Of course, there may be exceptions or situations where these phrases are appropriate or unavoidable. But in general, I think it’s better to be aware of these phrases and how they can influence the participant.

Thanks for reading!

About the Author:

Atul holds a masters degree in Design & Research from National Institute of Fashion Technology. He comes from a diverse background of Design and Engineering with experience of working in startups as well as large organisations such as Samsung Electronics, IndiaMart & HCL. Today, Atul works closely with clients helping them create user-centric products and services. He is actively involved in research, storytelling, brainstorming and sketching.