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Understanding your audience: Six tips for audience interviews

Edgar Allan | Blog | Six Tips for Audience Interviews

Pre-reading, if you’re game: Our article that helps you answer one of four pivotal questions in website discovery, “Who is this site for?” 

Understanding your audience is a critical aspect of building a successful product, website, or service. Two methods that prove incredibly insightful for this process are audience interviews and desk research. Let's take a look at the first one, interviews. 

Why audience interviews?

An effective way to learn about audiences is to conduct interviews. That can be done on a one-on-one basis, in a one-to-a-group of people situation, or as a survey that you send out and have audience members fill in on their own time.

Interviews are one of my favorite ways to learn about an audience because especially in a one-on-one conversation, you get the opportunity to get somebody to talk about how they feel, how they think, and what the problems they're having that your brand might solve. These little conversations take maybe ten to thirty minutes and you don’t have to do very many to get a decent qualitative view of an audience.

That said, I know being a thoughtful asker of questions doesn’t come easy to some folks. So, here are a few of my best tips on interviewing and pulling information out of people. 

1) Ask open-ended questions

A closed question is one someone can answer with a one-word answer. Usually “yes” or “no.” An open-ended question requires elaboration — and elaboration is what you want in an interview. 

Fortunately, once you start thinking about it, swapping a closed-ended question for an open-ended one is pretty easy. Instead of asking, for instance, “Do you like X?” you’d ask instead, “What do you like about X?” “What are the challenges you have with X?” or, “Why was X the thing you chose?” 

2) Don’t disrupt the flow

Asking people something open-ended gets them talking. But it’s your job to shut up and let them talk.

This is important on a couple of levels. First, a subject may need a moment to get over their initial nerves or get comfortable speaking candidly with you. Once you find that flow, don’t interrupt them. Don’t take them out of their train of thought until you’re satisfied they’ve gotten to the end of the line, and don’t switch questions immediately when they do. Part of great interviewing acumen is knowing how to actively listen: to both take in what the person is saying and at the same time formulating what you need to ask next to ease them into the next juicy story. 

3) Start with basic questions

Speaking of making people comfortable: I’m also a fan of starting interviews with questions the subject will feel comfortable answering, like information about themselves or their relationship to the brand or product. It’s a solid icebreaker. Jumping right in and asking deep questions from the start is jarring and typically means a slow start. When people get comfortable and forget you’re not just having a casual conversation… that’s when the good stuff comes out.   

4) Have goals in addition to specific questions in mind

The biggest rookie mistake I see in interviewing is that the interviewer will have a list of questions and then just ask them in order, going down the page. That’s less than effective for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t allow for tangents or embellishments… and that’s where the best discoveries and insight live. Ask a question and then ask natural follow-ups until you’re satisfied you’ve mined the topic. Then move on. 

How do you know when to move on though? On top of a list of specific questions, I recommend also having a list of three or so “goals” for the conversation. What are the things you have or want to come out of the conversation knowing? I always jot those goals at the top of the page or the top of the screen when I'm doing an interview, and then look back as I'm leading that conversation to make sure I'm getting those goals covered. 

5) Enjoy — and use — the silence

This is my favorite interviewing technique:  Ask a question and then suppress your natural, human desire to fill the silence if they don’t answer right away. Our social training tells us that if you ask somebody something and they don't respond within a certain amount of time — whatever your internal clock is set to — you need to clarify and ask again. I know my clock is set to “Oh no, it’s been 2 seconds… maybe they didn’t understand me?” but the reality is, no matter what your speed is, just sit a bit longer, push through the uncomfortable silence, and you’ll get your answer. If you derail people while they’re thinking they often don’t return to the point they want to make. 

Another way to work this piece of advice is to ask a question and get an answer… and then just sit there for a bit. Especially if you think the person’s answer was a little surface-y, if you just wait, your subject will fill the silence. Usually with something awesome. 

6) Don’t jargon it up

The last tip is to use conversational, everyday language as much as possible in your interviews rather than highly jargony, proprietary speech. In technical or insular industries especially, it will be on you to make sure you’re using real-world language rather than internal vocabulary. First, shoegazing language runs the risk of being misunderstood and then the info you get won’t be as useful. Secondly, it obscures meaning and authenticity. Be open. Keep it neutral. You’re going to be great. 

After asking a lot of questions you can then create User Personas.

What are user personas?

User personas are a representation of a specific type of user. They are created to provide insights into how users think, what motivates them, and how they might interact with a product or service. Personas can help designers and developers to create more effective products and services by helping them to identify user needs and develop an understanding of their target audience. Personas can be based on demographic information, behavior patterns, motivations, and other factors. 

Bonus tips!

  • Keep your ears open for how your interview subjects talk about things. 
  • Mirror their language to create connection and comfort. Not too much that you look like a creep, but subtly matching their energy is a nice little psychology trick. 
  • Finally, and most importantly, have an open mind.

Next up: Desk research tips and tricks


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