Recently, I was on the phone interviewing a user for a client project. The interview was going well, the conversation was flowing, and I felt comfortable asking all the questions and extending probing questions where necessary. It was a really good and useful interview.
And then, suddenly, the woman on the other end of phone said to me, “I hope these are the right answers.”
I’ve done a lot of interviews as a researcher. I’ve asked a lot of people a lot of questions. I’ve told people how excited I was to talk to them and to learn about what it was they had to say. I’ve laughed and listened and had people tell me after it was all said and done how therapeutic it was to have someone actually listen to them for an hour. But it wasn’t until a few interviews in—before I met this woman, but farther along than I might have liked—that I realized people worry about interviewing wrong.
It makes sense, when you think about it. Most of us only ever interview for things that are anywhere from nerve-wracking to downright terrifying, like college entrance or a job or parole. You get worked up about interviews. You think about their outcomes and hope to god you impress the right people. How often do you, regular civilian non-famous everyday you, get interviewed?
What’s easy to forget as a researcher is that you’re in a position of power! You’re in charge of the proceedings. You’re the person who’s representing experts in your field, the field of design. Technically, if you think about, as the person who’s responsible for conducting research for the project, you’re not just representing the expert, you are the expert.
Except! When you conduct research, you’re looking at each interview subject as someone who possesses information and knowledge you don’t have, right? You see them as an expert in the topic you’re researching, or on the client you’re working for. They know the things you need to know. Letting them know there’s no wrong answer is such a powerful gift. Even “I don’t know” or “Yeah, I can’t answer that” is totally acceptable and in fact better than making something up or trying to find something that isn’t actually true. Letting someone know they can tell you “I don’t know” lets you know, as a researcher, where you may need to probe or refine in your questions.
So what I like to do, as the person in charge of the interview, is try to set the person at ease. Sounds pretty basic, but I mean that on a really fundamental level. I like to come right out and tell the person: You’re the expert. You. You’re the expert in your experience, your knowledge, your perspective, and that’s why I’m talking to you today. Without your expertise, this project won’t succeed. I want you to feel comfortable telling me your experience—not what you think I want to hear but what you’ve actually felt, thought, seen, and been through. In other words, I don’t want to hear what you think will be the most meaningful to me. I want to hear the thing that’s the most meaningful to you.
So the next time you have to sit down with an interview subject and ask questions, remind them: The only wrong answers in research are the ones you think I want to hear. Don’t be afraid to be honest.