June 12, 2019

Spotlight on Research Methods: In-Depth Interviews

Without a doubt, there are several different types of research that you can (and should) utilize as a part of your business strategy, but not all research is created equally and you may need to take different approaches depending on where you’re at and what’s going on.

To make things even more confusing, sometimes the problem you are trying to solve within your business can point you to what type of research is appropriate, while other times you won’t know what problems you have until you begin the research process.  

Marketing and design, broadly speaking, are industries that have a lot of overlap and I often find myself explaining the differences between market research and user research. While there are some commonalities, the lenses through which these research approaches are performed can differ widely. Market research is great for identifying market size or determining attitudes towards a specific product. User research has a focus on needs and motivations both towards and outside of a specific product, as well as a tie back to observed human behaviour. Thus, each discipline approaches the practice of in-depth interviews a little differently. This article will go over some aspect of in-depth interviews as they relate to user research used in service design.

In-depth interviews are a building block of user research and among the most important research activities that can be performed. Depending on the intent of the interview, as well as what other activities it is combined with, different approaches within that can also be taken (for example, performing an in-depth interview in conjunction with a usability test).


Interviews can be approached in a structured (with a script that is not deviated from), semi-structured (with a script that guides the conversation but in a less formal manner), or unstructured way (with no script or conversation guide). However, I find overwhelmingly that a semi-structed approach is the best way to conduct interviews within this type of research. This is because it is vital to leave space to let the interview go to places that you may not be able to anticipate, which means that a completely structured interview is often inappropriate. Conversely, it is also important to have some guidance to ensure that you are not wasting either the participant’s time or your own. You want to be able to get meaningful data from the interview and flying with no guide might make you miss some important questions.

No matter what, you’ll want to make sure your script consists almost solely of open-ended questions to which the participant must answer something other than “yes” or “no”. Some interviewees with be especially talkative but others will need some prompting to open up. Making sure that you don’t have any closed questions that stop the flow of the interview is a good first step to avoiding any awkward silences. In addition, it is also necessary to avoid leading questions when developing your script. These are questions where either the wording or the tone of voice implies that you, the interviewer, are expecting a certain response or that there is a correct response to be given. Avoid placing any judgement or implications in your questions to get good data.  

It is certainly possible to conduct an in-depth interview as a sole interviewer but, if you can swing it, the magic number of team members to have in an interview is two. In this case, one person can be responsible for asking the questions and interacting with the participant while the other can focus on documenting what happens. This frees up the interviewer to simply focus on the conversation at hand without having to worry about jotting everything down. However, be warned that if you take more than two people to an interview, it may have the ill effect of intimidating your participant.  

Initial Approach

On that note, it is completely natural for your interviewee to feel a bit nervous at the beginning or during your interview (it’s also natural if you feel that way too!). Focus on putting them at ease by making sure they know that there are no wrong answers and that whatever they tell you will be help you make improvements to whatever you’re working on. One strategy to alleviate pressure for them is to allow the interview to take place in whatever space is most comfortable to them. Perhaps it’s their home or their favourite coffee shop. Getting into their own environment will allow them to relax, open up more, and may even lead to further insights given your opportunity to observe their space. A similar effect will happen if you can speak with them in person, as opposed to a video conference. Sometimes it’s not practical, but it is always preferred if it is because of the depth of insights that it can provide. In one of my past projects, I interviewed female founders located around the globe (literally – in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia). Whenever I could, I interviewed them in person, in their offices, as seeing their work environments in addition to interviewing them gave important context to the research I was working on.

During the Interview

One major thing that I find differentiates in-depth interviews in user research and service design from other disciplines is the beginning of the interview. In qualitative research, its necessary to get your participant to open up on as deep a level as possible. This means that setting the stage is incredibly important. That includes the place, as I previously mentioned, but it also is demonstrated in how questions begin. Don’t ever jump right into the questions you think are directly related to the topic you’re discussing. Get to know your participant a little. Not only is this another technique to put them at ease but the answers that will come later will be surrounded in the context of the person saying them.

It’s also vitally important to leave your interviewee enough space to talk. We’re conditioned to try to fill awkward silences. However, sometimes silence is what your participant needs to gather their thoughts and formulate their answers. Similarly, in the same way that you shouldn’t plan to have leading questions in your script, also try to avoid inserting them spontaneously in the conversation. This is tricky to master as it’s something we often do in a normal conversation to clarify that we understand what the other person is talking about. However, the dynamic of an interview situation is very different. If you want to clarify a point, ask the question again in a different way and see if that changes the response or ask your participant to elaborate.  

Design Activities

Your interview doesn’t need to consist solely of questions and answers. Another way to help your interviewee to open up, particularly if they aren’t the most talkative, is to plan some activities to do during the interview. Not only can this be fun for both you and your participant, but you can also help creating artifacts that can be really informative. For example, you could bring cut up images and allow your participant to arrange them in a way that makes sense to them after a prompt from you (creating a collage) or you could not only ask them about their experience with something, but get them to draw it out as well. Sometimes the act of triggering someone’s creativity helps them answer questions more freely and honestly.

Follow Up

A common complaint among research participants is that, after giving their time, they have no idea how they helped or what happened to the project they were a part of. If you have people that are willing to dedicate their time to share their experiences, the least you can do is be respectful of that. If they wish to stay informed or a part of your process, follow up with them and allow them to do that. If they’re especially keen, and you can involve them in design decisions and get further feedback, all the better! Be genuinely thankful for all your interviewees have given to you. You couldn’t do this work without them!

Next Steps

I’d highly recommend “downloading” your interviews, and sharing them with your team, as soon as you can after conducting them. Even if you recorded and wrote everything down, there’s going to be connections and small details that will fade over time. This process could be examined in its own dedicated article so I won’t go too much into it here but making sure that your data is captured and understood by the team will be vitally important when you go to make decisions down the line.

As with many other things, practice makes perfect, so if you’re a practitioner, just start and know that you’ll get better at this each time you do it. And if you’re a business, start bringing practices like this to your process as early as possible and we promise your perspective will change for the better.

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