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Stop asking your users what they want

Four common questions you should avoid to improve the quality of your user interviews


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Amy Rogers

2 years ago | 3 min read

If you’re making and selling a product, you need to know your customers. After all, they’re the people you’re trying to make happy, so it pays to know what’ll be good for them. User interviews are a method user researchers use to learn more about their customer base.

You talk to someone one-to-one about their wants and needs. Sometimes you’ll show them things like prototypes to gain further insights.

Interviews are simple to run, but it can be easy to mess them up and ask the wrong questions. A common mistake is to ask your interviewee to come up with a solution with you. This is wrong. What you’re doing is trying to understand them so that your team can make something for them. The design should be left to the professionals, right?

Asking the wrong questions in interviews can lead you down a path where you aren’t discovering anything. Or worse, focusing on the wrong points. Below I’ll give you some examples of terrible questions and advice on how to make them better.

“What would you use this app/website/product for?”

We ask this to try and establish a product-market fit. Does your target user see themselves using your product? Would they spend money on it? It asks the user to imagine themselves in their future and how your product vision aligns with their own.

Why this question sucks: People are terrible at predicting their future behaviours. Our bias toward being optimistic give us false confidence, meaning we’re more likely to say what we’d like to happen over what we think is true. We also have the social pressure of reputation. We’ll tell white lies or hide certain things to make ourselves look better in front of others.

What to do instead: Rather than hypothesising, look into what they have done in the past. Ask them to recall how they solved a problem in the past. Or what caused the problem in the first place. We’re creatures of habit, and how someone’s behaved in the past can be a great marker for what they’ll do later.

“Would you find this feature useful?”

We’re always looking to improve and iterate on designs, and sometimes this means adding in a new feature. Depending on where the idea came from, you’ll want to confirm if it’s going to work the way you planned.

There’s a difference between useful and necessary. Image credit

Why this question sucks: Every feature is ‘useful’. The thing you’re trying to measure is if the feature you’ve designed will solve known pain points in certain situations. Will it be worth your effort adding it to your product?

What to do instead: You can create a task-driven usability test to see if they find and use the feature on their own. Even better, use other research methods like A/B testing to see how users react to your new feature. By understanding the problem deeper than the user, you’ll be a better judge on what’s going to be helpful for them.

“Do you like this design?”

Asking someone to comment on visuals should be a simple question. Everyone has an opinion on design. Getting feedback on how your design looks is always valuable, right?

Why this question sucks: The majority of people don’t know what makes a design good. They can look at it and say that it looks nice, but they can’t comment any further than that unless they’re trained as a designer. Things like brand consistency and visual hierarchies go way above most peoples’ knowledge. It’s why we have professional designers.

What to do instead: You can pick up hints about the effect the brand and visuals are having from how they respond to your other questions. So if someone comments that the design feels “childish” then that might mean the branding is too colourful. Interpreting these insights is something only a professional (i.e. you!) can do.

“Would your mum/child/friend use this?”

You might ask something like this if your interviewee isn’t your target user. The idea here is to get them to picture themselves in someone else’s shoes. It could be a person they’re close to or speak to often.

When you design for someone else. Image credit

Why this question sucks: You’re asking them to predict someone else’s behaviours. I mentioned before that people suck at judging their own actions, so how do you expect them to know what someone else would do? No matter how well you know someone, they’re the only one who can give you an honest view of their own thoughts.

What to do instead: Be picky about the people you invite to interviews. If you’re designing for single mothers, only recruit single mothers. It also helps to do some research and write a script that asks questions that are relevant to your interviewees.

Conducting user research in an unbiased way is crucial to getting accurate data. Ask the right people the right questions, and take the things they say with pinches of salt.

Henry Ford once said (or didn’t), “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Most people don’t know what they want. It’s up to us and our teams to understand their problems and tune our vision to fix their pain points.

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