UX Research

When to Interview, Survey, and Focus Group

User Interviews

For qualitative research, user interviews provide a great balance of high-quality information for a relatively small amount of time. Despite what is often said, interviews don’t even have to be expensive. In fact, those who are willing to be interviewed for a cup of coffee are typically able to give more personal and sensitive responses. Instead of prioritizing a financial reward, they receive a benefit in the feeling of accomplishment in helping a product become better.

The objective of a user interview is to gain an understanding of who the customer is, what are their desires and needs, what objections and hurdles they need to overcome, and what about their lifestyle attracts them to your product. The interviewer should walk away from the conversation able to empathize with the customer and their position.

While there isn’t a set list of questions that works for every interview or project, there are a few guidelines that can be followed to make the interview run more smoothly for the customer as well as more valuable for the business.

Ask Open-Ended Questions. The main advantage of a user interview is the ability to deeply explore any direction the conversation might travel. This benefit is completely negated if the questions being asked only require ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses. More importantly, asking a question with such a limited answer may not just give you less information, it may even present the answer in a way that allows misdirection.

For example, let’s say a company is attempting to build a car and gain a better understanding of what struggles their customers have on their daily commute. The company might ask the user, “Do you ever struggle with Traffic when traveling to work?” to which the user might respond with, “Sure, there’s always traffic in the morning.” With this information, the company might go back to their product design team and begin working on a vehicle that allows them to get to work more quickly—perhaps a smaller car that allows them to weave through traffic more quickly.

If we instead asked, “Why kind of struggles do you have when traveling to work?” the user might respond with “it’s difficult to hear the radio due to all the external noise.” With this information, the product design team might want to design a vehicle with better sound protection. The user ended up not minding the traffic because it was the only part of their day they got to be completely alone. Making the vehicle smaller and faster—while still may have been appreciated—was the wrong direction for the product design team and a distraction to the users’ actual desires.

Lastly, I wish to mention one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen when interviewing customers is the focus on the product rather than the customer using the product. While understanding a user’s interactions with the product is important, the motivation should be to better understand the needs the user is attempting to solve. Once this is learned, the interviewer can then follow up with questions regarding the product and how the customer uses it. Without understanding their needs, the information won’t be that helpful.

Below is the list of interview questions I asked when attempting to better understand the audience for Professional Marketing Group (PMG).

  1. What is your current job and what do you do there?
    2. How long have you been in that position?
    3. Do you have a formal education in marketing or another field?
    4. What kind of struggles do you have in your day-to-day?
    5. What are your career aspirations?
    6. Why do you come to PMG events?
    7. What do you find most appealing about PMG?
    8. Are you comfortable coming to PMG events? Why/why not?
    9. Besides PMG, what other ways do you stay up-to-date?
    10. What kind of tools do you use at work?


For mixture of quantitative and qualitative research, surveys provide a simple and affordable method of receiving feedback from a large audience. Because surveys have the benefit of being automated, attaching a survey to a product or at the end of a phone call can provide a diverse and honest reflection of a user’s experience.

While sounding like a great solution on paper, surveys come with one major hurdle: nobody wants to do them. People find them cumbersome, time consuming, and hang up the phone the moment they survey is prompted. The good news is there’s a fairly easy way to bypass this hurdle while still achieving the desired outcome.

Firstly, don’t call it a survey. Rather than asking 10 questions in a survey, instead ask the user, “Can I ask you a question?” and provide them a prepared question off your list.

Secondly, only ask one question at a time. While this method doesn’t generate answers to the entire survey in one go, it communicates to the user the survey won’t take up too much of their time and allows the questions to trickle in. If the choices are either not having surveys filled out or having them come in a piece at a time, the trickle method is the wiser choice.

Focus Groups

One of the final forms of user research not yet mentioned is the application of focus groups. For those unfamiliar, focus groups gather a selected number of people—typically a pre-qualified list of people—gather them into a single room, and ask them questions as a unit. The motivation of a focus group is to acquire both qualitative and quantitative research within a single event saving the company both time and money. However, like most tactics, focus groups comes with it’s own list of pros and cons.

Firstly, focus groups—specifically those who pre-determine who is invited—frequently miss the purpose of qualitative research. The objective of market research isn’t to ask the general populous about one’s product but to only ask those with whom the product is targeting. Exploring the diversity of your audience is important, of course, but make sure the diversity is within the boundaries of the product.

Secondly, focus groups often tend to be poor solutions as a whole. Similarly to every classroom, those in the group who are more outspoken receive the most attention. Inadvertently, those same individuals end up controlling the conversation, biasing those around them, and potentially end up speaking for the whole. When gathering qualitative data, tribe mentality needs to be avoided—user interviews simply do this better.

For quantitative data, surveys provide a superior reach while having the additional benefit of potentially being free. And thanks to the modern days of automation, the amount of effort required ends up being minimal.

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