Interview tips: The critical first five minutes

Goal-Directed Design necessarily involves first-hand research with real-world users. Whether these interviews last 30 minutes or two hours, the first few minutes of discussion are vital to establishing rapport with your participant.

Outside of celebrities and politicians, few people are practiced at giving interviews. And while participants are almost always willing to help as best as they can, there may be some unspoken questions troubling them before an interview begins. This article offers a list of common topics that proactively address these questions and make participants feel at ease.

1. Introduction: Who are these people?

If you don’t have anyone introducing you, such as a department head or client chaperone, introduce yourself with a handshake at the first opportunity. Offer a business card or write your name and email address somewhere visible as a friendly reminder. Providing your contact information in the beginning establishes a communication channel that is easy to refer to again at the end of the interview. Write down the participant’s name at the top of your notes. This will help you refer to his or her name should you need a reminder without having to ask or obviously glance at their business card.

One important subtlety to this introduction is to be sure to—in the eyes of the participant—distance yourself from the product or service you are designing. As consultants, we distinguish ourselves from the client and introduce ourselves in our current role as “researchers” (our business cards merely read “consultant.”) This helps to avoid the politeness effect, which could skew participants’ responses toward being overly complementary, and hide dissatisfaction about the product or service you may be redesigning. If you are working for a product company, it may be more challenging if you already know the participants or they know of your design role. If that is the case, distance yourself from the existing product by saying something such as, “We’re wearing our researcher hats in this interview, and want to hear the good and the bad of what you have to say.”

2. Explanation: What’s going on here?

Even if you’ve already exchanged emails explaining the purpose of the interview, spend some time to explain your process again. Practice what you are going to say so that it becomes accessible and concise. Though designers and engineers enjoy talking about the details of the process, most interviewees won’t benefit from the detail (and you rarely have the time the give it). Participants just want to know how they’re contributing so they can frame their responses accordingly. For example, “We’re interested in learning about your role in the purchasing process, so we’ll be asking you some questions about your workflow, frustrations, and so on.” If a participant does have detailed questions about your process, assure him that these are best answered at the end of the interview.

3. Time: Will this take long?

Double-check the participant’s time availability. A meeting may have come up, she may have a “hard stop,” or she may have more time available than she originally planned. Write down the end time and provide visual reassurance that you’ll be punctual by placing a timepiece in your direct field of vision.

4. Control: What if they ask me something I don’t know or don’t want to say?

Explain that what you are doing is research; that is, there are no wrong answers and even “I don’t know” is good input to the process. If you’re talking about business processes, give the participant permission to bow out of sensitive questions that have proprietary answers. This gives the participant a sense of control and ease and encourages honest responses.

5. Confidentiality: What if I say something that will come back to haunt me?

Sometimes participants fear that what they say might get back to their supervisors, such as an admission of not knowing something they feel they should, or circumventing a best practice. They can get especially nervous if you are recording audio or video during the interview. For this reason, assure participants of whatever level of confidence you can keep, such as that their information will only be shared with your (or your client’s, if you are a consultant) product team, or that notes won't be shared with the participant’s company.

Once you’ve set them at ease by answering these questions, you still have a few things to establish for yourself before proceeding with the interview.

6. Permission: Get social permission to learn

Interview participants are often selected because of their expertise, and they may find it difficult to recall what it’s like not to know their domain. If you don’t set their expectations, they may become frustrated with what they consider to be general-knowledge or first-principle questions. Establish that you will be asking deliberately naïve questions (that exact phrase is a useful way to communicate this notion), and occasionally asking, “Why is that good?” in order to understand as thoroughly as possible.

7. Consent: Get permission for recording

If you are recording audio or video of the interview, you must acquire the participant’s consent before beginning. Explain how the recording will be used, who will have access to it, and, if necessary, ask for the participant’s signature on a release form. What is most useful for the participant to understand when obtaining permission is how the distribution of the recording will be restricted.

Regarding photography, we often find that having a photograph of the participant aids our recall of the interview, but asking for it beforehand can be off-putting for the participant. For that reason, we often request a snapshot at the end of the interview, after rapport has been built, and explain that having a photograph stapled to our handwritten notes helps our memory.

8. Questions: Ask for questions before beginning

Invite the participant to ask any questions before starting; this lets the interviewee understand that you are initiating a conversation rather than administering a test. Genuinely answer any questions posed to you in response, although if you think your answer may taint the interview, be frank and tell the participant. Explain that you will answer the question after the interview, and write it down so you are sure to remember it.

9. Icebreaker: Begin with a “no-brainer”

Though the conversation up to this point will make your participant more comfortable, it’s useful to get him talking now in the context of the interview. Set the tone by beginning with an open-ended, fact-focused interview question that will get the participant “warmed up,” even if it is only cursorily related to the core subject of the interview. For example, you may want to get him to tell a story or give a quick overview of the work experience that led to his current position.

This may seem like quite a lot to remember, especially with the actual interview questions floating around in your head. At the risk of appearing pedantic, here is simple mnemonic you can use to make sure you've touched on everything you need to before you begin:

If Every Thing’s Covered Completely, People Commence Quality Interviews

You can jot down the initial letters in the margin of your notes and check off each one as you complete them. Note the comma that separates those first topics that set the participant at ease from the latter topics that help you as an interviewer.

Can all this really be done in five minutes? With practice, the answer is yes. Note also that you may be able to skip parts based on the actual interview situation and whether the participant appears comfortable right away. A practiced interviewer, however, can quickly get through these nine points. The five-minute investment sets a positive tone for a productive and information-rich interview.