"Wandering" can be productive during user interviews

Recently, a client who was observing us perform stakeholder interviews made a casual off-hand remark at the end of the day that the interviews had "wandered around a bit." We had explained how our interviews are less survey-driven, and more ethnographic in style, but it's often hard for the uninitiated to see the immediate value of an ethnographic type approach to interviewing, especially when it results in circuitous answers. We were particularly happy with the wandering of our interviews, which had produced visceral clarity which could never have been delivered with an overly structured interview. For example, hearing that the back-end systems are "dog shit" provides an additional layer of information than simply hearing that they're "dated" or "inadequate."

Tommy Stinson, Strategic Director at Cheskin, another Bay Area innovation engine recently blogged: "The goal of the discussion isn't to just get the participant's 'take' on the topic (at least it's not limited to that). The goal is to understand this person (or people) and their culture - the 'webs of significance.'"

We work from structured interview instruments, but as a journalist friend of mine is fond of saying, "the best quotes happen when the tape stops rolling." When we leave the scripted interview and allow someone to lead the interview themselves, often things which we couldn't predict or identify are revealed — and, in some cases, new topic areas can be added to the instrument as a result. Of course it's important to return to the script to hit all of the main questions we have, but it is equally useful and important to allow an interview subject to lead a little, to give them enough time and latitude to wander into areas which are not on the map.