Lies in the interview (and seven things to do about them)

It’s rare, but it sometimes happens. You will be in an interview and you hear something that doesn’t quite ring true. Knowing the warning signs and what to do in these edge cases will help you make course corrections during the interview so that it is still useful.

LA Noire Interview.jpgScreen capture from Rock Star Games' title L.A. Noire

What do you mean by lie?

Lies come in all shapes and sizes, and I should be specific about what I mean here. I certainly don’t mean contradictions. People are quite content to live with any number of contradictions in their lives and work when they are useful. I also don’t mean errors. Our memories are faulty, and sometimes we just make mistakes. Additionally, interviewees may rightly need to protect trade secrets even if you’ve signed non-disclosure agreements, in which case you should respect the need for privacy. In interviews, the types of lies that concern us are the following five.


Most people are polite and that’s a good thing for day-to-day interactions. The problem is when they are so polite that they tell you what they think you want to hear rather than the truth. This can result in over-generalizing, or giving the “party line” answer. Over-politeness is the “positive” side of self-protection, described next.


Some people worry that the truth will get them in trouble. This can be a problem when researching for business software, as interviewees may fear that the unofficial shortcuts and tricks they use will get back to their boss. Similar to over-politeness, they’ll be trying to tell you what they think they should be saying.


Certain sensitive topics may raise issues of pride where an interviewee may not want to admit difficulties they have. For example, in a research project about money behaviors, we ran into an individual who emphatically repeated to us that he never had any problems with money, whatsoever.


If your enterprise project is perceived as a direct threat to the well being of the person’s job or their department, an interviewee may genuinely wish your project ill. For example, imagine that you are helping to develop a new direct-to-consumer sales tool and need to interview members of the current sales staff. Though I imagine that such people would rather stonewall, another strategy is to sabotage.

Outright fabrications

This is the rarest problem you might encounter. Unless you directly recruit strangers, your recommendation network will help filter such people. However, some participants may exaggerate their interests to the recruiting firm in order to get more interviews for either the attention or the compensation.


How can you tell?

It could just be your misunderstanding, so of course you need to do some subtle investigation to find out if your suspicions of lying are correct. What makes this tough is that if the interviewee realizes you’re doing this it can put them on the defensive and ruin your rapport.

The best thing to do is to look for multiple telltale signals occurring at once. The more simultaneous signals you detect, the greater the likelihood that you’re not just imagining it. You can ensure that you’re watching for these things by adopting a set of symbols in your notes for each of these behaviors and noting them in the margins when you observe them. The symbols are important because a) they make you feel like Sherlock Holmes and b) you don't want your interviewee to espy your writing “LIE????” in the margins of your notes.

A breif aside for full disclosure, and credit where credit is due: Though some of these signals and techniques come from experience in the field, it's all backed up with some interesting stuff from The Reid Technique, an investigator's field guide to interviews and interrogations. Worth a read if you're into this sort of thing. OK, back to those behaviors...

Non-verbal behaviors

If an interviewee adopts a withdrawn or defensive posture mid-interview, with arms crossed, legs crossed, and neck bent, it could indicate a discomfort with the topic. Additionally, what Reid terms adaptor behaviors involve the interviewee touching a part of themselves like their face or forehead. These behaviors include self-grooming, which let the interviewee focus on, say, the fluff on their shoulder, to avoid direct eye contact.

Paralinguistic behaviors

Paralinguistic behaviors are those that involve the way a person speaks rather than what they say. A delayed response can indicate the need to think about the “right” answer. Responses that are broken off mid-sentence and restarted are called discontinuous responses, and may hint at a need to avoid the conclusion that the first part of the sentence set up.

Verbal behaviors

If you’re asking the interviewee to recount events or walk through common behaviors, take note of those moments when the level of detail suddenly shifts. Stuff like time-gap phrases that skip over detail like “and then after we close the sale…” It also includes too much detail, delivered in a perfect chronology, which can be a sign of reciting the party line. Take note also of qualifiers to their account, such as “generally,” “as a rule,” and “typically.” Ask instead for specifics, described below.

Concerning contradictions

Recall that people are happy to live with useful contradictions. When you do encounter a contradiction in an interview, just ask about it in a non-accusatory and open-ended way. “Earlier I heard you mention that you want to get things done as fast as possible, but you just mentioned that you always do this optional step thoroughly. Can you talk about that?”

Often times the interviewee can explain the contradiction simply by being more specific. Other times they just laugh when they realize that the contradictory statements are true but untenable when spoken aloud. In these circumstances I will laugh with them, confess holding similar contradictions, and move on. But if you’re dealing with someone actually lying, the contradictions could be an omission or an actual lie.

And, of course, your Spidey sense

Don’t forget that how you’re feeling about an interviewee’s responses is an important data point to consider. If your “Spidey sense” is going off, add a couple of question marks in the margin of your notes next to the questionable statement so you recall that feeling during later review.

Spidey Sense.jpg

So what can you do about it?

If you’re convinced that an interviewee is being less than forthright, there are a number of things you can do to get at more honest answers.

1. Understand why

Sometimes understanding the reason why someone might be lying is as important as the truth. Though this can't often be done in person in the interview, during review take time to ask what reasons the interviewee might have for lying and consider how that might impact the success of your interaction design. For instance, if they’re thinking that software lessens their authority as experts, what can the software do to communicate respect and position them as masters of their domain?

2. Build more rapport

Building rapport with your interviewee sets them at ease and frames you as a conversant rather than a “spy.” Though you should do this with any interview, you may have to spend more time doing it if you need to put your interviewee at ease.

Pacing the interviewee means adopting similar speed and cadence of speech, and can even include adopting a similar—though not identical—posture. This makes people feel more comfortable with you than if you “feel” like you’re from a different planet.

If an interviewee seems cagey about sharing a workaround, it might be because they don't want to confess to “cheating” with shortcuts. In these cases, if the system is one you've used, you can say that you share the interviewee's difficulties. “Oh, I've encountered that problem myself. That solution makes sense.” If not, you can say you've heard the same before from other interviewees. Be careful to keep them short and neutral. The focus on the interview can’t be on you, and you don't want to imply that the point of the interview is to become friends. A self-protective interviewee will appreciate knowing that you and others have had similar difficulties, or take similar shortcuts.

3. Distance yourself from the authority

Both the over-polite and the self-protective are thinking about the effect of their answers. Early in the interview, curtail this explicitly by explaining that the interview is held in confidence. Further explain how you are different from the “authority.” If you’re a consultant it’s easy to explain by saying, “We’ve been hired to find out how people really do this…” If you are doing an internal project, explain that “I’m wearing my researcher hat for this interview.” Finally, let them know the benefit of honest cooperation by explaining in a few words what they stand to get out of the final product, such as saving time and effort.

4. Ask again, differently

If you feel that you’ve hit on a particular topic that is making the subject uncomfortable, leave it for a bit and continue to another. Return to the uncomfortable topic later, but address it in a different way. At Cooper we typically interview in two-person teams. Asking for the other interviewer to take the interview for a bit while you “review your notes” can give you the break you need to consider how to ask your question less threateningly.

5. Ask about specifics

It is harder for people to fudge specific experiences. When asking about processes or tasks, don’t ask how something is handled “in general.” Begin by asking about the last time they completed the task, and then ask them to recount the details of that event.

Similarly, it’s difficult to contradict physical evidence on the spot. If you have the luxury of interviewing someone in their workspace, politely ask about things in their workspace that are relevant. This will often elicit more direct responses.

6. Talk about “someone else”

If your interviewee seems to have issues of pride around a particular topic, get them to talk about someone else other than themselves. First ask them to imagine the person who has the most difficulty with the topic. Then ask them about how that person would answer. This worked for me particularly well when speaking about money. “I don’t need to know a name, but I’d like you to imagine the person you know who has difficulty with money. Do you have them in mind? What stories do you hear from them?” People tend to remember those stories with which they empathized, and so what they recall from another person is quite telling.

7. Get them off the circuit (if it's through a recruiter)

If all else fails and you feel that find that an interviewee has simply been hostile, or lied to get compensation, take what you can from the interview and disregard the rest. If you found them through a recruiting firm, let the firm know what happened. They will remove them from their lists.

L_A_ Noire PS3 Gets Exclusive Mission(1).jpgScreen capture from Rock Star Games' title L.A. Noire

We’re pros. We got this.

I should restate that encountering such things is very rare. But following these tips should ensure that you are getting the most out of the time and money spent on first hand research, which in turn helps assure the best Goal Directed design.

And, without naming names, got any good stories of such things to share?