Asking User Research Questions that Encourage Discovery

Posted in Design
Asking User Research Questions that Encourage Discovery

User research can provide a way to empathize with potential customers to better understand their behaviors and motivations. One research method I recommend to help generate ideas in the early phase of a new project is user interviews.

This method requires three key components to provide value:

  • Ask the right type of questions: Frame open-ended questions that will encourage discovery.
  • Listen for opportunities: Avoid personal bias, but listen for trends that may point to inefficiencies or gaps with current offerings.
  • Apply design thinking: Brainstorm how your product or service can add new value to meet those needs.

The Guiding Question

I plan for user interviews by reviewing overall project objectives and stating what we hope to learn from the research in the simplest terms. This helps ensure stakeholders agree on the desired outcome of the research and guides the questions we will ask participants. For one recent client engagement, I was asked to envision a new online course delivery system for educators. My guiding question for the user interviews was: 

Q: How can we offer the quality learning experience that teachers get from our in-person professional development in an online medium?

You can see how this guiding question frames the types of things we want to find out in our interviews: What makes a professional development experience valuable? What do teachers do in person that they can’t do online now?

The Warm-Up

With the objective of the interviews defined, it’s time to draft the interview questions. I like to begin with a warm-up question that will get participants to tell me a little about their background as it relates to the subject matter we plan to cover. Starting with an easy question allows a participant to ease into the conversation and gives me a sense of whether they tend to talk freely or require encouragement to expand on a thought. For our teacher interviews, the warm-up question could be:

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what you teach and the school where you work?

Phrasing Your Questions

One of the most important aspects of the interview script is how the questions are phrased. Positioning questions the right way helps you avoid spending an hour of your time with one of these personalities:

  • Conversation Non Grata: a participant who responds with only one to three word answers, such as: “Yes”, “No”, “It Depends”, or “I’m not sure”
  • The Pleaser: a participant who tells you what they think you want to hear, instead of what they really think
  • The Wolf: much like Harvey Keitel’s character who fixes the Bonnie Situation in Pulp Fiction, The Wolf fixates on solving the problem by designing your product or service for you

To avoid these pitfalls, I frame questions that:

  • Get participants talking in their own words. If the topic we’re going to discuss is vague, I ask them to define what it means to them. Instead of putting words into their mouths, I ask open-ended questions that allow them to reveal their likes and dislikes on their own terms.
  • Ask participants to recall real experiences from their lives that immerse them “in the moment” as I ask follow-up questions. While this relies on their ability to recall things from memory, which can sometimes be flawed, it does more to reveal opportunities for improvement than presenting solutions and asking them to react to a planned set of features.
  • Avoid bias or leading responses based on preconceived notions. Instead of asking things like “What would you like the website to…” I opt for terms like “When making your decision, what resources were important when…”

This allows you to gather insight on user needs so you can brainstorm solutions later to meet those needs.

Lead Questions and Follow-Ups

Unlike usability test scripts where the goal is to evaluate or measure performance of an existing product, user interview scripts aimed at generating new ideas should be flexible and allow for improvisation. By organizing the script into sections, each with a lead question and a series of follow-ups, I can choose to ask for more detail or skip topics based on what participants are saying. For our teacher interviews, one lead question might be: 

Q: How does professional development happen in your school or district?

Depending on how participants respond to the lead question, one or more probing questions could be asked as needed:

Q: How do you learn about professional development opportunities?
Q: Is there someone who develops the plan or provides information?
Q: Why do you refer to those sources?
Q: Do you confer or network with peers in your school, district, other?

Identify Opportunities and Brainstorm Solutions

To answer our guiding question for the teacher interviews, I asked: Can you tell me about a recent professional development experience that you felt was valuable? Based on what they shared, I used follow-up questions to better understand what they liked most about that experience and anything that could have improved it.

Once the interviews were completed, I analyzed the interview transcripts by writing out key motivators on stickies and grouping them into themes on a wall. Taking a step back and looking at the results, it was clear that no online learning experience delivered the value that these offline experiences provided. These themes, or opportunities, easily transitioned into the design principles for a new online learning system. As we prioritized features and designed key interactions, we knew which gaps we needed to fill in current elearning offerings in order to provide teachers with a quality learning experience online.


Learn More

User interviews are just one qualitative user research method; ideally you’ll use multiple methods throughout your project based on your goals.


Interviews, diary studies, or field studies may be best to generate new ideas and better understand user needs/goals. Surveys or database analysis may help inform or validate other research you’ve conducted. Card sorting and prototype testing can help flesh out the navigation system or labels for your new site. Visit to read more about research methods or attend Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive for an in-depth workshop.