How to ask the right questions?

Talking to users and hearing their thoughts, joys and dissatisfactions are one of the most remarkable and inspiring experiences as a product designer.

User interview is just conversations within the mindful intention. To have insightful talks, you need to learn how to ask the right questions. Under are a few tips.

Avoid bad questions

There are three types of wrong questions that you should try to avoid: vague, negative and compound questions.

Firstly, the vague questions, which have no focus and are often too broad to answer effectively. For example, “What do you think about the modern world?”

The second one is negative questions, which are usually confusing and overly complicated locutions, such as ”Am I not wrong in assuming that you didn’t have a great experience with our customer service?”

The final one is compound questions, which are many questions combined into one, and the respondent tend to forget one half of it right after you finished! For example “How do you think about the recent LGBT campaigns, and why should we legalize same-sex marriage?”

Ask neutral and open-ended questions.

To get honest answers from a user interview is formulating your questions as carefully as possible. Neutrality is a watchword here. When you ask a leading question like “Do you like this?”, participants may feel compelled to give a positive or negative Yes/No answer without explaining their actual thoughts in clear-cut.

Let’s reframe it to “How do you think about this?” are much more neutral and opening. It encourages participants to comment and the “Why” behind it.

Questions that start with Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How to produce the best answers.

Repeat and Reframe

It’s a tip to uncover more information by asking the same story twice by repeat what the participant just said or reframe the previous question.

For example, this is a sample conversation between my friend and me 👩‍🌾, who is working on an innovative product.

  • 😀 When do you think it will be ready for release?
  • 👩‍🌾 Within 3 months, definitely
  • 😀 wow, only 3 months? (repeat)
  • 👩‍🌾 Yea, 3 months. I want to test with an MVP model in the market 1st
  • 😀 So can I book you in for a stand-in April to launch your product? (reframe)
  • 👩‍🌾 We might not out for Beta testing by April, and we’re still waiting on the patent confirmation

With two simple techniques Repeat & Reframe, I can discover a few more pieces of information.

Follow-up questions

Similar to repeat and reframe, follow-up questions is a simple technique to show you’re actively listening and uncovering more details.

  • Why is that?
  • When did you notice that?
  • How do you do that?
  • How come you feel that way?
  • What’s an example of that?
  • What’s the reason for that?
  • That’s interesting. Tell me more.

Storytelling questions

This method collects insightful and lengthy answer by asking users to tell you about their past (or imaginative) experience in a specific context, which helps to learn how users think from start to end.

Template for imaginative context.

  • Imagine you [set up the context and environment]. How would you [do something]
  • Tell me how you would [do something] on [circumstance]?
  • Can you demonstrate how you use [feature]?
  • When you [are in this situation], how do you get started?

Template for chronologically recount events from their life:

  • Tell me about the last time you [doing something]. What did you do first?
  • When you planned your last vacation, how did you get started?
  • Please walk me through a typical day at work, from when you arrive to when you leave.

Five whys

Don’t be afraid to ask “Why?” several times to get to the root of a problem. (And of course, it’s okay to ask more than five times.)

Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem.

When asked, most people quickly identify some solutions: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift. These suggestions fall into what I call a solution space: a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about what the problem is — in this case, that the elevator is slow. (source here)

  • Question 1: Why the tenants complain about the elevator?
    Because it’s too old and slow, they need to wait a lot.
  • Question 2: Why waiting is a problem?
    Because they’re in a hurry or feel annoying
  • Question 3: In case they’re not in a hurry, why they feel annoying?
    Because they feel wasting of time, they want to do something productive.
  • Question 4: Why would installing a stronger motor can solve a problem while it just a few mins faster?
    Hmm, it may not. But waiting creates anxiously, and maybe we could do something to keep people busy.
  • Question 5: Why they want to keep people busy?
    Time flies faster when you’re busy on something. Thus, you won’t feel annoying anymore.

Till this point, you uncover more possibilities and cheaper solutions rather than upgrading the elevator. What can help to kill time? Maybe a mirror (people love to look at themselves, it also helps to open the space), advertising screens (wow, can make some money) or playing music?

source here

Whenever you’re working with a problem, take time to brainstorm the best questions. That’s because it’ll impact the quality of the root cause you’ll end up with.

Personal touch

Remember that a conversation is a two-way exchange. Therefore, to get the most information out of someone, put yourself in their shoes and talk in their language.

For instance, when you interview a car driver, make sure you learn some common knowledge and terminology, it’s better not to stop them and ask “What is ABS?”

Well, there is no harm to be a “stalker” sometimes. Before the interview section, I tend to study participants’ profiles a bit to get a sense of who they are and what they like. So we could build a better connection at the introduction part of the interview.

Another critical aspect is knowing your participant’s personality type; it helps you at posing questions better. Some people like to deliver their personal opinion as facts (and you may be blurred if you don’t fully understand that particular area.) While certain people don’t like to be interrogated and perceive as intrusive when you try to dig deeper in root causes. In this case, avoid direct questions and reform to something likes these:

  • Tell me about… / Describe a time…/ Share with me…
  • Talk some more about…
  • Please help me to understand how…
  • Explain what you see here…
  • Could you show me what you would do next?

If you have more tips or questions about user research, please feel free to share a comment! :)



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Anh Pham (AP)

Anh Pham (AP)

Product Designer. I believe joy exists in simple forms, so does design. I’m studying joys for a living.