Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal

Suitable for: Beginners to more experienced researchers

Every day we meet people and talk to them. Sometimes we just exchange pleasantries, sometimes we talk about whatever’s happening in our lives…  If you are good at talking to people you may think that interviewing people shouldn’t be a problem, but here’s the thing – interviewing is not the same thing. When interviewing somebody you are talking to him or her, but with the intention of achieving a goal. No matter what that goal might be, you need to know how to conduct a proper interview.

Interviewing Users

Since interviewing is not an exact science, I was intrigued how Interviewing Users could help me be a better interviewer. Even when you follow directions in a recipe a meal can turn out bad or different from somebody else who followed the same directions. It is the same with interviewing.  It can’t be reduced to a set of rules. This is what Steve Portigal promises:

…this book will guide you in the process of planning and executing a successful user research study. This book provides dome very detailed best practices for studying people, and it encourages you to reflect on your own points of view.

As an interviewer we are just a ‘medium’ so we need to be professional and in a way invisible. And, by invisible, I don’t mean to pretend that you are not there ☺, just not to bring up your personal beliefs or biases or anything that can influence the interviewed person’s opinion. Human ego is fragile and very often you can see that even when someone asks you a question about you, they really just want to talk about themselves. To avoid this you must be aware of yourself and your behavior. Steve Portigal describes his framework as a starting point in creating your own approach by taking your own personality into the equation.


You don’t start cooking and then read what the ingredients are. You would make sure that you have everything you need and then started cooking. It is the same with interviewing. Good preparation is essential. You don’t want to approach the user and say ‘Hello’ without thinking why and how you want to talk to them. You need to make sure you have everything you need (e.g. legal forms that need signing, …). If you aren’t a one (wo)man band then roles of each member of the team must be agreed on in advance. And remember, you are dealing with humans so everything is possible. Good interview can not only give you answers to question you had prepared, but can give you much more than you were asking or bargaining for.

Interviewing can be used to help identify what could be designed, to help refine hypotheses about a possible solution that is being considered, or to guide the redesign of an existing product that is already in the marketplace.

Throughout the book Steve Portigal gives advice and examples of how to conduct an interview. What I especially liked is that he didn’t show only the sunny side but he also gave attention to situations that are not so ideal or comfortable. If you have a recording (audio or video) of the interview you can always review it later and use Steve Portigal’s advice to be better next time. After you are finished with the interview the story doesn’t end there. The whole purpose of the interview is to get some information. That information needs to be transferred to other members of the team. Even if you are a team of one it is good to perform an analysis and synthesis of the interview – impressions, what you have heard, how everything relates to each other. The actual process of writing an interview report is itself a crucial step. It is not about writing a perfect report as it is about thinking about all these little things as you are creating it.


This book is a good starting point for a beginner as it gives you a sense of what to consider when conducting an interview. For somebody who has already done some interviews, I don’t think it will be a boring book either. For each step in conducting a proper interview we receive good tips and pointers on what we should pay attention to and which area we should work on to be better. It is not a long book and don’t worry, you won’t be faced with dry theory.

Steve Portigal gives technical advice (e.g. finding participants, recording the interview, ..), introduces soft skills (e.g. awareness of body language) and warns about social aspects (e.g.  how to behave in somebody’s home). Also, while describing the process, you get a sense of which tools you need immediately and which you should invest in in the long run and why. Remember that reading this book will not instantly make you a good interviewer. It’s up to you to practice. Remember, practice makes delicious meals 🙂



squirrel-512Reviewed by Ana Maravić

Ana has over a decade of experience in enterprise software development. She is an independent consultant wetting her toes in UX/IA, reading books like crazy and eating tons of chocolate.
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