What are user in­ter­views and why are they im­por­tant?


It was the 1920s. The RKO the­atre stood tall and daz­zling in the neigh­bour­hood of Flushing, Queens. It was schmick with its pop­u­lar movies, trav­el­ling shows, a glam­orous in­te­rior with a sleek red car­pet that made you feel like every night was a spe­cial oc­ca­sion.

But no one came.


Families and farm­ers would walk on by with­out a sec­ond glance. The the­atre was falling fast and so the own­ers de­cided to bring on an in­dus­trial de­signer to help boost in­ter­est.

His name was Henry Dreyfuss.

When Dreyfuss came on board, he did what he thought the peo­ple wanted. He slashed movie prices, tripled the show­ings and gave away free food.

None of it worked.

Burdened with this prob­lem he paced the halls look­ing for an­swers till he landed in the the­atre lobby. Here, he over­heard some­one ex­press how afraid they were of mess­ing up such rich car­pet with their muddy shoes.

And then it clicked.

The neigh­bour­hood was home to a lot of work­men who would have found the ap­pear­ance of the plush red car­pet to ac­tu­ally be rather in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Within the next day Dreyfuss had the red car­pet re­placed with plain rub­ber mat­ting and one by one, peo­ple came in. Eventually crowds filled the the­atre and RKO be­came a his­toric land­mark where it still stands to­day.

In the the­atres case, the prob­lem was­n’t that they were lack­ing in their of­fer­ings. The prob­lem was that the the­atre was seen as “too nice” for its lo­ca­tion, and by ex­ten­sion, its cus­tomers.

Sometimes the prob­lem you have in mind to solve is­n’t ac­tu­ally the prob­lem at all. You would­n’t know if you did­n’t ask.

This is what de­sign think­ing is rooted in; the prac­tice of break­ing down a prob­lem and fo­cus­ing on why and who we are mak­ing it for, and less on what or how. It is about tak­ing the time to em­pathise with and un­der­stand some­one else’s life in an ef­fort to make it bet­ter.

User Interviews

Interviewing your users is an ap­proach to con­tin­u­ous learn­ing. It pro­motes the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the per­son and the prod­uct or ser­vice you are build­ing.

It asks us to en­gage with the peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence the very prob­lem we are try­ing to solve. The ap­proach bears the juici­est fruit when per­formed of­ten and dis­ci­plined through­out the cre­ation process, and even af­ter­wards. Like get­ting reg­u­lar health checks. It’s a good idea even if you’re feel­ing healthy - you get the re­as­sur­ance that every­thing is ok and the prompt if some­thing is not so ok.


How does user test­ing im­pact you?

When we ini­ti­ate the con­ver­sa­tion and cre­ate an open di­a­logue, we be­gin to un­der­stand more about what it is peo­ple ac­tu­ally need. This of­ten re­quires us to look past the some­times-ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion and dig deep to ar­tic­u­late how our users think and feel. Sometimes they might not even re­alise that was the prob­lem in the first place. Just like the red car­pet.

Integrating this process also as­sists with sav­ing time and sav­ing money. Two valu­able and in­dis­pens­able re­sources in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. When we spend time de­sign­ing the right prod­uct first, the rest comes much sim­pler and re­duces the risk of re-work. Get com­fort­able with mak­ing mis­takes now as you might find your­self pro­long­ing the in­evitable and end up ex­pend­ing more en­ergy do­ing so.

Imagine de­vot­ing your time to build­ing a prod­uct that users end up not want­ing or us­ing… then hav­ing to main­tain that prod­uct or build­ing it again. Not fun. It’s like cook­ing a huge pot of pasta, ex­cept every­one wanted pizza and now the pasta is over­cooked, so you end up hav­ing to eat it solo for din­ner 5 nights that week.


User in­ter­views is what sep­a­rates some­thing from be­ing use­less to use­ful, so long as its pur­pose stems from the user’s in­tent and fol­lows with clear func­tion­al­ity.

Ever heard of Canva?

Canva is a drag-and-drop on­line de­sign in­ter­face. They of­fer a web-based plat­form that al­lows users to ef­fort­lessly cre­ate vi­su­ally stun­ning con­tent.

After launch­ing their ser­vice, they dis­cov­ered that a lot of users be­gan cre­at­ing some­thing but ended up aban­don­ing it. The team set out to en­gage in some ex­ploratory re­search and user test­ing. They soon learnt that users of­ten had a pre­con­ceived no­tion that they were “not cre­ative enough” and left feel­ing de­jected.

Through these ses­sions they learnt just how im­per­a­tive the first mo­ments when us­ing a de­sign tool are for em­pow­er­ing the user. They needed to be en­cour­aged in their cre­ative abil­ity. So the team op­ti­mised the on­board­ing process and in­tro­duced in­ter­ac­tive chal­lenges and videos de­signed to build cre­ative con­fi­dence.

In just over two years, Canva grew to more than 10 mil­lion users. They at­tribute this feat to hav­ing in­cor­po­rated user feed­back early on in the prod­uct.

The ba­sics

To in­cor­po­rate this process in your way of work­ing, you’ll want to start with the foun­da­tions. This in­volves:

  • A list of goals,
  • Questions you want to ask,
  • People to talk to and above all,
  • An open mind.
Don’t be afraid to stay in the mud, for you might find gold… or your own plain rub­ber mat.

For a deep dive on how to per­form your own user in­ter­views and get the most out of it, check out our Way of Working.

Discover Software


Josephine Nguyen

User re­search ex­pert and strug­gling table golfer

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