My All-Time Favorite Opening Question for User Interviews

June 19, 2020 Amanda White

I love a long-form user interview. On any project, I attend as many as possible. I voraciously gobble up the insights that come from talking to real live end users, and pounce at the opportunity to go deeper when I hear an intriguing nugget of wisdom. Clients who initially push back at the idea, claiming it will be a waste of time to ask things we “already know,” invariably become converts after seeing our product team in action, using open-ended questions to validate or invalidate our assumptions.

We usually start by seeking an overall view of what the person’s job entails. In other words, we are basically asking a more polite version of, “I know you’re a VP of product engineering, but, what do you actually do?” This sets the stage for the interview and can even give us early insight into user needs we hadn’t previously been tracking.

After conducting and observing countless interviews, I’ve decided that my favorite opening question isn’t one of the usual suspects (e.g., “Tell me about your role” or “What does a typical day look like for you?” or “How long have you been a procurement specialist?)” but something a little bit different: What do you love about your job?

I’m using “job” in this example, but it can be reworded to fit products that aren’t work-related as well.

Here’s why I love this question as an opener:

It reveals the why behind the what

When users start talking about what they care about at work, they immediately reveal to you the  why of what they do. I’ve never had anyone cite the meetings and paperwork that probably makes up a large portion of their day, but they will speak to the value they are providing their customers or their colleagues. The more we focus on this value, the more we can help them cut out any friction preventing them from creating it.

It’s easy to answer

When you ask a user what their day-to-day looks like, you’ll often get a lot of “It depends” and “There is no typical day!” followed by a stilted list of tasks they do somewhat frequently. Employees may also feel like they have to explain where their time goes, which can make them uncomfortable and hesitant to share. On the other hand, most people will speak readily and eloquently to what they appreciate about their position. You can often get at the same type of data—such as what the purpose of their role is and where their attention goes—as you would if you asked them those questions directly.

It gets them talking

Interviews in which users give one-word answers are less productive than those in which they open up, speak their minds, or think aloud. You need to break the ice, especially if they’re nervous. Nothing gets a user—or anyone, for that matter—talking like asking them about something they’re passionate about. Even if they aren’t deeply passionate about their job overall, getting them to focus on the part of it they find most engaging will produce a better conversation than having them talk about the more tedious aspects of their day-to-day.

It puts them in a good mood

Focusing on the positive aspects of their job makes interviewees feel happy, which is a great way to kick off a discussion. And many users will reveal that what they love most is helping others, which means they will be starting off the interview in a benevolent mindset, ready to be helpful to you as well.

For me, it’s that healthy dose of positivity that makes the biggest difference. I want my users to be happy—both when they’re talking to me and when they’re using my product!

Thumbnail image courtesy of Dylan Gillis on Unsplash



About the Author

Amanda White

Amanda White is a senior product manager at Tanzu Labs in Boston. Her tech career was born out of the need for a website for her Paris-based band in the early aughts, which was realized as a Geocities site that Amanda coded by hand in Microsoft Notepad. (It had frames.) She went on to write a long-lived tech column for Classical Singer Magazine and eventually transitioned out of the music business via a Master’s degree in technical writing from Utah State University. Upon returning to the Boston area (where she had previously lived while earning her Bachelor’s degree in Opera from The Boston Conservatory), Amanda threw herself into the software industry through business analysis and personnel management in the medical, library information science, and hospitality industries. A resident of “Witch City” Salem, Mass., Amanda fronts a rock band, travels obsessively, and still sings the occasional opera in her spare time.

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