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Conduct Interviews and Observations

How can we learn from users about experiences, thoughts, behaviors, and actions?


User research is a key element to the Immerse phase. Conduct user research to learn from users about experiences, thoughts, behaviors, and actions so you can to deeply understand and empathize with them. The best place to learn this information is from users themselves! Your team will look for stories, quotes, and key moments to use in synthesizing your research.

Effective ways to do this include:

  1. Download this Interview and Observation 1-pager for your teams to use.
  2. Set up a meeting with a user and/or a community partner. Or set up an observation at a location related to your stakeholders
  3. Prep for your interview/observation:
    • Notepad, pen, camera, photo release forms, curious mind willing to listen and be patient, prepped question
  4. Conduct interview/observation. Document everything!
    • See below for best practices and techniques.
  5. Set up another meeting with the user to test later in the project
  6. Have 2+ new ways of looking at your problem space from your research!
    • Debrief with your team right away when thoughts are fresh!

Observe the challenge you are tackling!

Observing users gives your team a chance to see behaviors and interactions first-hand. Oftentimes there is a difference between how people say they act and how they actually act, and observation can help you uncover some of those moments. Techniques to try include:

  • Fly-on-the-wall - Observing from a distance so as to not interfere with the normal behavior or flow of spaces or users.
  • Shadowing - Closely following a user or group of users through a specific experience or routine.
  • Participatory - Team members personally experience a user’s process or place in the field. Doing so allows your team to observe more of a user’s normal environment and any stakeholders they interact with.
  • Observations Online - Social networks and blogs provide user generated content. Observing or participating in these discussions could help you identify what matters most to your users. 

Conduct interviews

Interviews are sessions where your team asks users and stakeholders questions in order to understand their feelings or motivations. Interviews can be short and informal or prepared and scheduled. They can also happen in a variety of media from in-person conversations to video chats or phone calls.

For all interviews, best practices include:

  • Build rapport - begin the interview in a friendly manner to learn about who they are as a person and for them to feel comfortable.
  • Ask open-ended questions - avoid yes or no questions, prepare your interview with questions that let your users open up.
  • Elicit stories/emotion - people love telling stories and you can learn a lot from them.
  • Ladder - Continuously asking users for the “why” behind certain remarks they make to uncover less obvious answers or values.
  • Don’t ask leading questions - say things like ‘How does that make you feel?” not “Does that make you feel upset?”
  • Be specific - ask about specific instances, “Tell me how you got to school last Thursday.” Instead of “tell me how you get to school.”
  • Define interview roles - you should have a team member asking the questions and a team member taking notes at all interviews. Without a dedicated note-taker you will most likely miss important things!

Collect Artifacts

In all techniques also look for user generated artifacts to support your research, such as day planners that doctors use or pictures of a child’s favorite toys.  These artifacts can give you great in-context, and firsthand insight into the how users experience a certain challenge area.

Network Best Practices

Observe the user going through the challenge you are tackling like DFA RISD|Brown

DFA RISD|Brown participated in the 2014 FCA sponsored project on driving as accessible as possible for teenagers of all physical abilities. The team shadowed and recorded their user getting on the car and adjusting her seat. Make sure to get permission to record from the user beforehand.

Invite users to participate and tell their needs like DFA Oregon

DFA Oregon used a public participatory installation for one of their user research techniques. They drew a map and encouraged the University of Oregon community to draw a red dot on places where they don’t feel safe on campus. The team used this user research to further their project.

Become the fly on "the wall" like DFA Northwestern

DFA Northwestern’s Summer Studio team conducted a Fly-on-the-Wall observation for their project. Their project was focused on decreasing the stigma of free meals and better children’s experience in Chicago’s local food programs. They visited each food hand-out sites and observed the interaction between the youth and the food program directors. They documented their process by taking pictures (with permission).

Conduct interviews like DFA Northwestern

DFA NU's Jerry the Bear talks about the importance of early user research and their early success in this video. (Yuri Malina, Hannah Chung, and Mert Iseri were all early members of both SwipeSense and Jerry the Bear!) 

Prepare interview questions beforehand like DFA UofI

DFA U of Illinois drafted interview questions for their 2014 FCA sponsored project. The team focused on redesigning car features to allow those with epilepsy the ability to drive confidently. The team started with building rapport then with asking specific instances of the user’s experience with commuting experience. Keep asking Why’s!

Potential Interview Questions for One User

How is your day going so far? (start with small talk)
When/How did you find out that you have seizure disorder?
Can you describe your commuting and traveling experience?
(Drives) What are some of your best and worst experiences while driving?
(Drives) How do you feel when you are driving?
(Cannot drive) Do you think you should be able to drive?...Why?...Why?...Why?
(Cannot drive) How do you get around?
Would you change the driving experience? How? Why would you make those changes?
Do you know anyone else who might be interested in contributing to this project?
Would you be willing to talk again in the future?


Collect artifacts from user research sessions like DFA Virginia Tech

DFA Virginia Tech worked on a project to immerse pre-K to 3rd graders into a reading culture back in 2012-2013. In their 2nd visit to a local program, the team gave the kids some activity sheets and asked them to fill them out. Way to collect artifacts!

User Stories
What quotes and stories were most surprising or interesting?

Research Clarity
What confused you about our research?

Research Next Steps
What specific direction(s) should we focus on as we explore further?