Using in-depth interviews
In-depth interviews help you learn more about different types of users, their circumstances, how they use a service and what they need from it to get the right outcome for them.
When to use in-depth interviews
In-depth interviews are helpful when you want to:
- learn more about your users and relevant aspects of their lives and work
- get a deeper understanding of any problems that users tell you about
You can combine in-depth interviews with moderated usability testing by talking to participants before asking them to try out a prototype or service.
Steps to follow
Plan your in-depth interviews carefully so you get results that can help improve your service.
Plan the sessions
You normally do in-depth interviews with one user at a time. You can also speak to people in pairs or small groups if they use a service together (for example, family members who help each other or members of a team who work together on tasks).
Interviews can take between 30 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the complexity of the subject and number of questions you have. Longer interviews will give you more detail but make it harder to recruit participants.
When planning your sessions, you’ll need to:
- choose a location for your research - interviews can take place almost anywhere, including a user’s home or workplace, at a neutral place like a research studio, café or public library, or remotely by phone or video call
- recruit research participants - these should be current or likely users of the service you’re researching
- make sure the venue is accessible to the people you want to see
- arrange for interpreters or assistants to help participants that need them
- decide if and how you want to record the sessions
- invite observers and arrange a note-taker for each session
Design the interview
To create a structure that works well:
- review the research questions you’re trying to answer
- think about any processes or technology you want to see
- write a list of the topics you want to cover
- order the topics to create a logical flow
For each topic:
- write starter questions to introduce the topic
- add possible follow-up questions you might ask to learn more
- test your questions and structure by interviewing a colleague - revise any questions that aren’t clear and re-order your topics if the interview doesn’t flow well
Once you’re happy, create a ‘discussion guide’. This should include:
- your introduction script - this tells the participant who you are, explains the research and reminds them about things like recording
- the interview topics, including starter and follow-up questions instructions for any activities
- a planning checklist to make sure you’ll have everything you need on the day
You can use your discussion guide to:
- stay on track during interviews
- make sure interviewers cover the same topics so participants have a consistent experience
- review interview sessions with your team
- maintain a record of what you do in this round of research
Do the interview
Once you’ve started the session and the participant is settled:
- get the participant’s informed consent
- run through your introduction script
- start with a few general questions to help the participant relax - for example, ask them about their journey or to tell you about their job
- take time to adjust to their conversation pace and style
Think about your discussion guide and get participants talking with open, neutral questions like:
- how do you…?
- what are the different ways you…?
- what do you think about…?
Encourage them to give more detail with simple follow-up questions like:
- you said… when/why/who was that?
- can you tell me more about…?
- in what way…?
During the interview:
- focus on stories and real examples - avoid generalities and talking about how things ‘should’ happen
- make sure you really listen - show the participant you’re interested in what they’re saying
- make sure you understand what the participant has said - ask follow-up questions if you’re not sure
- don’t change the flow of the interview abruptly - if a participant goes off topic, wait for a natural break and gently bring them back to what you want to talk about
- try to stay quiet - the more you talk, the less your participant will talk
- don’t stick to your discussion guide rigidly - let the conversation develop naturally and be prepared to dig into any new and interesting issues that come up
After the interview
Reserve some time at the end of the session to:
- ask follow-up questions about anything the participant said that you didn’t clearly understand
- check if the participant has any final thoughts about the things you’ve discussed
Once you’ve finished:
- thank the participant for their time and what they’ve helped you learn
- explain what will happen with your research
- ask the participant what they thought of the session, so you can improve next time
If you’ve finished for the day:
- make sure any personal data you’ve collected (on paper or in recordings) is stored securely
- pack away your equipment (use your planning checklist)
Examples and case studies
Learn more about in-depth interviewing by finding out:
- how a GOV.UK team designed a ‘research cycle’ to support their evolving research need
- how a team researching webchat for GOV.UK based their discussion guides on earlier research with specific user groups
You may also find these guides useful:
- Published by:
- User research community
- Last update:
Guidance first published