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4 Tips For Asking Better Questions In Product Design Research

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It’s no surprise that asking questions are a big part of product design research, as with all other types of researches as well. I’ve seen time and time again how the product design research done was unable to live up to its full potential of providing stellar insights and hence, unable to shape the product such that it has the best product/market fit. And this unfortunate outcome stems from the most basic element of research: asking the right questions.

A handful of students from my Introduction to User Experience (UX) Design class were keen to learn more about validating the products they were building through user research which inspired me to write this post. There are 2 instances where you formulate a list of questions during the discovery phase of the product design and development process:

  1. Creative brief or product design document: This set of questions are introspective in nature and give us a frame of reference for the decisions we are about to make as a product designer.
  2. User interview guide/checklist: This set helps us validate our product hypotheses or uncover more insights with our users.

Asking better questions during the product design process is key to minimising waste and maximising the success of your product in the market. Better questions often lead to better insights. And better insights lay the right foundation for better products.

The suggestions shared below focuses on the situation of interviewing users, though it could work in product discussions when building a common understanding of the product vision with the team. I share these learnings from years of working as a journalist where I wrote better stories as well as a user researcher where I built better products and communities.

Why face to face user interviews? It is efficient. Unlike mass surveys, which require a meaningful sample size, user interviews gather a snapshot of qualitative insights equivalent to longer anthropological studies.

1. Start with why

Without understanding the why of each question, we won’t know if our questions have been answered. Knowing the why of each question also helps us to determine if answers are on point. The following is a non-exhaustive list of questions we could ask users one at a time:

Descriptive: Could you walk me through your purchase decision as a customer? (Expect an experience-based answer shared as a story)

Intuitive: What frustrates you the most during the purchase process? (Watch for shifts in emotional tone and facial expression)

Validation-driven: Does this product solve the problem you just described in the specific situation? (Yes/No. Why not?)

Data-driven: How often would you hire this product to get the job done? (Frequency based response) or On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely will you recommend this product to a friend? (Metric based response)

Comparative: What are the pros and cons of a competitor’s product?

Open-ended: If I were to give you a magic wand to change anything in this product what will you change?

2. Give context

Not every user understands the background of the issues at hand or why they were chosen for the interview. Without context, a series of questions can seem like interrogation and put users on the defensive.

A better approach is to be as transparent as possible to users and share that the answers they offer would not be judged or used against them.

A helpful mantra to bear in mind is: “More openness leads to more trust. More trust leads to more openness.”

3. Reframe in plain language

Speaking in the language of the user puts them at ease and helps them communicate fully. Speaking in their language means using terms and analogies they are familiar with in a language they are comfortable in communicating.

When conducting user interviews in Hong Kong, we quickly realise there was expressive cues and slangs we miss out when the user answered in Cantonese vs English. In countries where English is not a native language, I had experiences where I had to repeat my questions slowly or use a familiar analogy to guide users e.g. food preparation.

4. Avoid making assumptions, stereotyping or leading questions

Leading questions by nature limit how users can answer the question. Going into a user interview carrying assumptions and stereotypes hinders listening; we risk not being objective by filtering out responses or misinterpreting important observations.

Part of my pre-interview ritual is to imagine a blank sheet of paper which I seek to fill with answers and observations by the end of the interview. I would often delve deeper on a given answer with curiosity to make sure I’m recording a user’s explanation and not my own assumptions.

The last thing to note is that we shouldn’t limit the type of questions we ask due to known technical constraints. During the discovery phase, gathering as much insights as possible will help to uncover unmet user needs and build a backlog of ideas. These insights can then be translated into product features and categorised using the MoSCoW method. e.g. The must have of a bicycle (or its Minimum Viable Product) is a platform that bears the weight of the user and wheels that make forward motion more efficient. If we were to visualise it, this could be a skateboard or unicycle.

The suggestions above are also applicable to service design though additional consideration should be given to the possibilities of immersing our five senses; mainly non-capacitive touch (e.g. texture), smell and light/sound ambience.

Further reading:

Michael Margolis (UX Research Partner of Google Ventures wrote a Medium post on finding and screening participants for your user research study which has helpful advice. Margolis also gave 16 tips in conducting user interviews which dive into some of the nuances when interviewing in person; establishing trust and comfort is critical and the environment plays a role.