3 ways I’ve kept my interviewees talking

Because not all interview subjects can recall their experiences as eloquently as Hannah Baker in “13 Reasons Why”.

When your interviewees clam up, don’t shrug… shuck!

During the user research phase of UX design projects, there were times when I’ve followed the advice to ask open-ended questions but still got one-word answers. Or worse, a shrug.


My heart starts pounding and I ask the next question on my list in my attempt to keep the interview going. It doesn’t work. I’ve got to wing it. I got this! In fact, I’ve got five ways to deal with such a situation:

This is a technique I learned from my course in counselling. When your interviewee says “I dunno” or shrugs, probe for a more elaborate answer by saying “Suppose you know?” This will usually prompt the interviewee to work harder in giving you more information. Though it sounds like we’re asking the interviewee to imagine a situation, it is actually quite effective in prompting them to recall a scenario from memory. Another variation of this question is, “What if you knew?”


Me: What do you like about eating at home?
Subject: I don’t know
Me: Suppose you know?
Subject: I suppose… it’s healthier?
Me: Why do you think it’s healthier?

Have you ever experienced someone repeating what you just said, verbatim, expressing shock or disbelief? This was something I’ve done unconsciously during interviews. The results were surprisingly positive. Somehow, I elevated the mood of the interview with my unexpected dramatic overreaction. My interviewees elaborated on what was just said to quell my disbelief. Come to think of it, this is similar to what I’ve done as a journalist — reading the transcription back to the interviewee to confirm that I’ve got the quotation correct. Usually, the interviewee will clarify the statement in an attempt to make the point clearer.


Subject: I use the same mechanic because he’s cute.
Me: Because he’s cute?!
Subject (smiling): Not only that. His workshop is near my home.
Me: Tell me more.
Subject: I’ve been using him for years because…

One of the techniques in solution-focused therapy in the field of counselling is to ask the exception question, which is intended for clients to recall and identify with times when things have been different, or even positive, for them. An example might be, “Tell me about the times you felt really happy.” As it is my experience that people (myself included) are better at finding fault than giving compliments, I usually have more success at getting my interviewees to talk about a negative experience. So instead of asking something like, “What are some of the best experiences you’ve had with online shopping?”

Me: Tell me about a time when your online order was messed up.
Subject: I called the hotline. Complained on Facebook.
Me: What else?
Subject: Sent them email.
Me: How did it make you feel?
Subject: Pissed. Helpless…

Even if you’ve followed the rule book to ease your interview subjects with warm-up questions and assure them that they won’t be judged for their opinions, there will be times when your interviewees are reticent. Whatever the reasons why you are not establishing a rapport with your subjects, just keep trying and treat it as a learning experience. In my experience, you may have to use closed-ended questions to get the conversation going, something like, “Does that make sense?”

Feel free to correct or educate me by tweeting me @cheehuat

I would like my next iteration to be a ‘UX Researcher/Content Creator’. Let me know if I’m ready for it by taking a look at my website. Thanks.

“If change is the only constant, then 'constantly changing' is tautologous.” says me as a content creator