Words and Stuff

Volunteering for UX Research Interviews

February 16, 2023
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6 min read

Over the course of my UX education, I have volunteered for over 50 UX research interviews and counting.

Here are some of the benefits and lessons I've learned to help me be a better interviewer.
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Part of the UX education involves writing survey questions and conducting interviews, usability tests, and the like. Some students will hit up their friends and family for interviews, and some will seek out their peers. Initially, I fell into the former, too shy to ask strangers for help. Then I watched the requests come in on the Discord channels: “I need interview subjects! I’ll do yours if you do mine!” And that’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it take some of the pressure off if folks volunteered without needing something in return?

Here I’m going to discuss both the benefits of participating in interviews and some basic suggestions for conducting interviews and tests. Let’s talk about the benefits of volunteering first.

Benefits of Voluntary Interviews

Karma: Ok, there’s no scientific basis for this and no educational benefit, but it’s a nice thought that what goes around comes around.

Insights: Volunteering for students further along in the program is a great way to see what it is to come. If they are good interviewers, it’s a great way to see what they’re doing right and adopt it for your own future interviews. And if there’s extra time they are usually happy to field questions. Sometimes they are already working in the field and can tell you about their experience. Now that I’m often the one further along in the program, I get to pass along some of my favorite insights and help people out in a similar way.

Break Up The Day: A good UX curriculum can be rigorous. You’ll need breaks. This is a great way to take a break from the project you’re working on, but remain in the UX sphere.

Networking: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just plain bad at networking. And when I started volunteering for interviews, I didn’t think of it as networking. Maybe that’s what makes it the best kind of networking.

An aside about Networking: There’s this idea that you need to keep meeting more and more people because eventually you’ll meet someone who can do something for you. I’m going to suggest the opposite.

Make it about what you can offer someone else.

If you want to see your world improve (not just your career), try giving more than you take. Not all day, everyday (you’ll burn out), but in general be asking yourself what you can bring to a situation. After all, isn’t that the kind of person you would want to work with? 

Rewards: This is a bad reason to volunteer, but a sometimes unexpected benefit. The first time this happened I was shocked to find a small gift card in my e-mail and assured my interviewer that it was appreciated, but wholly unnecessary. The second time I knew the interviewer was offering an incentive, but politely declined. She assured me it wasn’t coming out of her pocket and it was being funded by the company with which she was contracted. So that’s cool. 

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Suggestions for Interviews and Moderated Tests

Set Aside Enough Time: Your interview takes longer to conduct than you think. There’s probably an instinct to play down the time it takes because we feel someone is more likely to volunteer for a quick interview versus a longer one. If it legitimately takes 10 minutes, I’m suspicious that you asked enough questions. Have you conducted an interview yet? How do you know how long it takes? If you give me an open-ended question, I may elaborate at some length. And if I do, you should be on the lookout for additional insights.

Hit Record/Take Notes/Checklist: Totally guilty. Remember to ask permission to record even if they’ve already agreed. Then after you get permission, actually click the button.

Get To Know Your Participant: Sometimes this is a vibe you have to feel out, but I feel more comfortable if someone asks me a little about myself first and has time to talk a little before or after the interview. Budget this into your time. You can find out a lot in 5 minutes.

Do Not Be A Robot: Know your script/questions well enough to be natural. I’ve had people introduce themselves and we’re getting to know each other. Then they start the interview: “Hi, I’m Katie and I’ll be interviewing you about cooking habits today.” Hi, Katie. Did we just go back in time five minutes before you introduced yourself?

Be Professional:  I'll mention a few bullet points here, but this list is not all inclusive.

  • Don't Eat: Maybe your attention is on me, but now I'm wondering why you have a candy bar and I don't.
  • Be well rested/healthy: If you're yawning all the time, I feel like I'm boring you. Are you sick? Reschedule and get better. That's always a judgement call. If you've just got a bit of sniffles or a tiny cough, it's no big deal. Do you sound like death? Reschedule. I promise your subject will understand. 
  • Be connected: This isn't always under our control and I certainly understand that we're all beholden to the internet access points we have. However, if you think it would be fun to conduct your interview at the local coffee shop and you've never tested a web cam call there, maybe pick a location that is more likely to work.

Be Respectful Of Their Time: You might not have anything scheduled after the interview, but your subject might. Maybe you want to discuss the curriculum a bit or you’ve found other common ground. It’s good to ask, “Do you have some extra time to talk about ___?” so that they don’t feel like they are being held hostage. 

Space Out Interviews: It’s tempting to get a lot of these done in a day, but just recently I experienced a real drain where I did four back to back Zoom calls over a course of two and a half hours. Figure out your own limit, but I would guess for every back-to-back call you have, it’s good to have 30-45 minutes to recover between. It’s given me a newfound respect for any profession that has appointments scheduled all day.

Keep A Log: Whether I am volunteering for an interview or conducting one, I keep track of all my appointments. At a minimum I write down who, what, and when. Sometimes I write down other notes of interest. This has proved to be useful in a couple ways. First, if someone reaches out to me again and I'm totally blanking on how I know them, I can look up what we talked about to jog my memory. Second, if I need a participant for a future interview the notes I made often let me know if someone in my existing network is a good fit for an interview. I try my best to get volunteers first, but it helps to know who you can ask directly.

Do you have other observations about being a participant in UX interviews? Let me know!


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