7 Practical Ways to Build Rapport Quickly in User Research Interviews

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Tip 1: Call your participants the day before your interview to introduce yourself and review the appointment details.

Call your research participant the day before your interview to briefly introduce yourself and review the appointment details.

Seasoned researchers begin building rapport before their interviews even begin. A quick phone call to introduce yourself and review the appointment details is all it takes.

Say something like this:

“Hi, my name is Adam and I am the person who’ll be interviewing you tomorrow for the online wine shopping study that pays $100. Does tomorrow at 4 o’clock still work for you? Great. I’ll meet you at 555 Main Street in the lobby. You’ll be able to recognize me because I’ll be wearing a blue shirt and glasses. I also wanted to see if you had any questions about the study I could answer for you. No? Okay, well then I’m looking forward to meeting you tomorrow and hope you have a great day. See you tomorrow at 4! Bye.”

Do you see what I did there?

I allowed the person to hear my voice, so they understand I’m not just an anonymous bureaucrat asking to meet. In addition to making our interview the second occasion we get to speak, personally calling them also subtly communicates that our appointment is not something they can blow off or “forget about.”

I also confirmed our appointment and prevented any confusion about when and where we are meeting, as well as the the amount of the incentive.

I let them know how they could recognize me, giving them a little bit of power over me in the interaction.

I offered help in the form of answering any questions they may have.

And as I reconfirmed the important stuff, I also let them know I was looking forward to meeting them, showing them that I am interested in them.

Two minutes is all it takes, but calling the person you’ll be interviewing is so important to quickly creating rapport.

One exception to this is if you’ll be interviewing a coworker or business partner and you’ve sent them a calendar invite. In those cases, a call may be overkill. Use your best judgment.

Tip 2: Imagine you’re secretly playing the role of a therapist.

Mad Men character Betty Draper, lying on a couch in therapy session with psychiatrist

Therapists practice “validation” with their patients, which means they empathize with their patients’ problems and ways of seeing the world. As a researcher, this should be your frame of mind going into every interview.

Our goal as researchers is to learn from the people we interview.

The best way to learn from users is to get them to feel comfortable and accepted, like they’re speaking with someone who sees their perspective as rational and logical–like it makes sense. Like a therapist.

Tip 3: Remember to smile and sound natural.

While the first two tips are things you do before the interview begins, try to execute the remaining tips quickly — in the first five minutes of the interview.

It may sound silly, but some researchers are so nervous about doing a good job that they forget to smile. You’ll want to smile when you lock eyes for the first time and smile periodically throughout the interview to let them know you’re enjoying the conversation.

Part of showing that you’re enjoying the conversation is sounding natural. Reading questions off a sheet of paper can make you sound like a robot. Interviews are unnatural and contrived, but you don’t have to sound like that.

I know what I’m about to say is counter-intuitive, but it’s true: the best way to sound natural is to practice sounding natural.

When you’re preparing, practice reading each question out loud to yourself a few times to make sure you’re putting emphasis in the right words, and the right parts of the words.

Even though most of your questions have gone through several drafts of revisions, when you’re asking them out loud, each one should sound spontaneous.

Tip 4: Briefly set the scene and explain your role.

Briefly set the scene and explain your role in user interviews on UX design projects.

Right after you find each other and settle in, you should briefly describe the general goal of the research and the role you play in that process.

Even if you personally recruited and scheduled the person you are interviewing, they will still be hazy about the purpose of your interview.

Take a minute at the very start to introduce why you’re conducting the research, what you hope to learn from them, and why they should feel comfortable sharing their opinions with you.

Say something like this:

“I wanted to take a minute and explain the purpose of our research. We’re trying to learn how people shop for wine online, so we’re talking to people like you who have shopped for wine online. I also wanted to let you know a little about me. I am a researcher at Amazing Insights, and we’re a professional consulting firm who’s been hired to find out how people shop for wine online. I don’t have a horse in the race. So nothing you tell me will hurt my feelings. I really just enjoy talking with people and learning what they think.”

Even though the recruiter probably explained the purpose of the research, don’t assume they explained it clearly or accurately. And even if they did, the repetition will feel comforting to hear.

If you work for a research agency, the line about not having a horse in the race will work great at communicating that your feelings can’t be hurt if they say something critical about a brand. It establishes you as a non-judgmental observer.

If you work for the company you’re doing research for, tell them you don’t work as a designer or developer, and therefore don’t have a horse in the race. It will work just as well.

Tip 5: Explain the tools you’ll be using.

For many people you interview, this will be their first time at the qualitative research rodeo. They may have never seen a voice recorder and may not understand why you need to keep looking at your moderator guide.

You can alleviate their confusion by explaining all the tools you’ll be using.

Say something like this:

“I also wanted to explain all my tools for the interview. This is my interview moderator guide, and it’s just a list of questions I’ll be asking you. The questions will sound weird sometimes, but I’ve found that this is best way to ask them. You’ll see me looking at that a lot, but it’s not because I’m not interested in what you’re saying, it’s just me trying to keep track of my questions. I’ll also be taking notes in it occasionally. And this is my voice recorder. All it does is record audio, and it records the interview so it can be transcribed later. After it’s transcribed, I’ll use the transcript to write a report about our interview. And last is this, the informed consent form. It explains the purpose of our research and says you give me permission to record the interview and take pictures. Here, take a copy for yourself and take a moment to read it.”

Tip 6: Explain what you’ll do with the interview data — and what you won’t do.

7. Explain exactly what you’ll do with the interview data — and what you won’t do.

Digital privacy is on many people’s minds. Even if the person you’re interviewing seems warmed up at this point, you can warm them up even more by explaining exactly what you will do with their data and how you will protect it.

Say something like this:

“I also wanted to promise you that only a few people will ever hear the audio or see pictures (or video) from our interview today. We will keep all the audio and pictures private and we’ll never put it on YouTube or anything like that.”

Tip 7: Start out with icebreakers.

At this point, you’ve done most of the talking and the person you’ll be interviewing has only said a few words. You’ll want to get them warmed up and used to answering your questions, so start with some easy questions.

I usually begin interview by asking about the person’s household in general. Here’s a freebie:

“To begin, tell me a little about yourself and your household.”

Everyone is accustomed to questions about their occupation and family, and it’s the most normal-sounding question you’ll be asking. Note that you’ll want to say “household” and not “family” because many people live alone or with roommates, and you always want to sound judgement-free. Remember, you’re their to learn about them and you want to validate their personal experiences as normal and natural.

The second question I usually ask is also easy, but it focuses on their experience with the product category you’re investigating.

Say something like this:

“To begin, tell me a little about yourself and your household.”

Technically, this is a double-barreled question and something you’d want to avoid, but you can make an exception for this one because the first part is so general and provides a gentle transition to the second part, which is harder.

Category experience questions make great icebreakers, but remember to start with general questions before moving into more specific ones.

How about you?

What are your favorite tips for building rapport quickly in user interviews? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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