A guide to asking the right user research questions

February 26, 2020

User feedback is a vital input for product development. But to maximize the effectiveness of your user research, it's necessary to ask the right questions.

Before talking to your users, think about the overall objective of the research: What do you want to know? Do you want to find out if a certain feature is useful? Or are you trying to learn what problems the user is facing? At this point, focus on the overarching theme of your research, and not specific questions.

When you clearly define the objective of the research, you can easily work backward to craft out the right questions to get the answers that you require. Your research goals can look different depending on where in the process you're conducting it. For instance, you might want to do preliminary research before working on a feature to discover user intent and pain points. Or, you might want to do research after launch to learn how the new feature has been performing since release.

This article will provide some guidelines and examples of questions that you can ask to achieve different research goals.

Understanding user intent

The reason for using a particular feature can vary from user to user. Even if most people are using a feature, their reasons and end goal might differ. For example, Instagram’s Explore tab could be used to find friends, connect with people of similar interests, or look for inspiration. By knowing the different user intents, you might be able to discover certain unmet needs and potential opportunities for future product development.

Being aware of user intent is one thing, but really grasping the nuances of users’ intents and how they translate into design decisions is another. Some questions you could ask in this scenario are:

  • Why are you using this feature?
  • What problems are you trying to solve?
  • Does this feature help solve your problem?
  • What tools were you using before to solve this issue (if any)?

To support the design decisions behind any solution, you must be familiar with your audience and the problem that they are trying to solve. It’s okay not to know everything about your users, but you should try to understand the nuances of the problem you’re solving. If Instagram didn’t know that people are using the Explore feature to look for inspiration, and only showed potential friends in the tab, it would probably have resulted in a decreased engagement rate.

Uncovering the users’ mental models

To really know your users, you need to understand the mental models they have when using your product or similar products like yours. This is especially important if you're building a new product or feature that the user isn't accustomed to, or you’re redesigning your product and making drastic changes to the current interface. Researching the users’ mental models helps you to gain insights into your user's comprehension of your product and how they expect the feature to work.

To uncover the users’ mental models, you can ask research questions like these:

  • What do you think is the difference between feature A and feature B?
  • What do you think this feature is used for?
  • How would you use this feature?
  • Are there any products that you prefer using to do X?
  • How would you explain what this product does?

You can then perform user testing with your designs to ensure that the new product is developed according to the users’ mental models you just unearthed.

Assessing a feature's success

After you release a new feature or function, it's critical to evaluate its success and the users’ experiences. While doing user testing before launch is vital, keeping tabs on the user experience after launch is just as important. You can complement analytical data such as completion rates, time spent on pages and bounce rates with interviews. These user interviews will allow you to reveal the reason for any underlying issues that the users might be facing. They enable you to gather qualitative data that could help you improve and iterate on the current feature.

The questions you ask should be simple and straightforward. Examples of questions are:

  • What do you think about our new feature?
  • Did you experience any issues while using it?
  • What could have been done better?
  • How often will you be using this new feature?

These questions allow you to collect feedback that you can pass on to your design or development team to help improve the new feature. When asking questions about a particular feature or part of the product, it’s important not to ask leading questions. For example, instead of asking "What do you like about this feature?" which assumes the user likes the feature, it's better to ask "What do you think about our new feature?" or "How was your experience with using our new feature?". This ensures you don't lead the user towards the answer, which we’ll look into in our next section.

Guidelines for crafting research questions

User interviews require a lot of effort and planning. Depending on the scope of the research, it might even take weeks to prepare for the sessions. That's why it's important to properly craft each question to get accurate results and not waste all your time and effort.

The structure and format of your questions have a direct influence on the user's answer, so it's crucial to pay close attention to it. Below are some guidelines that you could use when creating your questions.

Avoid questions that lead the user

A common mistake when framing questions is to let your own opinions get in the way of extracting impartial, unbiased results. Designers are humans too, and we all have our own thoughts about our design, but we shouldn't let those affect the results of the interview.

For example, don't frame your questions like this: "Why do you enjoy using our product so much?" as it suggests that the user enjoys using your product, which might not be the case.

Instead, ask: “How was your experience using our product?” or "Why do you use our product?”.

Reference specific moments

Users are better able to recall their past experiences when thinking about a specific moment, resulting in answers that are less generic and more accurate. You can frame your questions in a way that prompts them to think of a moment in the past.

For example, when you ask questions like this: "What do you think about our bookmark feature?", you can reframe it to recall their last use: "The last time you used our bookmark feature, how was your experience?".

Anticipate different responses

I know that the main reason for doing interviews is because you don't know what your users are thinking, but anticipating their answers can help you better prepare for the interview.

If the user didn't have a response to your question, would you just skip it? Prepare a series of simpler questions to guide your users in talking about their experiences and providing a more detailed answer.

For example, imagine asking a user “What do you think of the trip booking feature?” and they indicate that it was okay. You could get more details about their experience by asking follow-up questions like these:

  • When was the last time you used it?
  • How could we present the information in a more meaningful way?
  • Was there anything surprising or unexpected?
  • Did you encounter any problems while booking the trip?
  • How can we improve your experience?

Always prepare for unforeseen situations, and make sure that you have enough questions to get as much information as possible and meet the objective of the interview.

Avoid closed-ended questions

Closely related to the above point, closed-ended questions elicit a "yes" or "no" answer. With such questions, users will usually only answer what is being asked. Unless they are super comfortable with strangers and are willing to share their experience, asking closed-ended questions will result in short replies that don’t contain valuable insights.

It's better to ask open-ended questions to gather more complete answers and avoid unproductive interview sessions. If closed questions are used, always have a follow-up question to give your participants a chance to elaborate on their answers.

For example, don't frame your questions like this: "Do you like our new feature?"

Instead, ask: "What do you think about our new feature?"

In summary

As long as you're asking the right questions at the right time and phrasing them correctly, you will be able to achieve your research objectives and get valuable insights that could help you with your next design decisions.

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