A Brief Introduction to the Unstructured Interview


You know when you’re making awesomeness and you get so caught up in the excitement of bringing antiquated systems into the twenty-first century that you forget who you’re making it for in the first place?

Well, a great technique for aligning a team’s enthusiasm with the end users’ goals is the unstructured interview.

Unstructured, You Say
In contrast to the traditional interview, which often follows a specific set of questions the interviewer is looking to answer, Its less linear relative — the unstructured interview — follows a set of themes to be uncovered, while actively abandoning a scripted set of questions or prompts.

This approach allows for the unexpected to arise in conversation, and at least in theory, assumes the participant will guide the interview and do most of the talking.

The Earlier The Betterer
There are plenty of techniques for getting user input down the line (like card sorting and user tests), but the unstructured interview is a method built for cultivating empathy for the user early on and, hopefully, illuminates unique opportunities you may have overlooked. You’re also getting valuable data in the user’s own words, exposing you to a whole new vocabulary that not only influences what you build, but how you inevitably talk about it.

Users, And Stakeholders And Bears, Oh My
Ok, so I lied. No bears. But at least you’re reading along. The unstructured interview is a great technique not only to get to know your users, and hopefully glean greater insight into where opportunities lie for improving the overall product experience, it’s also a great technique — and the perfect time — for creating greater alignment with stakeholders. After all, they arguably play the greatest role in the success of any given project.

Beyond applying this technique to getting to know existing or potential users, the unstructured interview works wonders in aligning with stakeholders and gathering (in their own words) the main objective for the project.

TIP: It’s also not a bad idea to introduce the main stakeholders to the users themselves. If you can’t get them to join you in an unstructured interview, at least share your findings before you get ideating around solutions.

I Didn’t Say It Was Going to Be Easy
Like anything, the only sure road to success is a lot of practice (and a lot of failing). Unstructured interviews are hard. Really hard. They’re hard because It’s hard to leave your preconceived notions at the door; It’s hard to temporarily abandon your intuition about where to take a project; and it’s hard to keep quiet during an hour to two-hour interview, particularly if what you’re hearing doesn’t jive with what you initially thought was true.

The key is to come prepared: (1.) keep a list of reminders about what NOT to do (2.) bring a recording device so you can listen carefully to what the participant has to say (3.) bring a team member to take notes and provide support.

Now You Can Make It Awesome
The data you come away with (and there should be a lot of it) is gold. Absolute gold. If synthesized correctly it not only gives a clearer picture of who you’re building for, but why. It should serve as the basis for creating a clear persona to guide the project, and will likely illuminate a range of opportunities that can be tested and prototyped later in the process.

Sebastian is a user experience designer based in Brooklyn. He was born in New York, can you tell? Challah back.