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  4. Qualitative interviews: Pitfalls to avoid

Qualitative interviews: Pitfalls to avoid

Qualitative interviews are a very useful UX research method, as they provide insights into what people think and feel about your products or services.

However, there are some pitfalls one must be careful to avoid when conducting qualitative interviews in order to get better results.

In this article, we’ll discuss these pitfalls to help you get more accurate user insights for your business.


Two people engaging in a qualitative interview session via computer


Understanding qualitative interviews

Qualitative interviews – as the name suggests – are focused on getting qualitative data, not quantitative. They are generally used to gain a better understanding of human behavior.

Read more: Guide to behavioral analytics

During a qualitative interview, the researcher asks questions that allow for open-ended answers (instead of multiple-choice, Likert scale, or other closed-ended style responses).

During these types of interviews, there are a number of common pitfalls to avoid to get the most out of your interviewee’s responses. The interviewer, for example, must avoid asking leading questions, or giving unsolicited advice. We’ll get into more specifics on these pitfalls below.

The key thing to remember is that this UX research method is particularly effective in illuminating areas where there are no predefined right or wrong answers.


Advantages of qualitative interviews

Some of the advantages of qualitative interviews as a research method include…

  • They can help you gain deep insights into customer needs, desires and behaviors.
  • They are a low-pressure setting for participants, who can feel more relaxed since they are not focused on giving a wrong answer or falling short of the interviewer’s expectations.
  • Qualitative interviews are extremely useful for uncovering initial customer reactions in the early stages of product development, before or after a prototype/MVP has been created.
  • They allow you to dig deep into how your customers think and feel about a variety of topics or issues that you would like feedback on.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that the application of qualitative research is limited by its scope and depth.

Disadvantages of qualitative interviews

While qualitative interviews are a great research method for the right situations, they have their disadvantages, too:

  • In any type of person-to-person session, there is a possibility of the interviewer influencing the respondent.
  • There is also a possibility that respondents may lack the requisite knowledge or understanding to give accurate answers during the session.
  • The data collection process can take longer than expected, since it requires more time for probing questions and in-depth qualitative responses, and it’s easy to go down rabbit holes.
  • Negative feedback from the respondents might frustrate the interviewer and affect their moderation of the session. (Click here to read more on dealing with negative feedback.)

There is always a possibility that there will be times where some level of friction or disagreement between interviewer and participant occurs. But this should not discourage you from continuing with your questioning until all necessary responses have been received. Interview moderation is a skill that takes practice and dedication.

Remember that the main aim of a research study is to gather reliable information to assess a problem or issue that requires attention.  This is why interviewers must remain open-minded when interviewing with participants during qualitative interviews.


Pitfalls to avoid in qualitative interviews


Avoiding typical pitfalls in qualitative interviews

Below are 10 tips for running successful qualitative interviews and avoiding the most common mistakes in this kind of research.

Some of these tips are related to operations – things to remember about how you facilitate the interview sessions. Others are about asking the right questions the right way (and not asking the wrong ones). Additionally, several tips focus on how you can minimize bias in your interviews.


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Facilitating your interviews

Here are 4 general operational pointers for conducting your interview sessions.

1. Properly prepare participants

One mistake that’s easy to make is not preparing your interviewees sufficiently. Fortunately, it’s also easy to fix.

  • Make sure before you get started that you clearly communicate the expectations for the session and what it will entail. Let the participants know that they are not being tested or evaluated, so they don’t feel pressure to say the “right thing” or give the “right answer.” Inform them that you are interested to hear any thoughts they have, positive or negative.
  • If there is any prior knowledge or resources interviewees need in order to give relevant responses, it should be provided to them in advance (in plenty of time before the scheduled session). In such cases, it’s still a good idea to recap key information anyways – don’t assume they’ve prepared themselves.
  • Don’t over-prepare them either – keep the “info-dumping” to a minimum. Consider what a participant will absolutely need to know for the session, and cut out all the rest.

2. Keep it comfortable (but professional)

Setting your interviewees at ease early on is important for getting the most our of your session. If you don’t make them feel comfortable, they may not open up to you as much as you’d like. This can make it harder to get unrestricted, honest answers from them.

Make sure to be personable, and consider bringing up a few topics at the beginning of your discussion just to relate to them a bit. For example, asking them about hobbies or interests can provide a basis to form a rapport with the person.

Be careful not to get too chummy, though, as the interview should still feel like a professional environment – plus, it might make them feel bad if they give answers that are critical or negative.

3. Let it flow

Allow the interviewee to speak without interruption. Remember that the goal of the session is to uncover their perspective on the interview topic – your voice and thoughts are of lesser importance here. They should feel that they are a valued contributor in the discussion and that they are being heard.

Avoiding interruptions keeps your participant talking and engaged. The session should be a collaborative process between the two sides – so be mindful not to take over the conversation or steer it too heavily. Allow them plenty of time for their stories and ideas.

If an interviewee trips up or loses their train of thought, allow them time to sort it out, without jumping in. If a little help is needed to get them back on track, step in but don’t overdo it – just enough to guide them back to the topic at hand.


Two people engaged in a qualitative interview session


4. Leave note-taking for later

It’s okay to take notes during a qualitative interview, but it’s much better if you don’t – for a few reasons.

  • If you’re taking notes as the conversation unfolds, you could get distracted from what’s being said, or fall behind the discussion.
  • Note-taking can slow down the interview, and might leave your participant waiting silently while you write down your thoughts. This wastes valuable session time, and can interfere with the natural flow of discussion.
  • You also risk distracting the interviewee or causing them to overthink their answers. If they say something, and then see you scribble down a note (or hear you typing), they might start wondering what it implies about their answer.

Ideally, it’s best to just record your sessions live, so you can review and annotate them later!

Read more: Trymata video transcription <> Trymata video annotation


Asking interview questions

The way you word your questions has an impact on the answers you get – here are some key pointers.

5. Ask open-ended questions

Another pitfall to avoid during qualitative interviews is asking closed-ended questions (that is, questions with pre-defined answer options – like “yes” or “no”).

Yes/no questions themselves can actually be okay to use, since you can always follow up either answer with a “Why?” The more detrimental closed-ended questions are ones that assume a limited set of topical possibilities.

For example, if you asked your interviewee, “Are you more likely to contact a company by phone or email?” – you’re limiting the possibilities, and preventing them from giving an answer that you didn’t foresee. Maybe they would contact a company through social media instead of either option you provided. By framing it in a closed-ended way, you lose out on that insight.

Asking the same question in an open-ended way – “How would you be most likely to contact a company?” – allows the participant to freely answer in whatever way is most accurate for them.

6. Don’t lead the witness

This one is somewhat similar to the last pointer, but important enough to be mentioned separately.

Leading questions are ones in which your wording subtly (or non-subtly) influences the way a participant answers. For example, asking “How much would you buy this product for?” is a leading question, because the phrasing already assumes that they would buy the product.

Instead, it’s better to ask, “How likely or unlikely are you to buy this product? If you did choose to buy it, how much would you spend on it?”

7. No jargon

Be mindful of your word choices when talking with interviewees. Using industry or company jargon that they are not familiar with can cause miscommunications. If the participant doesn’t understand your questions correctly, it can lead to inaccurate responses.

Keep in mind what level of expertise and familiarity they are likely to have with your space. Avoid words that may be beyond what they know. Additionally, avoid using branded ways of referring to products, features, and options that your company may offer – generic terminology is preferable.


Managing sources of bias

It’s impossible to eliminate bias completely, but here are some things you can do to minimize it.

Read more: Avoiding bias in user testing research

8. Let them fail

One very common mistake people make when conducting qualitative interviews is giving unsolicited advice to participants, or jumping in and intervening in any way when they get stuck. You can get a lot of value out of moments like this, so it’s important to hold back and let your interviewee struggle and figure things out for their self.

If it becomes necessary, and/or if the participant specifically requests assistance, of course you can step in. Acknowledge the difficulty they faced, and then use probing questions to better understand the underlying issues that led to that difficulty.


A qualitative interview between two women in a comfortable, neutral environment


9. Use neutral language

Positively and negatively charged words that you use during interviews can subtly affect the participant’s reactions and responses. Restrain your own reactions to their answers, avoiding words like “great” or “interesting.” If you get excited, or seem happy or disappointed at something they’ve said, this can cause problems for the accuracy of the session.

This doesn’t mean you need to act robotic or inhuman – you can show emotion, just avoid doing so in response to comments about the actual interview topics.

The same concepts apply to body language as well. Reacting to an interviewee’s comments with a wince, a smile, a frown, or raised eyebrows can have similar consequences. Again, you can show emotion – in fact, you should use body language to indicate that you are engaged and listening. Just use it in a neutral way relative to the interview contents.

10. Third-party presence

To help prevent bias on the part of the interviewer, it can be helpful to have an impartial third part present during the sessions. This can help not only in communication between the two sides, but also in recording and interpretation of the information uncovered from the session. An impartial party may take different meaning from what a participant says, compared to someone who has a direct stake in the topic being discussed.


Start talking to users today! Run your qualitative interviews with Trymata:

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Qualitative interviews can serve as a valuable method in your arsenal of UX research tools. By talking to people in your audience and learning about their thoughts and preferences, you can make better-informed decisions about product roadmapping, feature development, user experience design, marketing, and more.

The insights gathered in qualitative interviews can also serve as a basis for future quantitative studies or other follow-up research methods.

Like any other technique, qualitative interviews can be subject to mistakes and pitfalls that interfere with the collection of accurate, high-quality data. As long as you’re aware of these issues, though, and take the appropriate actions to prevent them, you don’t have to worry! None of the common problems discussed in this article are impossible to manage without a little preparation and attention to detail.



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