2b. Conducting user research

Conducting user research

Conducting user research

Group Health SIMBA interview.jpg

After you've identified your research question, recruited participants, and prepared your research materials, the next step is to conduct your research sessions.

Your goal while doing research is to develop a deep connection with your participants that will lead to an in-depth understanding of their perspectives, experiences, and motivations.

There are five key principles to keep in mind as you conduct user research. They can be summarized easily by the acronym "DOORS"

  • D: Digging deeper
  • O: Open-ended questions
  • O: Observation
  • R: Rapport
  • S: Stopping bias

Let's take a look at each principle in more depth.

D: Digging deeper

As you discuss various topics with your participant, repeatedly asking “Why...?” in response to their statements can help you dig deeper into their underlying beliefs and motivations. 

You can see from the above example that asking “Why…?” begins to uncover the participant’s beliefs and values. This is a technique known as laddering. You can read more about laddering here.

O: Open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions will help participants elaborate, and tell you stories about themselves, their lives, and their experiences.


Open-ended question: “What’s it like living in the dorms?”
Closed-ended question: “Do you like living in the dorms?”

You can see how closed-ended questions limit the participant’s response. They often result in single-word responses, like “yes” or “no.”

If you find your participant answering with single words, you can usually encourage them to elaborate by asking, “Why?”

Good open-ended questions begin with phrases like:

  • “Why do you…”

  • “What’s it like when…”

  • “How do you feel when…”

  • “Tell me about a time when…”

  • “Show me how you usually…”

  • “Tell me about the last time you…”

  • “What do you think about…”

Tell me about the last time you rode your bike on campus. What was it like?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

Do you ride your bike because it’s good for the environment?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

What’s frustrating or difficult about riding your bike on campus?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

Have other students ever commented on your bike riding?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

You probably don’t like wearing a helmet, right?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

Do you like to store your bike indoors or outdoors?

  • Open-ended
  • Closed-ended

Is this an “Open-ended” or “Closed-ended” question?

O: Observation

Sometimes what people say and what they do aren’t necessarily the same. Observing participants doing activities can help you better understand how they actually behave, and reveal things that may be frustrating or difficult.

Being in the participant’s personal space (e.g., dorm room, home, place of work) can offer insight as well - from the way they organize their space, to the products and artifacts they’ve chosen to display, to the other people nearby.

Ideas for observation

  • During your research you may ask the participant to take you on a tour of their space and tell you about what’s there.

  • You can also ask the participant to show you how they do a particular task or activity.

  • You may ask the participant if you can come with them, or "shadow" them, while they do a typical activity or errand outside of their home or workplace, such as going to the market to purchase food.

R: Rapport

When conducting research, it is important to develop rapport, or a sense of connection and understanding, between yourself and your participants. This helps participants feel more relaxed in your presence, and more comfortable telling you personal stories about themselves.

Techniques to help build rapport at the beginning of an interview

  • Before starting your interview, have a pleasant conversation with the participant about shared topics, such as the weather and traffic.

  • When introducing yourself, share a personal detail such as where you grew up, or a hobby that you have, so that participants get a sense of who you are.

  • Compliment the participant in a way that shows kindness and is also truthful. For example, if you’re visiting a person’s home, you may compliment their house or neighborhood.

  • Ask questions that are general, but show a sense of curiosity about the participant. For example, ask them how long they’ve lived in their home, or about their family if you see photos displayed of them.

Techniques to maintain a connection with your participant as the interview progresses

  • Maintain eye contact with your participant.

  • Show with your facial expressions and body language that you are interested in what they’re saying. For example, you may lean toward them slightly and nod.

  • Take notes using a pen and paper instead of a computer. When you’re typing on a phone or computer it creates a physical barrier between you and the participant, and can be distracting.​

S: Stopping bias

As a researcher, it’s important you avoid letting your own biases impact your interviews. Biases are preconceptions, attitudes, and assumptions that can influence your behavior in unintentional ways.

It’s helpful to spend time thinking through your own biases as you begin your research, so you can spot them, and attempt to address them, if they emerge.

Common biases to watch out for

  • Assumptions you might make about a person based on their age, gender, race, or other factors.

  • Preconceptions about the biggest problem is this person is facing, and how it should be solved.

  • Your own existing ideas about what the right type of design or solution is going to be.

To help combat bias as you prepare your discussion guide

  • Look at each question you are writing and ask yourself, “What assumptions is this question based on?” Or, "What am I assuming about my participant by asking this question?"

  • If you find that a question represents an unintentional bias on your part, rewrite the question. It can help to approach each topic with a “beginner's mindset” - that is, imagine you are just learning about this particular topic for the first time.

  • Remember that the majority of your discussion guide should be made up of open-ended questions that encourage participants to tell you stories about themselves and the problems they're facing. Learning more about a participant during a research session can help to correct any wrong assumptions or preconceptions you may have had going into the session.

Additional tips

Here's a short video with additional tips on interviewing users. You don't have to watch it now, but if you'd like to learn more about how to ask questions during user research, this video is a helpful resource.


Try it out: Create your own discussion guide

Below are links to starter discussion guides for each of the example problems for this course:

  1. How might we encourage sustainability by reducing waste on campus?
  2. How might we give back to our neighbors by getting our campus more involved in the local community?
  3. How might we create more transformative leaders by sharing what we’re learning with other students?

Make a copy of the discussion guide for the same problem you previously selected, and then:

  1. Add  2-3 of your own questions to the guide, paying attention to the DOORS principles.
  2. Share the new questions you created with your problem-specific learning group.