10x Better User Interviews: The Storytelling Method

Raluca Angelescu
January 23, 2023
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Conducting user interviews can be a challenging task for UX designers and researchers. One of the main challenges of user interviews is that they can quickly become robotic and scripted, leading to interviewees feeling uncomfortable and wanting to end the interview as soon as possible. This can result in little to no actionable insights and make it difficult to gather accurate and unbiased information.

One way to overcome this challenge is to leverage the power of storytelling in user interviews. Storytelling allows users to share their experiences naturally, encouraging them to open up and share more honest and valuable insights.

However, we don't usually invite users for a coffee or a meal, so we are not in a perfect, natural storytelling setup, so how can we create this environment, especially in remote user interviews?

I've recently learned about a framework that can help me guide questioning and create a comfortable and relaxed interview environment. It's the TEDW framework, or as I like to call it, "the storytelling enabler." Let me tell you more about it and how you can use it.

TED What?

The TEDW framework is an effective tool for conducting user interviews because it allows researchers and Designers to have open-ended conversations that encourage respondents to share their stories and experiences. The framework guides your questioning by providing a structure for diving deeper into what the user is telling you.

  • T - stands for "Tell me more." This encourages users to provide more details on a specific topic by asking them to "tell" you more. This can help them open up and share more information, especially if they feel uncomfortable or hesitant to talk.
  • E/D - stands for "Explain/ Describe why" or "Explain/Describe how." To gain a deeper understanding of experiences, ask them to "explain" or "describe" their story. This enables them to speak freely about their experiences and reveal points that may have been missed by asking closed-ended questions.
  • W - stands for "Walk me through." By using storytelling, you can create a timeline of the user's experience and better understand how they think.

Let's take a look at some quick examples. Imagine you are doing some research for a food delivery app called "Foodie" and would like to know more about the primary purpose of users using such an app, how often, and what works and what doesn't.

You have a few research questions in your guide. You also have some follow-up and probing questions prepared. How can we transform those questions to elicit storytelling, deeper insights, and a more comfortable and fluent discussion?

Original question: "When did you use Foodie?"

TEDW question: "Tell me about the last time you used the Foodie."

Original question: "What made you use Foodie last time?"

TEDW question: "Walk me through the last time you decided to use the Foodie."

Original question: "What features do you use the most in Foodie?"Why?"

TEDW question: "Walk me through your favorite features of the app and why you use them."

Original question: "You mentioned you were frustrated for not being able to place an order. Why is that?"

TEDW question: "Can you explain what you mean by frustrated?"

As you can see from these questions, they prompt the user to tell a story, make things a bit more personal and invite them to recall great (or bad) memories to share. They also help you understand the context better, as users are encouraged to "set the scene" when they start telling you about the experience, not limiting themselves to the app.

As for the last one, sometimes, when users express feeling regarding products, it's good to clarify what they mean. The intensity of the feeling can vary from user to user, and the reactions can differ, potentially unlocking new insights.

A framework is not a recipe

Frameworks are great, and they provide us with a path forward. But following a framework blindly can do more harm than good. Adapting to your situation, context, users, and research phase is a better approach.

A common thing I observed is that, when asked to walk one through a story or a process, users often start in somewhere in the middle of the story because they assume the context is trivial or not helpful to your research.

In this case, you shouldn't refrain from asking "Why?" and dive deeper into the context. This will help you understand the context more, eliminate assumptions, and sometimes lead to innovation.

Let's say users are talking to us, describing how they go through the app and pick their favorite order. You focus on the filtering options, what they like about the search, and assess if the information you display for each is helpful. However, if we think about it, the reasons for going through this process can be many, and so are the Design decisions we need to take based on them.

  1. They are hungry and need to order something quickly and satisfy their hunger;
  2. They had a long day and would like to savor a nice meal without cooking;
  3. They want to support a local restaurant that just opened, and people are raving about.

Combining questions that allow users to be descriptive with those that uncover deeper motivations can help you paint a more accurate picture.

Natural language

Another essential tip when conducting user interviews that goes hand in hand with this framework is to use natural and personalized language. The framework can provide general guidance and a starting point, but once you master it, you can adapt your questions to use your own words and phrases or to mimic the participant's language or style. Exploring and probing during the interview will feel more natural and help build rapport with the interviewee.

Let's retake a look at some examples:

User: "I couldn't complete my food order before jumping into another Zoom call."

Interviewer v1: "Tell me more about that."

Interviewer v2: "Oh no, why was that?"

User: "I didn't complete the order because I couldn't use my meal vouchers to pay for it."

Interviewer v1: "Tell me more about that."

Interviewer v2: "Oh, okay, what did you do next?" or "Can you recall what you did immediately after not being able to pay for your order with meal vouchers?".

The language you use during an interview is also very personal and comes down to your style. After many interview sessions and a lot of practice, you will develop a research vocabulary that you can use without referring to a script. This will help you become more fluent and confident in your interviewing skills and make it easier to gather accurate and actionable insights from your user research.

Leveraging storytelling in user interviews can be a powerful way to encourage interviewees to open up and share more honest and valuable insights. Creating an environment that feels natural and elicits insightful data is important and can multiply the impact of your work. Using the TEDW framework, you can avoid asking the same type of "why?" questions that can seem scripted, frustrating for respondents, and lead to research bias. Instead, you can guide your conversation to extract stories about people's experiences and gather more reliable data.

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