Expert Advice for Interviewing Experts
June 11, 2020
“We’re interested in your personal experience and subjective opinions. You’re the expert on your experiences.”
Lines like these will be familiar to anyone who has conducted research with people. The preamble that researchers include at the start of an interview, usability test, or survey, typically includes a few points about the importance of research participants answering based on their own experiences and understanding. We do this for a few reasons.
First and foremost, it helps the participant to feel confident that their thoughts and feelings are valuable and interesting to us. It also helps us to focus the conversation on what the participant has actually done, thought, or felt rather than spending our limited time together speculating about what others may have experienced.
Despite their importance, I’ve been asked more than a few times when it might be appropriate to bypass these clichéd little lines. The questions usually flow like this: “What if the person who we’re interviewing isn’t just an expert on their experiences, but an actual renowned expert? Won’t saying this to them make us seem amateur?” Or like this: “What if they can speak for other people’s experiences because they are a leader, largely responsible for creating those experiences? We don’t want to limit their answers.”
Fair concerns. But, I argue, the framing is still necessary. There is very rarely a research situation where it isn’t essential to give some idea of what we are seeking to learn from the participant.
Let’s look at a recent example from my own career to illustrate my point.
This spring, I led a round of foundational research. Our client’s organization was launching a new research and development program, which would involve soliciting and processing applications through a digital platform. My job was to help the team to understand what experience its users would expect and desire from their interactions with the platform as well as the program it served.
To gain this understanding, I had the privilege of conducting in-depth interviews with would-be platform users – who also happen to be some of the most esteemed experts I’ve ever spoken with. My participants included heads of organizations, holders of multiple degrees from top universities, and winners of prestigious awards. People who work in highly specialized scientific areas, some of which I had, honestly, never even heard of.
Looking at the LinkedIn profiles of my participants before starting the research, I was initially intimidated. Fortunately, I had some of my own expertise to draw on that helped me to quickly overcome my social anxieties, so I could focus on getting the information we needed from our interviewees.
In this article, I could dive into how I developed a research plan, informed consent protocols, and tailored our guide to ensure that my team was ready for each interview. Instead, I want to focus on a few of the less tangible, but important and consistent ways that we prepared each of our expert interviewees. What I’ve learned from years of doing research with people is that the most insightful interviews happen when the participant, no matter what their background or present position, feels setup and supported to speak candidly.
Since our expert interviewees were referred by our client, we were fortunate to be able to email participants information about our consent and data handling procedures. This gave the participants plenty of time to think of any clarifying questions to ask, conveyed our professionalism, and helped us to avoid spending too much precious time on administrative details during the interview. Such formalities, while essential, can make an interview feel transactional. It was easier and more expedient to confirm understanding at the outset and move on.
Forming a Human Connection
As with any research participant, our first order of business was to build rapport. Experts are already busy people, and ours were armed with a basic understanding of the topics we wanted to cover, so some felt ready to cut to the chase immediately. Before jumping into our precious hour, I introduced myself and my note-taker “in-person,” and asked the participant a couple of questions about their day, the weather, or their most recent meal. One or two times, particular challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis came up, and we made sure that the participant was emotionally available to talk before proceeding. We offered the option to reschedule, and to take breaks at any time. Expert or not, it was especially important in this moment of uncertainty to make it known that we put the comfort of the participant above getting the data.
Accounting For Our Own Interests and Expertise
Most experts have experience being interviewed, and have some well-rehearsed talking points about what they do. While certainly interesting, these rarely relate to our ultimate purpose – building better software-powered products. Before getting into each interview, we provided them with our high-level goal for the project (i.e. to build a digital application platform) and explained a bit about our process. I told them how user research informs product strategy, design, and development, and that the researcher’s role is to translate their needs into opportunities for user experience improvements. This level-set not only provided focus and scope for the conversation, but also established our own expertise in a specialized, professional field.
Affirming Interest in Their Experiences
Finally, our interview preamble ended with my first point in this article: the importance of the participant’s subjective experience and expertise. While the interview preamble only took a few minutes, it put the focus on us instead of the interviewee. After going through our processes and establishing our positions on the interview playing field, we need to reaffirm the primary reason we are there: to hear from them! For expert interviews, we often have the luxury of learning a bit about our participants in advance due to their public profiles. I like to segue back to the participant by opening the interview with a question that is based on their background, but give them the chance to build on what we can glean from their LinkedIn profile.
Overall, it’s crucial to remember that as much as the people you’re interviewing are the experts in their fields, you’re the expert in yours. My experience helping a number of organizations deliver impactful experiences to their users has shown me just how critical research is in the final product. And I’ve seen first hand that research matters most when I feel affirmed in my own expertise and interviewees are gently guided toward the information we, as product builders, need. Knowing all this means that anyone I ever interview ought to know and feel that I truly mean that opening line:
“We’re interested in your personal experiences and subjective opinions. You’re the expert on your experiences.”
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