Ideally, the team should talk to as many people as they can possibly schedule during the two-week research phase of the sprint. This section covers logistics and the process for stakeholder and end user interviews.
Note: This section assumes that your interviews will be conducted in person which we recommend, however we also have a section on remote sprints if you are unable to travel to where your stakeholders are.
Laying the groundwork for successful interviews
At the kick-off it is important for everyone in the room to hear the head of the organization (or primary stakeholder) indicate that interviews will be happening, that they are a priority, and that the effort is supported by the organization. This will set the tone and help make the research phase go smoothly. If you have a member of the team who has a user research background, they should help drive this phase. If you don’t, this is an area where you could bring in an expert, even just for an hour or two of prep, to help the team feel ready to interview people.
Before the interviews begin, sit down as a team and come up with a plan. List out what your goals are, what you want to learn, and come up with 5-10 core questions that you universally want to ask all of your participants.
DO: Get a point of contact from the organization to help you with whatever you need while you are there (building access, a work space, the wifi password, etc). This point of contact should have access to the organization’s buildings and know the individuals you need to talk with.
DO: Pre-schedule as much as you can, but leave some open time blocks at the end of the day or the end of the week.
- You will discover new people you are interested in talking to
- You may need to reschedule people as things come up
- You may want to go back to an interviewee with more questions later on
- You can use any gaps in the schedule to collect notes and debrief as a team
DO: Plan to schedule most interviews for 45 - 60 minutes; 30 minutes is not long enough for an interviewee to warm up and get comfortable talking to you.
DO NOT: Schedule back-to-back interviews. You want at least 15 minutes in between each session. Don’t forget to schedule lunch; you’ll focus better if you aren’t hungry.
- You will start late or run long a lot more often than you will ever finish early
- You may want to debrief or catch up with your notes between sessions
- It may take a minute to find the next office location if you don’t know the building well
- Allow time for snacks and bio breaks
DO: Go where the person’s desk is to interview them (this may involve travel). They will be most comfortable where they are familiar, and seeing their surroundings can help you learn all sorts of things and structure your questions. Avoid sitting in a conference room with people coming to you as much as you can, this can feel a lot like being sent to the principal’s office for your interviewees and can get you off on the wrong foot before you even ask your first question. That said, in loud environments or large shared/open office spaces, you may want a quieter space set aside to talk to people.
DO: Whenever possible, stick to a ratio of one stakeholder to two sprint team members per interview. Multiple stakeholders can lead to groupthink, or the loudest or highest ranking stakeholder might do all of the talking. No one should conduct an in-person stakeholder interview alone, and more than two people can be very intimidating (and don’t fit well in a cubicle). If the team is 5 people, two sets of interviewers and notetakers can work simultaneously, with the sprint team lead free to keep an eye on the schedule, the stakeholders and any other moving parts.
Arrive where you are going early, get settled, and make some small talk about the office or the weather.
Do not make any assumptions that the stakeholder knows who you are or why you are there. Do assume they are nervous. The person who will be conducting the interview should start introductions and set the tone for the conversation, include the following:
- Thank the stakeholder for their time
- Introduce the team and discovery sprints as a concept
- Define the purpose of the conversation and create a safe space
- “We are here to understand who you are and what you do”
- “We are not here to audit you or your work”
- “We will anonymize your answers in the feedback we give”
- Be clear that you are federal employees, not contractors, and that you are there to learn, not to “audit” them or their work
- Introduce yourselves and your roles
- “I’ll be the person asking you questions today and my colleague Greg will be taking notes”
- Specify timing
- “We’ll be talking until 2pm today and we have a lot we want to cover”
- “I may switch topics abruptly, but that’s only because there are a few things I’d like to ask you about”
One team member should ask the questions, while the other takes notes. Stick to those roles as much as you can so the stakeholder doesn’t feel bombarded with questions.
Begin with some easy questions, this helps everyone warm up and builds trust.
Start by understanding who the person you’re speaking to is, how long they’ve been there, and how they relate to the project. A suggestion for your first real question is to ask them to explain the whole system (beyond their piece of it) in their own words. This often surfaces confusion or disagreement about how things work. Don’t assume any one explanation of a complex system is correct and never contradict a participant if you heard something different in another interview.
The interviewer will be working off of the list of questions that the team came up with. It’s important to keep an eye on this list. If you have things you want to know from every person you are talking to, make sure to cover those, but it is not necessary to ask the questions in the same order every time. You will want to be flexible enough to adapt your language and questions to match what you are learning about the environment. For example, once you are familiar with their acronyms, it’s ok to use them yourself as a gesture of understanding. When an interview is going well it feels like a conversation, there’s a back and forth cadence that will happen.
Here are two very practical techniques you can use:
- The interviewer should make eye contact and talk 20% of the time. The stakeholder should be talking closer to 80%. The interviewer can keep an eye on the notetaker and give them the opportunity to catch up, or clarify as needed, when needed.
- When a stakeholder stops talking, the interviewer should pause and count to ten in their head before continuing. Sometimes the stakeholder might be thinking about their answer and you don’t want to rush them, or interrupt their flow.
Try and end on a high note if you can, especially if you have spent a lot of the previous hour talking about things that are broken. These questions are good to ask as you conclude:
- “If you had a magic wand and could change any single part of this process/system/role, what would it be?”
- “What is your favorite part of your job/your day?”
- “Who else should we make sure to talk to?”
- “If we have any follow up questions, is it okay if we come back to you?”
Your Interview Participants
Approach each person that you interview as a subject matter expert in their work. They have likely been at their job for a while. For career government employees, this could easily mean 15 - 20 years. They will have good ideas about what’s working and what isn’t. Give them the space and the opportunity to share in their own words. “How did you come up with this process or solution?” is a better framing than “Why don’t you just do ____ ?”
It’s very possible that you are not the first team that has shown up in their office under the directive to help solve a problem, or help them “think differently.” Give your stakeholders the opportunity to talk about what has been tried before, and how they individually thought it went.
Pay careful attention to your body language, and the body language of the stakeholder you are speaking with. If you are nervous, they will pick up on that and it will make them nervous, so aim for projecting competence and curiosity. You are always sending unconscious signals: leaning forward or back, arms and legs crossed or uncrossed, eye contact, frowning or smiling—it all matters in the room. Keep reading them and adjusting as you go.
When planning and conducting government user research, it is best to plan for the simplest experience possible. Use these very real world scenarios to help you plan:
Assumption: There will be no wifi or internet access where you are, and there may not even not be cell service.
- Do not rely on cloud based note-taking software
- Don’t assume you will be able to communicate with other sprint team members electronically during interviews
- Members of the sprint team may not have access to the same collaborative documentation tools at the same time
Assumption: You will not be able to record interview sessions in any way.
- See PRA guidance and know the policies upfront
- You and your stakeholders have a responsibility to protect any personally identifiable information (PII) that you may come across as part of your interviews
- Respect a “No” answer, but you can always ask politely:
- If it’s ok to take a photo of something relevant
- For blank copies of forms or paperwork
- For copies of powerpoint presentations, or cleaned up excel spreadsheets with PII columns removed
- For training manuals
- For any artifacts they would be comfortable sharing with the sprint team
If you have a team of 5, use 2 pairs of 2 for interviewing and leave the sprint team lead as a floater to mitigate office politics and the organization’s dynamics as they come up. There are times when you may have to interview someone who the team doesn’t think is relevant to the discovery process. Usually having this person sit down with the sprint team lead for 30 minutes can go a long way towards clearing a path for the rest of the team to keep going about their work.
Stakeholders can be very uncomfortable speaking ground truth in front of a boss or a manager. If this dynamic is happening, this is a place where the sprint team lead can step in with a request for help: “Would you mind if we go (on a tour, back to your office, get a coffee, etc) and you can help me understand _____ better?”
Note: Sometimes your partner stakeholders may have concerns about how and with whom you plan to conduct research interviews, and they may say that doing this type of research is not allowed or even illegal in some cases. Depending on where you are, you may need to clear this misconception up before you are able to proceed further. Getting this worry uncovered and resolved as soon as possible will dramatically help you conduct the sprint more smoothly. If you have a ready answer for both you and your top-level stakeholders to reiterate during the kick-off meeting, it can save you a lot of delays if you get stuck later waiting for resolution.
In US Federal government settings a common source for this concern is the Paperwork Reduction Act or PRA which can be confusing to interpret. We have some links about this in the resources section. Individual state governments may have their own policies, while academic and health-related institutions may have an Ethics/Institutional Review Board (IRB). The important thing is not to panic. Most of the people you are likely to be interviewing as part of your sprint will be internal or directly related to the organization you are working in service to, so you should be able to find a way to proceed that works within any concerns. That said, this is a case where having a lawyer, bureaucracy hacker or user research specialist on the team or able to consult can be very helpful.
Asking Good Questions
Going into every interview, the interviewer should have a list of 15 or so questions. Identify the top 5 beforehand in case time runs short, or you get too far off topic and you need to reset. Know that it’s OK to ask questions out of order based on what the stakeholder is saying. It is also OK to iterate, add or remove questions as you start to understand things more deeply.
Not every question has to sound like a formal interview question. Ask open-ended questions that will encourage further conversation. You want to keep people talking so that you get the best possible picture of ground-truth.
Here’s a list of key phrases and approaches that should be helpful:
Their education: Explore their training and background in the topic “How did you learn about…?”, “What got you interested in…”, “Who taught you…?”, “How do you know/why do you know…?”
History: “Is this the way you have always done…?”, “How or why did it change?”, “What did you do before…?”, “How did this issue get identified?”, “What do you think about that now?”, “How have you/others tried to solve this problem in the past?”
Sequencing: “What happens before this…?”, “What happens after that…?”
Interactive: “Could you draw that out for me?” (hand them a pen and a piece of paper) good for getting org charts, or the person’s perspective on an existing process
Definitions: “Can you say that acronym again?”, “We find that everyone means something a little different when they say [“agile”, “cloud”, etc, etc.] can you help me understand what you mean by…?”
Superlatives: “What’s the most [inefficient, frustrating, expensive, worst] part of the process?”, “What’s the [easiest, best, most fun, fastest] part of your day?”
- Note: It is user research best practice that superlative types of questions should always be asked in their positive/negative pairings, otherwise it can seem leading if you only ask for least without asking for most as well.
Your education: Ask questions you think you already know the answer to and see what happens “This may be a silly question, but…?”, “I never quite understood…” this will help you curb any assumptions.
Active listening: “Just to make sure I understand that…” , “What I heard you say is…” This helps an interviewee feel heard, and makes sure you are representing them, or what you think they said.
Magic wand: “If you had a magic wand and all the control, time and unlimited budget, what would you do/change/fix?”, “Why did you pick…?”
Remember that you are asking this individual for their truth. Even if you know, or suspect, that they are inaccurate, don’t correct them in the moment. It will instantly change the trust dynamic between you, and you may not get that back.
If you uncover something serious, like a major security concern, the sprint team can make the decision about what to do after the interview session. Sometimes this is an item for your report (cited anonymously). In rare cases you may want another stakeholder to know about something immediately, and that’s for the sprint team lead, or sometimes even your organization’s leadership to address.