Can interviewing people make you a better conversationalist?

by Christian Kasper - 10 Aug 2016

As a User Researcher at Zalando Tech, one of my goals is to create a deeper understanding of human needs, behaviour, and decision making within the company. To create this empathetic mindset, it's crucial to master conversations with our respondents.

This post isn’t merely about interviewing users. It focuses rather on five principles that I have learned in my years at Zalando as a User Researcher that can increase the inspiration and empathy in our daily conversations; with friends and family, at work, or with the people you’ve just met.

We implement user research as a way to provide our customers with valuable content and useful features. For example, during one of our projects we spoke to frequent sneaker shoppers to help inspire future sneaker campaigns.

The challenge of these conversations was to identify reasons why people buy sneakers. It wasn’t enough to just scratch the surface and find out about the obvious pros of a pair of sneakers. We had to dig deeper to uncover and understand the different, partly unconscious triggers that led to each sneaker purchase.

By using outlined principles, the right questions, and observing interactions between users and our services, we were able to identify these triggers. I’ll explore the means we used to reach this conclusion below.

Let's start.

Lesson 1: Use questions as tools to build a connection

Asking the right questions, at the right time, can reveal inspiring and engaging stories. We also use questions as a tool to dig into a more subtle level of the human mind. You want to ask questions that reveal emotions and get into a person’s thought patterns.

Most of us have experienced conversations like the following:

Person 1: What do you like to do in your free time?
Person 2: I like meeting with friends, going to concerts, and I’m actually into running. How about you?
Person 1: Almost the same for me, except I don’t really like running – I prefer to swim.
Person 2: So, you’re also sporty...
Person 1: Yes, sort of.

Sounds incredibly boring, right? To bring the conversation to a deeper level, try asking questions that help create a meaningful connection. By continuing the conversation with a question like “What do you like about running?”, a better understanding can be established.

This effect is the reason why user researchers are constantly asking “Why” over and over again.


Lesson 2: Ask thought-provoking questions

It’s best to ask thought-provoking questions instead of obvious ones. These questions could ultimately lead to stories and turn conversations into engaging discussions:

  • Try using "How old do you feel?” as an alternative or additional question to "How old are you?"
  • Ask people "What do you want to become?” instead of "What do you do for a living?".
  • Probe deeper with "What was the highlight of your trip to Mexico?” rather than “How was your trip to Mexico?”

Questions like these make conversations more appealing and worth the investment for you and your conversation partner.

Lesson 3: Everyone is an expert

When conducting interviews to gain insights, you should put aside your own biases and experience the stories of the people you are speaking to.

It could be that your interviewee has a controversial opinion or a point of view which you don’t agree with, however it’s still important to switch off judgemental thinking and keep your ears (and mind) open to create an understanding of their story.

Don’t begin a conversation expecting to know everything; everyone has his or her own experience and should be classified as an expert in that field. Make sure to treat them that way.

Lesson 4: Be mindful

You should give your conversation partner your full attention when speaking with them. Avoid multitasking, don’t be distracted by new Snapchat filters, don’t check your emails… just be with this person. Concentrate on the conversation without any distractions.

For us, this means that during user interviews the interviewer fully concentrates on the conversation, while it is their partner’s job to observe and take notes.

Often, we drift away with our thoughts when we actually need to be listening to the person in front of us. This could be for a variety of reasons: The conversation has triggered other thoughts or we are formulating how to respond to the person we’re speaking to. Being mindful means focusing on the task at hand and not being distracted by your thoughts.

Lesson 5: Be a good listener

This lesson is one of the most obvious, but also the most important thing when it comes to conversations. Not only is it important that we listen to keep the conversation going, but more so to create an understanding in order to build a rapport with whom we’re speaking to.

Listen and notice what piques your curiosity, what you want to explore more and ask questions about it.

A good listener is not only listening, they are also connecting the dots to create a full picture and asks the right questions (see lessons 1 and 2) at the right time, without interrupting the person.

Listening also allows your conversation partner to offer more insights because you’re showing interest in what they’re saying. It’s beneficial for all involved.


The lessons above help us foster empathy for our customers and to create products that are useful and serve customer needs. Without these insights, we run the risk that our products and services wouldn’t serve a need and wouldn’t be useful to them.

If your job involves interacting with people in order to get to know them (such as interviewing customers, applicants, or talking to clients), these principles can help to reveal meaningful information that in turn creates a whole new picture of the person you are talking to.

Let your conversations reflect how you want to be perceived.

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