7 Practical Ways to Build Rapport Quickly in User Interviews

If you don't establish rapport in the first few minutes your user interviews will yield fewer insights and yield lower value insights.

It’s common for non-professional and new researchers to have trouble establishing rapport in qualitative interviews.

Sometimes they believe they should act like Tom Cruise interrogating Jack Nicholson in the courtroom at the end of A Few Good Men.

“If I can just outsmart the person I’m interviewing,” they think, “I’ll be able to break through their deception and get them to give up the goods.” 

But the truth is closer to that dandruff shampoo commercial from the 1980s: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” 

Since qualitative interviews usually only last an hour or so, each minute is precious. If you don’t establish rapport quickly in the first few minutes, your user interviews will yield fewer insights, and yield lower-value insights.

When people feel like they’re being interrogated or criticized, they become self-conscious, shy, and defensive. They use fewer details in their descriptions and they talk less.  

And who can blame them? Clamming up is a natural response to feeling threatened.

Yes, bad interviews can be replaced. But replacement interviews are expensive. You’ll have to spend money on an extra incentive in addition to the extra time and money you’ll be spending on finding, screening, and scheduling your replacement.

It’s much easier to get your interviews right the first time.

You can save yourself the cost (and embarrassment) of wasted interviews by following the seven rapport-building steps I outline below. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will always produce successful interviews, but they will definitely maximize your chances.

Read on to learn how to establish rapport quickly at the beginning of user interviews.

Call your respondent the day before your interview to briefly introduce yourself and review the appointment details.

Call respondents the day before your user interviews

Seasoned researchers begin building rapport before their interviews even begin. A quick phone call to introduce yourself and review the appointment details is all it takes. 

Say something like this: 

“Hi, my name is Adam and I am the person who’ll be interviewing you tomorrow for the online wine shopping study that pays $100. Does tomorrow at 4 o’clock still work for you? Great. I’ll meet you at 555 Main Street in the lobby. You’ll be able to recognize me because I’ll be wearing a blue shirt and glasses. I also wanted to see if you had any questions about the study I could answer for you. No? Okay, well then I’m looking forward to meeting you tomorrow and hope you have a great day. See you tomorrow at 4! Bye.” 

Do you see what I did there?

I allowed the person to hear my voice, so they understand I’m not just an anonymous bureaucrat who wants to meet. In addition to making our interview the second occasion we get to speak, personally calling them also subtly communicates that our appointment is not something they can blow off or “forget about.”

I also confirmed our appointment and prevented any confusion about when and where we are meeting, as well as the the amount of the incentive.

I let them know how they could recognize me, giving them a little bit of power over me in the interaction.

I offered help in the form of answering any questions they may have.

And as I reconfirmed the important stuff, I also let them know I was  looking forward to meeting them, showing them that I am interested in them.

Two minutes is all it takes, but calling the person you’ll be  interviewing is so important to quickly creating rapport.  

One exception to this is if you’ll be interviewing a coworker or business partner and you’ve sent them a calendar invite. In those cases, a call may be overkill. Use your best judgement.

Imagine you're secretly playing the role of a therapist.

Therapists practice “validation” with their patients, which means they empathize with their patients’ problems and ways of seeing the world. As a researcher, this should be your frame of mind going into every interview.

Our goal as researchers is to learn from the people we interview. The best way to learn from users is to get them to feel comfortable and accepted, like they’re speaking with someone who understands where they’re coming from. Like a therapist.

Remember to smile and sound natural.

While the first two tips are things you do before the interview begins, everything from here should happen in the first five minutes of the interview.

It may sound silly, but some new researchers are so nervous about doing a good job that they forget to smile.  You’ll want to smile when you lock eyes for the first time and smile periodically throughout the interview to let them know you’re enjoying your conversation.

Part of showing that you’re enjoying your conversation is sounding natural. Reading questions off a sheet of paper can make you sound like a robot. After all, interviews are unnatural and contrived. 

I know what I’m about to say is counter-intuitive, but it’s true: the best way to sound natural is to practice sounding natural. When you’re preparing, practice reading each question out loud to yourself a few times to make sure you’re putting emphasis in the right words, and the right parts of the words. 

Even though most of your questions have gone through several drafts of revisions, when you’re asking them out loud, each one should sound spontaneous.

Briefly set the scene and explain your role.

Right after you find each other and settle in, you should briefly describe the general goal of the research and the role you play in that process.

Even if you personally recruited and scheduled  the person you are interviewing, they will still be hazy about the purpose of your interview.

Take a minute at the very start to introduce why you’re conducting the research, what you hope to learn from them, and why they should feel comfortable sharing their opinions with you.

Say something like this:

“I wanted to take a minute and explain the purpose of our research. Basically we’re trying to learn how people shop for wine online, so we’re talking to people like you who have shopped for wine online. I also wanted to let you know a little about me. I am a researcher at Amazing Insights, and we’re a professional research firm who’s been hired to find out how people shop for wine online. My goal today is to find out how you like to shop for wine.  I don’t have a horse in the race. So nothing you tell me will hurt my feelings. I really just enjoy talking with people and learning what they think.”

Even though the recruiter probably explained the purpose of the research, don’t assume they explained it clearly or accurately. And even if they did, the repetition will feel comforting to hear.

If you work for a research agency, the line about not having a horse in the race will work great at communicating that your feelings can’t be hurt. It establishes you as a non-judgmental observer.

If you work for the company you’re doing research for, tell them you don’t work as a designer or developer, and therefore don’t have a horse in the race. It will work just as well.

Explain the tools you'll be using.

For many people you interview, this will be their first time at the qualitative research rodeo. They may have never seen a voice recorder and may not undertand why you need to keep looking at your moderator guide. 

You can alleviate their confusion by explaining all the tools you’ll be using.

Say something like this:

“I also wanted to explain all my tools for the interview. This is my moderator guide, and it’s basically just a list of the questions I’ll be asking you. The questions will sound weird sometimes, but I’ve found that this is best way to ask them. You’ll see me looking at that a lot, but it’s not because I’m not interested in what you’re saying, it’s just me trying to keep track of my questions. I’ll also be taking notes in it occasionally. And this is my voice recorder. All it does is record audio, and it records the interview so it can be transcribed later. After it’s transcribed, I’ll use the transcript to write a report about our interview. And last is this, the informed consent form. It basically explains the purpose of our research and says you give me permission to record the interview and take pictures. Here, take a copy for yourself and take a moment to read it.”

Anything you can do to answer users’ questions and increase their confidence in knowing what lies ahead will help build rapport, and explaining your tools will definitely help.

Explain exactly what you'll do with the interview data-and what you won't do.

Keep interview respondent data safe

In the internet age, privacy is on many people’s minds. Even if the person you’re interviewing seems warmed up at this point, you can warm them up even more by explaining exactly what you will do with their data and how you will protect it.

Say something like this:

“I also wanted to promise you that only a few people will ever hear the audio or see pictures (or video) from our interview today. We will keep all the audio and pictures private and we’ll never put it on YouTube or anything like that.”

This last bit is usually met with a chuckle, but it’s important because it hammers home that you understand they may be nervous about their privacy and that you take it seriously. When you mention YouTube by name,  people understand it means the “internet.” 

And it gets a laugh, which never hurts.

Start with some icebreakers.

Break the ice in ethnographic interviews

At this point, you’ve done most of the talking and the person you’ll be interviewing has only said a few words. You’ll want to get them warmed up and used to answering your questions, so start with some easy questions.

I usually begin interview by asking about the person’s household in general: 

“To begin, tell me a little about yourself and your household.”

Everyone is accustomed to questions about their occupation and family, and it’s the most normal-sounding question you’ll be asking. Note that you’ll want to say “household” and not “family” because many people live alone or with roommates, and you always want to sound judgement-free. Remember, you’re their to learn about them and you want to validate their personal experiences as normal and natural.

The second question I usually ask is also easy, but it focuses on their  experience with the product category you’re investigating. 

Say something like this:

“Tell me about your online wine shopping and what led you to start shopping for wine online.”

Technically, this is a double-barreled question and something you’d  want to avoid, but you can make an exception for this one because the first part is so general and provides a gentle transition to the second part, which is harder. Category experience questions make great icebreakers, but remember to start with general questions before moving into more specific ones. 

Additional Resources

How about you?

What are your favorite tips for building rapport quickly in user interviews? Let’s discuss in the comments.

I’m a freelance user experience researcher, UX designer, and WordPress developer. I study how people get things done online, teach brands of all sizes how to understand their users, and help them design satisfying, effective websites.

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