Here’s one thing I’ve learned from reading thousands of user interview transcripts as a research manager: In qualitative research, the most valuable insights come from the smallest details.
There are lots of decent qualitative researchers in the world, but one skill that sets great qualitative researchers apart is their ability to get participants to describe their experiences with nitty-gritty details.
Why are small details so important?
Think about it like this: Is it better a) to know your customers hate your web site or b) to know your customers hate your web site because the search feature doesn’t return accurate results, the product descriptions are boring, and the product reviews seem like they were written by underpaid fiverr workers?
If you answered b, you’re 100% correct.
Because when you know the details, you understand exactly what issues you’re dealing with, and your company can plan and strategize accordingly.
When it comes to building your business, knowing vague generalities about the user experience of your product won’t help you get more customers.
But there’s gold in the details.
To start finding that gold, you’ll need to learn how to use probes and prompts to follow-up on user interview questions and elicit those rich specific details that will fuel your insights
What are probes?
Probing is a technique for asking follow-up questions that user experience researchers use to motivate participants to elaborate further about a topic the researcher would like to learn more about.
Probes are tools you can use to invite participants to add rich details to their descriptions and explanations.
There’s nothing magical about why probing is so effective because most probes are just short instructions, gestures, or questions.
But to reap the benefits of probing, you’ll need to learn some effective probes.
What about prompts?
Prompting is another interviewing technique used by user experience researchers.
Prompting is defined as asking a participant to discuss a topic that’s interesting to the researcher. Researchers will prompt a participant to discuss a topic if the participant hasn’t touched on that topic yet.
Like probing, prompting is used to motivate participants to discuss a topic in greater detail.
What's the difference between probes and prompts? How are they different?
Technically, probing and prompting are different research techniques, since probing is defined as asking follow-up questions and prompting is defined as asking about a topic the researcher finds interesting.
In reality, however, many UX researchers use the two terms interchangeably, or simply refer to “probes” and “probing” as catch-all terms for both types of interview questions.
Good probes and prompts are neutral
When qualitative researchers use neutral (or non-directional) probes and prompts, they don’t make assumptions about how participants will answer.
They leave the door open for participants to answer any way they like, using whatever words they wish.
In other words, probes and prompts should not be “leading questions.”
Whatever you do, don't ask "leading questions" and guess how participants will answer:
- “Did you feel frustrated when you couldn’t find the item you were looking for?”
- “Do you go online to shop at Amazon.com and Walmart.com every week?”
- “Do you prefer booking with Expedia because you don’t have to spend time signing up for a new account?”
- “Do you shop online here in the living room?”
- “Do you like the convenience of not having to shop the aisles inside the store?”
Instead, ask open-ended questions like these:
- “How did you feel when you couldn’t find the item you were looking for?”
- “How often do you go online to shop at Amazon.com and Walmart.com?”
- “What makes you prefer booking flights with Expedia?”
- “Where are you when you shop online?”
- “What are some reasons you like to order groceries online?”
8 useful probes and prompts to get the most from user interview questions (with examples)
Read on to learn how to use probes and prompts to get valuable, insight-rich data from your qualitative user interviews.
Each of the examples below come from real interviews I moderated for UX research projects. However, I did edit them for readability and to mask the identities of participants.
The "tell me more" probe
We used some app that was supposed to be a dream calendar for companies, but it was crazy expensive and we couldn’t afford to get the whole company onto it. It’s tough to find a good tool that grows with the scale of your company.
Tell me more about that.
Well, Slack is a massive channel for us. It’s our primary way of messaging internally. No one communicates over email internally. Almost every single one of my emails is external.
The "uh huh" probe
I always check reviews. Reviews are big.
But you have to be careful, because there’s a lot of paid reviews, whether it’s Amazon, or Google Express, or Jet. And you can’t always trust them. So I read them, but they don’t make my ultimate decision.
The "echo" probe
We work with... they're not National Geographic-level photographers, but we do hire emerging photographers to create content for us.
You hire emerging photographers.
It’s more affordable, you usually get way more content out of them. And emerging photographers really understand how photos live on digital, especially mobile.
The "it sounds like you were saying ..." probe
If I am already shopping at Target or Walmart, I might go ahead and order some candy, especially if I know I've got a busy schedule coming up and I am not going to have time to grocery shop.
It sounds like you were saying you buy candy when you're feeling busy and already shopping online.
Yeah, when we are working long hours or if the kids have a lot of activities, then I'll sit on the couch and get my shopping done when I watch TV at night, after the kids go to bed and it's quiet.
The silent probe
Clients always want 2-minute videos but no one actually watches that long.
(nods head but remains silent)
That would be great…We could make animated gifs from that, and even Instagram stories if they shot the video in a vertical orientation.
The "how so?" probe
I normally do chocolate for major holidays and hard candy for family holidays. Like on Memorial Day, I’ll go for more colored candies. Weather could play into it as well.
When it’s hot, I don’t want to serve chocolate because it could melt and get messy.
The "why is that important?" probe
One thing they lack on this site is descriptions of the candy.
Why is that important?
Descriptions help me learn about the candies and compare them so I can make an informed decision. For example, if you click on “blue candy canes” it doesn’t give you any reviews or detailed pictures or nutrition information like Amazon does. It's a no-frills site.
The "could you give me an example?" probe
You can’t get a lot of candy around here because we're so rural. So if it’s a hard to find item I will order it online in bulk.
Could you give me an example of that?
There was a Reese's peanut butter cup that came with Reese's Pieces in it. They’re really good, but you can’t really find them around here anymore. So I had to go up on Amazon because I couldn’t locate it. So it was kind of a unique find, but Amazon had them in bulk.
The "tell me about the last time you did that" probe
My candy shopping decisions are pretty emotional. If it has been a long, bad day then I will think 'It's time to order some candy.'
Tell me about the last time you did that.
Last Tuesday. I hadn’t slept in like 48 hours because I was stressed out about an oral exam I had to present for and it was a really nerve-wracking. After I got home I went up to Instacart and got a bunch of Snickers and M&M's.
What are your favorite interviewing probes and prompts?
I’d love to hear from you. Tell us what works well for you (or not so well!) down in the comments.