9 Useful Probes for Getting the Most Value from User Interview Questions (with Examples)

In qualitative research, the most valuable insights come from the smallest details.

One skill that takes some time to develop is getting interview participants to describe their experiences with nitty-gritty detail.

Why are small details so important?

Think about it like this: Is it better a) to know your customers hate your website or b) to know your customers hate your website 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.

Why?

Because when you know the details, you understand exactly what issues you’re dealing with, and you can design your strategy accordingly.

Knowing vague generalities about your users’ experience with 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 use probes and prompts in your user interviews—they will fuel your design 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 are 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?

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.

Avoid asking leading questions

Leading questions are closed-end questions that users can answer with a simple  “yes” or “no” or by repeating words from your question.

Try to avoid asking leading questions because they limit the quality of the data you get from your qualitative user interviews–which limits the quality of insights you will get from your research.

Here are a few examples of the kind of leading questions you should avoid asking in user interviews:

  • “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?”
  • “When you shop online, do you do it here in the living room?”
  • “Do you like the convenience of not having to shop the aisles inside the store?”

How do they limit the quality of your data?

First and most important, they lead to inacurrate and incomplete responses. It’s natural to want to please others in social interactions. If you ask a leading question, users may unconsciously answer in ways to please you or avoid judgment.

Responses to leading questions tend to be short. They often lack the details context we’re trying to learn about with qualitative research.

 

Ask neutral questions

Our goal with user research is to learn how usersexperience the world.

And to learn how users see the world, you need to let them craft their own answers — in their own words— so it’s best to keep your expectations out of your questions. 

Here are some examples of neutral questions:

  • “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 over Travelocity?”
  • “Where are you when you shop online for coffee?”
  • “What are some reasons you like to order groceries online?”
Neutral, unbiased probes and prompts communicate to users that you’re genuinely interested in their lives and that you respect them. 

And when users feel listened to and respected, they open up and share their honest experiences in nitty-gritty detail.

Here are 9 tried and true probes and prompts to get the most value from user interview questions (with examples)

#1: The "tell me more" probe

User:

We used some enterprise app that was supposed to be a dream calendar, but it was expensive and we couldn’t afford to get the whole company onto it. 

UX Researcher:

Tell me more about that.

User:

Well, Slack is a massive internal communication tool 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.

#2: The "uh huh" probe

User:

I always check product reviews. Reviews are big.

UX Researcher:

Uh huh.

User:

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.

#3: The "echo" probe

User:

We hire emerging photographers to create content for us.

UX Researcher:

You hire emerging photographers.

User:

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.

#4: The "it sounds like you were saying" probe

User:

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.

UX Researcher:

It sounds like you were saying you buy candy when you’re already shopping online and you’re feeling busy. 

User:

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.

#5: The silent probe

User:

Clients always want 2-minute videos but no one actually watches that long.

UX Researcher:

(nods head but remains silent)

User:

That would be great…We could make animated gifs from that, and even Instagram stories if they shot the video in a vertical orientation.

#6: The "how so?" probe

User:

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.

UX Researcher:

How so?

User:

When it’s hot, I don’t want to serve chocolate because it could melt and get messy.

#7: The "why is that important?" probe

User:

One thing they lack on this site is good descriptions of the candy.

UX Researcher:

Why is that important?

User:

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. This is just a no-frills site.

#8: The "could you give me an example?" probe

User:

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.

UX Researcher:

Could you give me an example of that?

User:

There was a Reese’s peanut butter cup that came with Reese’s Pieces in it 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.

#9: The "tell me about the last time you did that" probe

User:

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.’

UX Researcher:

Tell me about the last time you did that.

User:

Last Tuesday. I hadn’t slept in like 48 hours because I was stressed out about an exam 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 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. 

About Adam Morenberg

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