Written by Lizzie Combs

A stranger sliding into your DMs is one thing, but what if a stranger asked to read your private messages on dating apps and social media, plus all your texts, while recording your screen? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what we convinced 30 people to do for a recent study.

Our client came to us with the idea. They’re building a new product related to messaging, and wanted to know more about how people use different apps to communicate. They weren’t interested in public posts; they wanted to see the juicy stuff—direct messages, where real communication happens. Over the course of a month, I spent 30 hours conducting one-on-one interviews with study participants, dissecting their conversations to find product insights for our client.

It was an unusual mission, but the do’s and don’ts I learned along the way can help anyone conduct more effective market research interviews.

How We Did It

Like most things in the age of coronavirus, our interview process relied on Zoom. Each participant joined my call on both desktop and mobile: On desktop we could see each other clearly, and on mobile, they screen-shared so I could watch them open apps, click conversations, and scroll. I recorded our sessions so I could review them later (of course, we got permission to do this.) Even though we were discussing pretty intimate stuff, people have gotten comfortable with Zoom, so I suspect it will continue to be a useful interview tool even after the pandemic ends.

Do: Prepare, Then Improvise

Before I began the interviews, I created a list of questions: How do you like to use this app? What makes you message someone on this app? What do you talk about? These questions served as my guide for each interview.

I use the word “guide” intentionally. This wasn’t a script; it was a jumping-off point. Each interview took unique turns, and each participant had quirks. In order to uncover meaningful insights, I often found myself following a surprising line of thought, asking questions that I hadn’t anticipated beforehand, or simply saying “oh, tell me more.”

Do: Take Notes (with Timestamps)

I can’t stress this enough: take good notes. Write everything down, even things that don’t seem important in the moment. You may not know what information is valuable until long after interviews end.

Here’s a bonus tip from Part and Sum strategist Anath: Include timestamps in your notes. Hear something interesting? Note the time. Later, you can go back to your recording and quickly find the exact moment you need. After dozens of hours on Zoom, you won’t want to spend hours scrubbing through recordings. Trust me. Timestamps became my best friends.

Do: Go Old-School

I’ll have to plant a tree to make up for it, but I printed my notes, and I’m not sorry. Having them on paper helped me organize a ton of information, especially as I transitioned from interviewing to synthesizing what I’d gathered.

First, I pulled out all the pages related to key themes and compared them side-by-side. I sorted and re-sorted participants into customer personas. I highlighted, underlined, drew arrows, and scribbled. There’s something about the physical act of flipping through pages that brings clarity in a way that Google Docs simply can’t.

Do: Stay Flexible

Despite your numerous reminder emails, people will bail on you. And despite your well-written instructions and helpful how-to videos, people will join the call on one device and not the other, often with 15% battery. There’s only one thing to do: Roll with it. Plan ahead for logistical snafus. Set aside time for rescheduling, and remember to relax your shoulders.

Don’t: Forget the “Why”

This comes from Part and Sum strategist Emily, who once had to review a study that wasn’t conducted well. The interviewers marked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on what participants did, but moved on before finding out why they made those choices.

Yes or no answers can be helpful if you’re running a quick survey, but in-depth interviews have to go further. If you aren’t asking “why?” or saying “tell me more about that,” you’re missing out on rich insights you can’t get from a survey.