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Research trail guide: Bringing participants back on track

Do you find your participants tend to waffle for too long? Here are some techniques for keeping user research interviews focused, including prevention strategies and methods for redirecting off-topic conversations.

Conducting user interviews can be a challenge when participants veer off course. It's easy for conversations to meander, leaving you with a wealth of information - but not necessarily the insights you need. This is particularly true when dealing with passionate or creative individuals who have a lot to share.

As always, to illustrate these challenges and solutions, I’ll use a hypothetical study on granola enthusiasts.

Why do interviews go off-topic?

First, let's address the elephant in the room: it's not entirely the participants' fault. Many people aren't linear thinkers, and some are just chatty by nature. Others believe they're being helpful by providing loads of context about their entire morning routine. But let's be honest – it's partly on us as researchers for not steering the ship effectively. So, let's talk prevention.

Preventing the detours

Set clear goals

Before you even sit down with a participant, know exactly what you want to learn about their cereal habits. This is your behind-the-scenes checklist. If you're constantly running out of time, you might be trying to cover too many breakfast insights at once.

Take control in the intro

It's not leading to establish boundaries. Try something like, "We'll start with your general breakfast habits, then zoom in on cereal choices." Also, give them a heads-up that you might need to redirect the conversation to cover everything from flakes to puffs.

Time your questions

In your interview script, estimate how long each section should take. This comes with practice, but it'll help you know when to move on if things are running long on milk preferences.

Pre-screen for communication style

If you've got stakeholders watching, consider a quick pre-interview call to ensure participants can articulate their thoughts on crunchy vs. soggy cereal clearly.

When things go off-track (because they will)

Don't panic! It happens to everyone. Here are some techniques to get back on course:

Introduce a structure

Anchor questions to a logical sequence. "Let's walk through your cereal selection process step-by-step."

Add time constraints

"Give me a quick 30-second overview of your favourite cereal toppings."

Body language cues

Lean forward, raise your head, or take a breath to signal you're about to speak, just like you’re in a meeting

Redirect smoothly

If you must interrupt, tie it back to what they've said. "That's fascinating about your childhood cereal memories. Now, let's focus on how those influence your current breakfast choices."

Remember, the goal is to gather valuable insights, not to robotically stick to a script. Use these techniques to guide the conversation while still allowing for those brilliant, unexpected nuggets that often come from a bit of breakfast banter.


Need to level up your team's interview skills? We offer workshops, coaching and script writing to help you master the art of the user research interview. After all, getting to the bottom of cereal preferences is a fine art in itself!

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