[The following is the second of two articles by college professor and researcher Ben Lewis-Evans on games user research methodology (see Part 1, which covered focus groups, heuristics, and questionnaires, as well as giving a grounding in the topic of user research in general. In this article, Lewis-Evans covers interviews, observational methods (including think out loud and contextual inquiry), game metrics, and biometrics.]
Much like a questionnaire -- a topic covered in the last installment -- an interview is for collecting subjective data. However, the face-to-face nature of an interview means that you can be more interactive in your data collection, which if done correctly, can lead to very rich data. However, it is also obviously quite time-consuming, and it is harder to analyze and quantify the data you get at the end.
The quality of what you get out of an interview will also depend greatly on your own skill as an interviewer, so here are some tips.
There are some basic things here. First, choose a good setting. Generally speaking, it should be comfortable, with as few distractions as possible.
Also, plan to generally only interview one (or perhaps two) people at a time. One is usually best, so as to avoid one person's opinion dominating, but sometimes two people can have a nice dynamic and prompt each other -- particularly if discussing a cooperative or multiplayer game.
Obviously, if you are going to be interviewing people in their own play environment, this gets harder, but still do you best to make sure extra distractions are not around (e.g. ask politely if the door can be closed, etc.).
Also it is useful to set up a way to record the interview; this doesn't have to be video, but it is important that you at least record what is said. You will not remember everything, and even if you take great notes it is a good idea to have the recording to refer back to. This is also preferable to making notes constantly, as this tends to distract the person you are interviewing and can create a feeling that they are being assessed personally -- rather than the game.
You will have to alert the person you are interviewing to the recording and get their permission. You will also have to explain to them what you are interested in asking them about, and also as with all of these methods make it clear that this interview is not about evaluating their performance, but to look at their experience of, and the performance of, the game.
You should also make an interview script; i.e. write down the questions you want to ask, and the order in which you want to ask them. However you should also be prepared to ask follow-up questions, although take care and don't be confrontational when you do. It may be your game they are badmouthing, but you need to play it cool.
When coming up with these questions many of the same rules creating questionnaires apply (see part 1 of this series). In other words, try to be clear and precise with your questions, and check they are not leading, loaded, and only have one meaning. Also take care to avoid questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no; if you are after that kind of information use a questionnaire instead.
During the Interview
Start off with some easy stuff. Much like with a questionnaire, this warms them up, and will get them in the mood to talk to you. Once you get going also take care to only ask one question at a time, and usually only move on when you are sure the person you are talking to is finished. You should practice listening empathically and encourage responding by doing things like nodding your head and saying "mm-hmm" to acknowledge you are listening to them.
It is fine if they go off on a tangent; that is part of interviewing. However, if they go too far off (say, talking too much about a great design idea they have) or spend too long, be prepared to gently nudge them back into talking about things you are interested in.
Also, try to be as neutral as possible. One bit of advice given to interviewers is to act as if you have heard it all before. Not as in you are bored, but as in that you are not shocked or overly reactive to what they are saying. This may sound like it is against the idea of empathic listening, but if done correctly, it is perfectly possible to signal that you are listening carefully without also implying you are judging.
Finally, it can be useful to finish up the interview with a short period of time where your interviewees can add anything that you may not have asked about.
After the Interview
Make a transcript. Be aware this will take some time! Then, if you conducted multiple interviews, look for common themes and threads in what people are saying. One good thing about interviews (which is also a good thing about gameplay observation and think out loud methods) is that they can generate great sound bites or quotes that can be quite convincing when given to others on the development (or even management) team.