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How to Understand User Subconscious Through In-Depth Interviews


Our conscious thoughts are just the tip of an iceberg, and under the surface lies a subconscious full of potential.

When improving a service, it is important to know the image of the service that users desire. Research has shows that consumers can only clearly verbalize around 5% of their desires, while the rest lies in the subconscious. To create a service that comes close to their mental image, it’s key to go beyond the tip of the iceberg.

That’s where in-depth interviews can help. By digging into unconscious desires that even users themselves are unaware of, we can understand their essential needs and build better products and services around them.

What is an in-depth interview?

An in-depth interview is a research method where an interviewer sits down with a user/interviewee for 30 to 60 minutes and asks them questions one on one.

In the interview, instead of gathering superficial information, interviewers are able to go deep into a particular subject and ask follow-up questions. In-depth interviews great for clarifying the motives, aspirations, dissatisfaction, values, etc. behind life and behavior from the answers and reactions of the target person.

In-depth Interview Pros and Cons

While there a variety of advantages to running in-depth interviews (as opposed to surveys or focus groups), there are also number of disadvantages. When incorporating in-depth interviews into the improvement of your product or service, make sure to take these into account!

In-Depth Interview Pros

  1. You can focus on each individual user.
    Since In-depth Interviews are 1-on-1, you can dedicate enough time to each individual user and focus on drawing out insights. You can go beyond the purchasing behavior and brand selection and dig deeper into the desires behind user behavior, like changes in lifestyle and life events.
  2. You can discuss topics that are difficult to talk about in public.
    Since only the subject and the interviewer are present, the interviewer can touch on topics that are generally difficult to ask, like medical history and financial matters.
  3. You can avoid bias caused by others comments.
    When interviewing multiple people at one time (group interviews), subjects may be swayed by the opinions of others. Since you can hear the subject’s raw opinion, you can learn their needs with a higher degree of accuracy.

In-depth Interview Cons

  1. They are time consuming.
    It takes a significant amount of time to interview, arrange scheduling, and analyze findings for each interviewee. The cost will also increase, so consider carefully when hiring them. It is a good idea to clarify the purpose and issues of the survey before conducting it.
  2. They require skill and practice.
    In-depth interviews are designed to be somewhat free-form. Though there will be questions as a guide, interviewers must be able to follow along and ask the right questions as they pop up. The interviewer’s ability to ask questions and make decisions is key to obtaining high quality results.

Things to Keep in Mind

There are a few important things to keep in mind throughout the entire in-depth interview process, from preparation through execution.

Before the Interview

You can’t just jump right in– there is a process to follow before the interview itself.

  • Step 1. Clarify the purpose and main issues you want to cover through your research and formulate a research hypothesis.
  • Step 2. Gather interviewees.
  • Step 3. Create a flow/guide to use as a reference during the interview.

One of the key points is the stage of gathering the target audience. Prior to the interview, the conditions of the target population are defined based on the purpose of the research, the problem, and the hypothesis. Screening is one of the most important steps for running successful user interviews.


The subject should be screened according to the purpose of the interview. It is important to make the criteria very clear for who you are seeking as a subject.

Example Scenario: We didn’t do a thorough screening.

For an education-related project, you conducted interviews with parents. However, the parents were indifferent to their children’s education. When you asked the subject the “why” behind their answers, they were unable to respond, and the survey results revealed very little useful information about children’s education.

▶︎ At the screening stage, we should have also tried to determine the parents’ level of interest in their children’s education, and selected parents who showed interest.

No matter how great the hypothesis and interview flow you create, if subjects are not properly screened, the interview will likely be useless. Make sure that your screening process is closely aligned with the purpose and issues you are trying to cover through your research.

Let’s start the interview!

What should we pay attention to when actually conducting the interview? Let’s take a look.

Example Scenario:Not getting clear answers.

The interviewee is shy. When I asked them anything, they only reply with, “Yes, that’s right.”
I was so eager to prove my hypothesis correct that I repeatedly asked questions that were so specific that I could only answer with yes or no.
In the end, I wasn’t able to dig deeper into the person’s subconscious and gather true insights…

Use the 5W1H

It is a good idea to keep the 5W1H in mind when asking for explanations from interviewees, to avoid situations like the one above. The 5W1H are:
Through the interviewees’ answers to these six essential questions, you can gain a deeper sense of their motivations.

Example Scenario : A successful interview!

A company planning to launch a new service asked you to conduct a survey to see if it would be used by people in their 20s. The results of the interview revealed that people in their 20s are reluctant to spend money. Additionally, since they are at an age where they are still exploring and discovering new interests, you came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to build loyalty among them.

You were able to advise them to shift their focus to designing simple products that could be used free of charge by young people, so that they could try it out without commitment and build brand loyalty more easily.

Without in-depth interviews, the direction of the service would have been at odds with user needs!

It’s always interesting to discover user insights that differ from your hypothesis, but don’t be discouraged if your hypothesis was correct and you didn’t discover any “new” information. Now you can move forward with the project with confidence!

The strength of in-depth interviews is that they can verify what numbers alone cannot reveal, to enrich our understanding.

Understanding Users’ True Intentions

In-depth interviews are a great way to get a deeper understanding of the user’s psyche, but it’s common for interviewers themselves to get nervous during the interview. In order to conduct a quality interview, you should be aware of the following points.

  • Use empathy to break down barriers.

Interviewees are inevitably wary of interviewers at first. If you are the interviewer, you might also feel worried about how the interviewee is feeling.

To help overcome this, try to make small talk as an ice breaker when asking for basic information at the beginning of the survey. This will make the interviewee feel more comfortable talking to you. Also, during the interview, you can create an atmosphere where users feel at ease to talk about their true feelings by using friendly body language and empathizing with their situation.

  • The interviewer is only a listener.

The goal is to elicit deep psychological information from the interviewee, so it is the user who should do the talking. The interviewer should concentrate on the questions and try not to talk so much. Since the interviewee may be saying things unconsciously, it’s also a good idea to dig deeper by showing that you’re listening carefully, for example asking “You said ___ earlier. What did you mean by that?”

It is also very important to wait and allow some dead air during the interview. When people are asked “why,” they tend to take some time to answer. Wait patiently and slowly draw out their true feelings.

In-depth Interviews at Neuromagic

Many companies cut out and outsource user research, and then use the results to produce or improve their products. However, when outsourcing, researchers can only understand and process information from a third party perspective.

We try to smoothly connect the dots with later production and service development by doing everything in-house, taking care of the entire production process, including service improvement.

All-in-one production means that,

  1. Since all other processes can share information internally, we can smoothly reflect our intentions and conduct the research as we wish.
  2. The interview can be mixed with information that you want to capture in a later process.

We often move directly to workshops after the user interviews, in which we analyze the needs identified in the interviews to get a more refined picture of the user.

Through in-depth interviews, it’s possible to find out the behavioral background and subconscious, and to know the needs of the user more precisely. They are very valuable in informing personas and customer journeys to guide service developments and improvements.

We hope you will give them a try!

Shin Nagisa

Service Design Intern

Shin is a university student in China, majoring in international journalism. She has experience in writing, video editing, and news account management and is currently studying service and context design. Raised in Japan, Shin is bilingual in Mandarin and Japanese.

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