How to approach holistic user research

Josh Meyers
5 min readDec 14, 2022

Taking a holistic approach to user research means taking a human-centered approach.

Since people have both rationale and emotional response to the world, they also have a rationale and emotional response your app or product.

This means that each user has a multi-faceted perspective of your product that can only be fully drawn out if your research plan incorporates a few key ideas…

Start with the questions

The best user interview questions are open-ended, non-leading, and specific to the app or product being discussed.

Open-ended questions allow the user to provide a more detailed and complete answer instead of simply answering yes or no. It’s important to allow users to provide their own unique perspective without leading them to a specific answer or junction.

However, specific can questions help to gather targeted, relevant feedback that can be used to improve the app or product.

When asking these questions, respectful and non-confrontational directness goes a long way. Relaxed and comfortable environments help build rapport with the user before asking questions, lest a user feel trapped or pressured by a question.

As the conversation progresses, it is important to listen actively and attentively to the user’s answers, in order to follow up with additional questions as needed to clarify or further explore their responses.

Consider rationale questions

Questions that focus on a user’s rationale are designed to elicit a more logical and thought-out response from users. These questions can help to understand user’s thought processes and uncover the reasons behind their actions.

Some examples of rationale response questions include:

  1. Can you explain why you chose to use our app over other similar options?
  2. What specific features or functions of our app do you find most valuable?
  3. Can you describe the process you go through when using our app?
  4. What do you consider to be the biggest advantage of our app compared to other options?
  5. Have you ever encountered a problem or challenge while using our app, and if so, how did you solve it?

Rationale questions are the key to outlining the bones of what a user thinks about your product and how they actually use it.

Consider emotional questions

While rationale questions provide structure, emotional questions deliver motivation for different behaviors and can be a helpful way to understand how users feel about and experience a product.

Some examples of questions that might evoke an emotional response include:

  1. How do you feel when you use our app?
  2. Can you describe a time when you felt particularly satisfied or happy with our app?
  3. Have you ever been frustrated or disappointed by our app? If so, can you tell me about that experience?
  4. Can you think of a time when our app helped you or made your life easier in some way?
  5. How does our app make you feel compared to other apps that you use?

Emotional questions fill in the rationale structure that users may rely on when making key decisions in when, how, and why they use a product.

Using a combination of rationale and emotional questions will drive a balanced view of the user’s perspective and allow them to share their experience on multiple levels.

But what happens when results diverge?

When conducting user interviews, it’s also important to account for the fact that different users may have different experiences and perspectives.

Users may be more driven by emotion or rational which can lead to a wide range of different answers to the same question. This can be both a strength and a challenge.

One way to overcome diverse and divergent answers is to conduct a large number of user interviews, which can help to provide a more complete and representative sample of users and their experiences.

This helps to identify common themes and patterns in the responses, as well as any outlier or unusual responses that are either flukes or identifiers of a deeper question to be asked.

Another way to account for diverse and divergent answers is to use qualitative data analysis techniques, such as thematic analysis. These methods can help to organize and analyze data in a structured way in order to identify key themes and patterns that emerge from the responses.

It’s also important to keep in mind that not all answers may be equally valuable or relevant. Thus, it is helpful to focus on feedback that is specific, actionable, and supported by multiple users, rather than focusing on individual or outlier responses.

Research is only as good as its documentation

Now that the proper questions have been asked, it is essential to document the responses and conversations so that there is a record of insights that can be revisited and shared with the broader team.

Some potential approaches for documenting and organizing user interview answers include:

  1. Transcribing the interviews verbatim: This can provide a complete and detailed record of the user’s answers, which can be useful for in-depth analysis and interpretation.
  2. Summarizing the key points from each interview: This can help to identify the most important and relevant information from the interviews, and to organize it in a more concise and manageable format.
  3. Categorizing and tagging the answers: This can help to identify common themes and patterns in the data, and to organize the answers in a way that makes it easier to analyze and interpret.
  4. Creating a visual database of the answers: This can help to organize the answers in a structured and systematic way, and to make it easier see the data in concert.

It’s important to choose a documentation and organization approach that is suited to the specific goals and needs of the user interviews, and to regularly review and update the documentation as new data is collected.

To conclude

Holistic user research means taking into account the complexities of people and their multi-faceted perspectives.

The challenge is to draw out both rationale and emotional responses, make sense of them when they diverge, and synthesize them via documentation into a helpful format to share and drive decisions.

Overall, user interviews can be a powerful tool for gathering and analyzing user feedback, and for improving the design and functionality of an app or product.

Disclaimer: I wrote this with the help of AI