Motivational interviewing is the UX research tool you haven’t read about

4 min read
Anna-Zsofia Csontos
  •  Apr 11, 2019
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The intersection between design and psychology is well-researched, with its most pronounced impact on UX research. Some of these practices are well-known—Gestalt principles, for example—but my favorite, a technique known as motivational interviewing, has yet to make it into the standard UX research toolkit.

Based on empathy and candid communication, MI is used to get to the heart of what drives people to make choices—what motivates them, and where do they face conflict while making decisions.

As a psychologist and researcher at a UX agency called UX Studio, my day is spent combining what I learned in my psychology practice and dealing with patients with what I know about design. The goal for both disciplines, after all, is to gain insight into the human experience.

Motivational interviewing isn’t in the average UX practitioner toolbox. It’s a technique taken from clinical psychology that’s rarely seen in the business world, though its focus on empathy and understanding motivations makes it a natural fit for UX research.

It’s a method I used frequently with patients in my clinical practice. If it helped me uncover behavioral motivations and formed habits in that setting, could it be adapted to UX research?

It’s now become an integral part of my interview practice. Here’s why.

We’ll be going into:

  • What motivational interviewing (MI) is
  • How we can adopt the method for UX research
  • What elements of motivational interviewing will give us the most relevant user insights
  • Practical examples that you can use while conducting user research
The Venn diagram of UX, as seen by the user

We already know that if we want to improve the user experience of a product, we have to know about the users’ motivation and understand their mental models and behavioral patterns.

Defining motivational interviewing

The term was coined by clinical psychologist William Miller, who described MI as “directive client-centered counseling approach for initiating behavior change by helping clients to resolve ambivalence”.

Its clinical use is to help patients change their lifestyle by altering, adopting, or eradicating ingrained habits. It’s not necessarily a set of techniques; rather, it’s a style or approach to assisting patients in overcoming ambivalence and cultivating new habits.

Motivational interviewing in four words

Psychology theorists love their acronyms. In motivational interviewing, the most important one is OARS, representing the basic interaction skills and techniques that guide the practice.

  • Open-ended questions
  • Affirmations
  • Reflective listening
  • Summary

Open-ended questions

This method is used to encourage the patient, or research participant, to introduce and describe themselves. Open-ended questions demand answers beyond yes or no, allowing the practitioner to subtly guide and direct the conversation while encouraging the participant to share.

As open-ended questions feel more natural and “conversation-like,” they demonstrate curiosity and genuine interest from the practitioner’s end. Especially when beginning questions with phrases like Tell me more about… and moving from general questions to specifics, the practitioner or researcher shows empathy and emphasizes that the discussion is focused on the participant.

Good: Tell me about your experiences with parking payments.

Bad: Do you use a mobile app to pay for your parking?


Affirmative statements show recognition, support, appreciation, and respect, but they’re not praise. They’re honest, but ultimately repetitions of what the patient or participant is telling you—so they’re also neutral, specific, and genuine.

These affirmations don’t even have to be verbal. Nodding your head and making eye contact are great nonverbal-yet-affirming cues.

Good: It sounds to me that you put a great effort into cooking to show your care.

Bad: Wow, you must be a wonderful cook, I wish I could do that!

Reflective listening

This method of listening is a wonderful combination of intention, desire to understand your participant, and hypothesis testing. Your goal is to make sure you understand not just what your participant is saying, but what they actually mean—even if those two are leagues apart.

Forms of reflective listening include—listed from simplest to most difficult—repeating, rephrasing, paraphrasing, and reflection of feeling.

Reflection of feeling is the tricky one: it means finding a way to restate the participant’s emotions to see if you can express in words what they haven’t succeeded in doing.

Good: So, to make sure I understand, you always book your gym class last minute, because you want to leave your schedule open out of fear for having to overstay at the office.

Bad: Ok, I understand. My next question is…

Reflective listening is where MI differs between psychotherapy and UX research. Though it’s considered the backbone of insightful interviews in both practices, the depth and frequency of reflections bears a significant impact on the method’s effectiveness—giving practitioners a significant advantage.


Throughout the interview, it’s good practice to summarize what’s been said by your participant, helping you link their statements together like puzzle pieces. There will be discrepancies and dissonances, but those aren’t your job to resolve.

Your role is to share your understanding of their feelings, even if that means being corrected by the participant or having them tack on to their first statements.

Good: What I heard so far is that you are frustrated by the unreliability of the train service; however, going to work every day by car is too costly for you. You know there are carpooling options, but something is holding you back from starting out.

Bad: You will stop using the train service because it has let you down so many times, and as a next step you will sign up for a car-sharing site.

The goal of OARS

At its most basic interpretation, OARS just sounds like how a conversation should naturally flow. The key is to use these skills mindfully, and ultimately, to balance between these techniques and the flow of a natural conversation. These might sound pretty generic, but a key to these skills is to use them intentionally—which is what will make it a professional interaction and not just a casual conversation.

There’s no right order or percentage for these techniques. Every session will have its own flow, the same way every conversation is different in its own way. Humans are complex creatures, and to crack open each person’s internal struggles takes a unique, thoughtful approach.

The why and how of motivational interviewing

In its original application, the goal of MI is to facilitate behavior change in a wide range of patients, from those struggling with substance abuse to those looking for corporate change.

But can one singular interaction style be effective across all of these use cases? If so, how?

Thinking out loud works

Have you ever been caught by surprise by something you said?

Sometimes, all it takes to understand our thoughts is to say them out loud. MI relies on a certain conversational style to get to the root of our behavioral problems; if the patient, or research participant, can put their thoughts and actions into words, then they can understand on their own where those aren’t matched up.

In order to help patients achieve change, we have to understand what’s motivating them and learn to work with both the positives and negatives of their current lifestyle. The empathy, reflective listening, and non-judgemental attitude that this requires is critical to MI’s success—and is integral to effective UX research.

Where UX research meets psychology

With their emphasis on direct communication, person-centered conversational approach, and empathy, the principles of MI are also the ones that define a great UX interview.

Though they may share techniques, user-centered research isn’t deep psychotherapy. Research studies are often one-off interviews, and the goals of those interviews aren’t to change behavior, but rather, to understand the participant’s problems, behaviors, and habits—as opposed to how they might report their behavior on a questionnaire.

The UX benefits of a therapy approach

While the stated goal of MI is to achieve behavior change, the larger underlying goal is to bring patients into a mental space where they can understand and act upon the steps needed to change their lives. Its first application was as a person-centered, collaborative, and respectful approach to managing, and eventually beating, substance abuse by respecting the patient’s autonomy, values, and choices.

“With their emphasis on direct communication, person-centered conversational approach, and empathy, the principles of MI are also the ones that define a great UX interview.”

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The current technical definition of MI still represents this original aim.

Motivational interviewing is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.”

Empathy and acceptance are features that are critical not just to clinical work, but also to successful UX research. That doesn’t mean, however, that MI is always the appropriate technique to use. Read on for when to incorporate MI, and when to leave it behind.

Digging deep with MI

MI is a good fit for situations where you need to dig deep to identify core problems and motivations for users, like food tracking apps for people with allergies or managers who want more insight into their employees’ behavior. It is especially useful in the discovery phase, when learning about users/customers and building empathy is essential.

This isn’t a technique for validating product ideas; rather, it’s best suited for learning about customer needs in the discovery stage.

When is motivational interviewing right for UX research?

The same way you wouldn’t dress the same for every family function, you shouldn’t use the same interview technique for every UX research project. While motivational interviewing is a great choice, it’s not always going to be the right choice.

“Treat each conversation as its own unique research opportunity and let the conversation produce its own results, instead of directing it to achieve set goals.”

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It’s great for meeting these needs:

Uncovering deeper motivations

When we have a suspicion that there’s a difference between what users say they do vs. what they actually do, MI is the trick. By engaging the participant in candid, open conversation, MI practitioners can normalize the dissonance between their thoughts and actions and evoke thoughtful analysis of their behaviors.

Motivational interviewing takes us to the heart of what makes users tick, beyond superficial observations and what they might write on a survey.

Copping to behaviors we’re not proud of

We all have a habit that we want to keep secret, whether it’s a candy drawer at work or a reality TV addiction. They’re not behaviors we’re proud of, and certainly not what we want to bring up in an interview or survey.

However, as opposed to a survey, the empathetic and conversational nature of motivational interviewing is much more likely to bring these hard-to-admit thoughts and behaviors.

When you are researching a product that people love to hate

When your product is controversial, whether it’s a game you can’t stop playing or an app you can’t stop swiping, MI helps participants make sense of how they feel about their usage.

The dissonance of using an app that you know isn’t good for you can be heavy—but only if you choose to think about it. It’s easy to swipe hot-or-not all day long, but to hear yourself admitting to that habit is less pleasant.

Getting to the bottom of these habits is a complex problem, but it’s made much easier with the candid nature of MI-influenced conversation.

I’ll save you a seat.

Common motivational interviewing missteps in UX research

Pushing your own agenda

It’s natural to want to steer conversations in a certain direction or towards a certain desired outcome. The key to surpassing this is pushing yourself past “UX autopilot” and actively engaging with your conversation partner in real-time.

Treat each conversation as its own unique research opportunity and let the conversation produce its own results, instead of directing it to achieve set goals.

Following a rigid interview structure

Conversations can’t be planned or plotted. The best way to actively engage is to fully get into the conversation, without worrying about the stages and phases of the conversation you planned in your head.

You’re still in charge of guiding the interview, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be steering; rather, you’ll be directing the flow. Forget your script in favor of genuine, unplanned reactions and questions that come from deep listening.

This means that you not only have to consciously focus on your choice of words, but also direct your attention to the research participant and what they’re saying in real time. In order to do so, practice reflective listening—let go of the rigid sequence of interview questions and direct the conversation according to your user’s reactions.

Listening lightly

On the topic of deep listening, the success of MI is in part determined by the clinician’s listening skills. It’s about being fully, genuinely present, enough so you can look behind the participant’s words and into their intentions.

The point of MI is to undercover the profound meaning behind what we’re ready to admit. To get there, you need to be sharp and on your listening game. There’s possibly a sea of values, hopes, motivations, and dreams buried behind what your conversation partner is readily giving up.

Don’t try to change your user

MI’s clinical applications differ from UX research here, so it is ultra-important to tread lightly when translating this methodology to UX research. As a UX researcher, you don’t want to change the study participants, and you’re not offering them counseling.

“To understand motivation and behavior, we have to come in with empathy—using the UX research tools and listening abilities we have to understand our participants.”

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In the case of UX research, we rarely have consecutive sessions. Whereas the goal of using MI in psychotherapy is to confront patients with their conflicting behaviors and attitudes, the UX research goal is to understand their motivations and relationships regarding products, services, or topics..

You want to be able to map behaviors, without addressing their value for the participant.

The motivational interviewing toolbox for UX research

No psychological theory can exist in a bubble, they say. Motivational interviewing is a great technique, but its impact is strengthened when mixed with other psychological therapies.

Apply scales

Not everything needs to be stated in words. Feel free to incorporate scales into your conversations to get an idea of where your participant’s head is at without forcing upon them the onus of verbalizing difficult feelings.

In motivational interviewing, there are some questions used that have a standard format and apply a Likert scale, as seen below.

The Likert scale

A great example of this is asking the participant to rate the importance of a topic. We can implement this question by translating or centering it around a user habit.

For example: On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being most important, how important it is for you to have a backup of the photos you make with your smartphone?

Ask follow-up questions

Once the participant has given you the number, you can use this to reopen the conversation. If, for example, the participant who you’re assessing gives you a numerical answer of 7 to the question mentioned above, you can ask why 6, as opposed to 4 or 5. Then they might respond,

“Well, I have all my memories there, and sometimes I like to look back on my travels.”

Then, they already feel good about the number they gave, because they could have cared less. Asking why they didn’t give a higher number could make the participant feel guilty, and you want to keep the rapport going, so instead of being as straightforward with the next one, it’s best to phrase it differently.

“What would it take for you to give this a 7 or an 8…?”

“If my smartphone camera was better, then I’d take better photos and be more likely to take use the camera.”

Though we’ve stressed the importance of being flexible with the conversation’s flow, the order of these two followup questions is important. By having the question about the higher scores come second, we end this exchange on a positive, aspirational, and motivational note.

The Readiness Ruler, a scale assessing one’s readiness to change

Figure out participants with their help

If the users’ goals and values don’t match up with the actual or reported behavior, show them! Repeat the discrepancy back to them in their own words.

Your candor will let you dig even deeper, to explore the reasons behind these internal conflicts.

Don’t be afraid when a discrepancy like this comes up! Addressing these complex reactions will help you address deeper questions about your strategy and product.

A great example of this is pointing out to the participant the behaviors they avoid or partake in that negatively impact their goals. For example, in the event that a teammate is complaining both about feeling left out of group chats and overwhelmed by Slack messages, you can react by paraphrasing and repeating all of their thoughts on the topic:

“Let me make sure I understand. You don’t want to miss any company inside jokes or events, but constant Slack messages and notifications from multiple channels make you anxious and take a toll on your work.”

A pocket guide to MI

The gap MI explores is between what we say we do and what we actually do. To understand motivation and behavior, we have to come in with empathy—using the UX research tools and listening abilities we have to understand our participants. MI builds on what we know about UX research, and its use complements what’s in the traditional UX research toolkit.

These are the most important highlights of MI practice:

  • Ask open-ended questions (not yes or no!)
  • Practice reflective listening
  • Build rapport with the participant
  • Be empathetic, and do your best not to judge
  • Engage honestly and genuinely with the participant
  • Let the conversation go where it’s going, without pushing your agenda
  • Let the participant feel their feelings. Don’t tell them what they should be doing, thinking, or experiencing.

Want to learn more about UX psychology?

  • Hacking usability with psychological principles
  • Collaboration begins with empathy
  • Design and the psychology of time
  • Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard