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Conducting Useful Customer Interviews - Start to Finish

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All your surveys and analytics aren't enough to tell you why your customers use your product. People don't buy things because they're Gen Z or "urban" or some other moniker; they are “hiring” your product to do a job. Figuring out what job will give you the laser focus you need to make your product stand out.

In this guide, I'll share the open-ended question and interview techniques that will help you uncover those jobs to be done. Your customers will spill their guts! And I'll give you the tool you need to spin those guts into gold. You'll be making data-driven decisions in no time!

Identify your assumptions

If you're going to have a chance at making products people love, you need to start by getting to know those people. Understanding a person starts with talking to them like a human being and genuinely listening to what they have to say. That means you need to get out of the building. It also means you'll need an interview script. But resist the temptation to start writing questions right away!

Instead, start by formulating a hypothesis. What problem do you believe your product is solving for your customers? How do you think it solves that problem? Can you test it? Despite our best efforts, we all make assumptions about our products. Good interview questions will test those assumptions. When we created a script for our networking conference, we started with the assumption that attendees wanted to network with like-minded people. That led to the hypothesis that attendees were sharing contact information with other attendees. We can test that!

Create a research plan

Once you have a testable hypothesis, it can be helpful to create a research plan. Identify a handful of goals for your research and a few bullet points for each to help you focus your questions. If your hypothesis is that people eat ice cream when it’s hot out you might have goals for your research of discovering when people prefer to eat ice cream, what alternative products they consume, and what activities they engage in when it’s hot out. This is a mental exercise to get you thinking about what you hope to accomplish from your research. If you put in the legwork here, the next part will be a breeze.

Craft your questions

Now you’re ready to craft your questions! You’ll want about 3-6 to keep your interviews short. The most important thing to remember here is to avoid inserting your own biases. Like armpits, we all have them and they stink. We bring our own bias to everything we do and most of the time we don’t even notice it. If we ask biased questions, we get biased responses. Most people want to be nice and will tell you what they think you want to hear, often without even realizing they’re doing it. To get honest opinions we have to ask honest questions. This requires a disciplined approach.

Keep it open

One way to keep your questions honest is by keeping them open. Open-ended questions don’t have an answer baked in. That means they can’t be answered yes or no, or in less than a sentence. If you think your customers are annoyed by ads, don’t ask them if they’re annoyed by ads; instead, ask them how they feel about ads. Remember, you want to get your customers talking. You want insights you couldn’t get in a traditional survey, so open-ended questions are your friend.

Don’t lead them on

You’re probably expecting your customers to answer questions in certain ways. Maybe you think customers will bring an umbrella when it rains. Don’t mention the umbrella! Instead, ask them what they’d do when it rains and let them explain. The goal is to test your assumptions. You can do this by prompting your customer to recall a specific scenario and describe it to you. This is how you get them to open up.

Don’t try to predict the future

Don’t ask your customers what they would potentially do in a given scenario or what they would want in a perfect world. They don’t know because they can’t predict the future! They might make something up, but it won’t be reliable, and it will make them uncomfortable. Instead, ask about past behavior. Don’t ask if a customer would sign up for a service; ask if they’ve signed up for a similar service before, then ask them to tell you more. Don't ask what their perfect tool would look like; ask about the tools they're using now and the problems they're experiencing with those tools.

Test your tech

Once you’ve written your questions, it’s time to test them! You’re going to need to record your interviews, so make sure you’re testing your recording equipment at this stage. You don’t need professional equipment; a smartphone on the table running a recording app can do the trick. If you can capture video that’s great, but audio is enough. Try to imitate an environment that’s similar to the one in which you’ll be running your actual interviews. Are you going to be in a noisy area? If so, make sure your recording equipment can filter out background noise well enough for you to understand the audio later.

Grab some colleagues and roleplay your script with them individually. Have them answer the questions honestly as if they were a real customer. Try to stay in character and ask your test subject to save any feedback about the process for the end. When you’re done, listen to your recordings. If a question isn’t working, change it! Also take note of the average interview length; when you meet your customers, it helps to let them know how much time you'll need. It should be around 20 minutes. If it’s taking much longer, you may need to cut a couple questions. If it’s too short, your questions might need to be more open-ended, or you may need to ask more follow-up questions.

Find your peeps

Next you need to figure out where your customers are hanging out. Are there online forums where people are discussing the problem your product addresses? Google it! Figure out where your people are and go there. In-person interviews are much more effective. Walking up to someone and asking for an interview is far more likely to result in success than sending them an email.

Talk to them!

You might expect difficulty getting people to talk to you. It turns out it’s pretty easy! People love to talk about themselves, and 20 minutes isn’t a huge time commitment. Still, incentives work, so grab a handful of $10 Amazon gift cards. $10 for 20 minutes of time is an easy sell.

As you approach a person, introduce yourself and get their name. Use their name as your talk to them (it gets their attention and builds rapport), and ask if you can record a 20-minute interview with them in exchange for a $10 gift card. Make it clear this recording won’t be shared publicly (and don’t you dare share it publicly!) and you shouldn’t have much trouble getting some interviews. If people brush you off, just move on. You want people who are going to open up; pressuring them into an interview would be counterproductive.

Once you have permission, start recording and ask your customer a non-interview question or two to get them opening up. You want it to feel more like a conversation than an interview. Questions about their family, pets, and job are usually safe. Talk to them like a friend. You want them to be comfortable around you. Don’t be a robot!

After a minute or two of chit-chat, start on your list of questions. Don’t just read from the script; ask your questions as if you were conversing with an old friend, and then actively listen to the (most likely fascinating) human being who has taken the time to share their story with you. If they say something interesting, ask a follow-up question. Be careful not to agree or disagree with them too much; you want their answers to be uninfluenced by your personal biases. A good way to avoid this is by using neutral language like “that’s interesting, could you tell me more?” Ask your customer to describe how that made them feel. Psychiatrists use this trick for a reason.

Timebox your interview! If it’s gone over the agreed time limit, wrap it up. It’s okay to skip a question or two. Finish your interview by asking if there’s anything you forgot to ask. Sometimes customers have something they're just itching to talk about, and you’ll get the most interesting insights from asking this!

Analyze your data

After 5 or so of these interviews you should have enough information to start discovering data trends. Time to get nerdy! I recommend this template for the job. Don those headphones and make a copy of the template. Transcribe your interviews and sort the responses into columns in the CSV Export tab. Once you’ve entered all the responses, categorize them using the instructions from the template and make some pretty graphs.

Impress your peers

At this point, you could be done. You have some interesting data that you could go ahead and present to your colleagues. But this format isn’t great for sharing and you’re missing one of the coolest things: the quotes from your customers! If you want to up your game and impress your peers, put together a presentation. Pull in some of the most interesting graphs and pair them with direct quotes from your customers. Share it at your next meeting. And when people ask how you got all these great insights, feel free to send them a link to this article!

 

 

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