Conducting A Great Product Interview With Your Customers
It’s your product. You know what you should build and why. So, why spend precious time researching and validating those assumptions? After all, Apple’s visionary founder, Steve Jobs, was famously noted as saying:
“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”
However, barring the possibility that you are the next incarnation of Steve Jobs and that your company is producing the next iPhone, customer research in support of product development decisions can be of crucial value. At ExtendApps, we work with dozens of ISVs who are making product design and development decisions based on the research they conduct with their customers. This article will help share some of the insights we’ve gained in how our most successful clients conduct their customer interviews.
A. Focus on the Focus. What Do You Want to Learn?
Decide the data and information outcomes you wish to learn about. Do you want to provide your customers with the opportunity to provide ideas and broad feedback? Will the interview be conversational? Or, are you trying to focus in on a specific feature or need? If you’ve already formed assumptions that you wish to prove or disprove, you can orient your interviews around these points. Have these customers had feedback on these features (via cases/issues)?
Asking yourself these questions before you start down the road of developing an interview plan will help create a framework for your time with your customers.
B. Build Your Interview Team
Depending on the size of your organization and those involved with the product, you may want to narrow down the number of people involved in the interview to ensure focus. Ideally, your interview team would include no more than two-to-three people. Having someone who is focused on the overall project strategy, paired with someone on the front lines (e.g. designer, developer, support) should support the appropriate depth and breadth a customer interview might require.
From a practical standpoint, recording the call and/or having a note-taker available will allow you to actively listen and participate. (Note: It’s important to let everyone on the call know you are recording and to seek your customer’s permission first.)
C. Identify the Right Segment of Customer to Interview. Do Your Research.
Consider your goals for the interview and make sure you’re lining up the customers that can help you gain the understanding and insights you need to make sound product decisions. Achieving a balance of customer types (old and new, large and small, proponents and those less satisfied) will help broaden the perspective and improve the representativeness of your interview samples.
For each customer you add to the list, do your research: what product(s) or service they use, how long have they been a customer, what has their previous feedback and/or interaction with your support and sales teams been like? Having these sorts of details at-hand will allow you to move the interview along to the important questions rather than spending time on the business equivalent of ‘small talk’.
When you’ve identified customers to interview, recruit them with an engaging invite that explains your motivations and goals for the interview, how much of their time you are asking for, and when you are hoping to conduct the meeting. If the customer is local to you, offer to hold the interview at their office. Or, if it is more convenient for your customers, invite them to meet in your office. For most customers, you will find a phone or web meeting that has the least impact on their day.
D. What Will You Ask Them?
This part is more difficult than it would seem. The challenge, however, is likely to come from an abundance of questions rather than a lack of them. With an audience of your customers, there are hundreds of questions you can finally get answers to. But time is limited! Refer back to your focus, goals and desired outcomes and apply these criteria to your initial list of questions.
We recommend landing on now fewer than 8–12 well thought out questions. Assuming a 60-minute interview session, this should allow for ample discussion time while ensuring that discussion is compelling. Try to eliminate yes/no and questions that can be easily addressed without discussion. You may wish to set a tone of formality and rigor for the interview. Asking customers to sign a non-disclosure before your meeting can help with this.
The questions on your list should help you understand how users will react to the problems your solution will aim to solve. This includes confirming that the problem you believe your solving is an important one. Ideally, your questions will be phrased neutrally, and be careful not hold any indication of where you (privately) hope the customer feels or believes. When crafting your questions, try to imagine a few scenarios of how your customers might answer. Note down the natural follow-up questions that occur to you and make sure you feel your questions will allow the customer’s opinion and thoughts to come through clearly.
Get ready for the interview
Think about what is motivating your clients to participate in the interview. Is it the opportunity to provide feedback? The chance to add value and improve a favorite product? Key into what will make the interview valuable to your customer and set the tone. If there’s a reward involved (some company SWAG or a Starbuck’s card, be sure to let that carrot dangle.)
The Customer Interview in 6 Key Steps and 60 Minutes.
Most of your client conversations should have a natural flow and shape. Thinking about and organizing yourself along the following steps will help ensure a productive and valuable interview:
1. Cold Opening (3–5 mins)
Like any conversation, someone needs to break the ice. As the interviewer, this role falls to you. Welcome them, thank them and take a little time to frame the interview process, your goals and what you hope to attain from the client. Remember, in the bigger picture, the information they provide you should ultimately help to improve the product/service you provide (which should bring value to them.)
Now is also the time to get the customer’s permission to record the session. Set them at ease by confirming that the recording will only be used for internal review.
2. Warm-up Questions (5–10 mins)
The warm-up is key to setting the tone and establishing trust and rapport with your customer. Make them feel at ease and comfortable to be honest.
We recommend seeding your warm-up with questions you already know the answers to, specifically: the first type of question should allow your customers to provide positive feedback. Ask about features or use cases you already know your customer uses and enjoys. This will help set a positive tone and allow the interviewee to feel they have already been complimentary. Making them more likely to feel comfortable being honest on the not-so-positive questions.
The second question type should be one where you predict a negative response. The topic of this question should be light and low-impact. Ideally, a small issue that was handled well and solved in the past. This will signify to your customer that honest feedback, even if not positive, is welcome, and will increase the overall value of the interview.
3. Deep-Dive Questions (20–35 mins)
Now dive into the questions from your interview script to get the specifics you’re after. But remember you don’t have to follow your interview script. Feel free to ask follow-up questions if you uncover a pearl of wisdom.
Spend the bulk of your time here having a loose conversation with the customer about what you’re trying to learn from them. It’s ok to just go with the flow as long as you’re getting to the key points your questions were aimed at. Don’t be afraid to revisit a question of the feedback wasn’t sufficient.
4. Challenge Feedback (5–10 min)
Depending on who’s been asking the questions, have your second or third interviewer circle-back on questions that were not explored to the level you had hoped or may still bear fruit. Ask counterpoints, provide scenario-based examples and gently challenge your client to ensure you have received a fulsome and valuable response.
5. The Wrap-up (5 min)
Bring your interview to a close with gratitude. Review any questions or points your customer has posed that you have promised to address and remember to circle back to how the information you collected will be used. If you plan to provide the customer with a summary of your findings, discuss that. Otherwise, it is time to begin thinking about what you have just discussed and heard.
6. Summarize your findings from the interview- (30–60 mins, Offline)
Once you’ve concluded the interview, that the time to review and discuss your client’s responses with the other interviewers. Note down your insights and the small corrections you can make for the next interview.
Write up your notes and findings from the interview while they are fresh. Put thought into interpreting the information and challenges your clients has presented, and surface the questions you’ll bring to your wider product team. Fight the tendency to immediately address and ‘solve’ problems. Instead, use them as opportunities to go deep on the challenges and hidden upside in your offering. Connect those challenges to opportunities to improve. Look for crossover between your interviews and compare that the customer interactions (sales, customer support, social media, etc.) to help distill your understanding of what your clients want to see in your product.
Armed with your write-up of well-considered customer feedback, you’re ready to hunker down with your product team and make some well informed design decisions. Decisions you can be sure will delight your customers and users.