Anthony Murphy Product person, agile nerd and cat herder 🐈 Founder at ProductPathways.com, PM Coach at antmurphy.me, and Director at productprofessionals.com.

Why and how to conduct customer interviews

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Why And How To Conduct Customer Interviews

We’ve all heard the adage often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” If that was the case, then why bother conducting user interviews?

Let’s take a look at that statement a little deeper. I wouldn’t disagree that at the time if you asked people what they wanted, they would have given answers like:

  • A faster horse
  • A horse with a thicker seat
  • A larger horse
  • A horse that obeys my orders

However behind each of these answers is a deeper problem, need, or opportunity that their solution — a faster horse — is trying to solve.

  • A faster horse = I want to get to my destination quicker
  • A horse with a thinker seat = I want a comfortable commute
  • A larger horse = I want to be able to transport a large load
  • A horse that obeys my orders = I want to be in control

This is a great example as to why we need customer interviews. In this article, we’ll discuss why and how to conduct customer interviews, give examples, and discuss all the steps along the way.


Table of a contents


Why conduct customer interviews?

The purpose of customer interviews is not to ask for their opinion or find out what our customers want, it’s to unearth these fundamental needs and problems. Innovation and building delightful experiences or products aren’t founded on customer opinions, they’re founded on addressing needs. Because depending on the problem we’re trying to solve, a faster horse — or even Ford’s motor vehicle — might not be the best solution.

This is why customer centricity and customer obsession are much talked about subjects. Whoever knows their customers best will build the best products for them and be superior to their competitors.

It’s therefore imperative that everyone in the company has a deep understanding of their customers. This is true from business leaders to product managers and owners, all the way to marketers and the engineers building the product.

Customer interviews can provide rich insights into things like:

  • Which solution is the best
  • Their mental models and heuristics
  • How they categorize information
  • Where they would look to find something
  • The challenges they are facing
  • How they use your product or service
  • What price they are willing to pay for your product
  • What functionality they cannot live without and what they could go without
  • The context that they use your product in

All of these can better help you design a more meaningful product for your customers, ultimately leading to greater satisfaction, customer advocacy, higher growth and retention, etc.

A study conducted by UIE, a user experience training and strategy company, found that companies who spoke with their customers regularly saw greater improvements to their user experience than those who didn’t. The benchmark they observed was a minimum of two hours of customer research every six weeks. In other words, teams that spend more than two hours with their customers every six weeks saw significant improvements in their user experience than those that didn’t.

“[products] saw far greater improvements to their design’s user experience than teams who didn’t meet the minimum. And teams with more frequent exposure, say two hours every three weeks, saw even better results.”

– Jared Spool, UIE, Fast Path to a Great UX – Increased Exposure Hours

Types of customer interviews

There are two types of customer interviews:

  1. Problem space interviews, and
  2. Solution space ones

We’ll go over each of these in detail.

What is a problem space interview?

Problem space customer interviews often don’t involve a prototype or task. They involve questions only and are aimed to understand the problem space deeper.

Problem space customer interviews help us unearth customer needs and opportunities.

What is a solution space interview?

Solution space customer interviews, on the other hand, are primarily designed to gain a deeper understanding of how best to solve that problem.

Solution space interviews often involve prototypes (low or high fidelity) and activities such as card sorting or A/B testing solutions. By putting early versions of our solutions in front of our customers, we can gain a better understanding of which solution is most fit for purpose before we actually build it.

It’s important to determine which type of customer interview you are needing to conduct. There is no point in developing a prototype to test when you’re not clear on the problem that you’re trying to solve first.

How to plan for a customer interview

Customer interviews start with defining what you want to learn from the customer interview(s).

This often begins with an activity, like assumptions mapping.

Assumptions mapping is a great technique from Strategyzer’s Testing Business Ideas. You map out and prioritize the assumptions you are making about a particular problem space or solution.

In doing so, you come to a list of things you want to validate and learn more about.

For example, perhaps you assume that your customers drop off at this stage in the onboarding process because they don’t want to put their credit card details in. You would then take that assumption and break it down into questions or tests you can perform to validate it.

A structure I like to use for prepping my customer interviews is to create an interview guide. My interview guides are structured around the assumptions I want to test:

Assumption Questions Notes
Hiring managers want help and guidance with recruitment How would you describe your current recruitment process?

Can you please walk me through your recruitment process from the time you identify the need for hiring?

Recruitment is a big time suck for leaders How much time this week has gone to recruitment activities?

What have those activities been?

I list all the assumptions I want to test in the customer interview in the first column and then turn them into questions. The last column is left empty for the interview itself to capture comments and quotes during the interview.

The next step is to recruit customers to interview. The ideal number of customers to interview will differ depending on your context and ideal sample size, but a general rule of thumb is to aim for around five to 10 customers for a single interview round.

In order to recruit customers, you need to define your target customer segment — who do you need to interview? Is it people who exercise vs. those who do not? You may even decide to interview both your target and non-target customer. This can help you ensure that the results you get remain unbiased.

How to structure and run a customer interview

I love the five act interview structure from Google Design Sprints. The five act interview was developed by Google Ventures as part of their design sprint methodology that breaks down a customer interview into five acts:

  1. Friendly welcome
  2. Context questions
  3. Introduction to the prototype (or activity, like card sorting)
  4. Tasks
  5. Quick debrief

Whilst the five act interview was designed for user testing, I modified it to the following for customer interviews that don’t involve a prototype or activity:

  1. Friendly welcome
  2. Context questions
  3. Core interview questions
  4. Quick debrief

Friendly welcome

All interviews start with a friendly and warm welcome. You want to make your interviewee feel comfortable and at ease with what is happening. Remember that for many participants this will be the first time they’ve been interviewed and it will be uncomfortable for them.

This act is all about helping your participant to relax and be in the right state of mind for the interview.

During this stage, you will also briefly introduce yourself, introduce the interview, and cover any administrative tasks necessary (signing waivers, asking permission to record, etc).

An example interview script of this section may look like the following:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Thank the participant for making themselves available
  • Ask the participant if you have their permission to record the interview, as it will help us for taking notes, is strictly confidential, and will only be used internally
  • Inform the participant that this should take no more than 30 minutes and we will stick to that time
  • Explain that you have several questions to start of with and then you have a solution concept that you would like to walk them through
  • Explain that you will be taking notes throughout
  • Tell them to be honest in their answers. No judgment here, we want honest feedback

Here’s an example:

“Hi, my name is Anthony and I’m a product manager here, beside me is [name]. We’d first like to thank you for making the time to come in today. With your permission, we would like to record this conversation as it will help us later with note taking. The recording will be strictly confidential and for internal use only.

This should take no more than 30 minutes and we will stick to time. We have several questions we’d like to ask initially and then we have a prototype that we’d like to share with you. Please be honest, the prototype is still a work in progress and your honest feedback is highly valued so we can improve.”

Context questions

The next stage is to start easing the interviewee into the customer interview itself and building rapport. Rather than diving straight into the tough questions or presenting them with something like a prototype, it’s best practice to begin with some easier questions first.

This is a great opportunity for you as the interviewer to build a greater understanding of their profile and context. For example, if you were doing research into people’s exercise habits, you may begin with asking if they perform any regular exercise and if so, how many hours per week do they exercise?

Be mindful not to spend too much time here. This section should take no more than a few minutes. Your aim is to ask enough questions to help build some rapport, make your interviewee feel more comfortable, and establish some baseline context about them.

Introduction to the prototype or activity: Core interview questions

The next step is to introduce the core section of your interview. If you have a prototype you’d like to take them through, now is the time to introduce it. Alternatively, at this stage in the interview, you may want to introduce an activity like card sorting, A/B test, etc.

Be mindful not to interject any bias at this stage. Be general, informative but remain neutral and factual. You want to ensure the interviewee feels comfortable enough to give their honest opinions and not like they’re being tested or need to avoid hurting your feelings.

Therefore, the framing effect is a common bias that is prevalent at this stage. The framing effect is a phenomenon where people react differently to the same information depending on how it is worded. For example, framing a prototype as our third iteration that we’re really proud of” will likely elicit a very different response to “this is a prototype from another team”.

When we frame it as our third iteration, we create an anchoring bias. Anchoring bias is where an individual’s perspective is influenced by an anchor point. In this case, it’s the fact that the prototype is the third iteration. This sets an expectation in the interviewees mind before you’ve even shown them the prototype. For example, they may expect it to be high in fidelity and, as a result, will impact their feedback and opinion.

Further, framing it as yours and even something you’re proud of as opposed to someone else’s can invoke response bias. This is where the participant will refrain from giving their honest opinion as to avoid wanting to displease you or hurt your feelings.

Our goal as interviewers should be to remain as unbiased and neutral as possible. To avoid these biases, be mindful of how you word your questions and introduce this step in the interview. For example, another best practice is to remind the participant that you’re testing the prototype (or activity), not them.

Tasks (optional for prototype/activities)

Where customer interviews include getting the participant to explore a prototype or perform an activity like card sorting, the next step is to give them tasks to perform.

Again, it is important at this step to not interject your bias. Be mindful of how the tasks are framed and worded. Tasks should be straightforward and simple.

During this stage, you want to mostly observe what the participants are doing. To assist, ask the participant to think out loud whilst they are going through the tasks. This will help you get an insight into what they’re thinking and their decision making process.

Finally, remember that your product needs to stand alone, you won’t be there to guide and help your users along. You may, however, ask questions to prompt the participant along, but again be mindful to ask open questions and avoid creating any bias.

Quick debrief

Once they have completed the prototype and/or your core interview questions, it’s time for a quick debrief. Similar to the introduction, this should take no more than a few minutes.

Debrief by reiterating some of the things you observed during the interview. Walk through some of the things they said, you observed, points they got stuck on, and what resonated with them and what didn’t. Again, this should be quick and should take no more than a few minutes.

The debrief is also a prime opportunity to clarify anything you observed during the interview and to ask final questions such as, “how would you describe what you saw today to a friend?” or “based on what you saw today, at what price would you say is a fair subscription fee?” or “if this was available for $10 per month, on a scale of 1–5, how likely would you be to purchase this today?”

Finally, conclude the debrief by asking them if there was anything else they would like to share and reiterate that their insights have been valuable. Also, thank them for their time!

Conclusion

Interviewing customers is necessary to delivering meaningful products and services. However, it’s not as simple as sitting down with a customer and asking them what they want.

Customer interviewing needs to be targeted, there should be a goal in mind. Remember to do the prep work ahead of time:

  • What do you want to learn? What assumption needs to be tested?
  • Why do you need to know it?
  • Who do you need to speak to? What persona type or customer segment are you going to interview?
  • What questions or activities are you going to get them to do to test your assumptions?
  • Where will you conduct the interview? In the office? Outside? Where do you expect your customer to use your product?
  • How will you get a hold of them?

Once you’re in the interview follow the five act interview process and remember to:

  • Thank them for their time
  • Be friendly and make them feel comfortable.
  • Ask contextual questions to ease them in before jumping into the core of the interview
  • Observe and take notes throughout
  • Ask them to think out loud
  • Debrief, thanking them again

Finally, the interview alone isn’t where the magic happens, it’s afterwards when synthesizing the results that draw out actionable insights. Make sure you have time set aside immediately post-interviews to analyze and synthesize the data. The sooner the better whilst the information is fresh.

And that’s it. Get out there and start talking to your customers!

Further resources

Featured image source: IconScout

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Anthony Murphy Product person, agile nerd and cat herder 🐈 Founder at ProductPathways.com, PM Coach at antmurphy.me, and Director at productprofessionals.com.

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