Hallway Studio

July 14, 2015

Customer development interviews are one of my favorite things to do. I really like learning about people’s lives even though what I learn most often is that my ideas or my client’s ideas are wrong.

My style is very casual and conversational. I deliberately avoid anything that might make them feel like they are a research subject in a lab. I try to make sure no one feels like there is a right answer and to leave things open so the person can take me where they want to go. Connecting the dots between interviews is a bit more complex when you are less structured but the quality and richness of what you learn is well worth it.

Most of the time I do interviews on the phone or over hangouts but I’ve been known to do them on bike rides, chairlifts and public places. I adapt to the meet the needs of the person I’m talking to and the situation I’m in and I continue to improve and refine my style.  I’m also grateful for inspiration from my high school journalism teacher Ms. Fall, my journalism professors at American University,  Cindy Alvarez and Indi Young.

My goal in an interview to learn about my customer’s pain, needs, behaviors, goals and motivation. Learning this makes it easy for me to validate or invalidate my assumptions, particularly the risky ones, and help my client or team pivot to the next idea. If I focused solely on validating or invalidating assumptions, particularly early on, I won’t know where we should take our ideas next.

Greeting and Chit Chat 

Very quickly I try to get a sense of whether the person wants to get down to business or chat first. I’m a get down to business person but it’s important that I adapt to the person I’m interviewing. It’s nice if I can find someone way to connect with the person I’m interviewing based on mutual contacts, interests or history.

Sometimes the person you are talking with is expecting a pitch. In that case you need to encourage them to take a step back so you can learn more from them.

Easy first question 

Once we’ve started, I try to transition into a easy question about what they’ve done in the problem area in the past. I might say something like:

  • “So, how did you get involved in creating [the product]?”
  • “What was [project/product] like?”

My goal is to get the conversation started and for them to tell the story. They usually end up talking about things that aren’t directly related to what I want to learn but understanding the context and building the relationship is important.

Exploring  the problem 

What we’ve done in the past is a much better indicator of what we’ll do in the future. New year’s resolutions are a pretty good indicator of that. Here are some questions you might also want to try.

Tell me about how you do _________ today….

Do you use any [tools/ products/ apps/ tricks] to help you get ________ done?

If you could wave a magic wand and be able to do anything that you can’t do today, what would it be? Don’t worry about whether it’s possible, just anything.

Last time you did ___________, what were you doing right before you got started? Once you finished, what did you do afterward?

Is there anything else about _________ that I should have asked?

Alvarez, Cindy. Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy

During the conversation I’m listening for things that are emotional, surprising, speak to my assumptions and then I probe on those areas.

Hinting at a solution

I try not to talk much during the interview but towards the end it’s my turn to be vulnerable and I’ll say something like, “So here’s what were thinking [describe the idea minimally] what do you think?” I throw the idea out casually for two reasons. One, I want the person to feel like I’m very open to suggestions. Two, I want to see how they interpret the idea based on their experience and needs. This method invites people to contribute rather than giving a polite non-response.

Asking for referrals

I always close with asking if their is anyone else I should talk to. This is a great way to get more people to interview and to learn how the person thinks about your product and customer target.

Image: A Salt Lake City street

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