To make better decisions about your product or service, go straight to the source and interview your customers.
AND I NEED THIS... WHY?
Let's say your team builds a product or operates a service and let's say you even use that product or service yourselves, as we do at Atlassian. That's a pretty sweet spot to be in. But even so, you probably don't use that product or service in the same way your customers do. So there's an empathy gap. And for teams who don't live in that sweet spot, the gap is even wider.
There are heaps of ways we can find out what our customers want. And chances are, you've gathered some data through surveys, focus groups, ad-hoc conversations, and/or lurking on internet forums. What those methods don't provide, though, is the chance for in-depth, two-way conversation. But a customer interview does.
Interviews are a great way to go deep into the needs of a specific persona or customer type. You get to ask specific questions that'll generate information you need to make decisions about your product or service. Plus, you get to give your customers some company swag. And let's face it: everyone loves swag.
WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?
Product owners, service owners, and designers are ideal interviewers. Bring another team member to serve as the scribe, too. You might even have some silent observers, but don't have more than three.
Running the play
Most plays involve little (if any) preparation. But the customer interview is different. Take the prep work seriously. You'll get far more out of the interview – and, ultimately, so will your customers.
- Dictaphone or recording device/app
- Notebook and pen
- Printed questionnaire
- Video chat service (optional)
DECIDE ON BROAD vs. DEEP
Do you want to explore general usage patterns, and give the customer a chance to give broad feedback? If so, plan for an open-ended interview and just go with the flow. Or, are you looking for something specific? You can use the interview to validate assumptions you have about a feature (like the ones on your project poster). You might also talk to customers that have reported problems and go deep in that area.
FORM AN INTERVIEW TEAM
Anyone can participate in a customer interview, but typically a product owner, service lead, or someone on the front lines (e.g., developer, designer, service operator, etc) fills the role of interviewer. You'll also want another person from your team along to play the role of scribe and generally be your co-pilot. Don't try and be both the interviewer and scribe – you'll get distracted and won't be actively listening.
Including a silent observer is a great way to make sure you don't overlook any gold coins. Their job is to absorb the conversation and listen for themes or connections the interviewer and scribe are too busy to catch.
FIND THE RIGHT CUSTOMER TO INTERVIEW
Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But rush through this step and you'll kick yourself.
Consider your goals for the interview and make sure you're recruiting customers who'll contribute to them. Within that context, aim for a balance of customer types: fans, haters, Twitter trolls, people who almost bought but didn't, etc.
For each customer you consider, get to know them as well as possible before reaching out, and write up a few details for reference: what product/s or service they use, how long they've been a customer, team or company size, what feedback they've already provided, etc.
When you've identified customers to interview, recruit them with an engaging invite that explains your goals for the interview, how long it'll take, and when you're hoping to conduct it. If the customer is in your local area, offer to hold the interview at their office – it's easiest for them, and you'll benefit from the richer context of being in your customer's natural habitat. Or invite them to visit your office if you can't come to them for whatever reason. If an in-person session isn't possible, a video or phone call can work.
CRAFT AN INTERVIEW SCRIPT
Brainstorm at least 20 possible questions. Then trim it down to 10 or fewer (assuming you have an hour with the customer). Start by cutting any questions you can easily answer with a "yes" or "no".
Your questions should concentrate on current behaviour since that's a good predictor of future behaviour. But be wary of confirmation bias – i.e., are you leading the witness? Make sure your questions are designed to let the customer's views come through nice and strong. And include some soft-ball questions to kick off the interview and establish a rapport with the customer: how long they've been in their role, how often they use your product or service, how they heard about it, etc.
If it's important to keep the details of the interview between yourself and the customer, you may want to organise a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) as well.
GET READY FOR GAME DAY
You're finally going to interview your customer – yay! You've printed copies of the interview questions and customer write-up for everyone. Your recording device is charged. You've rounded up some swag to offer as a thank you gift: shirts, mugs, stickers, whatever. The interview room (if at your office) is tidy and has a relaxed vibe.
Make sure your interview team understands their roles so you can operate like a well-oiled machine. Scribes should avoid leading the interview, and observers should ask questions only at the very end.
Here are a couple email templates we use when recruiting customers to interview.
Now for the actual interview! Think of these steps as suggestions, and feel free to tweak them to suit your needs and your style.
Housekeeping (5 min)
Welcome the customer and thank them for coming (again: sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget!).
Ask if it's ok to record the interview so you've got everything verbatim in case the scribe falls behind a bit. Assure them the recording, and the interview in general, is only for internal use. You'll share this with your team, but will keep it confidential otherwise – e.g., you won't be pulling quotes for advertising purposes.
Warm-up questions (10 min)
Lead with the soft-ball questions from the interview script you prepared. Part of the foundation you're laying here is establishing rapport. Pay attention to cues like body language and tone. Does your customer feel at ease? Are they giving you the full story?
Meaty questions (5 min)
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.
Really, feel free to 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 valuable info your team can use! Even just getting a read on the customer's pain points can be suuuuuuuuper helpful. The questions will serve as an outline and are there for your reference if you get stuck.
Make sure you're validating your notes as the interview goes along. Try repeating back what you've heard, or asking the question in a different way to verify that you've captured the customer's views accurately.
Ask the customer to show you how they use the product or what problems they have in their daily work. Grab screenshots or record video to reference later and share with your team.
Observer questions (10 min)
If you have observers in the room, and they have additional questions, now is the time.
The questions should prompt deeper thought and reflection. "Is this an important feature?" is a bad question. "Why is this feature useful?" is a good question. "What would happen if this feature disappeared?" is even better – it'll either sharply illustrate the feature's value, or make the customer realize that their life wouldn't change much and maybe the feature isn't so critical after all.
Turn the tables (10 min)
We get more out of customer interviews when we turn them in to a two-way conversation. Before the session winds down, give your customer a chance to ask questions of you.
Wrap it up (5 min)
Thank the customer for their time and maybe bust out with your best karaoke version of Bette Midler's "The wind beneath my wings". (Just kidding. Sort of.)
And don't forget to hand over the swag!
Summarise findings from the interview (30 min)
After you've parted ways (and you've recovered from your big karaoke performance), gather your team for a quick huddle. Ask what they thought about the customer's feedback: what is useful? surprising? contradictory?
Don't write up the interview right away, though. Marinate in it. Let the problems and use cases you discussed soak in.
Getting the most out of customer interviews means doing more than simply relaying their comments and your observations to the rest of your team. It means using what you heard and saw to interpret problems – and that means asking "why". Instead of jumping to a solution (which customers will often want to do in the interview!), think about behaviors and their causes.
Then connect those problems to opportunities. Find patterns that emerge across multiple interviews. Look at what customers are saying in support tickets, user forums, or even on social media. Gather up supporting evidence and build a case for solving the problems you uncovered as a result of the interview.
(For more, check out our article on the "customer interview pyramid".)
Mentally chew through all that. Then do the write-up.
Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.Find your Health Monitor
SHARE THE FINDINGS
There are probably loads of people around the office interested in your customer interview – don't keep all that goodness to yourself! Write an internal blog. Hold a brownbag session where you present trends observed across several interviews. Walk through the interview in your next all-hands meeting.
And make sure those gold coins you've just uncovered make it into your backlog and requirements or specs. Guru-level sharing is to slip them into everyday conversation with your team: "Oh, just like we saw in the customer interview with Danesh from Acme Co..."
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