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How to get rich, quick insights with discovery interviews
A quick and dirty guide to talking to customers
Your goal as a startup business founder is to learn. Learning reduces the uncertainty in your business, and gives you insights that help guide your decisions and direction.
I find that talking to customers is an excellent way to gather rich insights, and it takes much less time than you think. Most of the time is spent finding people to interview.
(And if you're thinking "it'd be easier to just send out a survey" you should know that it takes the same or more time to find people to do you survey and convince them to complete it. Especially if you wrote a frustrating, rage-quit-worthy survey. Which is easier: fill in a 15-question survey, or say "yes" to a phone call?)
Here's why it's worth it: 90% of the time your first paying customer will be someone you interviewed earlier in the process.
My goal is not to make you the best User Experience Designer and interviewer in the world. My goal is to get you out the door and having your first conversation with a potential customer or user, in the next hour. You'll get better by doing it.
"Good enough" vs "Perfect". :)
Principles for talking to customers
Before we get to preparing the interview guide let's recap some principles for great interviews.
People will say what they think you want to hear. This is unintentional. Brains are very good at creating stories and reasons that justify things that aren't true. Keep your questions 'neutral' to avoid this unintentional bias. e.g. "Tell me about how you use social media" is better than "Do you use Facebook?"
People want to be liked. They will unintentionally present the best version of themselves and events even if it stretches the truth a bit. The answer to "How often do you eat healthy meals?" might be quite different to "In the past week, how many meals have you eaten that were 50% or more plant-based?" Ask about past behaviour and specific examples, not vague future intentions. E.g. “Tell me about when you bought your last iphone” is better than “Would you buy the new iphone when it comes out?”
An interview is not a live survey; it's a flowing conversation. Your job is to guide that conversation. I call this a semi-structured approach: you have a structure to fall back on, but you go with the flow. This allows you to learn things you didn't plan for. Ask follow-up questions, probe into the details, or move things on to the next thing you need to know. My go-to phrase is "tell me more." E.g. "You said it was hard to decide on the price. Tell me more about that."
Listen more than you talk. You should be guiding the conversation, not contributing your own stories and opinions. If you're someone who feels the need to contribute, a good tip is to quickly summarise their response instead of giving your own opinion. Instead of “that reminds me of a time when…” you can say "So it was a bad experience because the customer service was unhelpful and then rude." That keeps the focus on them.
Interviewing is a skill you will get better at. You don't have to be great to get started, you'll still learn valuable things, and you'll get better with practice.
When I do this in my class we jump straight into pairs to do an interview before we do ANY of the steps below. They quickly learn that it's a lot less scary than it seems, even completely unprepared. So feel free to call a friend and do a very rough first interview right now. ;)
When you're back we'll prepare an interview guide.
Preparing for a customer discovery interview
First things first: What do you need to learn?
This is one of the most overlooked steps: working out what you want to know.
Step 1: Take 10 minutes to brainstorm all the things you need answers to
For example: If you're exploring the problems people have when selling their car, you might want to know what they worried about, what they've struggled with before, how they've advertised their car for sale in the past, what they care about, whether they'd use an app, how much they'd pay for an app, whether they want private messaging in the app, and whether they want the app to post an ad to Facebook for them.
You probably have a lot of these in your head, but if you've started with a product or solution in mind you might need to step back a bit to consider what problem you're trying to solve, who specifically has that problem, and why that problem hasn't been solved yet.
Step 2: Prioritise (10 minutes, maximum)
As with all things startups you can't do everything so you need to prioritise. For a start, it's going to take waaay too long to ask about everything on your list.
Knowing what you need to learn first helps you prioritise your customer discovery. There are things you don't need to know right now to proceed – like whether they want private messaging features in an app. If you're still trying to understand and validate the problems, then asking about what they want in a solution is premature. They might not be the right customer segment, so their answers are irrelevant. You might end up solving the problem in a completely different way, so the features of a hypothetical app don't matter.
Narrow down what you need to know now. Keep it lean.
Highlight the five most important things to learn right now.
To borrow from the selling-a-car example above, you might want to learn:
the problems people have when selling their car
what they worry about
what they've struggled with before
how they've advertised their car for sale in the past, or what they're considering now
what they care about / how they decide how to advertise their car
Step 3: What's the best way for me to learn this?
I have assumed that talking to potential users and customers is the best way to learn. "Best" is loosely defined here as "can deliver results within a week or two; delivers valid data at the right level of detail; delivers a high return on investment of time/money/effort".
But hey, take a moment to consider whether interviews are in fact the best way.
(Note that if you want real-life, rich insights about the problem, surveys are not the answer.)
Step 4: Prepare your interview guide (20 minutes)
Once you know the things you need answers to you can start working out how to ask the questions – using the Principles above. They don't have to be questions – "Tell me about…" is a good phrase to keep things open and neutral.
Set a time limit on this step, because you can eat up a lot of time here. About 20 minutes should be plenty.
Here is how I structure my interview guides:
Introduction. A couple of sentences to give them context for the conversation.
I'm working on a project looking at the process of buying or selling a car, and in particular the challenges and concerns people have around that. I'm not selling you anything or looking for anything in particular. I just want to understand your experience, and there are no right or wrong answers.
Do you have any questions before we begin?
Prompts for what I need to learn
Tell me about your experiences buying or selling a car
What were you worried or concerned about?
Where did you look (to buy) / How did you advertise or get the word out (to sell)?
What led you to use those?
What was the worst part of the whole process? What else was a struggle?
Two questions at the end
Would it be OK to follow up with you again when we are a bit further down the track? (Get contact details if yes)
Who else would you interview about this? (Could you introduce us?)
Now you're ready. Go forth and discover!!
Seriously. You’re done. Go and try it out.
Take that and go and speak to a few people. Treat it like a conversation – be attentive, ask follow-up questions, draw out their stories. You don't have to stick to the structure if the flow of conversation moves the order around.
Take a few minutes at the end to write down your insights. Again, bullet points is fine.
You'll learn what questions work and what questions need to be tweaked or abandoned.
This is not best practice
This is not the robust process that UX designers would go through. This is a quick and dirty guide to get you out the door and learning. It's just good enough, and that's the point.
20 seconds of courage
At this point I always tell people about the concept of twenty seconds of courage.
The quote comes from We Bought a Zoo, which I have neither read nor watched. But I love the concept. It boils down to: many scary things are actually only scary right at the decision point, and if you power through that decision point then you’re in it, you’re doing it, and the scary part is over. And all it takes to go from not-doing-something to doing-something is getting through that 20 seconds.
The scariest part of a customer interview is not ‘doing the interview’. It’s the 20 seconds it takes to walk up to someone and say “hi, I’m working on a project about selling cars. Can I talk to you for 10 minutes while we’re both lining up for the checkout?”
I can’t promise you something great will come of it, but at least you’ll learn something.
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