My top 7 user interviews tips

There is no better way to understand customers than talk to them and hear their voice. Watch their facial expressions and body movement during the interview is even better. Do it in their natural environment is the best. Analytics data can help you understand what has happened. You can make your own conclusions and try to guess why that happened. Or you can talk to your customers, listen, dig in and have real accurate data. But that’s hard.

I've been interviewing user for over 13 years. As part of the web development and advertising company I owned. As a side gig when I did product and customer discovery interviews. As a product manager and as a CTO/CPO for the startup I co-founded in 2015.

Asking questions is easy. Gathering meaningful insights is not. In this post, I’m not going to tell you what questions you should be asking or not asking. I am going to share with you some high-level tips on how to run user interviews. The goal here is to understand the very fundamental idea of user interviews and provide you with enough knowledge to act on.

I can write a book about each tip listed below, but I’ve tried to make it as short and helpful as possible.

#1 Know your goals

There are many types of interviews. Product discovery interviews help us to find a problem we can potentially solve by creating new products or adding new big features to our existing product. Doing customer discovery interviews, we can find out if we have the right solution for the problem we’re trying to solve. Persona development interviews allow us to understand our users better, organisational structure and so on. Zombie user interviews help us understand why customers stop using our product. Doing activation interviews, we can find out the best ways to activate our new customer. The list is endless. Each one of these interview types has its own purpose, structure and goals. Knowing your goals and remembering them during interviews might be not so obvious as it may sound. Thus, my very first tip for user interviews is - know your interview goals. What exactly you’re trying to achieve with it, what are you trying to learn, understand or maybe validate about the customer?

For example, zombie user interviews made for understanding why people stopped using your product completely or not using it enough. There are might several reasons for this:

  • They are not your customers (negative persona)

  • They were confused at some point working with your product, and now they are trying to avoid that pain (subconsciously).

  • They don’t need your product anymore - started to use your competitor, change position (if it’s B2B), or maybe something changed in their lives.

By understanding why they stopped using your product you can gather enough information to optimise your product and potentially even bring them back. But bringing customers back isn’t your primary goal. The primary goal is to understand “why”? To be effective, reduce churn and improve retention we have to act proactively and not reactively.

#2 Know your customer

Prepare for the interview by collecting every information you can about that user, her journey, stats and usage. Did she talk to support? You have to know what it was about and how it went. Did she participate in NPS or other customer satisfaction survey? You have to know what she said.

First of all, it’s annoying when someone who has the info asking me for the very same info. It looks not professional and makes customers feel that you have no good internal communication and she wasted time filling those forms.

Second of all, you can ask better, more meaningful questions having the information. It’s easier to find out the real reasons behind the user’s behaviour, wants and needs, and so on.

Know your users better than you know yourself. Create and share inside your organisation customer personas, they basic info (demographic, geographic, etc.), their type (user, buyer, decision maker, influencer), background story, goals, needs, challenges and how your product or service helps to that particular persona (from persona’s standpoint).

Sometimes we’re doing interviews for gathering and validating such information. But even in that case you have to be prepared and know as much as possible about the person you’re going to talk to. It helps to break the ice and make him/her talk instead of answer your questions.

#3 Have a script

No meaningful conversation can go by the script. If you can predict your customer's answers on your well crafted, personalised, open-ended questions, why would you even talk to them?

However, having a script is important as it helps us to stay on track and go from simple warm-up questions to the main and the most critical questions, and eventually wrap it up with some well-designed text.

If you’re a seasoned interviewer, working alone and feel comfortable talking to customers, you can have a framework instead of a script. But that’s usually not the case. So, create a script and use as a helper.

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#4 Make them tell a story

We all know that we need to ask open-ended questions and dig in. This is crucial for interviewing users and getting good insights. But that’s not enough. We have to lead people to share more by telling detailed stories.

We cannot ask want do they want or need. People usually don’t know what they need, and their "wants" are pretty predictable (make it a bit cheaper and a bit better). Our goal is to innovate and create entirely new experiences for them. Something they couldn’t imagine.

What we can do is to make an interview friendly but a bit uncomfortable. Yep, that’s right. Want to hear more information, stop talking. Pause a lot, so the person you’re talking feel the need to keep talking. Validate the information by quoting him/her and asking if you got it right. Dig into details and keep asking "why?" like a five years old kid till you get the real reason.

#5 Take notes

Taking notes is paramount. You might (and will) forget some details a user shared during the interview after 20-30 minutes. Take notes right after the meeting has ended.

You can take notes during the interview, but only if you absolutely have to. The problem is that it distracts both of you. You cannot fully concentrate on what the person says while you are dictating to yourself the text you’re writing. The person you’re talking to curious what you’re writing there, and he/she keep thinking about it even after you’ve finished writing. Moreover, now he/she will kind of watch his/her mouth (as you’re writing it down). That’s not good for you.

To avoid this situation, you have to prepare your customer that you’re going to take some note, what will be in them, and when you’re actually taking note, stop him/her and say while writing what you’re writing. But even in this will affect the interview.

If you can have someone with you who will take notes during an interview, this is much better. As the person, you’re talking to, mostly concentrated on you.

Recording interview, whether it’s video or audio, is the worse. First, you have to notify the user about it, explain how it’s going to be used and so on, and he/she has to agree and probably sign some papers. It will definitely affect the interview, and she won’t be as open as she could be.

#6 Share results

Interviewing customers the right way, getting meaningful insights and sharing it with the team is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Make the data accessible to everybody in your organisation.

You can use Google Drive, Box, Dropbox or something else. Create a shared folder that includes folders per project and document for each interview plus interview script. Documents have to have information about the interviewer, interviewee, main takeaways, notes and quotes.

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#7 Repeat

For the love of God, talk to your customers. We’re all talking a lot about it, but rarely do interview our customers. It’s a crime. Every SaaS startup has the very same goal - solve customer’s problem the best possible way and create a product people love to use and pay for. How can it be done without continually talking to customers, listening and learning? It can’t.

Mind your customers.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll be happy to chat.