Understanding your customers is crucial for running a successful business. User research, therefore, should also be an essential part of the product development process. To build a minimal viable product (MVP) that suits user needs, startups need to interview their early adopters to validate their business, collect valuable insights and refine the product further. Soliciting feedback in your target market can drive you in the right direction and likely build a high-quality product that achieves product/market fit.
As per Steve Portigal, interviewing isn't the right approach for every problem. It favors depth over sample size, it's not a source for statistically significant data. With this in mind, this article will go deeper into the user interview, when is the right time to interview, and how to conduct effective user interviews for your MVP. Last but not least, you will know how to ask the right questions during the interview. We hope it will make you feel confident, prepared, and ready to give an in-depth interview.
Let’s dive in!
What is a user interview?
The user interview is a commonly used method in user research. A one-on-one interview session can provide valuable insights into users’ behaviors and hidden business problems. Interview respondents are also the prospects who are going to buy and use your product/service in the future, so their experience and satisfaction are your utmost priority.
There are numerous approaches to research users and collect their feedback, like A/B testing, emailing, surveys, landing pages, ad campaigns, etc. What I will describe here is in-person user interviewing, which is a deep dive into their needs, perceptions, and experiences of customers. According to Étienne Garbugli, the author of the book - “Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want”, “A customer interview is not a discussion. Interviews are about exploration. They help you understand people individually and explore alternatives. With interviews, the depth of the understanding is more important than the quantity. Don’t shy away from face-to-face interviews. Relationships aren’t built through surveys.”
Though getting started with customer interviews may seem daunting, you can apply it repeatedly once you've figured out a formula.
When to conduct a user interview?
A user interview can be helpful during any stage of the product software development process:
- Before building MVP, the interview helps to get a better understanding of your potential users, their wants, and needs.
- During the product development process, it provides the early adopters with an early concept model, defines whether your product is viable, and collects their feedback to improve your MVP.
- After shipping your MVP to the market, it helps to examine the user experience, test the product's usability, and understand your customers better to develop a full-fledged product that suits their needs.
How to conduct an effective user interview to validate your MVP
A typical interview process consists of three phases: before, during, and after the interview. Now, we’ll look at how to take each step of an effective and insightful interview.
Before the interview
Interviewing is the approach that includes a larger set of techniques beyond merely asking questions. It might share similarities with daily conversations, but a good interview requires thorough preparation. The lack of adequate planning can reduce your chances of getting the right insights from early adopters.
Set a goal for your interview
The first step is to set your interview goals before embarking on each new interview project. When a goal is too general and broad, such as “learn about users”, it's probably lead to interview failure since its purpose couldn't focus your questions toward one or several specific needs. The reasons why you want to conduct interviews and what you want to gain from them are valuable starting points for your specific goals. Interview objectives need to be realistic and to the point, addressing a particular aspect of the user experience, bringing the team to a consensus, and guiding you on how to construct the interview in the right way.
For instance, you might want to discover why users quit your shopping cart checkout. In this case, a suitable interview goal would be to learn how users make a purchase on your site and what issues they encounter during the process.
Find users to interview
The second one is to find respondents to interview. Everyone you have a chance to meet is likely to show something you don’t know. To avoid getting biased answers and ruining your research, you need to set explicit criteria for your target interviewees and their ideal characteristics. For example, you may focus solely on users who do their online shopping on a mobile device. And one important point, you should keep this piece of information and utilize it later in your final analysis.
Several approaches to obtain your participants are:
- Personal connections
If your products are about B2C, you can invite your friends and family to give your product a try. It might not be easy to accurately segment people in this group by demographics, occupation, or a particular behavior, and you are able to receive biased responses. Given that, whoever you choose to include in your customer interviews, you need to conduct your interviews professionally to obtain valuable input for further product development.
- Guerilla or street interview
If your company is starting up and your credibility hasn’t been fully established, getting valuable first interactions with early adopters may be challenging. One of the most straightforward approaches you can use is interviewing people you meet on the street. In this approach, you would invite random people that don’t know anything about the product to validate your MVP and evaluate customer satisfaction. Their experience will disclose the intuitiveness and usability of the MVP.
- Paid interviewees
When you have the budget, the quickest approach to find your ideal customer profiles is through paid opportunities. Respondent and User Interviews are dedicated sites where you may interact with highly targeted individuals and manage research activities for a charge. In addition, you can find interviewees from online advertising on different social media platforms.
Design questions and an interview workflow
According to the Lean B2B book, to maximize learning opportunities, a good solution interview should follow a structure as below:
- Greetings (2 minutes): Use small talks to deepen the relationship and make the prospect feel comfortable. In other words, you need to build rapport with interviewees.
- Problem qualification (3 minutes): Validate the users’ pain and clarify problem qualification.
- Telling a compelling story (5 minutes): Explain what was learned in the industry, your approach, and what makes your solution unique.
- Solution exploration and demo (15 minutes): Show your MVP and evaluate the match with users' expectations and the value sought.
- Closing (5 minutes): Try to close a prospect on another meeting to move the relationship forward.
Also, several helpful tips below are beneficial when you prepare before the interview:
- Keep the script reasonably short.
A good interview should be relatively brief and well-structured. It helps you carry out an interview smoothly and without omitting essential details. Also, don’t use terminology in your questions that might be unfamiliar to the user. After writing down all of your questions, you should read them aloud. If it takes more than ten minutes to read through them, your script is too long, and you need to cut it down.
- Start with the easy questions.
They might be three to five lightweight questions to act as a warm-up for the interviewee, open up barriers, and ease into making connections with them. However, make sure that such icebreaker questions are relevant to the overall theme of the session.
- Prioritize open-ended questions.
Since you conduct one-on-one interview sessions, open-ended questions allow the participants to elaborate and share details about their actions and behavior. These questions begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how.
- Avoid leading, closed, or vague questions.
Leading questions are questions that inadvertently imply or contain their own answer. Minimizing the number of leading questions is critical; otherwise, the results of your interview sessions will be too biased, and you’ll only hear what you want to hear.
Closed questions elicit “yes” or “no” answers. They are frequently appropriate to collect quantitative data like surveys because they result in greater response rates quickly. This enables you to analyze it statistically easily. However, in one-on-one usability testing, you want to obtain more specific data than is provided by the simple yes/no responses.
For instance, instead of framing your questions like this “Do you like our new site?” ask, “What do you think about our new site?”.
Vague, ambiguous questions are challenging to understand and often confuse participants, so you should avoid asking such questions. To evaluate whether a question is too unclear, do a mock test interview with a random group of people to see if they understand what you mean.
- Don’t ask for estimates.
When you ask questions like, “When we launch [product] on the market, will you purchase it?” people are likely to say yes only to make you feel happy. In reality, they have no idea. Instead of asking “Would you spend $100 monthly for this product?”, say “Tell me about how much you paid for a similar solution.”
- Use the critical incident method.
The critical incident technique involves asking users to recall a specific scenario from the past in which they faced a terrible or good experience. Unlike general situations that the user might easily forget, the extreme cases are often more vivid in users' memories, meaning they can remember accurate information valuable for you. This is why the critical incident method is especially great for exploratory interviews.
- Construct follow-up questions.
Interviewers should ask for only one item in each question. Always try to dig deeper to understand the interviewee's perspectives better and prolong that line of conversation by asking follow-up questions. Rather than asking, “Do you use an online shopping app, and if so, which one?” try “How often do you purchase online?” and then follow up with “Which one or ones do you use?.”
If a respondent struggles to express their thoughts, try to apply 5 Whys techniques to reach the root of the problem. This approach was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries. This technique is unconstrained, providing the team with a high degree of freedom in their thinking process and asking questions to drill down to its root cause. These questions cannot be planned and require some finesse, so have some exact phrases at the ready to prompt users to elaborate an answer. This questioning process works well in situations that are simple or moderately tricky. Complex issues may require a more detailed approach, though 5 Whys will still give you valuable insights.
Perform a mock test interview
Next, a mock test interview will help you determine whether the responses you receive can provide you with helpful information. Iterate mock interviews and refine the script based on the results of trial interview sessions until you settle into a working and natural routine.
Along with all the above tips, one more thing should be pointed out that you shouldn't depend too much on a scripted questioning approach that makes interviewees disconcerted and may lead to stereotyped answers. Ideally, of course, each question should be tailored to the context and the respondent. We’ll discuss in more detail in the next part How to ask the right interview questions.
During the interview
Build rapport with interviewees
Developing rapport with respondents is the next step in a user interview, enabling them to feel comfortable and relaxed. The interviewer should be the one that actively shows greater friendliness and breaks the ice with the participant. The confidence and comfort of participants will boost the quality of in-person interviews. Here are some helpful tips to allow you to get there.
- Make respondents feel welcome.
Before moving on to the main topic of conversation, greet your participant by name and introduce yourself to respondents. Since they are often curious about what you do, who you are as a person, and why you want to interview them. In addition, you can give them a drink and initiate friendly small talk. It would be best if you used enough small talks and did not get bogged down in chat.
- Explain the interview's purpose.
Describe your goals and explain how you intend to use the outcomes. This allows participants to understand more about context, their roles, why you want to talk with them, what kinds of questions they might be asked so that they don't feel confused throughout the interview. To get interviewees to speak out, let's encourage them with reassuring phrases, like “there's no right or wrong answer, we're just interested in your thoughts”.
You can refer to the following example demonstrated by Balsamiq.
“OK, so the goal of today's chat is to get to know you a little and see if there's anything we can do to serve you better. I have a few questions prepared, but we don't have to follow them too strictly. I also want to make sure we have time in the end to answer any questions you may have for me”.
- Ask permission before video recording.
While note-taking is the most common form of data collection during interviews, audio or video recording can also be effective. Of course, you need to ask for their permission before starting the recording any time you want to record your participants. If participants feel uncomfortable, be ready to abandon it at any point during your interview.
You can say this: “Before we start, I wanted to ask if it was OK for me to record this. It's only for internal use, and I need it to focus on you instead of taking notes”.
- Use positive body language.
Make participants feel at ease by using nonverbal clues, like keeping eye contact and smiling. Avoid your body language for negative cues, such as fidgeting or crossing your arms.
- Don't judge or educate your interviewees.
Your participants are there to help you learn something about your product based on their usability testing. It's counterproductive when you judge your interviewee or try to educate them during the interview. It can make them feel disrespectful and unpleasant, resulting in eliciting the information ineffectively and leaving bad impressions.
Clarify problem qualification
Once the discussion is underway, you need to clarify the problem.
Since you’re going to be solving only one problem at a time, interviewees at this stage have to either qualify as personally having the problem or being aware of the existence of the problem. An interview works best when everyone is on the same page. Otherwise, showing a solution to a problem that doesn’t match their worldview is counterproductive and misleading.
Tell a compelling story
As Étienne, with both parties agreeing on the definition of the problem you're solving, it's time to tell your story. If you have visual support or a presentation, use it.
Put yourself in their shoes and tell an honest story. You have to demonstrate that, despite the risk, you're bringing them an unprecedented opportunity. Tell them who you are, what you've learned, what you stand for, how you're different from the alternatives, and why you're passionate about solving their problem. Tackle their risks and worries head-on.
Business buyers, influencers, and end-users are human, too. They're not exempt from emotional decision-making. If they like your company, your idea, your approach, and its benefits, and they like you as a person, they'll want to work with you. Thus, tell an honest story that creates an emotional connection with your solution and understanding their reality.
Explore solution and demo
It’s time to show what your team has been working on.
Before presenting your MVP, it's a good idea to ask, "What would be wonderful?" and listen carefully to the prospect's words. This question forces them to conceive a solution to the problem. If it hasn't been solved, you can take the opportunity to get a better understanding of their expectations to improve your product later.
Then, let the prospect play with your product for a few minutes before asking what they think it does. Your goal now is to understand the value of your MVP instead of adding features. Determine whether you are on the right track. How could you improve on this?
Close the interview
Before reaching the last question in the interview, you should give your respondents a sense of closure instead of stopping the conversation suddenly. You also provide them an opportunity to ask questions about your product. Afterward, let them know you appreciate their feedback and time, as well as give them whatever incentive you offered. What’s more, remember to ask users whether they don’t mind meeting for a couple more sessions. If you’ve attracted their interest, they will gladly await the next version of your product and see how their words impacted its development.
After the interview
Sit down with the field team right after the interview and debrief about crucial takeaways. Soon after, write up quick highlights and share them with the rest of your team.
Structure the information
Now, you’ll probably have a massive amount of data, including video recordings, dozens of notes, and personal impressions. Since then, you can analyze data into insights, insights into opportunities for new products, features, services, designs, and strategies.
Two common tools below enable you to structure the data:
- A report with specific sections: Reports help you filter through the critical data. The goals you set before the interview can be good foundations for your reports. Here is the customer interview report template designed by Atlassian, helping you easily structure your data.
- Mind maps: Using mind maps is a great way to structure and present your data in a visual and easily accessible format. This type of diagram allows you to quickly identify links between topics and spot connections that may not have been obvious before.
You can also combine the feedback from other sources, such as your customer support or analytics platforms. This allows you to see how much these issues affect your customers as a whole and come to better decisions on how to solve your customer’s problems.
Conduct a retrospective
Ideally, once you’ve finished your interviews, take a step back, assess your performance, and develop a plan to manage what you learned. Revisit your screening criteria and filter out whether their responses help you reach the initial goals you set. Since then, your team can measure and analyze this information deeper to improve your MVP. What's more, they can also define and map out budget availability for the remaining problems. Get ready to repeat interviews to continue developing your MVP into a full-fledged product and make a more customer-centric way of doing things.
How to ask the right interview questions
Besides ensuring an effective interviewing method, asking the right questions will help you achieve your goals efficiently, save you time and money, and unlock key pieces of information from respondents. So how do you ask the right questions?
There are two types of interview questions: research question and interview question.
- Research question: Why do our customers like shopping online?
- Interview question: Tell me about the last item you purchased online.
What’s more, most interview questions can be asked using two different formats: closed-ended and open-ended.
- If you want to collect quantitative data, close-ended questions are good options for yielding measurable results, such as yes/no questions, multiple-choice, and questions on a scale (e.g., from 0 to 10).
- If you need to obtain qualitative data, ask open-ended questions like “Can you tell me why you clicked on A instead of B?” or “What do you think of this page?”
When you conduct a one-on-one interview, you need to craft out open-ended questions that should be relatively brief and easy to understand. These questions enable you to build rapport, make it easy for participants to answer and get the information you are looking for. Once you've ordered your questions, go through each one diligently, as well as prepare several follow-up questions used to capture further details and gain clarification.
Besides, it's critical to think about the best order for your questions. This makes the conversation flow in a logical order and seems natural. For instance, if you're talking about a respondent's experience, it makes sense to proceed with chronological order. Whether the experience has been set according to phases that you might have documented in a service blueprint, a user-journey map, or an experience map (such as discover, select, purchase, checkout, use, and review), you can design questions aligning to these phases.
Last but not least, acquiring the right mindset during the interview can help you shape some interview questions promptly to dig deeper into users' actions. As long as you're asking the right questions at the right time and phrasing them correctly, you will be able to achieve your research objectives and get valuable insights that could help you or your different stakeholders with the following decisions.
A common example of a user interview
Let’s look through an example by Hotjar, the company owning a well-known website visitor tracking and research tool; they applied user interviews to validate their eCommerce website.
Here, several interview goals are:
- Learn users’ needs about an ideal product.
- Observe and find out the problems encountered while using the product and insights to create a better User Experience (UX).
- Measure user reactions and attitudes toward the product, the website, and concepts.
|SAMPLE SOLUTION INTERVIEW QUESTIONS||WHAT THIS TELLS US|
|Build rapport with respondents||
1. How old are you?
Learn about the users' demographics, knowledge, and experience.
1. What would be wonderful?
Whether your solution is on the mark (or at least in the right direction). What the prospect’s expectations are.
1. I noticed you did ____. Can you tell me why?
Collect users' opinions on the site's design and functionality that explains why users make certain choices while navigating the assigned tasks.
1. What was your overall impression of [product]?
Solicit feedback about users' impressions and opinions of your MVP and then get a feel for the overall user experience. Plus, recognize how different website details are against your competitors from the users' perspectives.
You have gone into how to conduct an effective user interview that helps you validate your MVP and business. We hope this sharing could help you be on the right track to find out what makes your audiences tick, what grabs their attention, and most importantly, what they want. It likely helps you get the picture of customer behavior, ease your MVP development journey and build a quality product that reaches the product/market fit. User interviews can also be a helpful addition to your user research method toolkit.
- Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights, 2013.
- Étienne Garbugli, Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want, 2014.
- How to Conduct User Interviews for UX Research and Product Development, www.altexsoft.com, 2019.
- Nick Babich, How to Conduct a User Interview That Actually Uncovers Valuable Insights, www.shopify.com, 2021.
- Customer interview report template, www.atlassian.com.
- Peldi, User Research: How to Start Talking to Your Users, www.balsamiq.com, 2018.
- Five whys, www.wikipedia.org.
- Hotjar, The best usability testing questions, www.hotjar.com, 2020.