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The Art of the Customer Interview

Interviews with customers come in roughly two flavors: before you have something to show and after you have something to show. Interviews before you have something to show, are need-finding or generative interviews since they aim to identify unmet customer needs or generate possibilities for a solution. Interviews, after you have something to show, are called validation interview since you are looking to validate whether your customer wants what you are building.

Because all of us, when asked what we want, respond by saying what we wish, it's always a good idea to show your customer and ask him, "do you want this or that?" rather than just ask "what do you want? " or even "do you want this?". Now you don't just want to hear a "yes" or "sure" because a lukewarm yes today will almost certainly become a no when you ask him to pay for it.

When asked what we want, we respond by saying what we wish

What you want to hear is "Yes !! When can I have it ? How do you charge for it ?". So a rule one-word responses are not a good idea. You simply cannot tell how committed the person is to his answer based on just one word.

This is Good, even if it's a little scary.

That brings up the question: how do you ask a question so that your customers don't give you one-word answers? Learn from a talk-show host on the power of asking both open and closed-ended questions. Here is Oprah asking Lance Armstrong in that interview :

Could you feel the power of asking questions that are direct, to-the-point, and gets to the truth? There is a moment in your conversation with your customer, when you feel the moment is right, you should ask: "Will you pay for this?" and watch very carefully to what he says. These moments come sometimes in an interview, so use them carefully. You do not want to confront your customer unless the stakes are high for you and your team.

Learn from a talk-show host on the power of asking both open and closed-ended questions.

By contrast, here is Oprah asking one single question: What do you tell Luke?

Did you notice it took nearly six minutes to answer this one question, while in the previous case Oprah asked six questions in just over minute? More importantly, did you notice how different the places were from which Lance gave his responses?

In the first case, the close-ended questions required courage, but not much feeling. There was even light laughter when the volley of questions ended. In the second case, he was fully feeling the emotional impact of his responses. That is the power of an open-ended question.

Believe it or not, there is not much more to doing user interviews than this which makes this both simple and frustrating. You have to learn the art of the interview by simply practicing how to move between closed and open-ended questions. You may find you need to start with a few simple closed-ended questions to start with to get your customer warmed up before you can pose your first open-ended question.

He was fully feeling the emotional impact of his reponses. That is the power of an open-ended question

You may also find that the response to one open-ended question may lead you to the next question and you spend some time exploring a particular theme, a technique called "uptake". You may realize that you can get lost in the conversation, so it helps to have a list of open-ended questions put together in some meaningful sequence, called a research script, that you can refer to in case you go down a rabbit hole with your customer.

As you do a few practice interviews with your own team and then your customers, you will find quite naturally, that asking questions with something to show is more specific experience since you have something to guide their attention with while asking questions without something to show feels fuzzier but also more valuable since you discover the deeper emotional needs of your customer that do not surface in any other way.

You would discover most of what you need to know simply by doing half a dozen interviews

As you do a few interviews, you find your ways to sort and organize your findings. Interviews, before you have something to show, will naturally have more quotes and it's useful to have a tool that lets you find, compile, and share them quickly. On the other hand, interviews with something to show will tend to surface on what worked and what didn't and so it might make sense to have a grid of people and features so you can see who liked what.

It'll also become clear almost immediately that to maintain rapport you need at least two people and ideally three in an interview: one to have the conversation, one to take notes and one, when possible to watch the body language and non-verbal cues. Because there is so much happening in an interview, debriefing right after becomes a way to offload and surface highlight right away.

You would discover most of what you need to know simply by doing half a dozen interviews. Mostly though, don't fall for the easy trap of having someone give you the "best" questions to ask for an interview They are as likely to give you results as the "best" questions to ask on a date.

Don't fall for the easy trap of having someone give you the "best" questions to ask

Even with really good tools that tell you where your customers are getting stuck, you will still need to talk to them to understand why, what were they feeling, and why it mattered to them in that moment.

Interviewing customers whether with or without something to show is a deeply human experience. You need to build rapport and trust before they will open up to you and answer your questions. Yes, there is an arc to these conversations and has a beginning, middle, and end but it's best if you don't see it ahead of time, but instead, feel it from your interviews.

What I have seen does happen predictably though, is that because being deeply listened to is such a rare privilege, when you offer your full attention to someone for an hour, not only are they forgiving of the little goof-ups you are bound to make, the connection you established makes it the highlight their day and most people want to go over and tell you more.

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