How To Interview Your Users And Get Useful Feedback

(This is a guest post by Garrett Moon, Founder of TodayMade.
It’s not enough to talk to customers. You have to know how.
In this post, Garrett shares his lessons learned for crafting effective customer interviews.

When my business partner and I drafted our first outline for our next startup venture, we knew that we were onto something pretty exciting. The existing market had little to offer regarding a great editorial calendar for blogging, and we felt that our unique approach would resonate with users. Despite our excitement, we wanted to validate our idea. We started gathering feedback through user interviews.

One of the lessons I learned after killing my first product was that I needed to pay better attention to how I was gathering feedback. That experience showed me that I had a fundamental misunderstanding of how to actually go about getting good feedback.

With the new product, I vowed to double my efforts and do it right. I bought the book Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal and studied the art of interviewing. Investing in that book was one of the key ingredients to a successful launch. Even more importantly, it is something that anyone can duplicate.

Interviews create connections between builders and the customers. It makes the problems tangible and human.

Fast-forward to today, you’ll hear me say that there is nothing more energizing and useful than interviewing your users. As a born introvert, it took me some time to understand and accept this, but learning to get over my inadequacies and give people a call made a huge difference in the amount and the quality of feedback that we received.

Not only were we able to make connections with potential customers, but we were also about to understand their true needs. Interviewing is an art, though, and you must approach it with reverence.

Interviewing Tip #1: Stop Sounding Like An Inventor

As an entrepreneur, it is actually somewhat counter-intuitive to conduct a user interview. Deep inside, almost every starter is a little bit of salesman, but this is counterproductive when collecting user feedback. Conducting an interview doesn’t call for a sales pitch. We have to be in it for the information.

A classic example is when an interviewee asks for a specific feature they would like you to include. The salesperson inside of us wants to pounce on that idea and let the user know that it is something we are considering. This is our instinct, but it is not the best way to gather feedback.

Do the Interviewer Sidestep and turn the question back on them: "Is that important to you?" What would you expect?"

Rather than jumping into sales mode, we need to take a step back and use the opportunity to understand our customer’s motivation for the feature. Rather than responding with “yes, we plan on offering that,” we should respond with something like “that’s interesting; how would you plan to use this feature?” or “would that feature make a big difference for you? How?”

This subtle change can make all the difference. Suddenly, we become someone who is gathering information rather than a list of features. Customers don’t buy features, they buy solutions to their problems. We do ourselves and them a huge service when we take the time to understand their real problem

Interviewing Tip #2: Be Picky About Who You Talk To

One of the biggest mistakes I made with my previous startup was listening to the wrong people. We had a large percentage of free users because of our freemium offering. This proved to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we garnered a great deal of feedback. A curse because little of the feedback is centered around a customer's willingness to pay.

This was distracting.

With this startup, we only focused on talking to likely customers and prospects. We were highly selective of who we let beta test our product or provide feedback. Our criteria were simple: would this person likely buy CoSchedule? If they answer was no, they didn’t get an invite.

It comes down to customers vs. users.

  • A customer pays for your product. They matter.
  • A user uses your product. They matter a lot less.

When you are collecting feedback you need to be talking to the people that are paying or would likely pay to use your product. We learned this lesson the hard way and did a full 180 in terms of feedback quality when we started getting more disciplined with our decisions.

Interviewing Tip #3: Stop Asking What, Start Wondering Why

Wouldn’t it be great if our customers, or potential customers, told us what they wanted and how much they were willing to pay? It would, of course, but you better not count on it. Your customers can’t tell you what you need to build. That’s your job. So, as entrepreneurs, we have to learn to ask the right questions.

What is not the question. Why is the question.

Interviews are not good at predicting the future behavior, especially future purchase intent or uncovering price expectations.

Again, this is all about context. You can’t assume that your customers think about your product as a business. They don’t. For them, it is nothing more than a solution to a felt need. Your customers are totally self-focused on their own needs. It is why they will ultimately buy your product, and that is exactly what you’re looking for.

Our goal needs to be a true understanding of how our product solves our customer’s problems. When we understand why they need it, we will quickly realize what they need.

Interviewing Tip #4: Awkward Silence Works

One of the tendencies of someone leading a group discussion, or an interview, is to fill the silence with noise. As the interviewer, we get nervous, and nervous people tend to talk. When we lob a question out there, and no one responds, we can easily field it ourselves as a matter of reflex, but what good is an interview with ourselves?

Another thing that we can easily do is to ask our questions over and over again in many different ways. This comes out with connecting phrases like “what I mean by that is” or “to put it another way.” The words that come after these phrases are usually counter-productive and unnecessary. What we need to do, is let the silence sit.

After you ask a question, be silent.

It may be uncomfortable to watch your subjects squirm, but the results will be worth it. They dislike the silence just as much as you do, and like you, they will be anxious to fill it. If you let it hang, you will likely turn that awkward silence it into a string of useful feedback. Let them take their turn and soak up the feedback.

Interviewing Tip #5: Run An Interview, Not A Conversation

I once listened as one of my colleagues conducted and interview that made me cringe. It sounded more like two old friends catching up more than anything. “Aren’t you supposed to be gathering information?” I thought, but his mistake is not uncommon, especially in our climate of approachability and human business. But, as the interviewer, your job is to lead the conversation, not participate in it.

Interviews are different from conversation. We'll use a relaxed tone, but we are purposefully guiding the interaction, often thinking several questions ahead.

We must remember our strategic objectives. We are there to gather information, and feedback, and to understand what problems we can solve and why we need to do so. There is no reason to make a friend or even a sale. We need to guide the conversation so that we gather useful, actionable information that will make whatever it is that we are building better.

When you start looking at the interview process as an integral and strategic part of the lean process, I have no doubt that you can become a great interviewer.

Garrett Moon is a founder and designer at Todaymade, makers of CoSchedule, a content marketing editorial calendar that integrates with social media and WordPress.

Follow Garrett Moon on Google+ or Twitter.

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