Making Time for Customer Interviews

At the start of the last quarter (Jan-Mar) I set a goal for our team to speak to 1 customer per week. Our aim was to use these interviews to generate meaningful opportunities for our product roadmap.

We had recently launched a few features that didn’t meet our expectations. We spent a lot of time making sure the features worked as intended and were technically sound, but that wasn’t enough. The results showed that we hadn’t moved the needle and we were left scratching our heads.

While reading some of Teresa Torres’ posts on Product Discovery, I realized we had fallen into a trap of focusing on solutions rather than problems. A common theme with these features was that we hadn’t validated them with customers. Maybe we saw others in our industry with similar features or we just assumed there was a clear value proposition for our customers. We didn’t intend for this – we were short on User Research help at the time and allowed ourselves to fall into bad habits. None of us had any formal training in User Research and still had our normal job-duties to manage, but we were determined to change how we were working.

By the end of the quarter we had spoken to 15 customers, came up with 2 main opportunities for product improvement, impressed our stakeholders, built compassion for our customers and learned a lot along the way. Here’s how we did it.

Finding People

One of the most challenging things for us was finding people to interview. Our products had tens of thousands of weekly users, but an email address or account wasn’t required so the vast majority of our users were ‘anonymous’ to us. One of the things we did to establish a relationship with our customers was to send a survey in our App. While the answers to the questions were useful to us, what we really wanted was the opportunity to talk to these customers. The final question in the survey asked whether the customer was willing to do an interview and, if they said yes, their email address.

Customer Service was another channel we used to find interviewees. A former User Researcher on our team had set up an email account that we used to handle customer correspondence and we used this for recruiting. I put this email in our App Store release notes and encouraged customers to contact us with questions. While the volume wasn’t huge, it was steady and those who wrote in were clearly engaged – and sometimes angry 🙁 If we successfully solved a customer’s issue we would follow up and ask if they were interested in speaking with us further.

The yield of actual interviews from customer service channels was higher than the one from completed surveys. I imagine this was the case because the customer reached out to us in the former scenario and was pre-disposed to speaking with us.

Getting the Interview

We were happy that we now had a list of customers to email, but this was just the beginning. We found that actually scheduling the interview was another challenge. Here are some of our learnings.

Meeting-scheduling software is a must! We sent out maybe 2-3 invite requests without using a scheduling tool and it was so cumbersome that we signed up for a tool right away. Typing in our available times into an email or asking customers for times that worked for them just wasn’t ideal. As we were drafting these emails my colleague turned to me and said ‘this is too hard, no one will sign up.’ She was right.

There are many of these tools on the market, but we chose Calendly. There’s a free option that syncs with the major Mail and Calendar providers and that’s all we needed to get started. This worked – we now appeared more official and customers actually booked time with us!

Incentives will help you book interviews. We weren’t able to offer gift cards for participation due to legal reasons so we had to be a bit more resourceful. We had some company swag around the office and we added a line about ‘giving you a small gift as a token of our appreciation’ to our interview requests – our bookings markedly increased when we did this. These gifts were mugs or pairs of gloves – nothing special, but customers really appreciated receiving them. So don’t worry about finding the perfect gift.

The Right Tools for the Interview

A good set-up with all the right people tools is critical for a successful interview. Here are some items that will help you get up and running with your interviews.

Have a teammate conduct the interview with you. Only one of you needs to moderate, but a teammate is great for taking notes and picking up some of the nuance you may miss as you moderate. They can also suggest follow-up questions that you may not have thought of and remind you to stop taking and just listen…as I am often guilty of 🙂

To help with transcription, we used the stock Voice Memos App on iOS to record the interviews. Just make sure to ask permission before you record.

It seems obvious, but a working phone/conference line is a must. We used our company conference lines and the customers had no problem dialing in and entering the PIN. On a few occasions we used Zoom, which always works and has a free tier.

Asking the Right Questions

The goal of our interviews was to produce generative research – we wanted to define the opportunities before pursuing the solutions. We were interested in finding out how our Product fit into our customers’ lives, why they used it and what we could do to make it better. There were three types of questions that we thought really helped us understand the customer.

1 – Questions to build Context

Open ended questions were key to learn about context. One of the specific questions that helped us was:

‘Walk us through the last time you used the App – how was the experience?” 

By asking questions like this we got the ‘Why behind the What.’

So instead of asking ‘Where and When do you watch?’ and getting something like: ‘I watch in my bedroom’…..

We got something richer: ‘I missed the episode on Live TV and wanted to catch up on my Apple TV, but my kids were watching something. I decided to go into the bedroom instead and fold clothes as I watched on my phone.

With this answer alone we learned what triggered them to watch, which device they preferred and what they did as they watched. This information is extremely valuable as we design. For example, maybe ‘multi-tasking’ becomes an opportunity we explore further and consider something like enabling audio when the App is backgrounded on mobile.

2 – Questions to Improve the Product

These are fairly straightforward, but remember to keep it open-ended.

‘What could be improved in the current App experience?” 

An important point here is not to lead. We get a lot of App Store reviews about the number of advertisements we show, but we’re not going to ask ‘Do you like Ads?’ NOBODY likes ads.

By asking a more open-ended question ‘How do you feel about the Ad experience?’ – we heard things like ‘I don’t love ads, but I understand why you have them…maybe you could show them all at the start of the video rather than throughout.’

This type of questioning also empowers customers. Instead of pushing your agenda, you are giving them the opportunity to drive the conversation. They LOVED this – so many many customers thanked us for allowing their voice to be heard!

3 – Questions to build Empathy

Asking a customer more about themselves is a great way to build empathy. One we liked to ask was:

‘Tell us a little more about yourself. What do you do for a living? Where did you grow up? Any hobbies?’

At first I felt a bit awkward asking this, but a former User Researcher colleague swore by this question and we all respected her expertise. She was right – customers loved answering this! While it may not have presented us with product opportunities, it brought us closer to our customers. We learned that one had just retired and enjoyed watching our programming to pass the time; another was working night shifts so they could save money to go to culinary school; and another had our programming on in the background while they were wood-working to relieve stress.

Getting outside of your head and learning who you are building for has an amazing motivational effect; one that’s just different than hitting OKRs or a launch date.

What’s Next

For us, this exercise was totally worth it. We prioritized potential Product opportunities with input from Interviews (and other sources) and were able to convince our leadership that we were on the right track. And personally, it was gratifying to develop a relationship with individuals that use our Products regularly.

Interviews are one of MANY inputs to the Product Development process, but one that I feel is easy to ignore. Products, especially digital ones, produce so much data that is readily available to analyze. Interviews and the information from them, on the other hand, aren’t produced automatically. It’s hard work and the process isn’t particularly scalable, especially if you don’t have someone dedicated to it.

You can get pretty far by just looking at the data and forming hypotheses around them. But, like we were, you may find yourself in a place where you find yourself just chasing after numbers without a real, human problem to solve. We found that speaking to our customers gave us direction.

I hope I’ve shown you that it is possible to do regular customer interviews, even if you don’t have much experience. And like anything else, you can and will improve with practice.

Best of luck and please reach out with any questions!

Special thanks to my colleagues Mikaela and Natalie for partnering with me on this initiative!