Scoping the study
- Define your goal: Clearly express the decision you are trying to make and what information gap you need to fill to confidently make the decision. Common goals include: (a) selecting which features to prioritize in product development or marketing, (b) assessing product fit for a particular market segment, (c) determining price.
- Decide on the best format to achieve your goal: For early discovery and exploration, face-to-face, 1:1, conversational interviews are best. If necessary, you can conduct these interviews over the phone as well. For later stage confirmation, an electronic survey is best since you will get a larger sample. I generally avoid focus groups since they suffer from selection bias, group-think, and a host of other problems.
- Keep your interview guide short: Limit to just 4 to 5 formal questions to leave lots of room to probe. Some experts suggest only crafting a single framing question and letting the conversation flow naturally as long as you keep your ultimate goal top of mind.
- Don’t be digital: Minimize numerical questions (ex: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 highest, how would you rate…”). These questions are awkward to not only ask but also answer. Moreover, the true value of qualitative interviews is the color commentary. Should you ask a quantitative question, follow up by probing for the reason behind their answer by continuing, “What would you rate a 10?”
- Be an anthropologist: It is almost always useless to ask customers what they want/need; in the same vein, avoid hypothetical questions (i.e “What would you do if…”). Instead, ask the interviewee to tell a specific story that anthropologically reveals their behaviors and challenges. If they describe a problem, follow on with, “How often does that happen? How does that affect you? In what ways have you already tried to solve it? What worked? What did not”
- Be an observer: As an alternative to asking the interviewee to share a story, ask them to react to a concept. Or better, have them compare two, competing concepts.
- Respect people’s time: Do not ask anything you can find out easily through other means (ex: a person’s current employer or job title which is easily found on LinkedIn). Strive to keep interviews to 30 minutes if by phone and up to 60 minutes if in person.
Identifying & inviting interviewees
- Match your target segment to your goal: While the easiest to engage segment is existing customers, engaging prospective customers who meet your ideal client profile is often more fruitful. With prospective customers, you may wish to further segment among those who currently buy from one of your competitors and those who do not. Other populations include lost customers, suppliers, partners, etc.
- Avoid collisions: Especially prior to inviting existing, prospective, or lost customers, get clearance from the salesperson on the account to ensure you do not negatively impact a new sale or derail a challenging renewal; your company’s actions and communications should be fully coordinated.
- Set your “target n”: In most circumstances, interviewing 5 to 10 people is sufficient. If the findings do not feel consistent, you probably have two (or, rarely, more) segments and will need to get 10 to 20. You’ll need to invite at least twice as many people as you intend to interview.
- Eschew financial incentives: People are very happy to help when you respectfully ask them for advice. If possible, avoid financial incentives since extrinsic rewards induce conscious and unconscious bias due to eagerness to please.
- Share the interview guide: Once interviewees are confirmed, share the interview guide. While you should mark the guide as confidential, the benefit of having the prospect think about how they will answer outweighs any risks of competitors getting the guide.
- Make your interviewee comfortable: To help people feel at ease, lead with (a) brief rapport, (b) the purpose & intended use of the interview, (c) a promise of confidentiality where applicable, and (d) the duration and format of the interview.
- Start gently: Lead with an easy, fact-based question.
- Be conversational, not scripted
- Ask probing questions: Go deep with open-ended questions: Why? How?
- Be mindful of your biases: Seek disconfirming information as actively, if not more actively, as you seek new information or confirming information
- Be an active listener: Active listeners (a) allow for silence, (b) show genuine interest & engagement verbally and non-verbally, and (c) confirm understanding.
- Avoid audio/video recording: You’ll get more candid answers if you do not record. To ensure smooth and accurate capture, interview with a buddy who serves as a note-taker since verbatim comments can be pure gold. If you do record, ask for permission.
- Read body language: Carefully read interviewee body language, looking for agreement between words, tone, and non-verbal communication. If you sense hesitation or subtext, mention it and ask for clarification.
- Mine for gold: Don’t worry about covering every question in the interview guide. If you hit a gold vein of fruitful insight, stay there until it runs dry.
- Stay neutral: Do not ask leading questions; describe, don’t “sell” your idea. Similarly, never get defensive or show offense.
- Steer the conversation: While you want to interview to be conversational, interviewees sometimes veer off tangents or misunderstand your question. In such circumstances, gently steer the discussion to get it back on track.
- Ask the ultimate final question: “Is there anything I forgot to ask you?”
- End gracefully: Thank them profusely and end on time. (If you need to go over time, confirm that is OK). Ask permission to follow up. A nice touch – callback to something you learned when establishing rapport at the start of the interview.
- Follow up with a specific thank you referencing a key insight they provided. You may also send a small, relevant gift (though many employers to not allow employees to accept gifts from vendors or potential vendors).
(Note: Analyzing and sharing results is the obvious next phase but out of scope for this post.)