Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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How to Conduct Customer Interviews

Giff Constable posted a very excellent summary of tips for what he calls customer development interviews. One of my favorites is number 5 on disarming "politeness" training.

People are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. My approach was to explain that the worst thing that could happen to me was building something people didn’t care about, so the best way they could help me was absolute, brutal honesty.

My other favorite is what he says to do after the interview: Look for patterns and apply judgment.

Customer development interviews will not give you statistically significant data, but they will give you insights based on patterns. They can be very tricky to interpret, because what people say is not always what they do.

You need to use your judgement to read between the lines, to read body language, to try to understand context and agendas, and to filter out biases based on the types of people in your pool of interviewees. But it is exactly the ability to use human judgement based on human connections that make interviews so much more useful than surveys.

The way I do this in my own work is to collect my notes on a series of interviews and then review them one at a time, recording the incidence of certain problems, requests, needs, characteristics and other concepts. Extracting structured information from unstructured notes, though (as Giff says) not statistically valid, does help to bring out patterns. See my entry on qualitative vs. quantitive research methods for more on this and what to do next.

Reader Comments (6)

Brutal honesty it is. People should always be honest about something. It's for the best anyway.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHugh @Catalog Designs

A lot of people won't be honest with you. I don't really get it. Politeness should never replace honesty. If something's not good, just say it and get it over with.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVivian Kendricks

Yes Vivian, you're right. However, it's also in human nature to avoid offending others. So instead of saying negative things about a product, they will just say "it's okay". I wonder how businesses can force customers to practice brutal honesty during surveys.

November 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertyrone burrier

THere's no way to entirely eliminate the "niceness factor" but telling people that you want brutal honesty, that it will in fact help you, does go some way.

Another technique it to pick critical people to talk to. Some customers are just complainers and the natural tendency is to ignore them. Instead, I seek them out and solicit their input. They like being heard so they will usually accommodate you. They may complain about things that are so small you won't end up acting on them, but they will also complain about the big stuff. You can then cross-validate their complaints with the nicer folks.

November 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

There are many occasions where being honest can still be obtained and yet softened. You can also be honest and be rude about it. I agree that a lot of people will not be honest with you and would rather lie or fib or whatever you call it, then offend someone. I know there are exceptions to this but I'm talking about in general.

December 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterDavid Boon

Yeah but honesty is always the best way to approach things. Sometimes things are not always pleasant or as they seem and people try to sugar coat things. honest people are not always liked and come off as rude. The people that think this are often times people that like to sugar coat things.

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