Should You Talk to Your Customers

Should You Talk to Your Customers?

Yes! But to get real insight, you must know how.

If you are in the business of making products, here is a scenario you could probably relate to: a feature request that frequently appeared in support tickets made it into the product roadmap and a feature with the requested functionality was just released with an announcement sent to the users. You take a few days to collect data about the usage of the feature and see an alarming result: only a fraction of your users are using it.

What now? You know for a fact there was a need for it, it came from your users.

There is a debate going on for a while now between product professionals about the effectiveness of talking to customers. The hype is all about data — the bigger, the better — and making data-driven decisions. While we are in complete agreement that collecting and analyzing the right data can teach us a lot about user behavior, and what users actually do with our product, what it can’t tell us is WHY.

To get to the bottom of WHY you need to talk to your customers

User interviews might appear as simple conversations to the naked eye. However, there is an art to asking questions that deliver actionable insights about your product or service. Effective interviews require preparation. First of all, decide on a specific topic for the interview. It can be very focused on discussing a product flow (onboarding, for example), or broader like understanding the kind of use cases your product is used for. However, asking customers what they want or if they would use a specific feature is rarely helpful — they are usually not product experts. What they can tell you, though, is what they are trying to accomplish by using your product.

Starting with the logistics

We are inherently biased note takers. Use your phone or any other recording device to record the interview, this way you can share it with others and go back to revisit specific moments during the conversation. With that said you should still take notes, they can be your thoughts and associations that come up during the interview or follow-up questions you want to ask.

Preparing the questions

Each question, no matter how easy or complicated, should be clear and precise:

  • Ask about only one thing at a time.
  • Ask naive questions, even if you are an expert. You want to hear the explanation in the interviewee’s words.
  • Be mindful of the bias trap — use neutral language (Instead of “How easy was it to complete this flow?” ask “Was this flow easy or difficult to complete?” ) and don’t argue that something is known or agreed upon.

There are 3 main question groups:

  • Open Specific: Technical and easy questions, such as “What’s your occupation?” and “How long have you been using the product?”. These questions are meant to make the interviewee feel more comfortable.
  • Go Broad: Bigger picture questions can really broaden your perspective. “When did you discover the need for the product? What other options did you consider? What made you choose us?”
  • Probe Deep: Questions about the interviewee’s specific experience. For example, “How does the product help you today? How did you accomplish this before using the product? Which features do you use the most? What do you use them for? What frustrates you about the product or service?”

Setting the ground for an open conversation

Each interview should start with a small introduction about you, the topic of your conversation and a quick explanation about the nature of this interview: it’s not a formal interview or a test, there are no right or wrong answers and anything that comes to mind (thoughts, questions, negative or positive input) is important to you.

Managing the conversation

During the interview, create a positive atmosphere and a conversation flow that encourages the interviewee to be as open as possible. Here are a few guidelines to make it work:

  • A conversation, not an interview — use casual language, make the interviewees feel welcome and helpful (but don’t over-do it, you don’t want them to try and please you so much that they can’t think about any negative aspect of using your product or service).
  • Listen and be attentive, make eye contact even if you are writing. Don’t interrupt an interviewee in the middle of a sentence.
  • Allow thinking breaks — It’s not an awkward silence, thinking pauses are completely normal and even desirable.
  • Put your ego aside — It’s unpleasant to hear bad things about your work. Still, avoid correcting people and answering for them, try to understand their perspective and why it is different than yours. And no matter what you do, don’t argue.

Arranging your findings and finding insights

After conducting several interviews you should have a lot of material to go through. An easy method to find patterns in your customer’s feedback is an Affinity Diagram. An Affinity Diagram is a tool that gathers large amounts of language data (ideas, opinions, issues) and organizes them into groups based on their natural relationships. Practically, it means going over each interview and making post-it notes of interesting feedback, then arranging the notes into groups. For example: “Use cases”, “Issues”, “Unanswered needs”, etc.

The next step is to share your findings with all the relevant stakeholders, brainstorm over them, create new initiatives (initiatives related to product, marketing, support, etc.) and put them in motion. This is the purpose of all this careful planning and execution because the worst thing you can do with customer feedback is not act upon it.

This is not a one-time venture, of course. Your customers are a constant source of feedback and insights, and using this source wisely is what puts you ahead of the game.

— by Inna Kerzman