We recently launched the Ask Teresa series on Product Talk, where I tackle common questions and challenges that I hear from people as they begin to adopt continuous discovery. Find all the posts in this series here.
If you’re serious about continuous discovery, one of the most important steps you can take is committing to weekly (at a minimum) touch points with your customers.
But I also know that taking this step involves making many big changes. It means identifying the right people to talk to, automating the recruiting process, synthesizing what you learn during interviews, and for many people, completely changing the way you conduct interviews.
Remember: We’re all susceptible to bias, both in terms of describing our own behavior and gathering insights from the interviews we conduct.
Story-based interviewing helps us to overcome some of that bias by prompting our customers to share a specific example of a past behavior rather than a generalized explanation of what they think they do.
Story-based interviewing helps us to overcome some cognitive bias by prompting our customers to share a specific example of a past behavior rather than a generalized explanation of what they think they do. – Tweet This
This approach also helps limit the interviewer’s bias by focusing on the customer’s context. Instead of asking customers about the specifics of our product—and potentially opening ourselves up to the escalation of commitment bias or confirmation bias where we fall in love with our own ideas and ignore any evidence that contradicts them—we put the spotlight on our customers and their experiences.
So how do we make sure our interviews accomplish this? I’ll explore this topic in today’s article.
Question: What are the best customer interview questions to ask?
A lot of teams conflate two concepts. One is the idea of your research questions, which is what you’re trying to learn. And the other is your interview questions, or what you’re going to ask to learn that.
A lot of teams conflate the concepts of research questions, which is what you’re trying to learn, and interview questions, which is what you’re going to ask to learn that. – Tweet This
Here’s an example with streaming entertainment company Netflix. My intuition is if I wanted to learn about someone’s Netflix behavior, I would ask them things like, “What do you like to watch?”, “Where do you watch?”, “Who do you watch with?”, and “What device do you watch on?”
These are my research questions. They are what I’m trying to learn.
The problem with asking research questions in your interviews is that humans are bad at accurately answering direct questions out of context. When we ask someone a direct question, their brain generates a fast response. That fast response feels true, but often it’s not.
This means your customer is going to be able to answer every single one of these questions. The problem is their answers won’t necessarily reflect their behavior in reality. Not because they’re trying to be deceptive, but just because they all get filtered through a set of cognitive biases. If you’re interested in diving into this topic (and the science of bias) in more depth, be sure to check out my blog post Why You Are Asking the Wrong Customer Interview Questions.
Generally answers to direct questions are not very reliable. So what we want to do is look at that set of research questions and ask, “What’s a specific story I can collect that will get me answers to those questions?” And then I want to spend my interview collecting that story.
So in this example, I might say, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix.” “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix on the go.” Or “tell me about the last time you had to choose a new show to watch.” And then in the context of that story, I’m listening for answers to all my research questions.
Find the Right Scope for Your Questions
Some people say it’s challenging to find the right scope for your interview questions. How do you make sure they’re not so broad that you get to the end of an interview without narrowing in on the opportunity you want to discuss?
First, it depends on your outcome. Your outcome sets the scope for discovery.
Continuing with the Netflix example, your team might be tasked with finding new market opportunities (e.g. developing brand-new products). In this case, you wouldn’t want to start with “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix.” You’d start with something like “Tell me about the last time you did something fun.”
On the flip side, if you were on the mobile team, you might not want to start with “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix,” because you’d get a whole bunch of stories about watching Netflix on a TV. In this case, you might say, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix on the go.”
You can change the scope of your interview question to match your outcome.
You can change the scope of your interview question to match your outcome. – Tweet This
As you choose a target opportunity to focus on, you’ll still ask the same interview question, but you might dive into more detail on different parts of the story.
For example, if I’m working on an opportunity like: “I can’t tell if this show is any good,” I might spend more time on the part of the story where you choose what to watch than on the part of the story where you are watching the show. I still want to ask for the broader story, so that I can keep investing in understanding the opportunity space, but I can tailor my focus based on where I need more detail now.
You Won’t Always Get What You Want
I also have to mention that with story-based interviewing, you won’t always collect the story you want. That’s okay. The golden rule of interviewing is to let the participant talk about what they care about most.
The golden rule of interviewing is to let the participant talk about what they care about most. – Tweet This
You might encounter some participants who simply don’t cooperate. They might not have a relevant story. They might be motivated to tell you about a different part of the story. They might not want to tell you a story at all. They might give one-sentence answers. Or they might want to share their feature requests or gripe about how your product works.
In these instances, you’ll want to do the best you can to capture the value the participant is willing to share, but don’t force it. You always want to respect what the participant cares about most. Remember, with continuous interviewing, you’ll be interviewing another customer soon enough. When we rarely interview, a disappointing interview can feel painful. When we interview continuously, a disappointing interview is easily forgotten.
Even with these tips in mind, learning how to collect a reliable story takes practice. Our Continuous Interviewing course is designed to get you six hours of hands-on practice. You should join us!