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Conducting Effective Customer Interviews in Product Management

By Ankit Agarwal – Product Leader at Nium

In a competitive market, 72% of new products fail to meet revenue targets due to unvalidated assumptions, resulting in significant financial losses. Understanding user needs and preferences can increase the likelihood of success by up to 60%. It’s crucial to validate assumptions systematically and engage with the right users during product development. Businesses can reduce risks and drive impactful innovations by avoiding bias, uncovering genuine user stories, and identifying prospects poised for adoption. 

In this blog, we will learn some important tips to conduct effective user interviews that can help transform ideas into successful products.

Key Takeaways:

  • Transform ideas into successful products by validating assumptions through systematic research and customer interviews.
  • Target users who genuinely face the problem your product aims to solve, avoiding bias from convenience or personal connections.
  • Encourage storytelling and shift the focus away from yourself to uncover genuine insights without bias.
  • Dive deep into user stories to extract emotional insights, behaviors, and solution hacks for valuable product development insights.
  • Categorize users based on their problem awareness and readiness to seek solutions. Target engaged early adopters for effective product development.
In this article
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    Rule 1- Ideas are just guesses

    Transforming an idea into a thriving product demands more than enthusiasm—it requires a methodical approach to uncover and validate underlying assumptions. Let’s explore this through an example:

    Consider the scenario of a tea enthusiast frustrated by the lack of specialized tea discovery options on popular apps like Zomato. Inspired to create a dedicated tea-lovers platform, they embark on building an app with friends. However, after six months, the app struggles to gain traction, with only a handful of downloads, primarily from acquaintances. What went wrong?

    The downfall stemmed from unchecked assumptions:

      • Assumed demand for yet another app exclusively for tea exploration.
      • Presumed a substantial market of active tea enthusiasts seeking such a platform.
      • Expected sufficient tea spots in the city to populate the app.
      • Believed tea lovers would engage by contributing reviews.
      • Hoped for revenue through subscriptions or ads.

    To avoid similar pitfalls, adopt a systematic idea validation approach:

    1. Identify Assumptions: List and categorize assumptions:

      • Desirability: Does the idea solve a genuine problem or add value?
      • Feasibility: Can we realistically build this product with available resources?
      • Usability: Will users find it intuitive and enjoyable?
      • Profitability: Can this idea sustainably generate revenue?

    2. Gather Evidence: Research market data, industry trends, and user behaviors to validate assumptions.

    3. Highlight Riskiest Assumptions: Identify and prioritize assumptions critical to the idea’s success.

    4. Test with Customers: Engage potential users directly through interviews, surveys, or prototypes to validate assumptions and gather feedback.

    Rule 2- Finding the Right Users for Your Product

    After outlining your idea and identifying key assumptions, the next crucial step is engaging with the right users. This process isn’t merely about gathering feedback—it’s about recruiting the ideal participants who can provide valuable insights to shape your product’s development.

    Choosing the Right Users

    Talking to friends or family might seem convenient, but it’s often not the best approach. They may hesitate to criticize your idea to spare your feelings. Instead, target users who represent your intended audience—those who genuinely face the problem your product aims to solve.

    Creative Recruitment Strategies

    1. Identify Moments of Pain: Locate places or events where your target users naturally experience the problem you’re addressing. For instance:

      • For a tea-related product, visit tea-centric locations frequented by enthusiasts.
      • Target design colleges or conferences if your product caters to designers.
      • Approach industry-specific groups or platforms relevant to your audience.

    2. Utilize Existing Networks (B2B Setup): In a business-to-business (B2B) environment, leverage connections within your team or customer base:

      • Ask current users for referrals to others in similar roles.
      • Tap into customer-facing teams (e.g., sales, account management) for introductions to potential users.

    3. Explore Online Communities: Engage with users through social media platforms, forums, and specialized websites:

      • Join relevant Facebook groups, LinkedIn communities, or Twitter discussions.
      • Consider platforms like Fiverr or Upwork to connect with freelance professionals.

    4. Use Specialty User Research Tools: Leverage tools designed for user research to access curated communities of specific user segments:

      • Explore platforms that facilitate connections with professionals like plumbers, electricians, or social media managers.

    Engaging with Users

    When reaching out to potential users, clarity and transparency are essential:

      • Communicate that you’re seeking insights, not selling a product.
      • Request a brief amount of their time (e.g., 10-20 minutes) to learn about their experiences and needs.
      • Consider offering incentives (e.g., Amazon vouchers) to encourage participation.

    Rule 3- Avoiding Bias

    The analogy of not being told your “baby is ugly” highlights a critical aspect of user interviews. People are often hesitant to provide candid feedback, especially if they know the idea or product is yours. To circumvent this bias:

      • Shift Focus from Yourself: Make the conversation about the user’s experiences and challenges, not your idea. By doing so, you create a safe space for genuine dialogue.
      • Maintain Objectivity: Approach interviews with a mindset of learning and discovery rather than seeking validation for your concept.
      • Steer Clear of Group Thinking: Engaging with users individually, rather than in groups, is vital for unbiased feedback. Group dynamics can influence responses, leading to conformity rather than genuine insights.

    Uncovering Insights through Stories

    The key to effective user interviews lies in eliciting personal stories and experiences. Instead of asking for direct opinions, prompt users to narrate specific instances from their lives related to your product concept:

    Example Approach:

      • Instead of asking, “Is this idea good?” inquire, “Can you recall the last time you faced this particular challenge?”
      • Encourage users to share stories about their experiences and the hurdles they encountered.

    Case Study: The Goa Transportation Conundrum

    Consider a scenario like introducing Uber in Goa. To strategize effectively, engage with both potential customers (seeking rides) and suppliers (drivers) to gather comprehensive insights:

      • Customer Perspective: Explore how individuals currently commute and their pain points with existing transportation options.
      • Supplier Engagement: Understand the challenges and motivations of drivers or transport operators in the local context.

    Rule 4- Delving Deep into User Stories

    In the journey of building a product, understanding the nuanced context within which users operate is crucial. Imagine developing an app with multiple user types—each scenario demands a comprehensive grasp of the user’s narrative. Let’s explore how to extract valuable insights through in-depth interviews:

    Contextual Exploration: From Start to Finish

    Whether it’s discovering a new tea spot or navigating a complex healthcare app, every user story is a tapestry of emotions, triggers, and challenges. Here’s how to unravel it:

      • Start with Expectations: Set the tone early in the interview that you’re here to listen. Encourage users to narrate their experiences, emphasizing depth over brevity.
      • Probe for Details: Dive into the story—Who was involved? Where did it happen? What triggered the situation? How did it unfold? Understanding the complete narrative unveils critical pain points.
      • Emotional Insight: Explore the emotional landscape—What were the frustrations? Did they consider alternatives or solutions? Uncover the user’s true feelings and motivations behind their actions.

    Action over Opinion: Seeking Real-World Behaviors

    Users may present idealized versions of their habits and preferences. Instead of relying on opinions:

      • Focus on Behaviors: Don’t settle for what users claim; investigate their actual behaviors. For instance, inquire about their recent workout routine to reveal patterns beyond idealized self-perceptions.
      • Solution Hacks: Acknowledge existing solutions or workarounds users employ to tackle challenges. Are there makeshift methods or tools they use to bridge gaps in existing products or services?

    Case Study: Healthcare App Insights

    Consider a scenario where you’re developing a healthcare app. Instead of asking about exercise frequency:

      • Deep Dive Inquiry: Explore the recent workout history. Learn about deviations from the idealized routine—What prompted gaps in activity? Was there a festival or event influencing their behavior?
      • Solution Discovery: Uncover any unique methods or tools users use to augment their fitness journey. This reveals practical insights into users’ unmet needs and potential product enhancements.

    Rule 5- Identifying Relevant Prospects

    After engaging in meaningful conversations with potential users, you’ll quickly realize that not all prospects are created equal. They can be neatly categorized into a pyramid of relevance based on their awareness of the problem and their readiness to seek solutions.

    Understanding the Pyramid of Relevance

    Unaware Users: Some individuals may not even recognize the existence of the problem you’re addressing. They haven’t experienced the pain point firsthand, making them less relevant to your product or service.

      • Aware but Passive Users: Others might acknowledge the problem but remain passive in seeking solutions. They may not actively engage in searching for alternatives, implying a lower readiness for adoption.
      • Problem-Aware and Active Seekers: This segment represents users who are well aware of the problem and actively seeking solutions. They’re likely to be part of online communities or discussions related to the issue, demonstrating a higher level of engagement.
      • Engaged and Proactive Users: At the peak of the pyramid are users deeply affected by the problem, actively looking for effective solutions. They’re frequent users of similar products, eager to contribute insights and co-create solutions.

    Targeting Early Adopters: Leveraging User Insights

    The key to success lies in identifying and engaging with those at the top of the pyramid—your potential early adopters:

      • Capture User Language: During interviews, note the specific lingo and language users employ to describe their challenges and frustrations. This authentic language can inform your marketing messaging, resonating with your target audience.
      • Assess Spending Habits: Understand the existing expenses and budgets users allocate to manage or alleviate the problem. Whether they employ makeshift solutions or incur hidden costs, this reveals the potential value proposition for your solution.

    Rule 6- Some Prospects are Irrelevant

    After engaging users and conducting discovery activities, it’s crucial to assess the relevance of identified problems. Here’s how to make informed decisions:

      • User Engagement Analysis: Sparse engagement at the top tiers of your user pyramid may indicate a lack of critical market demand for the identified problem.
      • Addressable Market Insights: Evaluate the scale and impact of the problem. Limited user interest suggests an insufficient market size.

    Strategic Decision Making

      • Discard or Pivot: If the problem lacks resonance, consider discarding the idea or pivoting towards a more relevant issue.
      • Reassess Solution Alignment: Check the alignment between the identified problem and your proposed solution. Adjust strategy based on user feedback.

    Moving Forward: Iterative Learning and Adaptation

      • Iterative Feedback Loop: Continuously refine your understanding of market needs based on user insights.
      • Explore Alternatives: Identify other problem areas with stronger user engagement for impactful solutions.

    Rule 7- Ask for Currency

    As you identify key problems and the users facing them, it’s vital to gauge the value they seek in your proposed solution. Here’s how to delve deeper:

    Testing Different Forms of Currency

      • Money: The most direct indicator of interest is monetary commitment. If users are willing to pre-order or provide financial support upfront, it signifies strong demand for your solution.
      • Time: Users investing more time in follow-up discussions demonstrate a perceived value in your offering. Their willingness to engage further reflects potential interest.
      • Reputation: Requesting referrals or introductions to their network reveals user confidence in your solution. Willingness to vouch for your idea indicates perceived value and trust.
      • Access: In B2B scenarios, users granting access to existing systems or processes they use signals substantial interest. They believe your solution can significantly enhance their current experience.

    Interpreting User Currency

      • Monetary Commitment: Pre-orders or financial pledges highlight acute pain points and eagerness for your solution.
      • Time Investment: Additional sessions show users see value and are willing to engage in further development.
      • Reputation Support: Referrals and social media shares signify confidence in your idea and its potential impact.
      • Access to Systems: Sharing access to current tools indicates a desire for improvement and a willingness to collaborate.

    Rule 8- Define Your Success

    Before initiating customer interviews for product development or research, it’s critical to define clear success criteria. This structured approach ensures efficient decision-making and progress tracking throughout the process. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to establish and leverage success criteria effectively:

    1. Define Quantitative Goals

      • Set Specific Targets: Determine the number of individuals you aim to interview (e.g., 15, 50) to gather meaningful insights.
      • Specify Favorable Responses: Decide on the desired outcome (e.g., 10 out of 15 positive responses) to gauge user interest or pain points effectively.

    2. Focus on Numbers Over Percentages

      • Avoid Misleading Metrics: Emphasize the importance of speaking with a sufficient number of people rather than relying solely on percentages, which can be skewed by small sample sizes.

    3. Consider Product Complexity and Audience Diversity

      • Tailor Interview Approach: Adjust the number of interviews based on whether you’re developing a consumer-focused or enterprise/B2B product.
      • Identify Key Personas: Define the primary stakeholders or personas within target organizations (e.g., C-suite executives, middle management) to extract relevant insights.

    4. Segment Your Customer Base

      • Use Segmentation Criteria: Divide your customer list by industry, geography, or market segment to ensure diverse representation.
      • Employ Random Sampling: In cases of incomplete contact information or complex organizational structures, use random sampling to select interview candidates.

    5. Stay Flexible and Responsive to Feedback

      • Iterative Approach: Be prepared to pivot based on interview feedback, refining your approach to target the most impactful stakeholders.
      • Validate Assumptions: Use interviews to validate assumptions and gain a deeper understanding of user needs and pain points.

    6. Transition Insights into Actionable Steps

      • Start with Secondary Research: Begin by conducting secondary research to gather initial insights and understand industry trends.
      • Move to Prototyping: As evidence accumulates and assumptions are validated, transition to developing tangible prototypes or mockups to test with early adopters.

    7. Measure Evidence Accumulation

      • Avoid Decision Paralysis: Recognize diminishing returns on additional interviews and make informed decisions based on evidence accumulation.
      • Invest Resources Wisely: Allocate resources based on increasing evidence and validated insights rather than speculative assumptions.

    Rule 9- Get Roasted

    After conducting customer interviews and gathering evidence, the next step is presenting your potential solution to early adopters. This phase is critical for refining your product vision.

      • Visualizing Transformation

    Illustrate the difference your product will make in their workflow. Show how your solution streamlines processes compared to their current patchwork of tools and interfaces.

      • Gathering Honest Feedback

    Use landing pages, prototypes, or explainer videos to present your concept. Encourage candid opinions on the core value of your product.

      • Embracing Constructive Criticism

    Value transparent feedback over sugarcoating. Use insights to refine your solution based on real-world expectations.

    Rule 10- Show Your Work

    As a product manager, it’s essential to leverage customer interviews for collective learning within your team. Here’s a streamlined approach to documenting and sharing valuable insights:

    1. Create One-Page Interview Snapshots:

      • Summarize each interview on a single page.
      • Include user details, industry tags, and key identifiers.

    2. Maintain a Centralized Summary of Learnings

      • Compile insights from all interviews in a database.
      • List identified opportunities, user needs, and pain points.
      • Use rankings from users to identify common patterns across interviews.

    3. Share Insights Across Teams

      • Distribute one-page snapshots to all team members.
      • Ensure transparency and understanding across departments.

    4. Enhance Visibility and Collaboration

      • Keep the team informed about ongoing activities and processes.
      • Provide clarity on the interview-to-prototyping-to-MVP development journey.

    5. Use Visual Aids for Memory Recall

      • Record Zoom calls with user consent for reference.
      • Capture key moments and quotes through screenshots during calls.

    Mastering Customer Interview Questions: Good vs. Bad Examples

    Conducting effective customer interviews in product management requires asking the right questions to gather actionable insights and validate product concepts. Let’s examine various questions to ask a customer to determine their needs and assess their effectiveness:

    Bad Interview Questions

    1. “Do you think ‘X’ is a good idea?”

    Why it’s bad: This question is subjective and can lead to biased responses that don’t offer meaningful insights.

    2. “Would you try a product that did ‘X’?”

    Why it’s bad: Directly asking about trial intentions may not reflect actual behavior when the product is available.

    3. “How much would you pay for ‘X’?”

    Why it’s bad: Asking about pricing upfront can lead to unreliable responses and biases.

    4. “What would your dream product do?”

    Why it’s bad: While it can generate feature ideas, it doesn’t necessarily uncover core problems or needs.

    Better Interview Questions

    1. “What is the hardest part about doing ‘X’?”

    Why it’s good: Focuses on understanding specific challenges and pain points users face.

    2. “Tell me about the last time you faced this problem.”

    Why it’s good: Encourages users to share real-life experiences, providing context for their needs.

    3. “How do you solve this problem at present?”

    Why it’s good: Reveals existing solutions and workarounds users employ, highlighting opportunities for improvement.

    4. “What don’t you love about the solutions you have already tried?”

    Why it’s good: Identifies gaps and shortcomings in existing offerings, guiding product development.

    5. “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

    Why it’s good: Invites users to share additional insights or topics that are important to them.

    6. “Who else should I talk to?”

    Why it’s good: Expands the interviewee pool, helping identify key stakeholders and potential users.

    Creating successful products relies on testing assumptions and connecting with the right users. The business world is competitive, so it’s essential to research thoroughly and truly understand what users need. By being fair, exploring user experiences, and finding potential users who are ready to try your solution, businesses can navigate challenges and improve their chances of launching successful innovations. Remember, turning an idea into a great product means always learning, adapting, and focusing on meeting user needs.

    About the Author:

    Ankit Agarwal – Product Leader at Nium

    Frequently Asked Questions

    • Prepare: Define objectives and create a structured interview guide.
    • Select Participants: Choose representative participants from your target audience.
    • Create a Comfortable Environment: Encourage open dialogue and honesty.
    • Start Open-Ended: Begin with broad questions to understand experiences.
    • Listen Actively: Focus on participants’ responses and ask probing questions.
    • Avoid Bias: Stay neutral and avoid leading questions.
    • Take Detailed Notes: Record key insights and observations.

    The main goal of conducting user interviews in product management is to gather deep insights directly from potential users to better understand their needs, preferences, behaviors, and pain points. This information is crucial for developing products that address real-world problems effectively, ensuring product-market fit, and enhancing user satisfaction and adoption. Ultimately, user interviews enable product managers to make informed decisions throughout the product development lifecycle and increase the likelihood of building successful and impactful products.

    • Problem Interviews: Focus on understanding the specific problems or challenges faced by customers within a target market.
    • Solution Interviews: Involve presenting a potential solution or product concept to customers to gather feedback and validate assumptions.
    • Usability Testing: This involves observing how users interact with a prototype or existing product to identify usability issues and areas for improvement.
    • Customer Discovery Interviews: Aim to uncover broader insights about customer needs, behaviors, and pain points to inform product strategy.
    • Validation Interviews: Verify assumptions and validate product ideas by seeking direct feedback from potential users.
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