The All-In-One Guide To Conducting User Interviews

When you don’t validate your product idea with your potential users, you’re building blindly. Make sure you’ve got the buy-in from your audience from day one with relevant and thorough user interviews, and you’ve got all the chances to set up your business for success.

The more time you spend on building your idea into something real, the more you feel excitement building. We know the customer profiles you are building may be well-rounded and the various facets of your hypotheses may fit perfectly. But that’s all true from your perspective only.

The ultimate test in idea validation is matching your hypotheses with real people’s needs. Once your hypotheses are validated, you can be confident in further developing your prototype. You can put your heart and resources to make it more eye-catching for investors, knowing that you are going down the path of turning your idea into a viable business. Validating also gets you much-needed intel on how to prioritise future features of your app, identify opportunities to differentiate yourself from your competition, and gets you the first hands-on experience in interacting with your users.

The best way to start validating is to get out into the real world and ask the right questions through user interviews. It may seem easy to email, call or meet people and ask them if they’d buy your product, but to get realistic opinions regarding your business idea, you need know what questions to ask and how to do it. This way, the answers you’ll get will be honest, direct and measurable, and strong arguments for the future success of your product. 

Getting started: Define your objective

Every validation endeavour starts with the same question: what is it that you want to find out? Many businesses invest resources into finding out what their customers need and how to best serve their interests. It’s the way they give themselves an extra edge over their competitors.

Your product is in the validation stage, so your objectives are rather straightforward and will sound more or less something like this:

  • Confirm your assumptions about your users’ needs and motivations with the real-life audience you reach out to.
  • Discover if the interviewed audience finds value in using your app.

While you set out to understand if your audience finds value in using your app, remember that value can translate differently for different people. Some apps offer value by solving a problem for a certain audience (like creating a translator app between sign language and spoken English), while other apps offer value by responding to a want (like an app through which you can order specific meals). Moreso, the value is also judged by the context in which it is offered: for example, a simple food ordering app is valuable in a city where none exist, but it needs some extra offerings in a city where one already exists.

We’ll show you how to structure your interview and explain how to best conduct your interviews. Whatever stage you are in, it’s important to always keep in mind what you are trying to achieve. This way, you’ll be more confident in steering the conversations you have towards your points of interest.

How to structure your interview

Here’s the first rule of user research:

“Never ask anyone what they want.” – Erika Hall, Just Enough Research

The truth of the matter is, people can go on and on about what they want, but they are rarely aware of what they actually need. The same applies for testing a prototype: if you ask your potential user what they want, they will explain their own vision of the ideal solution to their problem.

Ask 100 people, and you might end up with 100 different solutions. But ask people what their process is, what they’re struggling with, and you’ll start noticing patterns in the problems they complain about.

To get the most information out of your responders, structure your interview like this:

  • Ask about their background
  • Ask about their use of tech in general
  • Ask what their behaviours are in the industry you’ve chosen for your product
  • Ask specifically if they encounter the problem you are trying to solve
  • Ask how they are getting solutions at the moment and what frustrates them about the process. What would they like to do differently, if they could?
  • What services are they paying for right now to get the solutions they want?
  • Present them your prototype and what it does.
  • Ask for their opinions on your prototype (do they understand what it does? What do they like? What do they dislike?). Ask them to rate the prototype on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘I really dislike it’ and 5 is ‘I really like it’.
  • Ask them how they’d integrate your product in their current processes.

You’ll notice that some questions mentioned in the list above are open-ended, but some are closed.  A good balance of open and closed questions make it easier for the responder to give you all the information you need.

Getting ready for your interview

Once you find volunteers who can take the time to answer your questions, make sure you go in prepared or the conversation. Print out your interview structure with white space between the questions to fill out with your own notes for each responder you meet with.

An additional tool you can use to double check your notes is to record your conversation, but you will need your responder to be ok with that. As you get more confident in conducting interviews, keep your note taking for the end of the conversation. This allows for a more casual flow of conversation, as the responder will feel more like during a casual chat than an official interview .

After you go through a handful of interviews, you’ll end up learning your interview structure by heart. Don’t be afraid to become more spontaneous in holding interviews: every time you meet somebody who fits your audience profile, start casually going through your main points of interest. Most importantly, don’t forget to make notes as soon as the conversation is over. You’ll be grateful later, as you go through all the responses you gather.

Finally, remember that the interview doesn’t necessarily have to happen face to face. An online call app with a screen sharing feature (like Skype) works just as well as a real-life meeting for your purposes.

Conduct an interview without any hiccups

Even well-prepared, there are things you can do in the moment to help the interview go well. Here is what you need to keep in mind:

Give context for your discussion. Tell your responder you’re interested in their honest opinions in the way they work towards a certain solution, and that you’d like to show them a prototype you’re working on related to that field. Mention how you will use the information they give you and, most importantly, follow up if they ask you to! Excited responders later become first users and staunch advocates.

Be an active listener. Keep the conversation friendly and be encouraging about hearing people out to the end. When you feel something isn’t clear in what they’ve said, rephrase it back to them and see if you’ve gotten the main points right.

Avoid bias at all costs. During interviews, bias comes in two forms:

  1. in the reactions you have in what they tell you: a judgemental comment might shut down their story; being too encouraging might lead them to stay close to the topic, as it’s something that pleases you. Always try to transmit an attentive attitude, without giving out any kind of judgement – positive or negative. Thank and encourage the active sharing of information, but don’t pass judgement on what you hear.
  2. in the way you ask questions and present your prototype. Avoid suggesting answers through your questions (‘Don’t you think finding taxis nowadays is so hard?’) or asking about two things at the same time (one side of the question will fall through the cracks). Most importantly, when you present your prototype, don’t sell it. Tell them what it’s called and what it’s supposed to do – in other words, its value proposition. Don’t give them details about features of design choices, so they don’t feel pressured into giving you a positive review or repeat back what you’ve just told them. Instead ask for their honest reactions and thoughts, as well as any struggles they might perceive when going through the app’s flow.

Analysing the interviews

In many ways, holding the interviews and gathering the data is the easy part in getting validation from your potential users. The hard part is in taking all the responses you get and draw relevant insights out of them. And no, focusing on what you remember from the interviews doesn’t count – that’s how you get to faulty conclusions.

You might say: “But I’ve been there for every interview and looked through every response. Why should I go over them again?”

Well, our short answer is: “Compile and compare.”

The long answer is this: the value of research isn’t in one set of data that you’ve gathered from a responder, it’s in compiling and comparing all responses. You look for patterns and trends that will confirm or contradict your hypothesis – the ones you’ve set when you set your validation objectives.

We’ll start with making sense of the responses you’ve gathered from your future users. So make yourself comfortable, open a spreadsheet, and let’s learn how to make sense of all that data.

Coding responses

How do you compare two interviews where the responders go on about different perspectives? How about 40 interviews? Well, you don’t. You look for repeating instances (like behaviours, events, activities, contexts, tactics, motivations) and code them under a similar broader tag. For example, responses like: “I did this while in a meeting at work” or “I was serving clients” can both be coded under “busy workplace”, while “I like this app” and “I love the flow of this” can be grouped under “positive review of prototype”.

This is why we were saying you’d be needing a spreadsheet: you can use the columns for each question and a row for each responder. It will be easier to have a general overview and count responses later on.

Finally, keep in mind that consistent coding across all response sets makes for more reliable conclusions, so don’t just code responses automatically. Go back to previous interviews and compare with previous instances of when you decided to use a certain code. Does the code still mean the same thing across 5, 10 interviews? Do you need to break it down in some way (e.g. in scale or context) to make it true towards the information you are trying to present? This constant back and forth, though somewhat painstaking, is worth the effort when you start looking for repeating patterns.

Drawing conclusions

Once you’ve got all of your responses coded, it’s time to draw conclusions. This is where the count functions of your spreadsheet will come to good use. First, look to validate your assumptions of:

  • User-product fit (does the user audience I seeked out like the product I’m offering?)
  • User journey (were my assumptions of context and motivations of use validated?)

Not everyone will like the product you’re creating, nor will everyone use in the ways you expect them to. People are surprising like that. You might even find that you’re also not completely satisfied how the first version of your product turned out. That’s ok too.

Nevertheless, if you get an at least 50% positive response, you are on the right track. If you’re not quite there, cross-reference the answers with your Lean Canvas assumptions and see what you can improve with relevant information. If worse things come to worst, and you realise you’ve completely missed the mark with your hypotheses, it’s time to start anew, this time working with better information at your disposal. No matter the results of your work, keep in mind that you have become a more seasoned entrepreneur for having gone through the process of validation. When you draw the line, knowing what your users like and what they need is a fireproof way to build a successful business.

Why it’s worth conducting user interviews

Reaching out to members of your audience might seem overwhelming and painstaking work. But keep in mind that at the end of the day, the buy-in from your users is what will catalyze the success of your business. So make sure you have that support, as soon as possible.

It then becomes so much easier to convince yourself and your first supporters that investing in this idea is worth it on the long term. It also becomes worth it for you to invest in a better prototype, to learn how to pitch, to knock on investor’s doors. After all, the product you are building is wanted by an audience.  And while the merry-go-round of validation never stops, you now have reached the point where you are ready to launch your digital business.

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