When designing a product or service we bring so many assumptions to the table. One of the core attributes of Lean Startup is to validate our assumptions. We first acknowledge that we have assumptions and then we do something about it. There are a lot of right answers for what actions you can take and speaking with customers is at the top of the list!

Every team has their own process whether explicit or ad hoc. Teams that do not include customer interviews in their process whether upfront or strategically in development miss out on a solid foundation for which they base all downstream steps.

Here are the top 5 reasons teams do not conduct research and how they should be reconsidered.

1. We Are The User’s

Business owners, product managers, designers and developers are all guilty of believing that they are the users. Maybe they were a subject matter expert in a past job. Possibly they see themselves as having the same problem that their product solves so they believe that they have the answers. This is not good enough.

Our customers have very real goals, challenges, workflows and incentives to use our products. The makers of the product are in the business of building something and looking through the eyes of the person using the product does not translate. Tools such as personas help (this requires interviewing too), but this step is not always necessary. What is necessary is speaking with your customer. Declaring that you know the customer perspective without engaging with them is foolish and will get you into trouble.

2. Budget and Time

This is a tough one. Let me help you get over it. The amount of money it takes includes the participating staff salary, compensation for the participants (not always necessary) and any time that your product is not generating revenue because of the supposed “delay.” Remember this investment goes a long way. You are paving a foundation and if you get it wrong then all downstream time and money contributed will be wasted. The interviews do not need to take a lot of time. This should keep the overall budget low. You can do 5-7 thirty-minute interviews within two business days and learn a ton of information that can completely steer your product in a different direction.

3. Logistics

It takes too much time to find and schedule interviews with customers. It takes too much time to conduct the interviews. Distilling and communicating the results takes time too.

If you are a new business owner, find your customers. When this is too much of a challenge consider whether you should really be building this product. When you have a product up and running finding customers is as easy as looking in your database. In a more established business organize a list of users ahead of time. It is helpful in these cases to tag users with a description so you know how applicable a customer is to the research at hand.

Worried about getting people to participate? It’s best to aim for active users because your product is on their minds, which increases the chances they will engage. This same user may drop your product in a few weeks and be tuned out. To be sure that a potential interviewee qualifies you need to screen them. With a startup, ask for ten minutes of a customer’s time. Otherwise, just schedule a time without specifying the time length. During the interview if after thirty minutes you need more of their time respectfully check in on their schedule.

The most useful way to communicate results with your team or stakeholders is with a top-line report. No one wants to read an intensive research deck. Nuanced details are most important for the team that will act on the results, however nothing fancy is necessary to deliver this information.

4. No Authority

In a larger organization bureaucracy and red tape creates hurdles to fit research into the process. My recommendation is to keep it light when introducing research into your program. Pick a project that you believe has risk associated with it because you do not have enough customer perspective. Be creative and find a way to speak with three customers. Possibly the product group may have customers that are easy to reach. Once you conduct three interviews see what patterns emerge proving that the project needs more customer insights. Use this information to leverage access to more customers.

5. No Experience

There are basic principles that one must acquire to conduct interviews and get quality data. If you are new to interviewing, keep in mind that every expert was once a beginner. Here it is helpful to practice with internal staff that are subject matter experts.

Leading the user is one of the worst and most common offenders. Asking questions as open-ended is the way to go. Another option is to ask questions that offer a range for how a customer can answer. For example, start with “are you looking for a medical health professional with a general background or a certain type of specialization?” before jumping to “what type of orthopedic specialization is important to you?”

Ask about past behaviors. If you ask about a past experience it references an event that happened. The alternative is asking customers about what they want which is a future that has never happened. Listening and acting on what a customer wants must be taken lightly if not completely ignored. People say and do very different things.

Organize your top questions ahead of time. Treat the interview as a free-flowing conversation instead of a checklist. Stay loose. Relax. Gracefully steer the conversation back to focus if the user strays too far off. Do a lot more listening than talking. Keep an open mind with what you hear back. Embrace their perspective. Chances are the customer knows better about what their goals and needs are than you do ;-)

If the customer really cares about your product they will keep talking and talking. From my experience customers that care about a product are often so excited to speak that the challenge becomes finding a tactful way to get them off the phone.

The only way to get started is to make it happen. There are a lot of great resources on interviewing. Here are a few that I recommend:

  1. Interviewing Users, How to Uncover Compelling Insights, by Steve Portigal
  2. Getting Inside Your Users’ Heads: 9 Interviewing Tips
  3. KISSMetrics recommendations

Conclusion

Interviews do not need to take a lot of time to fit into your process. At the end of the day, the biggest hurdle is gaining experience to conduct effective interviews that surface solid data. But again, you must start somewhere. Get out there and just do it!