12 Tips for Customer Development Interviews (revised)


A year ago, I gave a talk at the very first Lean Startup Machine about giving customer development interviews. Tomorrow, I am doing the same with a new batch of LSM warriors and I have revised and updated my list (and accompanying text) as follows:

1. One person at a time

Focus groups are a group-think, distraction-filled mess. Avoid them and only talk to one person at a time. If desired, you can bring someone with you to take notes — some UX designers like this approach. Personally, I tend to do one-on-one interviews because I think people loosen up and thus open up a bit more.

2. Know your goals and questions ahead of time

Have your assumptions and thus learning goals prioritized ahead of time. Decide who you want to talk to (age, gender, location, profession/industry, affluence, etc), and target interviewees accordingly. Prep your basic flow and list of questions. You might veer off the plan to follow your nose, which is great, but go in prepared.

3. Separate behavior and feedback in discussion

Decide up front if your focus is going to be on learning a user’s behavior and mindset, and/or getting direct feedback or usability insights on a product or mockup. Do not mix the two in the discussion flow or things will get distorted.

Put “behavior and mindset” first in your discussion flow. During this part, don’t let the interviewee go too deep in terms of suggesting features (some people can’t help it), but keep them focused on if they have a problem, how they think about the problem space, and if and how they have tried to solve it in past. Getting people to discuss their actual actions, not just opinions, is very useful.

4. Get psyched to hear things you don’t want to hear

If you don’t do this, you might find yourself selling or convincing, or even hearing what you want to hear. Remember, the goal in this early stage is learning and validation/invalidation, not a sale.

Unless, of course, you have set a sale or LOI as a goal. You might want to shoot for a commitment from the interviewee as a way to measure true demand. If so, keep it entirely out of the behavior/mindset portion of the discussion.

5. Disarm “politeness” training

People are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. My approach was to explain that the worst thing that could happen to me was building something people didn’t care about, so the best way they could help me was absolute, brutal honesty.

6. Ask open ended questions

Do not ask too many yes/no questions. For example, minimize such questions as “do you like Groupon?” Instead ask “what kinds of deals do you look for, if any?” “What motivates you to hunt for deals?” “How do you discover deals?” “Do you get frustrated with the deal sites out there?”

7. Listen, don’t talk

Try to shut up as much as possible, and try to keep your questions short and unbiased (i.e. don’t embed the answer you want to hear into the question). Don’t rush to fill the “space” when the customer pauses, because they might be thinking or have more to say.

Make sure you are learning, not selling! (at least not until that part of the conversation, if relevant)

8. Encourage but don’t influence

If you stay *too* quiet, some folks might start getting uncomfortable, thinking that they are boring you or you are judging them. You can keep things rolling with little motions of encouragement, such as nods, “I see”, “interesting”, etc. But do not say things that might steer or influence the interviewee.

9. Follow your nose and drill down

Anytime something tweaks your antenna, drill down with follow up questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications and the “why” behind the “what”. You can even try drilling into multiple layers of “why” (see “Five Whys”), as long as the interviewee doesn’t start getting annoyed.

10. Parrot back or misrepresent to confirm

For important topics, try repeating back what the person said. You can occasionally get one of two interesting results through this. In the first, they correct you because you’ve misinterpreted what they said. In the second, by hearing their own thoughts, they’ll actually realize that their true opinion is slightly different, and they will give you a second, more sophisticated answer.

Another approach is to purposefully misrepresent what they just said when you parrot it back, and then see if they correct you. But use this technique sparingly, if at all.

11. Ask for introductions

At the end of every interview, see if you can get leads to another 1 to 3 people to talk to.

12. Write up your notes as quickly as possible

The details behind a conversation fade fast, so if you haven’t recorded the session, write up your notes and color commentary as soon as you can. I brain-dump into a shared Google Doc so the rest of the team can see it. (Note: I typically have not recorded sessions for fear of making interviewees more self-conscious or careful, but other entrepreneurs have said to me that, while it takes some rapport-building at the start, pretty soon people forget about a recorder.)

Afterwards: Look for patterns and apply judgement

Customer development interviews will not give you statistically significant data, but they will give you insights based on patterns. They can be very tricky to interpret, because what people say is not always what they do.

You need to use your judgement to read between the lines, to read body language, to try to understand context and agendas, and to filter out biases based on the types of people in your pool of interviewees. But it is exactly the ability to use human judgement based on human connections that make interviews so much more useful than surveys.

Ultimately, you are better off moving fast and making decisions from credible patterns than dithering about in analysis paralysis.

I want to additionally stress that your goal is not to ask the customer to define the solution. Perhaps this is obvious, but the entrepreneur needs to have the vision to look deep into a problem and come up with the right solution. Don’t ask people what they want, but rather study their behavior for what they do and what they need. To this end, try to get your interviewee talking about specific situations, not abstract feelings and concepts.

15 Comments 12 Tips for Customer Development Interviews (revised)

  1. theschnaz August 11, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Resisting the urge to fill the silent spaces and trying to not bias a question are the hardest parts to learn. u00a0After you do enough interviews, you’ll get the hang of it.nnIt’s important not to ask too many closed-ended questions, but it’s more important not to answer closed-ended questions.nnPeople willu00a0usuallyu00a0ask something like “This button should X, right?” u00a0You’re response should not be “yes” or “no.” u00a0It should be “what do you think that button does?” u00a0and if you’re good, you’re next question will be “why?”

  2. giffc August 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Right on Greg 🙂

  3. jzlandau August 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for posting this giff.u00a0 Tremendously helpful!

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  6. Bruce McCarthy November 5, 2011 at 12:50 am

    A really terrific set of tips, very close to my own interview style.u00a0

  7. Lcueva April 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Can anybody advise me about a next lean startup course or training with Steve Blank and Alex Osterwalder??; business model innovation, customer development.

    Luis Cueva

  8. Lcueva April 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I am checking several posts in Steve Blank blogs and other information related with the interactive pages from Steves blog and others blogs and I always find out that everybody is talking about products and nothing is said for services. The rules, procedures, steps, fases and suggestions that appear in the posts and comments are all related only to products??; or they can be used and apply equally for services??
    Luis Cueva

  9. Amin June 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Excellent post. I particularly like #10. Its so easy to hear something that the customer never really said. 

  10. jesseflores August 5, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    This was really helpful. I thought the bit about interviews being more about judgment than “statistically significant” data set for qualitative analysis of some sort was spot on. Early on, my co-founder and I spent way too much time trying to dissect the interview and it hampered our ability to get out and just have more conversations. Over time, we started to see the patterns emerge, but it would have been nice to get there, faster.

    Also, I think number 3 is really important. As an addendum, we used different interview techniques depending on what we were trying to accomplish. For some customers – particularly where we didn’t know the industry or space – our interviews were almost entirely contextual and were intended to help us fill knowledge gaps. As patterns emerged, we’d start doing showing folks ideas to see if we could get some level of interaction.

    One of the things I struggle with, though, is that people’s recall of what they do is necessarily colored by their recollection of it and may be incomplete. For example, if you ask me to describe my online shopping process, I’m going to construct a story that, at best, will be somewhat true, and, at worse, will be downright false. To that end, I’ve wondered what the best way is to gauge actual behavior, rather than opinions, because real behavior (particularly when it happens in front of a screen) is difficult to observe.

  11. Andreas Hager October 1, 2012 at 4:31 am

    Thank you! Great help. I used this to prepare for follow up with our first pilot users. Shall se how it goes1

  12. Sandra Vazquez October 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Great article, I totally agree with it. I will strongly recommend to avoid interviewing relatives or friends, because it is harder for them to call you baby ugly. One thing that I did when I started doing customer development for my starup was to set up topics I wanted to cover on the interview, but do not write the actual questions. This helped me to make the interview more fluid and avoid reading questions.  

  13. Angela Wyman January 9, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    On #4 –what is a LOI? Letter of intent?

  14. giffc January 9, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    yes exactly. btw, revised version here: http://giffconstable.com/2012/12/12-tips-for-early-customer-development-interviews-revision-3/

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