User Interviews: 6 Best Practices for Product Managers
January 13, 2017

User Interviews: 6 Best Practices for Product Managers

by Ron Yang

I learned a hard lesson early in my career — one that I never forgot. I was working on product strategy for a media company. Third-party studies showed that prospective customers were interested in a new content format. So we decided to revamp the site. When the mockups were ready, we interviewed our existing customers to get their take on the new look. And boy, am I glad we did.

It turned out that our existing customers hated the proposed redesign. That industry study might have led us down the right path to attract new customers, but we did not take into account what existing customers might think of the changes.

Yes, you can gain insights from industry studies and surveys. You can even make accurate predictions based on sales patterns. But one of the best ways to learn what your existing users really want is to simply ask.

User interviews provide valuable information that helps you refine and enhance your product plan. But while you may be an expert when it comes to your product, you may not be an expert at interviewing people.

Remember that customers are just people, like you. Think of yourself as a journalist interviewing a source. You want to be objective and learn all sides of the story — the good, the bad, and (yes) even the ugly.

Here are some tips to help you get the most value from your user interviews:

Know your goal Make a plan for what you want to accomplish before going in. That does not mean you need to stick to a script or ask leading questions. I am referring to knowing what you want to learn from the conversation. You want to elicit natural answers, so think of this goal as setting the structure for where the conversation will go and where it will not go. In my example, my goal was to find out what our existing customers liked and did not like about the proposed redesign.

Choose the audience If you want to improve a particular feature or functionality, make sure to interview the right people — the customers likely to use the feature most often. Breaking down the expected usage of the feature — and then linking your goals to the right users — will help you receive more valuable feedback. At the media company I mentioned, we knew we needed to talk to our most engaged customers. Their big complaint was that the new look made it difficult to find information that we previously featured, so we were able to incorporate that into V2 of our mockups.

Make them comfortable You want to put users at ease. Conduct interviews in a comfortable environment. Meeting in a large group can have a chilling effect on the conversation (and the quality of the answers). If possible, conduct your interviews in small groups or even one-on-one. Do not let distance deter you — there is no reason you must meet in person. Try a video meeting to encourage meaningful connection. Virtual meetings will also increase the number of interviews you can do.

Be curious If you want to understand your users, you need to care about their entire world and not just the small part of their world that directly interacts with your product. Engage your curious mind throughout the conversation — it can lead to insights and questions you would have never thought to ask. In my example, I probed into the details of those power users’ experience with the site (where, when, how they interacted with our content) to get a full picture.

Avoid leading questions Bias-free phrasing is critical. Avoid leading questions like, “What do you like most about X?” Instead, force thoughtful consideration with a question like, “What three words would you use to describe X?” Then follow up with more open-ended questions that build off their answer. Depending on what you have available, you could show customers mockups or watch someone using your product. But whatever method you use, make sure that you are not inadvertently leading them down a biased path.

Listen deeply This is your chance to listen and learn — so give users your full attention. Speak little. Ask permission to record the interview so you will not be distracted by note-taking, or ask a colleague to sit in and take notes on your behalf. In small groups, you will find that some people might be more outspoken than others. Go out of your way to gather feedback from everyone in your group so that you can be sure to hear some diverse opinions.

When you think about it, conducting user interviews is a true privilege — a rare glimpse into the mind and motivations of the users of your product.

Put aside your preconceived ideas and approach user interviews with an open mind. You will gain valuable insights and a closer connection to your customers when you do.

What are other best practices for user interviews?

Ron Yang

Ron Yang

Ron builds lovable products. He was the vice president of product management and UX at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Ron has more than 15 years of experience in entrepreneurship and leading product teams. Previously, Ron founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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