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Including common pitfalls that I wish I knew five years ago

Are you getting the maximum out of each user interview you’re running?

I ran countless interviews as a product manager and entrepreneur. Here are the 5 steps I wish knew earlier for how to get novel insights from user interviews:

Be honest with yourself about where you are.

All too often we narrow down prematurely, because we assume which user pains are most urgent. Whether we’re working on a new startup or on a mature product, we must be honest about our evidence or lack thereof.

Discuss these questions as a team:

  • What are known facts?
  • What are assumptions?
  • What are blind spots?

Why not just improvise? After all, the overhead of writing an interview script may seem wasteful.

Interview scripts are helpful because they:

  • Keep us focused on our knowledge gaps
  • Ensure a natural sequence of questions
  • Catch poorly formulated questions early

Besides, spending 15–30 minutes on an interview script to get twice the insight from each interview is a no-brainer time investment.

What, then, goes in the interview script?

Set the context

Put the interviewee at ease:

  • Thank them for their time
  • Briefly introduce what you’re working on
  • Remind the interviewee that no answer is right or wrong
  • Let them know that their answers are confidential
  • Consider asking to record the interview

Start broad

Ask questions like:

  • What is your background?
  • Can you tell me about what you do in your current role?
  • How do you perform this task?

Get into specifics

Valuable insights are non-obvious, and the non-obvious lies in the specifics.

Don’t ask: “How do you make new hires?
Instead, ask: “Tell me about the last time you made a hire?

Why? Because a generic question will give you a generic answer. For example, you might hear: “I define job requirements together with HR, then put out a job posting, screen resumes, interview candidates, and then decide.” And that’s useless. It’s too obvious.

If you ask about the last time the interviewee made a hire, you can uncover the specific challenges of defining job requirements for that particular role and the specific hurdles of assessing those applicants. What’s more, you can uncover how the interviewee felt at each step.

Use proven questions

These questions often work well:

  • Walk me through the last time you…
  • What is most challenging about this?
  • What is most time-consuming in this process?
  • What motivates you to do this?
  • If you had a magic wand to simplify this, what would you wish for?

End with demographic info

You want to know if some subgroups of users have problems in common. For example, recent college grads have different challenges than experienced professionals looking for a new job.

But why not start the interview with questions about demographics? Because demographic questions are closed-ended, and at the beginning of the interview, you want to open up the conversation.

Keep in mind:

  • Schedule interviews before you need them because it can take days or weeks before the interviewee is free
  • Tell interviewees what’s in it for them. A chance to shape the product? A gift card? A free research report based on dozens of interviews you conduct?
  • If it’s hard to get 45–60 minutes of someone’s time, try asking for 15–30 minutes. You can learn a lot in a short amount of time

With interviews scheduled and an interview script in hand, it’s time to conduct each interview.

Bring along a team member

And don’t just default to bringing along a designer or a product manager. Why not bring a developer? You want the entire team to build user empathy. Besides, developers often see things you don’t see, so you’re better together.

Build rapport

Help the interviewee feel comfortable. You want them to share candidly. They may even offer a follow-up interview.

Listen for feelings

What makes the interviewee feel frustrated? Angry? Excited? The most valuable insights are related to feelings.

Gold might glitter at the last minute

As you near the end, ask “Anything else you’d want to share?” I’m amazed at how often interviewees share golden nuggets then.

Take detailed notes or record the interview

Get quotes. And numbers. These specifics are perfect when you want to convey evidence of a user problem to others.

Send a thank you note

Include any follow-ups from the interview. Ask if they can introduce you to someone else to interview, so you build your interview funnel.

Organize the notes in your team folder

I have used a database in Notion for user interviews, where I link notes from user interviews to specific personas.

Share a TL;DR with your team

Your team’s busy and often won’t (and shouldn’t) read all the raw interview notes. Make it easy for them by sharing the three most important insights from the interview.

Failing to update the interview script

The interview script is there to help you, not to check a box. Modify the script as you learn from each interview, so you get the most out of the subsequent interviews.

Asking long, complicated questions

Short questions work better than longwinded ones. And asking a single question at a time works better than asking multiple at once.

Don’t ask: “How do you recruit new hires and what is hard about it?”
Instead ask: “How do you recruit new hires?”

Asking leading questions

We come into interviews with our own biases. But try not to bring that bias into the questions. For example, avoid asking “How big of a problem is it that you don’t know what salary to expect when applying for a job?” if the interviewee hasn’t even mentioned that problem.

Instead, ask open-ended questions, and listen to see if the responses confirm or disconfirm your hypotheses.


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