Practical tips for user interviews.

Jun 13, 2023 | Build a Product

It’s hard for founders to speak regularly enough to users, and almost impossible to overdo it. What’s more, you should be interviewing users throughout the life of both your startup and the customer’s interaction with your product, including those who’ve left. Try to build user interviews into every aspect of your business, as knowledge about your customers truly is power. Here’s how we think about it.

I spoke with a potential founder last week, who fits our investment profile perfectly… almost.

They’re a working professional, who can’t afford to quit their day job, but has an idea for a startup that’s burning a hole in their heart.

Unusually, I tried to talk them out of launching a startup with us.

I did this because, in their particular circumstances, I think they have too much to lose.

Startups are not for everyone. The chances of success are slim. (Hopefully they’re a lot greater if you partner with cofounders like us, but there are still no guarantees.)

As those familiar with DQ Ventures will know, we aim to de-risk the startup journey for senior professionals. We don’t think such people should go all-in and quit their job, risking everything to pursue their dream. If you’re in your late 30s, 40s or 50s, that could seriously damage your career, finances, and prospects.

With us, you risk some time (spent outside working hours) and $20,000 (the buy in, or skin-in-the-game).

In this particular founder’s case, however, they’re a single parent, not earning a huge amount, and would have to remortgage the house to access the $20,000.

In my view, that’s beyond brave.

Instead of signing them up, I recommended that the founder stop thinking about how to fund the build of a minimum viable product (which was what they said they planned to do), and to go away and do some more work to validate the burning need – the problem they believe needs solving.

I said I felt the best thing they could do would be to meet with ~20 prospects and understand how badly they need this solution.

Many entrepreneurs are surprised, once they’ve built their solution, that nobody is actually willing to pay for it.

The right way to do this is not to ask someone, “if I built X would you use it?” because people have a habit of telling you what you want to hear (to get rid of you?).

Instead, you need to focus on the problem, and dig into just how severe it is. We like to look for “hair-on-fire” problems (if your hair is on fire, you’d pay for pretty much anything that would help you put the fire out – a towel, a bucket of water, some sand… the point is the solution isn’t the important part… yet).

They asked me how to do this, so I shared the following tips. I’m posting them here in case they can help others in a similar situation.

How to conduct user interviews

Guidelines for conducting user interviews

Remember that the goal when conducting user interviews is discovery, not sales. You want to avoid your own bias as much as possible, which is hard to do while at the same time respecting the time of the people you’re speaking with.

Usually, you’ll start with some context – explain what you’re doing and why, and aiming to understand who you have in front of you, what their attitudes and behaviours might be, which relate to the topic in question, and how they deal with specific situations that relate to the problem you have in mind. You need to remember that they might not have the problem you’ve identified, or may not realise it’s a problem. Try to understand the words they’re using, and how they’re dealing with the situation in question, the different solutions they use and how, before getting into the detail of what’s working and what isn’t.

So here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re arranging and conducting your interviews:

  1. Focus on extracting data, not selling a solution.
  2. Describe the problem you’re tackling but otherwise don’t talk. Listen!
  3. Take notes (you don’t know what’s useful yet) or ask if you can record the session.
  4. Be careful with people’s time (15 mins is a good guide).
  5. Understand if this problem is a real pain point.
  6. Ask open questions to stimulate conversation.
  7. But talk specifics not hypotheticals.
  8. Do not say “if we built this feature, would it help“. Instead talk about what’s already occurring in the user’s life. You want real-life examples that, later, can provide you with the words you use to describe and market your product.
  9. As well as being specific, talk in general about their life and how it relates to the problem.
  10. Understand the route: how and why did they encounter the problem in the first place?
  11. Although you don’t want to ask this explicitly (not at the start, at least), you want to get a feel for how much this problem costs them (in real numbers), how frequently they encounter it, and how large their budget might be for solving it.

Combined, these tips should help you identify the “best first customer” or “ideal customer profile” (ICP).

Here’s a list of questions that we use as the basis for most user interviews. We’ll usually add some contextual questions before we get into these, but they tend to be different each time to make them relevant:

  1. What is the hardest part of having this problem?
  2. Tell me about the last time that you encountered this problem (what happened, who was involved, what was the context, what was the outcome, etc).
  3. How do/did you solve the problem now, or  last time (tools, processes, etc)
  4. How long did it take?
  5. Why was this hard?
  6. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve already tried? (This can help you understand what the features are that you need to build.)
When should startup founders interview their software customers?

There’s no single right way to conduct user interviews, but we’ve found the following a good place to start:

  1. Walk through and answer these questions yourself.
  2. Try this on friends who you think may suffer from this problem.
  3. Think about how you can meet larger numbers of people who fit the profile (referrals, events, places they gather, etc.), and how you can get to 10-15 user interviews.
  4. These first user interviews will help inform how you arrange and manage future user interviews.

In summary

There are many ways you can conduct user interviews, but if you only take ojne thing away from this article it’s to make sure you spend time capturing information you didn’t have previously, to enlighten the way you think about your target market. I’m often surprised by how few founders spend time talking with their users – some even appear to be reluctant to share their idea, perhaps for fear of being copied, or being told their idea won’t work. If you’re conducting user interviews, you’re already winning compared to many other founders. Try to make it something you do throughout the life of the customer and the business.

Suggested reading

Want more information? Check out the following. Thanks to James Pethick (founder at BePanda) and Sean Mert for suggesting these titles for further reading:


Download

You can download these tips in a single sheet here:

Practical tips for conducting user interviews – one-pager.

Image credits

– Featured image by Christina @ wocintechchat.com.
– Video call image by LinkedIn.
– Chatting on the sofa also by LinkedIn.

Other credit

I’ve pulled this list together from various sources, but special thanks goes to Matt Lerner from Startup Core Strengths (if you don’t follow him, I recommend it) and Jean-Philippe Schoeffel, who pointed out the importance of avoiding bias by steamrollering straight in, assuming people suffer from the problem you’ve identified.

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