Whether you are a Lean Startup junkie, a Design Thinking guru, or any other human-centered innovation practitioner, you know that getting out to customers early and often is required, in order to discover real problems, hidden needs, and unique customer-generated solutions. One of the easiest techniques is the customer interview.
Once you have embraced the need to connect to customers with primary, face-to-face research,
How do you ask questions in a way that gets you the rich information and insights you are looking for?
How do you get responses that tell you what you need to know vs. what you want to hear?
You may not know the right questions to ask at first. You may reach a few dead ends and have to re-shape your questions a couple of times or ask things slightly differently with different people. But oh, when you hit it right, the flood gates will open and you will be awash with stories, seminal quotes, testimonials, product suggestions, new connections, and more. Here seven tips to help you shape your customer research questions:
1) Avoid yes/no questions
The problem with yes/no questions is that your interviewees can give you one-word answers and be done. You want to hear more from them. If you ask a question like “Would you buy this?” someone may answer “yes” to be polite. Or they may say “no” for a variety of reasons, one of which might be the truth. Once a person answers “yes” or “no,” he or she will unconsciously steer all his or her other comments to “justify” the yes/no choice. It’s human nature. Even a follow-up “why or why not?” may not work. Your goal is to get the interviewee to think expansively, not to narrow into a decision, and certainly not to focus on pleasing you. (Yes, of course, you really want to know whether this customer—or or anyone, for that matter—wants to buy what your selling. But asking the question doesn’t get you there.)
2) Get people to tell you their stories
You want to know about people’s problems and frustrations as well as their favorite solutions. You want to know about the needs people have for products that haven’t been invented yet. The best way to do this is to get people to tell you their stories. For example, if you are planning to open an online toy store, you might ask: “Tell me about your experience shopping for your kid’s toys.” Another way might be “describe the last time you shopped for your kid’s toy.” Any question that begins with “tell me about a time when…” invites the customer to tell you a story. The beauty of a story is that it provides the context, the surrounding situations, the frustrations and delights that your customers have experienced, and how they behaved to solve their problems. Stories are gold mines of information.
3) Dig deeper
Even when you ask someone to tell a story, they may talk in generalities and stereotypes. If this is the case, you want to dig deeper and encourage people to give details. Ask follow-up questions. Here’s a situation where the “why” question may work. (“Why is it that you were shopping in Target at 10 PM on a weeknight?”) “How” works as well. (“How did you know that your kid was about to melt down?”) Or “can you give an example of…?”
4) Find out about alternates
Not only do you want to know details that relate to the business you’re going after. You want to know what people are doing, buying, using, or making instead. Your assumption may be that people will buy from you if your product, service, or site is more usable, cheaper, better, more attractive, or more well known than your competition. That may not be the case. You want to find out what else people are spending their time or money on, what they value. In the case of the online toy store, you may ask “What other sorts of things have you purchased for your kids in the past few months?” Or, “What do you tell people who ask you what to buy for Johnny’s birthday?”
5) Tap into the vision
Some innovation experts claim that you can’t ask customers what products to build. There’s the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that says “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Funny story about that quote. It appears that Henry Ford never said it. More importantly though, the real problem is that it isn’t the right question. If you ask “what do you want?” you may not get a reliable answer. But you can tap into the vision of your customers with creative questions that stretch their imaginations. Here are a couple of samples: “Describe for me an ideal scenario for bathing suit shopping.” “Imagine it is 2040. How do you think your children will be paying their bills when they get to be adults?” “What might the perfect toy emporium look like?” Answers to these questions may not point directly to a product or service concept. But they will provide you with valuable insights to inform your design.
6) Shut up. And listen.
There are two parts to this one. “Shut up” means that right after you ask your brilliantly worded, probing question, be silent. Give the interviewee time to think through their answer. Let them start talking, double back, re-think what they’ve said, ramble some more and proceed. When they stop – wait a few seconds before probing more. Sometimes people will start up again. If your interviewee is stopped or stuck, you may want to dig deeper, but again, keep your question succinct. An example to get them thinking is great, but don’t go off on your own story. Part two: Listen. It stands to reason that if you are asking open-ended questions, you will be getting unpredictable answers. Your job is to truly open your heart and mind to what other person is saying, even if they are totally destroying your business concept. Don’t dive into defend yourself or to “correct” their insights. (Believe me, it is very tempting).
7) Ask the crucial final question . . .
You’ve had an eye-opening, productive interview. You’ve wrung every great insight and reaction out of your interviewee. Next? Do not forget to ask “Who else should I be speaking with?” This question is crucial for a few reasons. First of all, it gets you a warm lead or leads for your next interview. Second, it gives you clues as to how the person perceives your subject area. Are they sending you to industry people? Experts in education? Older people? Teens? This is very telling information. Third, as people think through an answer to this question, very often, a spark will go off in their heads, and they will come up with a new thought or insight in answer to one of your previous questions! That spark may very well be the most useful one of the whole interview. Pretty cool, huh? Try it.
If you ask customers the right questions and you listen well, you will find that just about every interview provides value. Whether the customer confirms your assumptions about their needs, validates that you’re building a great solution, or causes you to rethink your direction, you will learn something new to attach to your previous understanding. Remember, the interview is about THEM, not about YOU. Don’t be too precious with your interview questions. If one of them isn’t working, drop it. There’s no “extra credit” for asking more questions. Go for quality, not for quantity. Here’s a challenge: commit to ten customer interviews and see where it leads you. And let me know how it worked for you. Would love to hear your thoughts.