Finding Customers

with Cindy Alvarez

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The Interview

Interviews from start to finish

Cindy Alvarez

Lean Evangelist, UX Expert, Master of Experiments

Lessons Learned

During face-to-face interviews, you can pick up on body language and environment.

Chat and email are not great for customer interviews because you lose emotion and tone.

If people are enthusiastic about what they are saying, it is important to listen.


Lesson: Finding Customers with Cindy Alvarez

Step #7 The Interview: Interviews from start to finish

So there are a variety of ways, formats that your interview can take. A lot of times I will say face-to-face, but that's actually not what I do most of the time just because it's difficult. The logistics are hard. So face-to-face has certain advantages. You can see peoples' body language, you can see their set-up, you can see that their desk is really small, their monitor is very small. That one was kind of a revelation to me at some point, actually, that people are almost all using laptops on a display that was, when we had displays that were huge. So seeing peoples' physical space and body language is useful but people can also feel more self conscious in a face-to-face scenario, especially if you're asking about something where there might be a little bit of embarrassment.

When I was at Kiss Metrics I would talk to people about how they did metrics for their company and a lot of times people didn't feel like they were doing a very good job and so there was a little bit of defensiveness. So they're like, "Well, I'm doing the best I can." They would kind of cut short answers. I wasn't trying to call someone out at not being good at their job of course, but you could tell that they themselves were kind of berating themselves. So having to look someone in the eye and admit, "I don't know how Google Analytics works." No one wants to do that.

People would do that much more on the phone. So phone is a little faster to set up, you miss the body language, but people tend to be more willing to be confessional and that's a lot of times where your opportunities are. So someone will say, "You know, I do this and I'm not really very good at it. I do this and it takes much longer. I have to do this and I really hate my coworker." Whatever the thing is and this might be useful, the fact that they hate their coworker. Aside from being funny, it might be that you have an opportunity in allowing him to work autonomously versus having to work with this person. So a lot of that stuff comes out over the phone. So I highly recommend phone.

Beyond that you can use things like CAT. It's much less good because you're not getting the body language and you're not getting the verbal intonation. People are just notoriously bad at misinterpreting text. So sarcasm, humor, etcetera. People aren't very good at it. No one is.

The one time that I really recommend that is if you're talking to people who are in another country and you're having a bad time with a connectivity issue or if you're talking to someone where English is not their first language and so there might be a lot of, "What? What?" Writing can often be the clarifying force that allows people to feel like they're being more articulate. Even if their written English, the grammar isn't perfect it's understandable whereas an accent might make it not so much.

Then the third one would be if someone's going to need to copy and paste code or jargon. If you're talking to someone about medical terminology you might not know how to write down what they're saying. But they might type it in quickly or they might be able to copy and paste it into a chat window and then you have some accuracy. So that's generally kind of the fall-down of how we do these things. Things like surveys or sending email questions, those I think are very good for when your scope is smaller. But when you're still trying to validate an idea there's just not enough nuance there and in an interview the most important things tends to be the follow-up question, not the first answer.

So if you do a survey or an email question you get that first-level answer and then there's kind of an awkwardness about continuing to go back and forth and say, "Send me more emails, send me more emails." It's just tough.

I do not record interviews. Sometimes we do on my team, that adds a little bit of awkwardness in my opinion because you have to ask people or tell them, "I'd like to record this call so I can refer back to it." Then people immediately are thinking, "What are you going to do with it? Is someone else going to read it? What if I sound stupid?" Sounding stupid is one of human's greatest fears and it keeps us from everything. So I prefer not to, that's why I like to say that people should use a note-taker because between the two of you you're likely to get it.

The other just practical thing is listening to interviews takes forever. If you've done 20 20-minute interviews you are never going to sit and listen to 400 minutes of conversation again. You may think you're going to, but you're not. There are some tools that make it a little bit easier to record and skip to a certain section that people have put out, but I still think pay attention and write it down. What you want more is that kind of emotional resonance anyway versus knowing specifically that they said this thing four times. You want to remember that they were really pissed off about this or really excited about this.

Another question I get asked a lot is, "When do I redirect a conversation? When do I let it go versus when do I redirect?" Sure, use your judgment, which is not very helpful. I'd say that as long as someone is still enthusiastic and it's at least marginally related to what you're trying to learn I'd just let them continue going. So you've talked about something, someone has slightly sidestepped your question, but they're really going gangbusters on it, I let them talk for a while. There's two reasons. One is that it might be that your hypothesis was wrong and the real gold is in this thing over here that they insist on talking about.

The other is just that if someone is excited about something and you kind of cut them off, that creates a really awkward dynamic on the call. Because it's like if you sing about this thing and then having all of your friends be like, "Oh, that's not cool." You kind of have that. It has a junior high-school feel to it. Like, "Oh, I didn't really want to talk about that." So I let them go. If it's not super-useful, that's okay, because you've let them get a thing out of their system. That's very cathartic. Then after it kind of starts slowing down you can maybe pull them back over to another thing. But if it really sounds like they're expressing a problem and some emotion sometimes it's worth just investigating and kind of abandoning the call from your original hypothesis and saying, "I just want to learn as much as possible about this thing over here."

Again, when we were doing customer development for Kiss Metrics that's where the spin-off product Kiss Insights, which is now called Qualaroo, it actually came from that. From people kind of side-stepping my metrics question and talking about wanting to do things like usability testing. I wish I could just look over peoples' shoulders and ask them a question when they were on this page to figure out what was going on. People kept saying that. I just let them go down that road and after a while I could see this is a thing that many people are saying and they're all expressing a high degree of frustration. This feels like a different problem area and it really was something where I would kind of shove one of these interviews off to the side and after a few months it was just unavoidable. I'm like, "This thing keeps coming up." So you never know. Your real idea might be hidden in there.

So what do you do with the chatty people? What do you do with the not-so-chatty people? For people who are very chatty, it's actually much easier. Most people who are aware of this tendency in themselves and so you can kind of say, "I'm sorry to interrupt. I just really want to make sure that you have a chance to talk about X." Putting it on them is easier. It's not, "I'm interrupting you because I want to talk about this, it's because I want to make sure you get the chance to talk about this." So you can frame it in a way so that it sounds more polite. Usually what will happen is that person will laugh and say, "Oh, I do tend to ramble." Again these people know that they do this.

So don't cut people off mid-sentence, at some point they'll stop for breath, and then you sort of apologize and say, "I really just want to make sure that you're able to talk about this." You move to the next question and you can do that a couple of times in an interview. Sometimes those interviews will just go long. I tend to schedule things, ask for 20 minutes but put on my schedule about 45 so that I have a lot of room for an interview to go over. Someone who is chatty probably won't mind being on the phone for 40 minutes instead of 20.

For the opposite that can be much more challenging because they're just not accustomed to talking that much. I have found that a little bit of enforced silence works well and sometimes to say, "Hold on a second, I'm taking notes." Wait for them to continue.

Another thing can be just to reinforce again that detail is important. So if someone gives you a short answer and you've said, "Well how often has that happened?" They say, "Once or twice." Kind of say, "Okay, I'm going to ask you another follow-up question and I apologize if I seem annoying, but really the more detail I can get, the better. So feel free to talk more about how this impacts you." Again, that kind of permission. You're nudging them a little bit. You're actually saying, "You're not quite saying enough." That can help a lot.

Wrapping up the interview once you've kind of gotten through your core questions, there's a little bit at the end that's also important to make not so much as your opening spiel. But at the end there's a couple of things you want to accomplish. You want to make sure that this person feels very appreciated, so you want to thank them profusively. You want to make them know what's going to happen next.

In some cases you may not know and that's actually okay. You want to provide a little bit of closure to them so it might be, "Thank you so much for talking to me. So what's going to happen next is I've been talking to people all of this week, I'm going to do some more interviews. If I have some follow-up questions, would it be okay if I contact you?" Then get that permission or you might say, "I'm not sure when I'm going to be able to reach out next, but what's going to happen is we're going to learn and then we're going to work on building something out. I think once I have something to show you, then maybe I can reach out again and share with you a prototype or share with you what's going on." Again, you're asking for that permission and most of the time people will grant it.

So you thank them, you've given them a little bit of closer, and then finally you want to ask for more people basically, which is, "Based on our conversation is there anyone else that I should talk to? Do you have any friends or coworkers who might also be interested in this space?" Give them that opportunity to name someone. If they say, "Oh, I do, but I..." Then give them the opening to be like, "Oh, you could send me someone via email or maybe I could send you an email that you could forward." People will often, again, agree to do that. But making sure that you have those, closed things out, and then say, "Well, again thank you so much. Have a good day." You go from there.

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