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Last updated on 5/11/20

Learn the benefits and pitfalls of interviewing

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Product managers are responsible for:

  1. Defining a product vision.

  2. Working with the tech team to turn a vision into reality.

  3. Evangelizing the product management function in the organization and their product in particular.

To define a product vision, product managers typically start with an idea, an observation, a customer complaint or some other inspiration for a product and then conduct product research to determine viability.

Product research consists of:

  1. Conducting competitive analysis: seeing if a similar product/service already exists.

  2. Conducting customer interviews: finding out if potential customers have a genuine urgency in solving the problem and what kind of solution might work.

  3. Designing a viable business model: drafting a solution which caters to each of the twelve aspects of a plausible business model.

The customer interview component of research is the most interesting, rewarding, and difficult to conduct. Let's examine the benefits and pitfalls of customer interviews.

Benefits of interviewing customers

Steve Blank, who coined the term "Customer Discovery" to describe the process of interviewing customers to determine their needs and identify the optimal solution, famously said:

No plan survives first contact with customers.

What Steve meant by this is that a team which comes up with detailed plans, without talking to customers first, will be wasting their time. To determine the best way to understand a customer's problem, their context, their fears, anxieties, boundaries, and decision-processes, you have to talk to them in-person.

The good news is that by doing so, you can:

  • Find problems that customers will instantly pay to solve.

  • Understand the impact/size/limitations of a given problem.

  • Discover boundaries to any potential solution.

  • Sell to some of the customers you interview at a later point (although that is always a bonus, it is a valuable insight).

Pitfalls of interviewing customers

The challenge with customer interviews is that human beings are difficult to read and predict. It is not uncommon to have a conversation where someone says the opposite to what they think. This could be because they are being polite. It could also be because they say what they think they should say if they are not an expert. It may be because they do not want to hurt the interviewer's feelings or they are short on time and will say whatever it takes to end the interview to get back to their busy day. Either way, it's important to realize that you cannot take what customers say in interviews too literally. Rather, become aware of certain signals and signposts and understand what they mean when you see them.

The following challenges persist:

  • People can be polite rather than hurt your feelings.

  • Many types of bias can distort the interviewee's opinion.

  • If you ask "bad questions," the responses won't be of much value.

  • People's aspirations and realities can be far apart ("I'm going to get up at 6 am every day and go to the gym."), and you need to distinguish between the two.

  • People understand the world through past experiences and known concepts. They relate to products and services through these lenses.

Alternatives to customer interviews

When validating a product vision, the best input will come from direct customer interviews. It's always better to conduct interviews in person, but a telephone or Skype call can provide equally valuable insights.

Let's examine some alternatives to conducting 1-on-1 customer interviews and their advantages and disadvantages.

In focus groups, a group of potential customers is asked questions and/or shown a product or service to get feedback. The advantage is that the group dynamic can generate new insights as people describe their opinions. One disadvantage is that the group can be influenced by one or two dominant people, and the feedback can be biased based on how interviewees wish to be regarded by peers (rather than their true feelings).

Questionnaires are a set of questions that you ask a customer to answer. Most are conducted online although some are in-person (you can probably remember a time when someone approached you with a clipboard). The advantage is that they are easy and quick to set up and can capture data from a large number of participants. One disadvantage is that the response rates are typically less than half of one percent of people invited, meaning that it is very hard to know if the answers are a true representation of the population. Another disadvantage is that there are fixed questions and answers. It's hard to gain new insights this way.

Market research surveys may or may not use questions to gather insight. They can include watching how customers behave in a store, a blind taste test, or mystery shopping. Watching what a customer does can be revealing, versus a biased answer they may give. The disadvantage is that observing behavior does not explain it. If a customer arrives at a store at 9 am and orders a milkshake to-go, you do not know why. You need to interview them to find out what "job" they are trying to accomplish.

Let's recap!

  • Customer interviews are the best way to get qualitative feedback and validate assumptions. Because you can dig deeper into the important things interviewees say, you can uncover the motivation behind the behavior.

  • It is important to recognize the pitfalls of interviewing customers so you can avoid bias.

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