Customer Research Best practices

The comprehensive customer interview guide to help you ace your research

September 1, 2021
11 min read
The comprehensive customer interview guide to help you ace your research

​​Imagine you need to place a pizza order for a stranger. What would you do? Would you guess what toppings they want based on what you like or what the people around you typically choose? Or would you quickly Google “most common pizza toppings”?

That’s a dangerous game, especially considering how heated the debate about pineapple’s place in the pizza world can get. The far better strategy would be just to ask the person what they prefer.

It sounds so simple in theory, but you may feel hesitant when it comes to customer interviews. We know it may be new to you. We know you’re unsure what to ask, who to talk to, and how to make sense of what you hear.

But when done well, customer interviews give you valuable insights that determine whether you’re close to product market fit and can help you make informed decisions to improve aspects of your product development process. And you don’t need complex and expensive research panels to get the job done.

We’ve created this interview guide to guide you through your next round of customer interviews.

Every company can benefit from customer interviews—here’s how

A customer interview, also called a user interview, discusses current or potential customers about their goals, pain points, or feedback on your product. You can also use customer interviews to communicate your findings to your stakeholders.

Here are some criteria to help you judge if customer interviews could benefit you:

  • You have limited resources to build and market your product
  • You want to find out if your target audience would pay for your product or service
  • You need to understand how current customers perceive your company

Chances are, at least one of those statements applies to you and your company. That’s because customer interviews aren’t something to reserve for the largest corporations—businesses of all sizes and stages can benefit.

Roy Opata Olende, Head of UX Research at Zapier, shared that:

"It shows you whether you should prioritize X feature or Y feature because there’s an insight from a real customer that shows you something is a bigger problem".

-Roy Opata Olende

Now that you’re good and curious about running user interviews for your company, let’s break down each phase of the project.

Phase one: prepare now, thank yourself later

If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Preparation is key for customer interviews. Getting organized before you start your research helps you optimize your workflow. You’ll be able to make the most out of the limited time you have with the customer and you can repeat the process for continuous customer research.

Set your research goals

Before you start your research process, you need to set your research goals. What are you trying to discover? Do you want to interview customers about their user experience or do you want to find out how they feel about a price increase?

Your goals will either be outcome-driven or role-driven. Here’s what we mean.

Outcome-driven goals depend on what decision you want to make with your learnings. Examples include:

  • Would people pay for this product?
  • What features should we add next?
  • How can we differentiate our company?

Role-driven goals vary between functions and their responsibilities. Here are a few ideas with the type of information each role can garner from interviews:

  • Designers can learn what stands out to users
  • Product managers can learn how users feel about features and what they want to see next
  • Marketers can understand what positioning resonates with users and how to stand out from competitors
  • Founders can test product-market fit and make informed decisions

Let’s imagine you're a UX designer for a bank, and your goal is to understand the issues that senior customers are facing with the mobile application. From your research findings, you’ll be able to modify the design process and recommend changes to the product.

By setting clear goals, you’ll have a good idea of the scope of your research project. Your goals will enable you to establish your research methods, your list of questions and which demographic you should target.

Let’s break it down:

Goal: Discover any challenges senior customers may have with the mobile application. This is an outcome-driven goal, you’re looking to act on your learnings.

Research method: You need to conduct a discovery interview.

Questions: As you’re looking to gauge any potential issues with the product, your questions will be based on the product and your participant’s feelings around different product features.

Demographic: As you’re targeting senior customers, your participant pool is any customer (male or female) over 60.

Now you’ve got your goals jotted down, it’s time to go to the next step.

Recruit participants

Once you know what you want to learn, you need to decide who you’re going to recruit for your interviews. If you don’t recruit the right participants, your findings can be skewed and your data might not be actionable.

When you have an idea of who you want to talk to, you need to get them on board with the interview. We have a complete guide to recruiting research participants, but here are a few quick pointers:

  1. Develop user personas. We asked Scott Middleton, CEO of Tarem Technologies, to share his top customer interview tips. When you’re preparing for an interview, he advised you should develop user personas:

"Make sure you understand as much as you can about the type of person you need to interview. Be aware of the difference between early adopters versus laggards. You should also make a hypothesis about user behaviors (how they spend their time, what they do, and what they prioritize) and list your key assumptions about the customer and your possible solution".

-Scott Middleton

  1. Be upfront about requirements. People should know exactly how much of their time you need and why you need them to take part in the interview.
  2. Set up an automatic incentive. Participants will appreciate fast payments, and you and your team can skip manually sending incentives.

Make it clear that this isn’t a sales pitch. Your recruitment page needs to let participants know this is research, and you won’t be pushing a sale at the end of the call.

Create your script

The introverts of the world already know the value of planning out what to say before you get on a call. Even the most outgoing researchers benefit from an interview script, however. A defined set of questions makes sure you don’t forget anything and ensures you ask everyone about the same topics.

The core sections of your script should be:

  1. Preamble: Introduce yourself and warm up your participants. This will help your participants get comfortable. Give them background info on why you’re conducting the research, and make sure they know this isn’t a sales pitch. Remember to remind your participants that if they feel uncomfortable at any time, they are free to leave.
  2. Interviewee kickoff: Give interviewees space to introduce themselves and their general goals and challenges
  3. Research interview questions: Ask your essential questions that address your goal of the interview. Ultimately, your questions will depend on the type of interview data you’re looking for. For qualitative data, your questions will be open-ended questions, “how do you feel about X, Y, or Z”. If you’re looking for quantitative data, your questions will be closed questions. “On a scale of 1-5, how would you describe how easy the application is to use?” Discovery interviews tend to be semi-structured interviews that follow the concept of a conversation. So you might not follow the script verbatim, but it’s good to have a general structure to follow
  4. Product feedback: Ask your participants if there’s any other product feedback they’d like to share. You might find that your questions didn’t cover everything and some customers may have additional feedback to share.
  5. Outro: Thank them for their help and ask if you can stay in touch moving forward. Don’t forget to remind your customers that you’ll be following up with their incentives.

Check out this downloadable customer interview template here.

Phase two: ask, record, transcribe

Your planning is complete, and you’ve made it to interview day. Hooray! Now it’s time to follow your plan and capture responses.

Have backup

Ideally, when you conduct user interviews, it’s a two-person job. If you’re busy writing notes as fast as you can, you won’t have time to listen to participants and dig deeper into their responses. So, aim to have a moderator and an interviewer.

The role of each includes:

  • Moderators ask the user questions, actively listens, and deliver follow-up questions
  • Notetakers record interesting responses and document points to discuss with the team

Actively listen

Since the moderator doesn’t have to worry about taking notes, they have more time to listen. It’s best to avoid leading questions or putting answers in people’s mouths. A leading question would sound like “Did you find this feature difficult to use” versus a non-leading question, “What was your experience like using this feature?”

If you want someone to expand on their answer, use laddering. This method of questioning digs into four levels of motivators:

  1. Feature
  2. Outcome benefit
  3. General benefit
  4. Emotional benefit

Confused? No worries. Here’s how laddering would play out for an email marketing tool interviewing a customer about a new analytics dashboard.

Feature question: What are your first impressions of the analytics dashboard?

Response: It had some interesting information.

Outcome benefit question: How have you used the dashboard?

Response: I tracked the engagement on a new newsletter design.

General benefit question: How did that impact your workflow?

Response: It made it a bit faster to decide whether to keep the design or not.

Emotional benefit question: What does that benefit do for you?

Response: It makes me more confident when I report the decision to my manager.

Record and transcribe

It’s also best to record an interview, so the moderator and note-taker don’t have to remember and write down every last word. You just might pick up something new when you review the audio! Just make sure you have the participant’s consent to record the interview.

There are a few transcribing tools on the market such as Otter, Trint, or Rev to transcribe the entire interview. However, these tools involve you uploading the audio or video file and waiting a few hours for the transcription to be complete and formatted.

With Great Question, the process is even easier. Any interview you book through Great Question will automatically be recorded and transcribed. After your discussions are over, you can use a search function to find common threads.

An image of an interview transcription

Phase three: review and use what you’ve learned

The last phase of customer interviews is the reason you started in the first place—find insights that shape the future of your business. Here are our tips for making interview analysis more rewarding.

Debrief with the team

If you have teammates or co-founders that can review recordings with you, do it. Especially for marketing and product design teams. Each person can bring a unique perspective that fuels the discussion about what to do with what you learned in the interview. It’s also worth seeing what points stood out to everyone or surprised them.

Tag insights

You can’t act on everything you hear in customer interviews. At least, you can’t right now. While user research helps you prioritize work, you need to look beyond individual responses. Compare customer perspectives to look for recurring themes, tally topics that come up often, and discuss how they compare to your assumptions.

Create action steps

Your final customer interview step is to map out your next steps. Summarize the key points you found in the previous step and share a report with everyone. Include the types of users you interviewed, what you asked, what you learned, and what the next steps are. You can also share role-specific learnings with individual teams.

Nicole Wright, Senior UX Researcher at HoneyBook, is a proponent of cross-functional teams that all have access to research results. She shared:

"If someone on the marketing, support or sales teams wants to see our research summaries, they have access, and that is so important because so often research happens, but then it gets lost. I’m really lucky to work with people that are so cross-functional. They give me input that I can turn into more powerful research. And then my research becomes accessible and helpful across the company".

-Nicole Wright

3 ways Great Question makes customer interviews easier

Having a solid customer interview and research plan in place will take you far, but having customer interview software will make the trip faster. Great Question streamlines research so you can find and use customer insights more often. Our research tool helps you:

  1. Find the right participants. You can create segments from your database or leverage our recruitment tools. We also make it simple to create recruitment pages.
  2. Schedule, invite, and conduct interviews from a single dashboard. Plus, Great Question lets you send automatic incentives
  3. Share what you’ve learned. Combine hypotheses, insights, transcripts, recommendations, and more into a shareable customer interview report.

Now that you’ve got the basics of customer interviews down, it’s time for you to get started (for free) with your next customer interview.


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