How To Conduct Qualitative User Interviews For Customer Discovery

Conducting qualitative user interviews means collecting user stories. This post explains how to earn user stories that are sincere, vivid, and emotional.

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The output of a perfect qualitative user interview looks a lot like a Moth story. If you’re not familiar, The Moth is a storytelling series where anyone can put their name in a hat and wait until they are chosen to bare deeply personal stories to a small audience.

The most memorable story is of a woman accidentally locking herself in her bathroom while alone in her house. She described with excruciating detail every moment leading up to the locking of the door and every thought that popped into her head each second that she was locked in the bathroom. By the end of the story, it was as if we had been sitting beside her on the cold floor of the bathroom. We empathized with her because we could paint ourselves inside that very same sandalwood-green bathroom experiencing the feeling of complete lonely helplessness.

Told one way, the problem is being locked in a bathroom and the solution is a key for the door. Told her way, the solution is finding someone to be there for her on the other side of the door.

When conducting qualitative user interviews for customer discovery it is your job is to collect and retell stories like the woman stuck on the bathroom floor. Just like in successful Moth stories, successful user interviews are sincere, vivid, and emotional stories that help you empathize the heart of the user's problem.

How to collect sincere, vivid, and emotional, customer stories for customer discovery

Almost no one hits all three qualities when conducting qualitative user interviews; I certainly miss some from time to time. However, if you’re a professional story-collector and you’ve got a solid pipeline of eight sincere users then you can stop reading now.

Venn diagram of pro user interviews and those who have a pipeline

Now that we’ve gotten rid of the liars, let’s dissect a journey to conduct eight sincere, vivid, and emotional qualitative interviews.

1. Start with a sincere sample and then foster it:

Here’s a secret: Finding a sincere sample for your first round of customer discovery interviews is either expensive or time-consuming.

The reality is that it’s hard to find a sincere sample, and it’s why everyone doesn’t do it when they should. But, if you neglect the sincerity of the sample, you’ll be more likely to end up with dull, emotionless facts rather than vivid, emotion-filled customer epics. I recently conducted a user interview and heard this very same feedback. The user told me, “In the past, I’ve used services that connect me with people for user interviews, but I just ended up getting professional test-takers who kind of know the game. They give pretty much the same generic feedback, take their check, and move on”. I started The User Interview Exchange to solve this, but the nature of UIX is to be a diving board, not the swimming pool.

The quick answer to finding a sincere sample is asking the right questions to existing customers, friends, family, and coworkers in your target segment. But, if you can’t get eight sincere users from those groups, I studied four alternative methods for getting external user interviews in your target market. I wrote about it here.

It doesn’t end with the sample. If you don’t foster a relationship at the beginning of the interview, you’ll never get the user to open up down the line. I invest the first five minutes of an interview just to get to know the person. If it’s a B2B user interview, usually it’s as easy as providing an open and welcoming introduction about who you are, how much you value their time, and asking, “tell me a little about your role and what you’re working on”.

2. Relentlessly pursue the details to earn vivid stories:

Here’s a secret: There is a thin line between an interrogation and an effective user interview.

Think about the last time someone asked you what you’ve been up to. Instead of saying, “I just got back from a weekend hiking in Maine. I went to Maine because I’ve been hiking in New Hampshire a lot lately and wanted a bit of a change of scenery. I hiked Mount Katahdin because I did it a few years ago and I love that it's a pretty challenging hike with gorgeous views of the foliage at this time of year. The drive up took five and a half hours … “. Instead, you’re probably more likely to start with something like, “I just got back from a weekend hiking in Maine”. It’s unnatural and, frankly, uncouth, to dive into a fifteen-minute diatribe about everything you did and why you did it, but that’s exactly what you’re seeking when conducting a customer interview.

I’ve learned a bunch of sports in my life and one of the “hacks” I’ve used when learning a new sport is to get comfortable pushing slightly beyond the limits. Want to learn a handstand? Practice going a bit too far forward and rolling out of it. Want to practice hit deeper forehands in tennis? Practice hitting the ball a foot past the opposing baseline. Want to get better at bouldering? Practice falling. The same logic applies to user interviews. If you want to perfectly walk the line between interrogation and an effective user interview you may have to hit the point of interrogation a few times to get comfortable finding the line.

In The Lean Startup by Eric Reiss, he talks about “The Five Whys”. The "five whys" boils down to the idea that if you just keep asking “why” eventually you will hit the root of the problem and uncover the vivid details that you would otherwise miss. Apply the five whys to user interviews to uncover vivid stories that encapsulate human problems that your product could solve. Looking for specific questions? Start with this template.

3. Act like a therapist to uncover emotions:

Here’s a secret: When asked, most enjoy describing how things made them feel, even if it’s to strangers.

No matter the business you’re in, your solution is intertwined with emotions. Let’s take a look at how the top three new businesses on TechCrunch today are emotion-driven solutions:

  1. Creating a business that helps consumers invest in collectibles (Rally)? You're building an emotional connection between hobbyist Harriet and her investments that traditional stocks and bonds cannot compete with.

  2. Creating a business that helps employees working from home securely access secret business data (Axis Security)? You're giving confidence to Chief Information Security Officers everywhere when junior dev Jeff tries to clone your entire production database to test the functionality he’s working on.

  3. Selling $95 self-cleaning water bottles (LARQ)? You're helping germaphobe Jerry feel empowered to travel anywhere in the world; even if he doesn’t.

It’s technically easy, but emotionally difficult to act like a therapist when doing user interviews. It frequently comes down to the fact that you need to start getting comfortable asking the sentence: “How did that make you feel?” or leading with “How does it make you feel when you’re asked to seek out new user interviews?” Then, be prepared to laugh when the user inevitably makes the joke, “I feel like this is a session with my therapist!” And finally, listen carefully when the user explains that she felt frustrated because she expected x but ended up getting y.

Memorable Stories Root Products In True Customer Problems

What can you tell me about the differences in Barak Obama and John McCain’s tax plan for small businesses in 2008? Probably not a ton. How about this: do you remember Joe the Plumber? If you’re in the U.S., chances are you do.

In 2008, Barak Obama and John McCain were vying to become the next President of the United States of America. Barak Obama visited a working-class neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio and encountered a man named Joe who was upset that Obama’s small business tax proposal would increase taxes on small businesses that make more than $250,000 per year. The encounter went viral.

The encounter went viral for three reasons:

  1. It’s sincere. It occurred in a working-class neighborhood, not on a debate stage. Joe had to push his way to the front of the crowd just to ask the question.

  2. It’s vivid. There’s a story here. Joe is thinking about buying a business. Not just any business, but a plumbing business and he is comparing the two tax plans only in that very small scope.

  3. It’s emotional. In the video, Joe the Plumber’s voice is raised and he’s close to confrontational. He’s painted a vivid problem and you can feel the concern he has about how the two plans will affect him. We can empathize and frame the two tax-plan solutions much more easily within the scope of Joe the Plumber’s fear and agitation rather than “American small-business owners”.

When conducting customer discovery interviews, it’s your job to uncover stories like Joe the Plumber’s. Only then can your business start to build a plan that solves the real pains.

Authored by:
Mike Chirokas