User Interviews: Why they’re necessary

By Oursky

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You’ve just thought of the most incredible product since the fidget spinner. All you have is a dog-eared journal containing a user story and maybe some hand-drawn mockups. Before you go any further, you want to find out if someone might actually want to buy your theoretical product. The easiest way to do that without spending a dime on development is through user interviews.
User interviews can take place before a product’s first line of code is even written. User interviews help involve your target users in the design of a product so that it can better address their pain points and be more attractive to buy.

“The question is, once you have this idea…is it something people would actually switch just to have?” — Emmett Shear

In Y Combinator’s video series How to Start a Startup, Twitch founder Emmett Shear talks about his experience running user interviews for Twitch versus his past experience starting a business without running user interviews. Below is a combination of Shear’s learnings and practices we at Oursky use for successful user interviews.

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Imagine you have an idea for an IoT app integrated into a smart car that automatically stops the car when it comes within a certain distance of an object. You want to gain insight from people who stand to gain from this app. 
 For this car app, we want to seek out feedback from people who:

  • Have a driver’s licence
  • Drive a car as their main form of transportation
  • Own a smart car

Use these tips to put together an interviewee profile list for yourself and save on fees from third-party recruitment vendors. Further screen the people from this list with pre-interview questions to narrow down your interviewees to a manageable number.
An example of a pre-interview question for the car app might be, “Have you ever hit another car when driving, or come close to hitting another car?” Interview only those candidates who say yes and meet other essential requirements. If you’re stuck on how to put together a good online screener, check out this one from Michael Margolis.
Online is just one method of pre-screening. You can also just call or email your candidates, although this can be more time-consuming.
While opinions differ on the number of required interviewees, a simple rule is to include at least 10 and a maximum of 95 participants.
Why this improves your interview: Hearing from people with problems that your idea wants to solve helps you verify or disprove your assumptions.

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The best information should not have to be extracted; it should be willingly given.

Karen Foster, UX designer for Critical Mass, recommends a three step process for a fruitful user interview:

  1. Help your interviewee relax: ask questions about the interviewee’s day-to-day life to make them feel like they’re just having a conversation
  2. Transition to on-topic questions: identify the interviewee’s main frustrations and desires that are relevant to the product you want to build
  3. Return to rapport: end with more questions about the interviewee’s interests, hobbies, and demographic information to find additional patterns you may not have realized

Also, factor in the medium through which you conduct your interviews. If you are interviewing about a product that requires visual cues as part of qualitative data, conduct your interviews in person. If you require a larger sample size and are short on time, email or phone interviews may work better. If you choose to interview more than one person at a time, factor in the possibility of groupthink. 
 An example conversation about the car app might go as follows:

  • Pleasantries
  • Chatting about general driving experiences
  • Asking an interviewee what they wish they could improve while driving
  • Asking generally what they think of using an app to help them control the car’s safety mechanisms
  • Showing the interviewee a simple mockup and getting feedback
  • Wrapping up with more casual conversation

Why this improves your interview: The less energy your interviewees are putting into feeling comfortable, the more they can focus on thinking about answers that may help you refine your product features.

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Your interviewees are not machines; it’s not going to be as simple as question/answer. 

Note how your interviewees react to certain questions. If an interviewee has difficulty with broad questions like “why do you like product y?” but can clearly answer specific questions like “what were you thinking the last time you used feature x on product y?”, inquire with specificity. If an interviewee can generate ideas with a general prompt, don’t confine them to specific yes/no questions.
Another example is if your interviewee is not a native English speaker: you may have to adjust your vocabulary and speaking speed.
It’s up to the interviewer to understand interviewees’ needs and to conduct accordingly, inspiring relevant insights. While it’s important to keep the conversation guided, allowing for asides and anecdotes may reveal pain points that can help make your product more relevant to target users.
Why this improves your interview: An interviewee who understands your question is one who can give you relevant information.

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You also want to avoid guiding questions or implanting ideas. Keeping with our car app, take a look at the question below:

  • “Uber revealed that they’re testing out self-driving cars a little while ago. That must make you excited, I bet?”

By framing the question with “that must make you excited…”, you implant the idea that someone is already happy/satisfied with the addition. The answer doesn’t leave much space for someone to consider if they were unhappy, and, therefore, what could be improved. 
Instead, use questions like “what do you think about x?” Neutral questions are more likely to produce unfiltered opinions from your interviewees.
Leaving your proposed solution or mockups until the end of an interview serves a similar purpose. By not knowing exactly what your theoretical product is, an interviewee will not be restricted to only responding to your product features. They might introduce odd ball ideas or unforeseen features which could help set your product apart from the competition.
Why this improves your interview: By questioning your interviewees in a way that does not implant bias, you are giving them space to share what they would pay for in the future.

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From your results, you obtain at least three key pieces of information.
1. Whether users would find your idea valuable:
This qualitative data can identify the priorities and problems that target users have. With this, you can select essential features for your first prototype or minimum viable product. 
In describing their problems, interviewees may also give you insight into how they’ve already solved their problems. (i.e. maybe your product is not needed).
2. Hidden competitors:
Interviewees will inevitably use other products as references. You may know who your direct competitors are already, but your interviewees can help alert you to indirect competitors who solve the same problem as your app. For example, there may be an app that offers the same solution as a side feature.
3. Other uses for your app:
User interviews can also help you realize other uses for your product. After hearing what’s important to potential customers, you may even realize that it would be more worthwhile to pursue a different use for your product all-together.
With concrete information on potential user’s behavioral patterns, pain points, and thought processes, you can refine your product design or pivot accordingly with an accurate idea of what users want and need.

If you have successfully conducted user interviews, what did they look like? If they weren’t successful, why not? Drop us a note in the comments below.

At Oursky we’re all about helping brands and entrepreneurs make their ideas happen. Get in touch if you’re looking for a partner to help build your next digital product 😻