Notes on Lean Customer Development

If you are thinking about launching a new consulting offering, I highly recommend that you read Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez. If you are strapped for time, just read chapter 4. Following are the passages I highlighted, which should give you a feel for the gist of the content.

Just one shift in perspective — away from building a better product and toward building a more successful customer.

Nature hath given man one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak. — Epictetus

Customer development is a hypothesis-driven approach to understanding:[3] Who your customers are What problems and needs they have How they are currently behaving Which solutions customers will give you money for (even if the product is not built or completed yet) How to provide solutions in a way that works with how your customers decide, procure, buy, and use

Everything you do in customer development is centered around testing hypotheses.

Lean customer development is done in five steps:

  1. Forming a hypothesis
  2. Finding potential customers to talk to
  3. Asking the right questions
  4. Making sense of the answers
  5. Figuring out what to build to keep learning

If your hypothesis is wrong or even partially wrong, you want to find out fast. If you can’t find customers, you modify your hypothesis. If customers contradict your assumptions, you modify your hypothesis. Those course corrections will lead to validating an idea that you know customers want and are willing to pay for.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter how much companies research, how well they plan, how much money they spend, or how smart their employees are: the odds that they’ll avoid big mistakes are worse than a flip of a coin.

KISSmetrics CEO Hiten Shah hired me to help them build the third version of their product in accordance with lean startup principles. This time, they wanted to build a version that would allow the team to get the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least amount of effort. My first task: figure out what should be in that MVP. I spent the first month of that job on the phone, on IM, and drinking coffee with people. I was shocked to find that: So many people were willing to talk to a total stranger who didn’t even have a product The features that most people requested were far more ambitious than their current behaviors and tool usage We’d be able to cut our product scope in half for our initial beta The third version of KISSmetrics was built in a month.[10] It was missing tons of features and included a lot of code that made our CTO cringe. But it was enough to provide value to customers and enough for us to glean valuable insights that shaped the future direction of the product.

Get some pens and sticky notes and set a timer for 10 minutes. Then start writing, as quickly as possible, your assumptions about your customers, product, and partners. If you’re doing this as a group exercise (and I hope you are), don’t stop and discuss during the 10 minutes. The point isn’t to write what you think is correct; it’s to unlock the mostly unspoken assumptions in your head. Here is a list of prompts to help you bring your assumptions to the surface:

This is a list of triggers to help you get started. Once you start identifying assumptions, it will become clearer what other beliefs you hold about how you plan to build, design, distribute, and create value with your product.

It’s not important that you’re right; it is important that you write down your assumptions. They serve as a critical reminder to you that you haven’t yet proven or disproven them.

This is the hypothesis that you will either validate or (probably) come back and revise. Write your hypothesis in this form: I believe [type of people] experience [type of problem] when doing [type of task]. or: I believe [type of people] experience [type of problem] because of [limit or constraint]. Let’s break it down. Your hypothesis needs to consider the five journalistic questions: who, what, how much, when, and why. The type of person who experiences the problem — that’s who you need to talk to. The type of problem that they’re experiencing — that’s the what, how much, and when that you’ll need to find out. The type of task or constraint — that’s the why that you’ll need to understand.

Think about it this way: is it faster to disprove that cats like water or that animals like water?

What does your customer look like, and what about her abilities, needs, and environment make her more likely to buy your product? Chances are, you don’t know exactly what your customer looks like. Even if the problem is one you’re experiencing personally, it’s hard to know who else is part of your target market. Start by asking questions like: What is the problem? Who is experiencing this problem? You probably identified a fairly broad audience, such as moms or working professionals. That may represent the audience that will eventually be interested in your product. But anyone familiar with the technology adoption lifecycle knows that not all of these people will be ready to buy or use your product on day one.

If you’re targeting consumers, you might want to start with some of these traits as a jumping-off point: Cash versus time Decision accepter versus decision maker More control versus more convenient Low-tech versus tech-savvy Replaces frequently versus long-term purchaser Values adventure versus values predictability Enjoys highs and lows versus prefers consistency If you’re targeting business customers, you might want to start with some of these traits: Low-tech versus tech-savvy Low autonomy versus high autonomy Conservative corporate culture versus progressive corporate culture Risk-averse versus risks are rewarded Values stability versus values recoverability Prefers turnkey solutions versus prefers best-of-breed pieces You can create a surprisingly full target customer profile using only opposing traits like this. To round it out, you may also wish to ask a few general questions: What does this person worry about the most? What successes or rewards does this person find the most motivating? What is this person’s job title or function? What social identity (teenager, mom, frequent business traveler, retiree, athlete, etc.) would this person use to describe herself? Some of you will wonder why you’ve done all this work up front before you start talking to people. Others will wonder why you need to talk to people when it was so easy to come up with very plausible customer profiles on your own! What this profile does is give some structure to the conversations you’re going to have. Once you’ve been through a few interviews, you’ll be able to take each assumption and say “this seems true — and here’s why” or “this seems false — and here’s why.”

How Can I Find Customers Before I’ve Even Built a Product? This is one of the first questions people ask, and my response is always: “How were you planning on finding them after you’ve built a product?”

You need to find people who have the specific problem that you’re trying to solve.

[… are willing to take a risk on your unproven, unfinished product …]

NOTE: Figure 3-1 is solid gold

Earlyvangelists will give you all the details about their problem, their needs, and their environment. They’ll try your ugly, broken beta, send you unsolicited page-long emails full of bugs and suggestions, and then recommend you to everyone they know. This isn’t something the earlyvangelist is doing as a favor to you. These customers have a problem that already has them excited or frustrated or angry. They see you and your potential product as something that might help alleviate that problem, so it’s in their best interest to give you all the information you need to execute on a solution.

Individuals are different, but human psychology is pretty universal. We’re all motivated by the same desires: We like to help others We like to sound smart We like to fix things

You send out an email from your personal email address that addresses the recipient personally. The recipient sees it and says to himself: someone is asking for my help. It’s one of the few globally universal psychological constructs — regardless of culture or income, we derive happiness from investing our resources to help others.[15] Because you’ve specified why you want to talk with this specific person, the recipient has a feeling of ownership. He can’t ignore it, assuming that someone else will deal with it.[16

It seems that we particularly like giving our time to causes that align with our own self-identity.[17] So when you send an email asking someone to help you out by talking about something he’s already interested in, that’s a win-win.

Your recipient responds and commits to a conversation with you. As you begin the conversation, you make it clear that she’s the expert. You want to learn from her experiences.

When I thank someone at the end of a customer development interview, it’s common for him to reply with something like, “No, thank you! I’m so glad that I had something useful to share!”

My theory is that most of us are unrecognized experts in the things we do every day — whether it’s keeping the family fed or debugging code or coordinating large meetings. It’s a pleasant change to hear from someone who doesn’t take that for granted.

Yes, you’re asking people to commit their time, and many people are short on time. But you’re also offering them a positive opportunity to be helpful, sound smart, and make the world a better place, all in a 20-minute conversation.

(Presumably you’re trying to enter a market that you and your connections know something about already; if your personal network is completely irrelevant, that’s probably a sign that you’re trying to enter a market you know nothing about, which is a terrible idea.)

While you may already know some prospective customers, it’s more likely that you’ll find people within the larger universe of second-degree connections. You’ll need to ask your connections to introduce you to their friends, coworkers, and family members who have the problem that you’re trying to solve.

In order to unlock the networks of your friends and coworkers, you need to be very clear about what you are asking. You’ll have to anticipate and address their biggest concerns: time, commitment, privacy, and content. You’ll also need to make it as easy and painless as possible for them to connect you with relevant people they know.

In some cases, searching LinkedIn serves as a lightweight customer development tool. You may find that your advanced search for a specific job title and industry combination doesn’t return as many results as you expected — in other words, your target market may be too small.

Looking for parents, BMW enthusiasts, chronic disease survivors, dieters, or wine connoisseurs? You’re less likely to find them on a general-interest community site like Quora than on a topic-specific forum, mailing list, or membership-based community. Many of these communities are publicly discoverable, but the most effective way of finding the best ones is to ask a target customer: “If you wanted to find the best recommendations for [topic], where would you go?”

Sometimes the simplest way to find your prospective customers is to physically go where they are. You’ll never find more runners congregated than at the end of a 5K or half-marathon; you’ll never find more dental professionals than at the Starbucks across the street from a major dentistry conference.

Intercepting people in the real world can be more sensitive because you’ll have to interrupt them. The trick is to think through the tasks that your prospective customer needs to complete (getting in line, networking with a potential business partner, getting that cute girl’s number, completing his purchase) — and don’t approach until after those tasks are complete.

There may not be very many people who care enough to author an entire blog on the area you’re exploring, but the ones that do exist are definitely written by people you need to connect with! A few of the more comprehensive blog aggregators are:

For finding standalone blog posts on a specific topic, you don’t need a blog aggregator; you need a search engine. Trial-and-error searches, patience, and a lot of open browser tab windows will eventually yield results. One tip: if you’re using Google Search, click on the Search Tools button and change the “Any time” option to “Past year” (Figure 3-5). You need to find people who experienced your problem recently, not back in 2005.

No matter what type of customer you’re targeting, you can ask yourself what they are already doing. What products or services are they already buying? What websites are they already using? Where do they spend their time? When they have a large purchase to make, how do they research it and who do they ask for advice?

You are practicing customer development because you need to validate that people who take this particular problem seriously do in fact exist. Before you invest time and money developing a solution, you need a high degree of confidence that you’ll have buyers. If someone is not willing to invest in a 20-minute conversation without a monetary incentive, what are the odds that she’ll write you a check in six months?

what you offer should feel more like an appreciation of their time than payment for it.

if you have a large Twitter following, a popular blog, or a base of existing customers, you can get a reasonable amount of site traffic. You can build it yourself or use a hosted service like LaunchRock (, which also helps you promote the site via Twitter. The advantage of using a landing page is that it’s easy to combine a short survey with the ability to follow up and contact people for a longer interview (Figure 3-6).

Once the interviewee has chosen a time, I recommend sending a calendar invitation as well as your cell phone number. It’s also useful to send a reminder email the day before, or in the morning before an afternoon call.

After you send an initial request to talk, I recommend waiting at least a few days to respond. For business customers, I typically wait a week. At that point, I’ll resend the request with an additional message like “I’d still love to talk with you. If you’re available this week, let me know and I can coordinate a time.” About 20% of the time, the interviewee responds to this follow-up email and we successfully schedule and complete an interview. If you don’t hear back, I don’t recommend pursuing the person further. Don’t be annoying.

If an interviewee cancels or fails to show up, wait a day or two and then send a message offering to reschedule. Typically the interviewee responds and you’ll be able to reschedule successfully, but if you don’t get a response, let it go.

Find the people whose problem is most severe; they are eager to solve it and may become earlyvangelists. People will talk to you because we all like to help others, like to sound smart, like to fix things, and like to complain. Ask connections to introduce you to their friends. Explain why you’re asking them in particular. Find people online using LinkedIn, Quora, Twitter, discussion groups, forums — but not Craigslist. Find people offline by going where your target customers hang out. In your initial reach-out message, be clear and brief, and make it easy for interviewees to respond. Leave time between interviews in case conversations go long and so you can review notes before the next interview.

Asked to determine whether a message was serious or sarcastic, only 56% of people correctly identified the tone of an email (versus over 75% for verbal recordings). “Email is fine if you just want to communicate content, but not any emotional material.” For more information, see As you’ll learn in Chapter 4, emotions are extremely important to prioritizing information, so I do not recommend this method overall.

your biggest risk comes from one of two common errors: that you failed to solve a problem that your customer has, or that you failed to make the solution attractive enough for your customer to choose it.

Basic Customer Development Questions

As the customer talks, I’ll respond with open-ended questions that are triggered by what she just said. Depending on the conversation, these might be things like:

Think of these as conversational prompts more than questions. You can use them to keep the customer talking or to redirect him to a slightly different topic. If you’re too busy writing notes to ask these prompt questions, that’s a good problem to have. The customer is talking!

Don’t ignore what your customers say.

Customers know which cultural, time, and resource constraints affect them, but they don’t mention them unprompted. Once we get used to limitations, we stop questioning or even noticing them. It doesn’t occur to us to mention constraints if we think of them as just the way things are. Sociologists call these taken-for-granted assumptions.

Customers know what they’ve tried in the past that hasn’t worked, but they won’t remember to tell you about it. Our brains are biased toward things that have happened recently. We don’t tend to mention past failures when we’re proposing new solutions. If we’ve abandoned a process or tool, we may not immediately remember what parts of that solution did work.

Customers are (at least somewhat) aware of their capabilities and limitations, but probably won’t volunteer them. They know the methods they feel comfortable with and where they have good intentions but terrible follow-through. We often don’t volunteer that we are bad at certain skills or processes.

The customer is the expert, but that doesn’t mean you can sit back and listen to what he has to say. Instead, you will have to direct him to push beyond surface-level answers. You need to guide the conversation and set expectations, but also defer to the customer’s experience. To overcome this tension, you’ll be asking questions that have no clear right or wrong answer. You’ll state your questions as objectively as possible and prompt the customer for personal and subjective responses.

Customers may not know what they want, but they can’t hide what they need. It’s your job to uncover those needs. It’s your job to get the details so that you can deduce why or how the previous solutions didn’t work. It’s your job to make him feel comfortable enough to be honest about those things with you.

It might seem odd to ask someone what job she “hired” a milkshake to do, but it successfully shifted the perspective from a focus on the product to the customer’s reason for buying the product. Seeing the problem from the customer’s perspective opens up new opportunities. There’s a limited number of options when you’re trying to make more sellable milkshakes, but many more when you’re considering all of the ways in which you could reduce the pain of a hungry, bored, one-handed person.

To get the most out of the five basic customer development questions, you’ll want to know what to listen for. These are the objective and subjective factors that separate prospective customers from buying customers: How your customers are behaving today (which predicts how they’ll behave tomorrow) The constraints that affect the choices and actions that your customers take What frustrates or motivates your customers How your customers make decisions, spend money, and determine value

You won’t get it right on the first try. That’s the thing to remember when you find yourself tempted to skip interviews and just build something.

Discovering what your customer is doing today is the heart of understanding the problem that you’re setting out to solve. What your customers are doing today tells you: What they are capable of doing What they are comfortable with doing (and why) Which decisions they are making Their current behavior is your competition. It doesn’t matter how effective or ineffective their current behavior seems — it’s what they are accustomed to and it works (at least to some degree). You can learn about how customers are behaving today by prompting with, “Tell me about how you do ______” or “Walk me through how you use ______.”

How you fill in those blanks is important, too. It’s critical to define the problem broadly so that you don’t prematurely constrain what your potential customers say. If you think you’re solving a specific problem, try to move up one level of abstraction and ask the customer about the problem one step up from that.

Abstracting up by one level is what allows you to look beyond incremental, easy-to-copy improvements and see opportunities for disruptive change.

For example, don’t ask about how someone arranges grocery delivery online; ask about how she feeds her family. Don’t ask about how someone uploads and shares files; ask about the last time she worked on a document and needed a coworker’s input.

If TiVo had interviewed customers about how they program their VCRs, they might have gotten feedback that drove them to simplify the programming controls and missed the boat on creating the digital video recording industry. In fact, that’s exactly what the first attempts at improving the VCR looked like.[30] Compare that to asking customers about the time they missed the last 10 minutes of the final episode of Twin Peaks or the game-winning play in the Super Bowl — it’s easy to imagine how quickly (and emphatically) customers would’ve told you about the problems that inspired pausing live TV, recording by show name instead of time slot, and fast-forwarding through commercials.

You may be tempted to ask immediately about critical events such as a purchase, a registration, or completion of a key task. Asking an abstract question like “tell me about how...” feels pretty far removed from understanding the critical events that drive success. But these customer decisions are made in the complex matrix of the environment they’re in, the resources they have available, and their capabilities and past experiences. When you understand the factors that go into customers making decisions, it becomes far easier to figure out how to prioritize specifics about making, marketing, and selling a product. By asking procedural questions, you prompt the customer to tell her story, step by step. This is how you can uncover how she makes sense of her world. She’s likely to skip details, or accidentally omit underlying assumptions. When something doesn’t make sense, prompt her for an explanation.

For example, your customer may often use “I” and “we” interchangeably. When she’s talking about executing on tasks or making decisions, it’s important to know exactly who “we” is! Customer: “On Sunday night, we look at the calendar and plan the upcoming week...” Interviewer: “Excuse me, when you say ‘we’, you mean...?” Customer: “Oh, yes. My husband, myself, and my oldest daughter. She’s in high school, so she keeps track of many of her activities on her own.” Interviewer: “Thanks. So the three of you look at the calendar and...” The specific actions that customers take are important, but equally important are the adjacent factors of how, why, when, and with whom. Those are the underlying root causes that make or break products. As your customer talks, be ready to respond with open-ended questions.

Ask someone, “In the future, would you do X?” and you’ll get an inaccurate answer. Some people will be too polite to say no. Others will give optimistic or socially acceptable answers. (Ask any smoker how often he’s told people he plans to quit.)

How likely would you be to use ______? Tell me about the last time you used something like ______. How often does _____ situation occur? In the past month, how many times has _____ situation occurred? How much would it cost your company if _____ happened? Last time ______ happened, how much did it cost your company? How would your family react if you decided to _____? Last time you made a significant decision, how did your family react?

When I was conducting customer development interviews at KISSmetrics, I talked with many startup founders who were highly aspirational about how they’d use data to search for patterns and run split tests to optimize their businesses. But many of them admitted that they were not currently collecting any data beyond a standard Google Analytics installation. “Tell me about how you measure data for your business today...” forced them to describe their current environment and capabilities honestly. That in turn allowed us to focus on the few features that would bring the most value to that set of customers.

When your customers describe their behaviors, you want them to realize that every action and assumption that is second nature is actually a decision that they are making — and that better options may exist.

Another way is to challenge the unrealized problem is to create some implied comparisons between what the customer’s life is like now and what it would be like in a future where his problem is solved. This doesn’t mean that you should talk about the specifics of your product! Instead, you’ll want to dig into how the problem is causing pain to the customer. Is it wasting an hour of his time that he’d rather spend with his family? Is it costing an amount of money equivalent to what he spends on gas each week? Is it creating social friction that’s hurting a relationship?

Problems without conceivable solutions feel more like facts than problems.

This is why customers tend to suggest incremental improvements rather than fundamental changes.

“Forget about what’s possible. If you could wave a magic wand and solve anything, what would you do?” The magic wand question takes a huge burden off your customer’s shoulders. It tells him that he doesn’t have to worry about what is possible. There are no wrong answers. When you frame the interview in this way, you tend to hear, “Well, this is ridiculous but...” followed by legitimate problems and creative ideas. The ideas that customers propose are usually not possible or practical, but they can lead you to ones that are. “I wish I could just sit on people’s shoulders — like the devil on their shoulder — and ask ‘Why?’ right at the moment when they abandon my website.” That response to the magic wand question helped KISSmetrics design KISSinsights, an on-site survey tool. It perfectly captured the frustration that our customers were feeling.

Another cultural obstacle is that a product may conflict with how the customer wishes to view herself. A couple years ago, I was working with a startup team that wanted to solve the problem of people losing expensive items. They asked people in their personal networks if they knew anyone who was always losing things and quickly found dozens of professionals who routinely lost iPhones, laptops, ski equipment, and other expensive items. The interviewees admitted that they wasted hours each week and spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars replacing lost items. But when the team started investigating how much these prospective customers were willing to spend on a solution, they ran into resistance. One customer finally admitted, “I’ve just gotten used to budgeting extra money to replace the stuff I’ll inevitably lose. I’m OK with that.” Even if you objectively know that you lost your laptop last month and your keys twice this week, you may not think of yourself as a careless person. Buying a product to keep you from losing things is akin to admitting that you are. This is a great example of where Steve Blank’s earlyvangelist diagram in Chapter 3 should be keeping you honest. These customers may have seemed ideal, but they were not actively seeking a solution. Time to pivot and seek out a different target audience.

No matter how effective your product or service is, it still requires effort and investment from the customer. To maintain that effort and investment, your customer needs positive feedback. What motivates one customer may turn off another. You’ll need to uncover what incentivizes your customer as well as what types of frustration he considers a deal-breaker.

extrapolate the details of what your customers are like from the hints that they drop in their responses. For example, what can you deduce from someone who mentions, “Oh yeah, I tried an app to help me do that”? That sentence reveals that she: Has a smartphone Has demonstrated the initiative to look for apps to solve her problems Is capable of finding and downloading the app This may feel like pretty advanced deduction, but as you talk with more customers, it will become second nature. You’ll begin to notice subtle differences (“I tried an app to help me” versus “My kids put this app on my phone to help me”) that tell you a lot about your customers.

Use the five basic customer development questions to get customers talking — then ask them for more details about their answers. Ask open-ended questions so that customers go beyond the surface. Find out what they’re doing today. Their current behavior is your competition. Abstract up a level to get perspective. Focus on actual versus aspirational behavior. Instead of asking, “How likely would you be to X?”, ground your prompts in the recent past (“Tell me about the last time you...” or “In the past month, how many times ...”). Be aware of mental blocks customers may have (not perceiving the problem as a problem, thinking it can’t be fixed, having limited resources, having expectations that limit their behaviors) and ask questions to help move beyond those blocks. Find out if there are other stakeholders involved in making decisions (family, managers, friends, etc.).

Thousands of interviews later, I’ve learned that you control the tone of the conversation. When you speak confidently, set expectations appropriately, and express genuine curiosity, people talk. When you close with heartfelt appreciation, you build a relationship and people are happy to talk with you again in the future. I still keep in touch with a couple dozen people I met through customer development interviews.

When you’re doing customer development, you don’t know what’s important yet. You won’t know what’s important until after you’ve completed a number of interviews. It’s critical to capture as much information as possible — in high-fidelity, with details, emotion, and exclamation points. If your interviewee says, “Using product X is literally the worst part of my entire week,” that is not the same as “Customer doesn’t like product X.”

Obviously you can’t write down every word. (You probably don’t want to, either; at some point you have to go back and read all these notes.) As a guide, remember that you’re using what you learn to validate hypotheses and find out more about your target customers’ pains. You need the most detail when the interviewee says: Something that validates your hypothesis Something that invalidates your hypothesis Anything that takes you by surprise Anything full of emotion

People often ask, “Why is emotion so important? What if the person is just complaining about something unrelated to my product idea?” Emotion — and by that, I mean complaining, anger, enthusiasm, disgust, skepticism, embarrassment, frustration — is prioritization. If you want to know what’s important to someone, don’t ask them for a list: you’ll hear what they intellectually think ought to be important to them. Instead, listen for emotion when they talk. Those are the areas of opportunity. Even if what they are saying seems unrelated to your product idea, it will help you flesh out a greater understanding of your target customer.

During your conversation, you’re likely to make ad hoc references or give examples. Your interviewee will feel more comfortable, and be more willing to talk freely, if he can relate to those references. For example, a single guy who lives in the city is less likely to relate to a reference about shuttling kids around in an SUV.

The beginning and the end of the interview are the only times where I recommend that you rehearse what you’re going to say in advance. Having a script for the beginning of your interviews helps you to sound confident and set expectations appropriately. A good opening script for a phone interview might look like this: Hello, this is [Name] from [Company]. Is this still a good time to talk? Great! First of all, I’d like to thank you for talking with me today. It’s incredibly valuable for me to get to listen to you talk me through your personal experience and how things work (and don’t work) in your world, so I’ll mostly be listening. Could you start by telling me a bit about how you [perform general task] currently?

Being human When you’re talking, use “I” and “me,” not “we” or “company.” People are more likely to help someone they have a connection with than a faceless “we” or company. Social psychology research bears this out.

Emphasizing the personal Using phrases like “your personal experiences,” “for you, specifically,” or “in your world” may feel awkward at first. However, it helps emphasize that the interviewee is the expert and that his specific opinions and behaviors are valuable. It’s very common to hear people demur, “Oh, I’m just an ordinary [fill-in-the-blank]; you can’t be interested in what I have to say.” You need to help the interviewee overcome that hesitancy in order to draw out detailed answers.

The Next Minute You’ve just finished your opening script and explained how vital it is that your interviewee — the expert — share everything he knows. Here’s what will naturally happen: your interviewee doesn’t want to dominate the conversation (even though you just encouraged him to do so!). He’ll say one or two sentences and stop. How do you convince someone to violate our ingrained social norms and keep talking? You shut up and listen. You say your opening bit, you ask the first “Tell me about how you...” question, and you wait. Look at the clock and don’t say another word for a full 60 seconds (Figure 5-2). Figure 5-2. Wait a full 60 seconds after you ask the first question Sixty seconds is a long time. You will want to say something to break the silence or move to the next question. Don’t. By jumping in too quickly, you signal that the interviewee has said enough and that you’re not interested in hearing more. He will take your attempt to break the silence as an indicator that one or two sentences is the right level of detail and will start giving you short, shallow answers. That’s not what you want at all! Instead of talking, let the silence happen.

Forcing him to keep the conversation going in the first exchange sets the tone. You really meant what you said; you are mostly going to listen. Now your interviewee knows that it’s OK to give long, detailed descriptions.

Warning Don’t keep doing the “stay quiet for 60 seconds” trick. It works incredibly well to kick off your interview the right way, but it can feel cold or manipulative if you overuse it. Pausing to ensure that you don’t interrupt or cut off your interviewee is good, but you can keep the pauses to two or three seconds. Once you’ve got a person talking, you want to make him feel like the expert. That requires you to be an active listener — acknowledging what the person is saying and asking questions.

Keep asking questions to draw out as much detail as possible. You want to encourage longer answers. The best prompts are open-ended and don’t lend themselves to a yes-or-no response: How long does that process take? Why do you think that happens? What’s the consequence of that happening? Who else is involved with decisions like this? Where else do you see this kind of mistake? When was the last time you did that task?

Avoiding Leading Questions Be careful with your follow-up questions. It is very easy to accidentally ask leading questions. Once you’ve asked a leading question, you have biased your interviewee’s response. Leading questions are often constructed like: Don’t you think ______? Would it cause a problem if _______? Would you agree that _________? Would you like it if _________? This structure often leads to the interviewee starting his answer with “yes” or “no.” You may not realize that you just asked a leading question, but if your interviewee starts an answer with “yes” or “no,” you probably did. Mark it down in your notes so you know to treat that answer with skepticism.

At the end of a long series of questions, you may think you understand a specific situation or problem. Your instinct will be to simply agree, saying “yes” or “I get it.” Don’t do that just yet. There will often be some detail you misunderstood or that the interviewee omitted. Instead, ask for clarity. A good format is to state what you’re doing, summarize what the person said in your own words, and explicitly ask her to correct you. I recommend restating the interviewee’s words any time she says something particularly interesting (or surprising), as well as at the end of a series of questions before you move on to another topic.

Here’s an example from a recent interview with a Yammer user: Me: I want to make sure I’m clear on this: you’re saying that you send files over email because it’s hard to log in to the secure intranet file-sharing site, because it’s easier to send them via email. And you share files over email about twice a week? Did I get any of that wrong? Interviewee: No — I mean, I do have problems with the login thing, but the main reason we use email is that our sales guys are always on the road and they can’t get to the intranet; they can only get to their email. So we have to use email. That happens maybe twice a week, except for the end of the quarter, when all of sales is racing to get deals done and then we’re sending, like, 20 files over email every day. In her response, the interviewee actually identified a different and more important problem! She also realized that this isn’t just an everyday pain point; it gets worse at specific high-priority intervals.

Some people will evade your questions and say, “Here’s what I want.” They’ll start listing features and options; I’ve even had people start sketching mockups in coffee shop meetings! On the surface, this sounds amazing: a prospective customer practically writing your product requirements for you. The truth is different: thousands of failed products are created based on what customers said they wanted. You’ve probably worked on at least one of them in the past.[45] You don’t need to learn what customers say they want; you need to learn how customers behave and what they need. In other words, focus on their problem, not their suggested solution.

Once you’ve asked the magic wand question, you can explain a little bit about what you’re trying to do: In the past, we’ve worked on products that were supposed to do something specific, but they didn’t solve the real problem. We’re trying to avoid that and make sure we build something that will help with your situation and address the things that make your life harder. That’s a message that almost any customer will understand — we’ve all bought products that didn’t deliver what they promised.

If you don’t have anything to show yet, it’s OK to say so. You can say something like “We are hoping to solve the problem of people managing their personal finances, and in order to do that really well we need to first understand exactly what people are doing today and where they are struggling.”

I don’t recommend extending interviews much beyond the 45-minute mark, no matter how enthusiastic you both are. You’ll get diminishing returns and risk using up that person’s goodwill. A better approach is to request permission to contact him with follow-up questions.

It’s your job, in the last few minutes of your conversation, to do three things: Offer some of your own time to the interviewee Make the interviewee feel that she succeeded in helping you Thank her personally for giving her time Whatever you say, it must be personal and genuine. This isn’t the conclusion of a business transaction; it’s the end of a conversation with someone you probably want to talk to again in the future.

Here’s what I say, but make sure what you say works with your personal speaking style: [Name], I think you’ve answered all the questions I had. Is there anything I can answer for you? [Pause, answer questions as needed] Thank you so much for talking with me today. It was really helpful for me to hear you talk about [repeat a problem or situation the interviewee discussed]. That’s the type of detail that it’s just impossible for me to learn without talking to real people who are experiencing it. Can I keep you in the loop as I continue to learn more? If I have further questions, or once I’m closer to building an actual solution, can I get back in touch with you? [Pause] Thanks again, and have a good rest of your day! This is another application of the foot-in-the-door technique. By asking people if you can contact them again, you’re reinforcing their role as the expert. You’re asking them for a favor, but it feels like a compliment.

After the Interview The process of interviewing should be every bit as iterative as the process of building your product. In other words, you won’t get it right the first time. You’ll need to keep assessing what you did and how well it worked, and fine-tuning the areas that didn’t work as well as you would have liked. While the interview is still fresh in your mind, take five minutes to ask yourself or your note-taker the following questions: Did the opening minute of the interview go smoothly? Did the interviewee start talking right away? Did I unintentionally ask leading questions or offer an opinion that may have biased what the interviewee said? (You probably won’t notice if you did this. If you worked with a note-taker, he is more likely to have caught these slip-ups.) Did any of my questions lead to very short or bland answers? Is there a way I could revise them to be more open-ended and effective? Did I ask any questions on the fly, or did the interviewee bring up any questions or ideas that I should add to my interview template? Was there anything that I wish I had learned but we just didn’t get there? How could I get at that information next time? Where did the interviewee show the most emotion? Which questions prompted the most detailed and enthusiastic replies? If you don’t run through this checklist immediately after the interview, you will forget a lot of vivid detail. You’ll always have your notes, but that subjective feeling of what went well and poorly fades quickly. This is also a good time to focus on the subjective qualities of your conversation. What was the dominant emotion this person expressed? Anger, giddiness, frustration, shame, curiosity, excitement? If you had to summarize the tone of the conversation in one sentence to a friend, what would it be? I’ll focus more on analyzing your notes in Chapter 6, but this isn’t about analysis — it’s about your gut feeling. Jot it down now before it fades away.

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