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April 24, 2019
The best way to run smooth user interviews? A healthy dose of empathy!
65% of homeowners have experienced anxiety related to their home. Adam Sigel wants to figure out how to get that number down. As the Head of Product at Hometap, a home equity startup, he talks to homeowners about their hopes and fears about their homes. We talked to Adam about his experience interviewing users and how he's become a more empathetic researcher.
[2:21] Adam talks about his research at Hometap
[4:32] Resist the urge to pitch
[9:15] Let discovery conversations be open ended
[12:39] The difficulties of pattern recognition in complicated discovery interviews
[17:40] Can someone productize dads?
[23:51] Getting people to talk about their homeowner problems is surprisingly not that hard
[26:08] Adam's quest for 1 bathroom per resident
Adam’s conversations can get pretty messy, since homeownership evokes feelings like anxiety (65%), accomplishment (58%), and pride (54%), all in one day. And since being a homeowner is a pretty expensive thing (47% of people said most of their net worth was tied up in their home) it’s not something that evokes mild opinions. After talking to lots of different homeowners, Adam has some great tips he’s learned that can apply to any research interview, especially when your product touches on potential emotional land mines.
Homeowners can be as varied as people themselves, so Adam does a lot of generative user interviews. These kinds of interviews help researchers learn more about their users as a whole, rather than test a specific thing. These interviews are all about listening and learning, so Adam likes to follow the participants lead, allowing them to talk about their biggest pain points in their own ways.
Adam does have one rule for these types of interviews though—everything within reason. If a research participant starts talking about their problems with property taxes, or their ideas for their new kitchen renovation, or the struggles of landscaping a backyard, those are all things Hometap needs to know about. On the other hand, if they want to spend the entire conversation talking about a fight they had with their mother-in-law, that’s not quite so relevant to Adam’s research and he’ll try to steer them back towards home-related topics. Need some tips on steering your participants back towards the subject at hand? Check out our interview with Nicola Rushton, all about being the best interviewer you can be.
On the pod, Adam talked about a conversation he had with a woman whose parents had recently passed away. She was trying to get their house ready for sale, and was struggling with the improvements that needed to be made in order to sell the house along with everything else she was taking care of in the wake of her parents passing. He listened with compassion as she broke down in front of him, and, though Hometap would have helped her with her situation, he resisted the urge to sell her on the product.
When you’re doing user interviews, the main priority is to listen to your users and learn about their problems and the context of those problems. In this interview, it was more important that Adam listened to the participant as she talked through the problems she was facing. Resisting the urge to sell your research participants on your product keeps your interviews focused on learning and, ultimately, helps you build a better product for them.
Every user has a different story. In Adam’s case, this is particularly true but the logic applies to almost any product. Taking the time to learn about more of these unique stories can help you build a better product that ultimately serves all of your users.
To learn all of these different stories, you’ll need to leave your assumptions at the door. Adam finds this especially true for conversations about money. On the pod he said,
Everyone’s got different circumstances and contexts. That’s the main thing I’ve learned from having these conversations. You can’t start talking about how someone approaches financial issues until you have context for the situation itself.
The way you approach money, or anything else for that matter, may not be the same way your user approaches it. During interviews, keep in mind that your job is to listen to and learn from your users, so try your best to learn their context, rather than asserting yours.
Even if the conversations you’re having with your users aren’t emotionally sensitive, like Adam’s often are, you’ll still need to follow your participant’s lead, resist the urge to sell them on your product, and leave your assumptions at the door. Adopting these practices will help you learn more about your customers and ultimately, build products that work better for them.
Adam Sigel is Head of Product at Hometap. He is also the founder of Boston Product, a group of PMs dedicated to improving their craft. He lives in fear of both he and his wife getting food poisoning in their 1 bathroom condo.
Erin: Hello, everybody, welcome back to Awkward Silences. We are here today with Adam Sigel. He is the Head of Product at Hometap as well as the founder of Boston Product, keeping it all in the Boston Family. So today we're going to talk about user research with emotional products, with products that can really tie into deep emotional stuff that people are dealing with. So we're talking about mortgages, equity, money, relationships, some really meaty stuff. So what does that look like, and how do you handle it, and what do you get out of it. So that's what we're going to talk about today. Adam, thanks for being with us.
Adam: Thank you, guys, so much for having me. I am happy to be on. Long time, first time.
JH: Oh, nice.
Erin: And JH is here as well.
JH: I am. I'm excited for this one. I like home projects, so I'm curious to see where this one goes.
Erin: Awesome. So, Adam, tell us a little bit about Hometap and user research. Paint a picture for us what kind of research you guys are doing.
Adam: Yeah, so Hometap's mission at a high level is to make home ownership less stressful for everyone. And the way we do that today is by giving homeowners money. We basically take an equity stake in the home, and give you money in exchange, so that you can go pay for all the other stuff that life throws at you. So the user research we're doing is pretty broad at times, but we're talking about very real, very tangible problems. There's a lot of meat on that bone, and that's one of the reasons I was so excited to join the team, and one of the reasons I love doing the user research here.
Erin: Fantastic. So what kind of research are you doing? Are you focused right now on discovery research, usability testing? What does that look like, and who are you talking to?
Adam: Yeah, I think most of our work has been around some usability stuff lately to try to understand how people are interacting with different parts of our product or how people think about solving different kinds of problems that are relevant to us, whether we try to solve them today or not. But I also try to do a handful of open ended discovery calls whenever I can. I have a goal of doing 10 of these a month, and frankly I'm pretty behind for the quarter. But it's just really good to talk to homeowners as often as I can to understand sort of what's ailing them. Because we have our hypotheses around why people coming to Hometap, and we market against those things, but we want to make sure that, A, we can make that as real as possible with real examples. It's not just about proving yourself wrong or finding new things to do. It's confirming that you're right in certain ways. But it's also, for sure, just being as close to that customer experience as possible. So socializing the output of these conversations, I feel like is a very helpful aspect for our team.
JH: Cool. And maybe just to get all the way into it, what are homeowners anxious about? What are the emotions that tend to come out of some of these calls you've had?
Adam: Yeah, so that's where, I guess, things get the most interesting. So most of the conversations start off with a sort of financial angle because that's the way we try to help them solve problems today, but sometimes it goes off into other directions. We've had people come to Hometap because they're trying to pay down their debts or consolidate debts, and learning a little bit more about that is interesting. We've had some people who are going through a divorce, and you don't really think about some of the financial implications of a divorce, but they are very significant, and people are looking to Hometap as a potential solution for that. You've got people who want to do renovations where they're either getting ready to get that dream kitchen, or the contractor sort of quit on them halfway through. And that can be a nightmare, so they need to take some money out to finish the project with a different contractor or try to solve that problem another way. So there is a real urgency there, and there's real pain behind those conversations.
Adam: I remember one conversation I had specifically with a homeowner. She had inherited a house from her deceased parents, and she was trying to get it ready for sale. And she had other stuff going on in her life, too, and she was so visibly stressed out and upset. She had her hands in her face for half the conversation, and I wanted to ... I was resisting every urge to stop my interview and pitch her on Hometap because we were exactly what she needed. I don't know, like, "That's not the goal of this conversation, Adam. You are here to learn from her." But at the end of it, I wanted to give her a hug. I felt so badly for her situation. I'm like, oh, that's right. That's why you do this is because you want to help people like her, and because this is a real problem that we can help solve.
Erin: Amazing. Yeah, that is what we're talking about when we talk about empathy, right? Forget sometimes, and nothing like a truly emotionally vulnerable conversation like that ... You said you saw her. Were you in person together?
Adam: This one was in person, yeah. We had people come into the office just to try out if that was a meaningfully different experience versus doing them over a Zoom or something like that or doing survey work. And it did make a difference. You know, when there's nothing between you and the person you're talking to, they tend to be a little more forthcoming, and it becomes just a more natural conversation.
JH: With these types of conversations that do get pretty real, have you had to develop new skills or approaches for how to get people comfortable or how to get them to open up? Or do you kind of start as usual, and just see where it goes? How does this differ from past experiences doing user research for you?
Adam: Yeah, it has been a bit of a challenge, I'd say. I actually did user research, but I didn't call it that, before I even got into product. I started my career in consulting, and one of the things that we offered were these what we call perception studies. So I was an investor relations consultant, and part of my job was to talk to the major stakeholders of publicly held companies. So pick any publicly held company that's worth a couple of billion dollars. You want to talk to the fund manager at Fidelity or Wellington who owns three or four percent of that company. You want to find out what they think of the corporate strategy, the management team, the most recent quarterly earnings, buy back policy, all this stuff. And management has their list of questions that they want answers to, but we quickly realize that the best conversations are the ones when we let the investor drive the conversation. If someone owns three percent of your company, which is a lot for a public company, you have to care about what they care about.
Adam: So I sort of got used to having very open ended conversations and being very willing to lose the script as quickly into the conversation as possible. When I transitioned into product and started doing user research, I had to actually get better about sticking to the script, and now I find myself fluctuating depending on what my goals for any particular conversation are or the nature of the conversation. If it's a usability test, I obviously want to stay closer to the script. I want to make sure that I'm asking the same questions and giving the same tasks to every person. But if I sense that there's real pain that's not what's on my page, I will let the homeowner guide that conversation, and I want to learn about that pain.
Erin: When you go off script, and you learn about the pain, what value does that bring back to the organization beyond those basic empathy skills of, wow, there really is pain here that I can tangibly connect with now? Or is that the main value?
Adam: I think that is the main value. I think there are second level values in terms of, hey, maybe there is a marketing angle to this. Maybe this is a segment that's interesting to us, or maybe there's a story we can tell around this. I think it helps us on the product side. Anything could make its way into a long enough backlog of a potential thing to try to help solve, but I really don't look at it that way. I think it mostly just helps to help keep the pain real and keep the stories real for the rest of the team.
Erin: Right. When I put it that way, there's something sort of terrible, like how can we use this pain? How can we make the most of this?
Adam: How can I leverage this person's pain for corporate growth? Yeah.
Erin: Yeah, not a good look.
JH: There are some business words that are probably tough to use around these things.
Adam: Yeah. So like I said, if there's someone who has got a real issue that's on their mind ... If I want to talk to someone, and I go into a conversation expecting to talk about home renovation projects, and the real problem they're having is budgeting or paying their property tax, I will give them some time to talk about that because that's in our wheelhouse of stuff we care about. If they're talking about car problems, I might try to re-steer them back a little more quickly because we don't do car stuff.
Erin: Right. So it sounds like you've gone into some of these conversations with some assumptions. Any of them have been debunked?
Adam: Yeah. So one of our core assumptions, I think, around some of the ways that we thought people approached home projects has been pretty tough to zero in on. So that's a very large problem space to get into, how people take care of their home. And part of our challenge has been figuring out how to chip away at it so that we can start to have more consistent conversations so we can start to bring clarity to that. We started by trying to limit the scope of which kinds of homeowners we want to talk to. Are they very experienced homeowners, are they newer homeowners? Do homeowners in California versus New York, Texas, or Massachusetts think fundamentally differently about some of these things? Does geography matter?
Adam: And then within home projects, are we talking about big renovations? Are we talking about DIY stuff? Are we talking about chores? So part of the real challenge has been around focusing those conversations, but I think the hypothesis that we've had that people want to be better at that stuff has been harder to get at than I originally thought. I think it might be more of a latent desire.
Erin: Got you. So people's desire is not to become amazing DIY-ers and home improvement-ers, but it's something else?
Adam: Yeah. So we thought that homeowners liked being self sufficient, or that they wanted to learn how to take better care of their home. And they want the outcome, but they don't have a real strong sense of ... they don't care how they get there.
Adam: Some people want to be better at that. Some people are like, "I would rather just have the money to pay someone to make all these problems go away."
Adam: But again maybe that's just a segmentation challenge for us.
Erin: So let's talk more about how these conversations go. So we talked about you do ... Am I recalling correctly? You do predominately remote and then sometimes in person. Is that right?
Adam: Yeah, most of them have been remote lately.
Erin: And you said you have a goal of 10 discovery sessions per month. I won't put you on the spot with how many you actually do, but what sort of volume of research are you or your teams conducting with folks in general?
Adam: It's pretty low volume. We are a small team. We have two product managers and one product designer, and we're sort of a small volume business in terms of the overall scale of volumes that a business could have. It's a high consideration purchase. There's a lot of money on the line, so we're not a very high transaction business. So having 10 very meaningful conversations helps us a lot.
Erin: Got it. And so, yeah, tell me, what's it like talking to people about their money? I mean, that sounds just incredibly personal. What have you learned about how to handle that tactfully or for maximum insight?
Adam: Yeah, that is a tricky thing and frankly something I'm still trying to get better at. It's hard to actually do pattern recognition there, and it's hard not to apply your own biases in those conversations. I've got the way I think about money and the way I like to handle those problems or those issues, and it's definitely not the way everyone else does it. And everyone has got different circumstances and different context, and that's probably the main thing that I've learned form these conversations is you can't start talking about how someone approaches financial issues until you've got context for the situation itself.
JH: And do you need to get into specific numbers, or can you do it on a relative basis of my mortgage is 30% of my monthly expenditure, or is it helpful to know my mortgage is $2,000? How specific do you need to be?
Adam: We don't need to get terribly specific. Yeah, the relativism of the numbers is more important to us than a specific numbers. The ratios matter, how much of your mortgage payment is part of your total monthly budget or something like that, or how much of your net worth is tied up into the house is the way we think about it and the aspect that we care most about. If you're paying $2,100 versus $2,400, that is not as relevant.
JH: Cool, got you. And it seems like you guys are exploring something around this notion of maintenance and projects and all the stuff that comes with home ownership, and it was kind of hard to find trends. Is that something you were going into with a framework or hypotheses, or were you doing it very open ended and looking to connect the dots? How did you approach? Because to me, as a homeowner, it feels like there's a lot of stuff in those categories. There's yearly maintenance stuff you've got to do. There's elective DIY projects, which tend to be my favorite, and I do those at the cost of the maintenance I should be doing. And there's all these other things and renovations. Were you trying to go into that structured and break it down and pick it apart, or were you just going open ended and see what people brought up?
Adam: Bit of both, I think. There was a bit of I guess what I'd call a top-down approach, which is ... So we start with our goal, again, which is to help de-stress homeowners. And home maintenance is definitely one of the things that causes stress. So we said, okay, is there a place for us to be helpful here? Is there something that we could offer to homeowners that also helps us as a business? And then we started looking around and saying, okay, well, what are the other services that exist out there? Where would we fall into that place? Is there an underserved or an unserved opportunity or population here? And that led us to the space of, yeah, the home maintenance aspects of it, that seemed a little more compelling for various reasons than big home renovations projects, although those are also interesting to us for other reasons.
Adam: So we started asking about how people take care of their home, and started very sort of open ended, and we tried to understand how people assess themselves as homeowners. The answer is not very well. And then we started to try to get closer to what we could do to help them. I was trying to chase down this theory for a while that maybe there was a way for us to give homeowners permission to stop worrying about their house. Is there a way for us to say you've done enough this month or this quarter. You don't have to do any more maintenance projects. Or this appliance or this part of the house, or this room, your yard, whatever the case is, is in good shape. Don't worry about it. We didn't get a lot of clarity on that. I think people are always going to worry about their house.
JH: That's fair. So when you're doing research, right, it's always important to target the right user, and what I feel like I'm hearing in your case that I wonder if this is something that you think about is the homeowners who want help are probably the ones you probably want to find, right, because you are in the business of helping them. And talking to them about what stresses them out or what's top of mind is probably the right target audience, but is there a case where the homeowners who are really chill and feel like they have everything under control who are maybe not your target users are maybe an interesting segment to learn from because you can try to pick at it from the other angle of like why are you so calm about home ownership, and how can we get more people to be like you? Do you think about it from that side at all?
Adam: Absolutely, yeah. I should be honest here, we use these interviews to find the people we want to talk to. So if people came through, and the answers were a little different than we were expecting or someone had more experience or was more comfortable as a homeowner than we thought they were, I would for sure turn that into a conversation about, yeah, what makes you feel like you've got this all figured out? Why aren't you as stressed out as all the other people I'm talking to? And some of it came down to just years of experience. Some of it came down to family help. We've learned and heard so many times about how useful it is, just people's dads, or uncles, or grandfathers just being handy and showing them the ropes. That came through a handful of times, but no one's figured out how to productize dads yet.
JH: Yeah. My neighbor, ironically enough, is a general contractor, and whenever something goes wrong I'm like, "Ricardo, want to come over, and I'll grab you some beers, and maybe help me fix this thing?" And so that makes a lot of sense.
Adam: Oh, that's awesome.
JH: Yeah, he helped me fix my garbage disposal. It was great.
Adam: Nice. Yeah. It's also funny to hear how there's ... The garbage disposal reminded me how the simplest things can turn into catalysts for bigger projects. I was talking to someone who their garbage disposal broke, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back, and they just ended up doing the whole kitchen.
JH: Yeah, while we have the hood up. It's almost a little bit product management in that way, right? You have this whole thing of stuff you could be doing, and you're trying to prioritize what do do because you have limited resources and time. And then there are times where it's like, well, once we're poking around in this area, maybe we should just fix it because we're there. I don't know if there's any parallels there, but I'm just-
Adam: Are you talking to me about refactors because I don't know if I want to go down that road or not.
JH: Yeah, slippery slope, right?
Adam: Right. But, yeah, that is, I think, the way some people deal with it, and that's why some people put the stuff off. One of the other things that we found interesting is that we have this notion of the proactive homeowner, but that's not anything people really identify as or want to become. Everyone is happy generally being reactive. They wait for things to break, and then they fix them. There are certain things that you can talk people into being proactive about, but very few people are doing the proactive checks, checking for drafty windows and stuff like that. They just wait until they feel like it's cold, or they see a crack in the window, and then they deal with it.
Erin: That's funny. I wonder if it's connected. You said that they assess themselves poorly as good homeowners. Is it being in reactive mode? Is there any kind of connection there, or have you found any trends in terms of what makes people assess themselves more positively when it comes to being in charge of their homes?
Adam: I think they just lack the visibility into what other people do. In terms of how you view yourself as a homeowner, this is very much like a keeping up with the Joneses kind of thing. You look at what your other neighbors are doing, and you ask yourself, "Does my house look better than that house?" But unless you're going in that house you don't really know, and the most of the stuff you're doing is only so much that's visible, right? If a house is clean, that's one thing, but if the boiler is ready to explode that's a very different thing. And you generally don't see that at a dinner party.
Erin: Hopefully ... It's a tough dinner party.
JH: It would be memorable dinner party, yeah.
Adam: Yeah. That's like a Frazier dinner party.
JH: The piece of your business that's fascinating to me, and I wonder if you guys do research around this or if it's something that is important to understand, is it's a pretty complicated financial arrangement, I'd imagine. Home ownership typically tends to be. There's all these different types of mortgage products, and there's all this other stuff, and interest rates, and bla, bla, bla, right? And you guys are coming into it with a pretty unique angle and investment and opportunity. Do you find that people get it pretty quickly, or you need to figure out how to better explain it to them? And is that something you guys do research around as well?
Adam: So short answer is yes, that we did research on that. And short answer is also yes, people need help understanding it. Home equity investing is a relatively new concept, and we have a market education opportunity to help normalize this and help people get comfortable with it. But I overhear the sales calls that are happening, or I try to sit on them when I can, but we get the question like, "Oh, so tell me again what the interest rate on this loan is?" And we're like, "It's not a loan. There's not interest rate." And that's the first thing you see when you go to our website, and people still ask. So there's definitely misconceptions, and there's definitely work to be done, and that's probably something, when I do my 10 calls next month, I should spend more time understanding how we could help explain the product more quickly to people.
Erin: Based on all that you talked about the variety of homeowners, whether it be geographical, however you slice it, what they care about, how they assess themselves, and why they're driven to do home projects, and so on and so forth ... Despite all of the beautiful variety of human experience that you're interacting with, have you found any trends of any real universal truths in the homeowner experience?
Adam: Yeah. Everyone is stressed out, and everyone wants help. And figuring out how to apply help at scale is our challenge. One of my favorite questions to ask on a user interviewer is if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about X, what would it be? So if you could wave a magic wand and change on thing about being a homeowner, what would it be? Most of the people say, "I wish the mortgage would go away." Some people say, "I wish I had a home butler to take care of everything for me." But productizing that is a whole different thing. It's kind of a predictable answer, but figuring out what we can do about it as Hometap is a whole separate challenge.
Erin: Right. So we've talked about having these kinds of conversations, and how you're doing it, and what you're learning from it. How do you get folks to join these conversations in the first place? Is it a hard sell? Do people want to talk about this stuff?
Adam: For the user research or for the actual product?
Erin: Yeah, for the ... How do you sell your product. For the user research to join sessions and to open up?
Adam: No, it's not that hard to get them to join. I mean, you guys know this. You help us facilitate this. There's a gift card that will convince people to do anything. But I don't think it's actually that hard to get people to talk about this because like I said, the pain is usually very real, or the stress level is high enough that just the idea of talking to someone about it is helpful. And then if that person is pitching themselves or positioning themselves by saying I want to help, then, yeah, it's pretty easy to get people to talk. The harder part is, like I said, doing the pattern matching across conversations, and then when I want to have focused conversations, getting them to focus on the thing I want to hear about.
JH: It's almost counterintuitive, probably, in a way of when people have lower key stress or something that they've compartmentalized and locked away, you have to really kind of nudge and pull it out. Whereas if it's something that's much more like an acute stressor in their life, and you're like, "Hey, how are you doing?" and it just comes spilling out, it sounds like given the trends you were talking about of everyone feeling a little stressed about home ownership, maybe it's almost ... It seems like it may be as hard to get people going, but it sounds like people are pretty willing to have an ear and vent about what is difficult?
Adam: Yes. The issue I face is the fire hose problem. I don't think I've ever gotten on the phone with an owner and been like, "So tell me what problems you're having," and they're like, "None. Everything is great. My life is perfect, and my home takes care of itself, and I have no stress in my life." That has not come up yet.
Erin: That's the person you productize, right? That's the-
Adam: Yeah, that's the person I'd be like, "Tell me everything. Tell me how you've done it. What is your secret?" But I haven't found that person yet. I mean, I've found people who are like, "Yeah, I have a gardener, and I have a housekeeper, and I have all these people so that I've outsourced enough of it that I don't feel day to day stress." But obviously there's always going to be something else. And the people who have that level of stuff taken care of are also the people who find little ways to make things better in their home. The kitchen could be nicer, the bathroom could be done a different way, the curb appeal could be better. There's always going to be something.
Erin: Could have a functioning bathroom at all.
Adam: That would be great. Now you're speaking my language.
Erin: Just laughing about your about page, Adam. It says, "Head of product seeking one bathroom per resident."
Adam: Yes, that is my very real life goal. So live in a one bathroom condo with my wife, and I would love it if we each had bathrooms. And the real issue here is not like either of us is a bathroom diva or anything. I live in constant fear of us both getting food poisoning at the same time.
JH: Yeah, that would be a problem.
Adam: It would be a real problem in a one bath, especially because that bath is out of commission at the moment.
Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences brought to you by User Interviews.
JH: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
Erin: Editing and sound production by Carrie Boyd.
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.
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