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BlogInterviewing & Research Skills

December 12, 2019

  • Last Updated:
  • February 12, 2020

Before Conducting User Research Interviews, Interview Stakeholders to Better Understand the Problem You’re Trying to Solve

We spoke with Zach about how to conduct a successful stakeholder interview with real-life examples and the long-lasting impact of research.

David Klose

UX researchers receive a wide variety of research requests. On one end of the spectrum, some stakeholders will come to you with a specific, narrowly focused request. On the other end, there are more nebulous requests, where the question posed is so grand in scope it’s hard to see how to conduct research in a timely (not to mention feasible) manner. Plus, neither of these requests may be the right question for when it comes to improving the user experience.

It’s the job of a UX researcher to figure out what it is the stakeholder is looking to discover (whether for product design or changes to services and functionality) with these research requests. And it’s a job Zach Lamm, Senior UX Researcher at SoFi, does by turning the original conversation with a stakeholder into an interview designed to separate the signal from the noise.

A photo of Zach Lamm, Senior UX Researcher at SoFi.
Zach is a Senior UX Researcher at SoFi. He shared strategies for getting the best information possible from stakeholders in a research project.

Zach’s experience includes working as a Senior Design Researcher at LendingClub and as an Experience Researcher at Cars.com, but his background was in academia, where he worked as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

He feels drawn to “maintain the human element in product and UX design,” and it’s the human element we’re going to explore in this interview. We spoke with Zach about how to conduct a successful stakeholder interview (and discover the user’s pain points that need to be addressed for the research to be successful). We also cover a real-life example from one of Zach’s research projects at SoFi and discuss the long-lasting impact research can have on a business.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your UX research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Find your first three participants for free.

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How to Conduct a Stakeholder Interview (3 Questions to Ask)

Turning the original conversation with a stakeholder into a stakeholder interview allows Zach to get to the heart of the problem of why research is needed. He is always trying to think of how a product or service can help satisfy the needs of the users. But he’s also looking to understand the problems and issues the stakeholders are trying to overcome, whether in product design or marketing.

In the stakeholder interview, focus on the list of questions below:

  1. What motivated the stakeholder to come to research with this question in mind? 
  2. How does answering this question fit into the broader context of the business?
  3. Above all, what problem are we trying to solve for users?

These open-ended questions are designed to classify user types, identify pain points (for both stakeholder and the user), outline research goals, and begin outlining the research methods you will use. It’s important to note that these aren’t the only questions you need to ask. After each question, a good UX researcher will ask a series of follow-up questions based on the answers they were given. But this three-question interview guide is a good place to start.

During the stakeholder interview, you also might uncover two potential obstacles to getting stakeholders to agree to research

First, you can be presented with unrealistic expectations by the stakeholder. If so, Zach says it’s best to clarify what research can do and what it can’t do from the beginning. To help bridge the gap between expectations and reality, Zach explains the difference between the things we really know (true knowledge) and the things we think we know (communal, tribal, and anecdotal knowledge). Zach positions research as a tool to help take us from the things we think we know to the things we can actually know. 

Second, you might uncover that the stakeholders are not able to give the time or resources the research requires. If so, Zach recommends narrowing the research’s focus into a smaller project and also putting the emphasis on forming a relationship with the stakeholders (more on this below in the section on the long-lasting impact of quality research).

If the stakeholders agree with your approach (and have no concerns with the resources needed to conduct the research), then you can start your discussion about the best methodology and approach. 

It’s also during this stakeholder interview that you’ll begin to feel out what kind of business partner you’re working with. Every stakeholder is different. Some stakeholders (such as a product manager who is heavily involved in the design process) want to be involved in each step of the research, while others want you to take the wheel and just deliver the results by the deadline. Some stakeholders start on the outskirts of interest but become more engaged throughout the project (due in large part to exposure to what research can accomplish).

Either way, Zach recommends keeping stakeholders at least partially involved in the research, as they almost always have ways to improve or add nuance to the research. Plus, research processes are mercurial. As your focus narrows (in the case of more abstract requests) or widens (in the case of more specific requests), methods evolve, and keeping the stakeholder in the loop helps manage expectations on what information is being mined.

3 Questions to Ask Research Stakeholders

How the Above Process Worked in a Real-Life Example at SoFi

One of Zach’s projects at SoFi was to figure out how people use deposit accounts (checking, savings, money market accounts) over the course of a month. It was a very practical research request that was looking for purely quantitative data. They expected participants to list how many checks customers write per month, how many times they make a peer-to-peer payment, how many times they transfer money between accounts, etc., and call it done. 

But by asking his stakeholder interview questions, Zach saw the question also hinted at a larger issue: What do people do with their current account vs. what do people want to do with their deposit accounts?  Now the research method is going after more qualitative data. If Zach and his team only looked at this problem from a quantitative perspective — interviewing users only to learn what they did with the tools they have — they wouldn’t have discovered the tools the users wished they had.

So, while Zach did provide the information requested, he also set up a co-creation exercise session. First, he had SoFi members think of their deposit account use and map out their interactions to set the context of their daily, weekly, and monthly use. Then he asked the customers: Where do you run into issues with this current structure, and how could it be improved?

Through this user feedback, SoFi learned how people structured their deposit account life (from very complicated systems to simple one-account-for-all-purposes systems) and were able to come to this consensus: People weren’t thrilled with the current system but were also afraid to change their deposit account life completely. Understanding these user behaviors helped SoFi create changes that helped their members without completely reinventing the wheel and risking alienating the user.

Sourcing Participants for User Research Interviews, Surveys, and More

Zach pulls his participants from three different pools to conduct his research. 

First, he uses the members at SoFi. SoFi builds a sense of community with its users, and this community is a great way to engage for member-specific research (such as having them map out their monthly uses of deposit accounts). 

Second, it’s also important to conduct research for potential users. For this, Zach may use research tools such as Dscout and User Zoom, which allow for remote or non-real-time research, giving him a broader understanding of non-member user information.

Third, when Zach needs in-depth research (usually done in person) with non-SoFi members, he uses User Interviews to find participants that represent his target audience.

User Interviews is my preferred way to recruit external participants for research, as opposed to using more traditional recruitment agencies, which usually cost a lot more, take a lot more time, and often produce inferior results,” he said.

Understanding the Long-Lasting Impact of Ghosts of Research Past

Not every stakeholder conversation needs to happen with a specific research project in mind. Sometimes, it makes sense to build relationships first. When that happens, he focuses the conversation on the human element. He asks about their business and products, then suggests things he could do as a researcher to help them solve their problems more efficiently, build a better product, better connect with their users, and so forth. 

These conversations can lead to a smaller, immediate project (which, if it’s a good fit, can lead to bigger projects down the line). Or maybe these earnest conversations will plant a seed of research’s capabilities, so in the future, when the stakeholder finds themselves at a stage in the product development process where they need more information, they’ll think of the value research can bring to the table.

In a similar vein, while research can have an immediate impact, it can also — if you make it readily available to people (as a reference or part of the onboarding process when someone joins the team) — keep providing valuable insights into new projects.

For example, Zach shared with us that he has been called into meetings recently to discuss research he did over a year ago. In other cases, he has been called in to provide context for research that was conducted long before he was part of the company’s research team.

Research can have a longer shelf life than people give it credit for, and it can have an impact that goes beyond just immediate changes and the decisions that get made,” he explained.

This is especially true when research recommends a big shift in strategy or product development. Zach told us that there may be “hesitation on the stakeholder’s part about implementing changes immediately. But as people think about the research more, as they explore the financial and technological world where the product exists, it can become clearer, a year or two later, why something that research recommended makes sense for the product.”

By focusing on the human element, both in meetings with stakeholders and in the user research process, Zach works to create results that have long-lasting effects for both the user and the stakeholder.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your UX research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Find your first three participants for free.