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Best practices for planning, moderating, and analyzing effective customer interviews—with tips, questions, templates, and mistakes to avoid.
If you don’t talk to your customers, they’ll talk about you—often, in the form of negative reviews, low NPS scores, and poor sales.
Whether you’re a full-time UX researcher tasked with creating user personas, an entrepreneur with a brilliant idea trying to break into a new market, a product designer looking to prioritize the next feature release, or a marketer deliberating over the theme for your next webinar, the insights you learn from interviewing customers can help you make important decisions that sustain—and grow—your success.
In this blog, you’ll learn everything you need to know about conducting this essential type of research, including:
Note: This was originally published as "The Ultimate Guide to Kickass Customer Interviews" by Carrie Boyd, former Content Marketer at User Interviews. We updated it in Sept. 2022 with fresh content and insights!
Customer interviews are, as the name suggests, doing interviews with your customers. They don’t have to be formal, or scary, or even very long. They’re just an opportunity for you to get a glimpse into how your customers interact with your product and brand every day.
Sometimes, but not always. User interviews may include interviews with folks who aren’t current customers, such as prospects from a new market or competitors’ customers.
The semantic nuance here isn’t terribly important (people often use them interchangeably), although you may have a bit more trouble recruiting and managing participants for customer interviews than you would for general interviews with non-customers. Luckily, purpose-built panel management tools like Research Hub can help you navigate these challenging waters (more on this later).
Let’s dig into what customer interviews can do for your business, and how you can make the most of them.
“Whoever understands the customer best wins.”
That’s why we need customer interviews—to understand the customer better than our competitors do. To know and feel the customer’s pain points. To see how our product impacts (or has the potential to impact) a customer’s life. That deep, nuanced customer empathy is how you create products customers are excited to use, keep using, and tell their friends about.
Customer interviews are the catalyst for smart business decisions. You can use them to solve a specific usability problem, get a better idea of who your customer base is, or gauge interest in a new product.
Though it may seem like a lot to get started with customer interviews, once you’ve got a formula for doing them efficiently and effectively, you can use it again and again. This kind of habitual or continuous customer interview process is key if you want to iterate rapidly and stay ahead of the competition.
To demonstrate the purpose and importance of customer interviews, let’s walk through three examples of why people do customer interviews:
… and how customer interviews can have an impact on each.
Ah, product/market fit—the marker many startups live and die by.
Finding product-market fit (a process also referred to as customer development by The Lean Startup) can be tricky, but it’s incredibly important if you want to build a successful product. It’s all about questioning the fundamental assumptions you have about your customers and validating (or debunking) your ideas through research.
Now, some of you might be thinking: I’ve barely got my foot into the prototyping stage of product development. I don’t even have a product, let alone paying customers to talk to. Wouldn’t customer interviews be a waste of time?
Absolutely not—interviewing customers (or potential customers) is no less important for early-stage startups as it is for mid-level and enterprise companies. You’ll save money in the long run by validating your ideas from the start, instead of building something no one wants.
I know this because I work for a company that’s built out of the ashes of bad product/market fit. If you haven’t read our founding story yet, I highly recommend you check it out in full—but here’s a quick summary if you don’t have time.
Great! It’s always good to make sure your ideas are what the customer wants, not just what you and your team are excited to see. These kinds of studies are the most common for people doing customer interviews.
Interviews like these can happen in the discovery phase—before you’ve developed the feature or implemented the new design—as well as the testing phase and post-release phases. When you do these interviews depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, if you’re not sure whether or not customers will want a new feature in the first place, you’ll want to do them during the discovery phase, but if you know customers want the feature, then you can interview them to see whether or not the feature you built meets their needs during the testing phase.
For example, Intuit, the company behind products like TurboTax and Quickbooks, has a rigorous process of customer development research. They regularly conduct “follow-me-home” interviews with customers. The point of these interviews is to observe customers in their own environments—a method akin to ethnographic research—to give Intuit employees a better understanding of their day-to-day lives.
During these interviews, the Intuit team realized a lot of their customers were freelancers, or a part of the gig economy. These insights played a big part in creating what is now Quickbooks Self-Employed. During another round of customer interviews, they learned that a lot of customers had a difficult time separating work and personal expenses in the product. To solve this, they implemented a simple swipe system that allows customers to mark expenses as they come in on their mobile phone.
In the following video, Hugh Molotsi, who spent 22 years in product success at Intuit, explains how they use customer interviews to validate ideas:
Customer interviews are important even when you don’t have anything specific to test or investigate.
At the end of the day, your customers are people—dynamic, complicated, and sometimes unpredictable people. Their needs, desires, and relationship to your product are almost guaranteed to change over time. By conducting continuous customer research, you can keep track of these changes and adapt your business accordingly to maintain long-term customer engagement.
Continuous customer research can take the form of office hours (where you block off time on your schedule every few weeks to chat with customers about their experiences) or more formalized studies. Either way, customer interviews provide open, flexible, and regular opportunities to connect with your customers and learn more about what’s delighting or frustrating them.
Like any research method, customer interviews have some limitations and weak spots to keep a close eye on. For the most part, though, these risks can be mitigated with careful planning and adherence to best practices.
Potential drawbacks include:
Despite these drawbacks, well-conducted customer interviews can be incredibly impactful, versatile, and illuminating. In many cases, they’ll strengthen, supplement, or lead to other types of customer research.
An effective customer interview starts with careful planning and ends with data-backed decision-making. Here’s a guide to each phase of the interview, including:
In this section, we’ll provide you with tips for planning customer interviews specifically—but if you’d like more information about planning for UX research more generally, check out the UX Research Field Guide Chapter, Planning For UX Research.
To make sure the time you spend conducting interviews is worth it, set a specific goal.
Your goal could be as general as “I want to know more about how my customers view my product” or as specific as “I want to know how my customers feel about billing for large projects when paying in foreign currencies.”
The important thing is setting a clear intention. Know why you’re talking to these people in the first place. Everything else can build off of that idea.
It’s important, also, to set a success metric for your interviews at this stage. Decide what you need to see from your customer interviews to say, “ok, this is a viable product.” Keep your success metric simple, so it’s easy to know whether or not you’ve hit it. For example, a percentage of users who express concern over the problem you’re trying to solve could be a good jumping off point, but your metric can change based on what you’re building.
Who needs to be involved in customer interviews?
There are two answers to that question:
If it’s possible for stakeholders to participate in customer interviews, great! But usually, stakeholders won’t have the time to join in on every interview—and with an effective moderator, it won’t be necessary. Either way, stakeholders should be involved in other aspects of the research process, including goal setting and making insight-based decisions after the fact.
For example, the team at Drift, a conversational marketing platform, uses a kickoff meeting called Story Time at the beginning of each new product effort. They assemble designers, product managers, engineers, and anyone else who may be working on the new product change. In the meeting, they set the goal for their effort, come up with a research plan to validate their hypothesis, and a roadmap for building the feature.
After looping stakeholders into the process, assign a moderator and a note-taker for each research session. You can do interviews without a note-taker if you can’t find one, as long as you record your sessions.
Don’t have a team to assemble? If you’re a UX research team of one or can’t get stakeholders to join in, going solo is always an option.
The ‘sweet spot’ for your sample size will differ depending on your goals and the type of study you’re running, so do some thinking and research before you start recruiting customers.
Nielsen Norman Group famously said you only need to talk to 5 users for a qualitative study, because 5 users reveals insightful patterns while allowing for the most efficient use of precious time and resources. However, this number has been widely debated, and there are specific instances—for example, quantitative studies or when you have multiple distinct groups of users with different needs—where you’ll need to talk to more.
Consider the specific needs and goals you mapped out for your customer interviews, and decide on your sample size from there.
If you need help building and managing a participant panel for your customer interviews, check out Research Hub. It’s flexible enough to support both solo researchers and even large research teams working across massive user populations. Any team member can self-serve their recruit, while Research Ops have unparalleled control to set guardrails and governance standards for the entire organization.
A customer interview guide should include a rough outline of questions you want to ask and topics you want to cover, in the order you want to cover them. Writing the guide can seem like a daunting task, but we’re here to help.
This spreadsheet, including sample customer interview questions, a moderator guide, and a note-taker template, is part of our free interview Launch Kit:
When you’re creating your questions, leave them open-ended. This allows your customers to tell their stories. In order to get the most out of your interviews, you need your customers to be as specific as possible. The more details they can give you, the easier it is to build an action plan based on what you learned.
Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.
Asking a closed question:
Asking an open question:
Which one of those answers give you more insight to make changes from? The second one, because that customer gave you reasons they didn’t like the experience and offered you insight into why they’re having problems. By asking a more open-ended question, you encourage the customer to tell you a story about their experience.
If you do ask an open question and your customer still gives you a short or non-descript answer, you can always encourage them to provide more information by asking follow up questions. We’ll get into how to best encourage your customers to do more of the talking in the interview phase below.
(📝 Note: Interview questions are a bit different than user research questions. For more information about the difference between these two types of questions (and how they align with each other), check out the User Research Questions Chapter of the UX Research Field Guide.)
So who can you talk to to get these valuable insights? Well, it depends on what you want to learn. If you want to investigate a specific part of your product or business, you’ll want to talk to users who use that specific thing.
Want to find out why people are leaving your product or site? Talk to people who have recently churned or are, by your metrics, at risk of churning from your product.
Want to know if people will even buy your product if you create it? If you don’t have actual customers yet, you can grab some from our panel. Sign up free for Recruit to start talking to your target customers.
Whoever you decide to include in your customer interviews, you’ll need to invite them somehow. If you’re using your own customers, you can use an email client or social media to send out a bat-signal. You could also use an all-in-one participant recruitment and panel management solution like Research Hub to manage your customer list, send invites, schedule interview sessions, and distribute incentives (wink wink 😉).
Regardless of how you get them to your study, you’ll need compelling invitations to entice your customers to participate in your study. Make sure they’re aimed at the right people, send a strong and clear message, and keep it simple.
The actual interview is the most important—and difficult—phase to conduct, so you’ll want to approach this carefully. Here are some tips for getting it right.
Before you start talking to customers, be sure to double-check:
To ensure the customer remembers to show up, send them a reminder email the morning of the session. You can do this manually the day of, or you can schedule it to send automatically during the prep phase using a communications automation tool.
For example, User Interviews’s Research Hub allows you to set up bulk messaging and automated outreach to help you reduce no-shows. Hub will also automatically generate and send a unique Zoom link to confirmed participants, so you can be sure they’ve received the link before the session begins.
Terry Gross, acclaimed journalist, starts conversations with “tell me about yourself.” You should start there too.
It’s important to start your customer interview by getting to know your customer a little bit. This helps you see their interaction with your product as a part of their bigger picture. Asking an open-ended question like “tell me about yourself” allows them to describe more than just their job title, what they do on the weekends, or how they use your product.
Of course, you’ll also need to learn a little more about how they fit into the grand scheme of things for your product. Questions like “what’s your job title?” and “how often do you do [X] activity?” are also asked in this part of the interview.
Before you dig in to the bigger questions, you’ll need to (very quickly) go over the framework for the interview. Remind the customer how long the interview will last, and let them know that you want their honest feedback.
Now it’s time to get into why we’re all here, to help you achieve the goal you set for your customer interviews. At this point, you can start relying on your script a little bit more to make sure you get to everything you want to ask.
Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, you want to get your customer to tell you their stories. Stories are personal, real, and specific. At the end of the day, you’re conducting these customer interviews to gain actionable insight for your business. To do this, you’ll need to uncover the specifics behind why your customers do what they do.
There are tons of tips on how to get your customers to tell these specific stories, from expert interviewers like Michael Margolis of Google Ventures and Erika Hall of Mule Design. There are a few things that all of these lists advise, so here’s a quick rundown of the commonalities:
Instead, ask broad questions that encourage your customer to talk about their experiences, such as, “is there anything missing from the product right now?”
If you slip up and ask a leading question, no need to panic, it happens to everyone. If you realize in the moment that you’ve led the customer, just ask “why” after. Which brings us to the next point…
For example, “What did you make for dinner last night?” has a simple answer, whereas “How did you make dinner last night?” is more open-ended.
You can also start your questions with “tell me about…”, which opens up the opportunity to tell a story.
You can always follow up your question with a “why” or a “tell me about...” Many interviewers use a framework called the 5 whys to uncover deeper meanings. Here’s an example from The Interaction Design Foundation:
“Not as many customers are subscribing to the website’s newsletter after the design changed.”
Why? Most of them click the subscription-related button within two seconds after it appears.
Why? Because they’re used to seeing subscription-prompting pop-ups.
Why? Because the internet is full of these.
Why? Because organizations have grown used to deploying these with an automatic opt-in dark pattern for users to find it harder not to subscribe.
Why? Because automatic opt-out buttons or allowing users to freely think about newsletter subscriptions (i.e., without guiding them with a design pattern) mean fewer subscriptions.
See? By asking more in-depth “why” questions, we found specific insight into why customers aren’t subscribing and gives you a chance to make a change based on that.
If you’re talking more than your customer, that’s a problem.
“The goal of a research study is to observe and listen to users’ frank feedback — not to convince them your product is wonderful as is.”
It can be tempting to cut in and help them if they’re struggling to describe something, or correct them about an aspect of your product or business. Don’t do it. It is so much more helpful for you to use this time to listen to your customer than it is for you to cut in.
Instead of butting in, actively listen and ask open-ended questions that encourage them to keep talking. Here’s how Hiten Shah, founder of CrazyEgg and KISSmetrics, describes this strategy:
“When you want to do interviews and get emotion and stories out of your customers or potential customers, it’s very important to actually be quiet. If you ask a question, you should shut up and wait until they answer it. If they don’t answer it in the amount of time that you want to talk, ask the question in a different way; but don’t lead the witness. Don’t give them a specific answer. Don’t try to talk too much around telling them what to say or anything like that.”
When you’re satisfied with the answers you’ve gathered, or you’re running out of time, give the customer a chance to ask you questions. This allows them to get anything they’ve been thinking about off their chest. It also opens the door to questions or problems you didn’t even think about asking.
Thank your customer for their time from the bottom of your heart. Let them know you appreciate their feedback and time, and give them whatever incentive you offered. Easy peasy.
Ideally, you should block off 10-15 minutes between each interview. This not only gives you some buffer time if your customer is late or the interview goes over time, it gives you an opportunity to breathe and reflect between sessions.
Typically, if you’re conducting lots of interviews, they’ll all blend together a little bit. Taking a few minutes after the session to jot down your biggest takeaways from that interview specifically can help make synthesizing your thoughts easier at the end of the day.
Don’t know what to write after an interview? That’s ok, we’ve got you covered. Just fill out this form from our interview Launch Kit after your interviews.
All of this is for nothing if you don’t analyze the qualitative data you’ve gathered, share what you’ve learned with your team and take action. When you’re sharing your insights, remember that you’re telling the story of your customer’s experience with your product. Bring as much of that story to the table with you as possible.
The best way to do this is to include video clips, photos, and direct quotes from your interviews. This helps your team members who weren’t present for the interview see and feel for the customer. It also helps remove any bias you may have towards seeing a certain result from your customer interviews. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re all prone to seeing what we want to see. Including videos and quotes removes that possibility.
Need inspiration for your next share-out report? Check out 31 Creative UX Research Presentations and Reports – Templates and Examples.
Once you’ve shared your results with your team, it’s important to create a plan for your next steps. Take what you’ve learned and distill it down to 3-10 key insights.
These insights should be actionable, meaning you can at some point do something about them. Even if the solution to the problem your customers are facing is far down the line, it’s important to note that it’s there.
You can also combine the feedback you get in customer interviews with feedback from other sources, like your customer support or analytics platforms. This can help you see how much these issues affect your customers as a whole, and can help you make better decisions on how to fix your customer’s problems.
So, once you’ve found your key pieces of feedback, you’ll need a plan to take action. You can creating this plan using the following steps:
Once you’ve decided which pieces of feedback to act on, map out exactly what needs to happen to achieve your goal. Be sure to follow up with each of the teams working on your solution to make sure it gets from start to finish.
Your execution plan should also involve another round of customer feedback at the end. Iteration is important, and each round of customer interviews will help you improve and iterate.
For more on how to effectively analyze, synthesize, and make recommendations, check out the Analysis and Synthesis module of the UX Research Field Guide.
Whether you’re interviewing customers remotely or in-person, there are a few different types of tools you’ll need to conduct interviews successfully, including:
Try Research Hub for free. The best part? If your customer panel has 100 or fewer participants, Research Hub is free forever!
If you have a bigger panel or more ambitious plans for customer research, we also offer plans for up to 1 million contacts in your panel management platform. Check out our pricing page to learn more.
Content Marketing Manager
Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.
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