Stakeholder Interviews

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Note to the reader:

This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!

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‘Internal stakeholder interviews’ is a super fun term for ‘talking to the people you need to talk to in order to do successful research.’


They are one-on-one interviews with the key players on any given project. Interviewing stakeholders is an absolute must-do step in the research process, and the insights you gain from these conversations will inform everything from the research plan you write to the methods you use to the way you report your findings.

In this chapter

  • Who are stakeholders?
  • What are internal stakeholder interviews?
  • The benefits of interviewing stakeholders
  • How to conduct internal stakeholder interviews
  • Examples of stakeholder interview questions
  • Tips and takeaways

Who are stakeholders?

Stakeholders are people who have a stake in the success and outcomes of your research. What you do matters to them, and what they think of your work certainly matters to you. 


There are external stakeholders (these include your customers and users) and internal stakeholders (these may be executives, product designers, sales reps, or—if you work for an agency—clients). 


In order to do your job well, you need to know what they know and what information stakeholders still need to make better decisions and achieve their objectives.


In this Field Guide, when we say ‘stakeholders,’ we’re talking about internal stakeholders. When we talk about users and customers, we’ll use those terms rather than ‘external stakeholders’—but it’s important to remember that those folks are your stakeholders, too.

What are internal stakeholder interviews?

Stakeholder research is research that you do with (internal) stakeholders, rather than with users or customers. In other words, in stakeholder research, your stakeholders are the participants.


Many of the methods described in later chapters, such as surveys, can be adapted to stakeholder research. But the most common method for researching stakeholders—and the most important one, if you’re looking to really understand your stakeholders’ goals, motivations, and research needs—is stakeholder interviews.


Stakeholder interviews are semi-structured, in-depth interviews that are conducted at the outset of a research project to create consensus and align around research goals.

When to conduct internal stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder interviews are an important tool in the early stages of product development, when you’re trying to define your objectives and create a research plan. 


But that’s not the only time they can be used. Especially when dealing with high-profile projects or research on a longer timeline, it can be a good idea to check in with your stakeholders at least once during each phase of the product cycle. 


These check-ins can help keep everybody on the same page, make sure your research is on the right track, generate new ideas, and gather any additional information the project may need.

The benefits of interviewing stakeholders

Successful UX design is dependent upon stakeholder involvement. There’s almost never a reason not to conduct this sort of interview—even when you work closely and regularly with the big decision makers, you’ll still need to sit down with them to understand their goals for any given project.


If your project has stakeholders who aren't on your immediate product development team, you’ll need to conduct stakeholder interviews with them as well. They’re simply the best way to gather valuable information about your project parameters.


Stakeholder interviews help you:

Define goals

Stakeholders largely get to define the success of your project. 


But what exactly do your stakeholders want? What do they need? What does success look like to them? Are those answers different? 


Project briefs and requests for research often include ambiguity that can lead to misunderstandings. And it’s not uncommon for stakeholders to have project requirements in mind that they don't vocalize or put into initial scope documents, either because they incorrectly assume these things are obvious, or because they haven’t consciously thought of them (yet). 


As with user interviews, stakeholder interviews help tease out all such unmentioned goals, suss out details, and illuminate nuances that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

Understand limitations, user needs, and assumptions

What is the vision? What is the need? What are the parameters? What will get in the way of how other people might sell or market the product? What’s worked well in the past? What has not?


Talking to stakeholders will give you the initial lay of the land and can help you determine if user research is even necessary to answer the question at hand. Chances are good that they’ve already done some data-digging of their own and they may even be able to point you toward a knowledge base that can save time and money all around. 


On the flip side, stakeholder interviews can also reveal the limitations of stakeholder knowledge. What do they not know about the users’ needs? What are some assumptions they’re making about what users might want?


Part of a researcher’s job is to identify user goals that internal stakeholders may not be focused on or even aware of.

Earn trust and buy-in

Future problem-solving becomes easier when there’s trust and communication built-in from the get-go. 


Even if your stakeholders are bought into the idea of user research—indeed, they may well be the people driving the demand for more research internally—they might still be skeptical about you (if you’re new on the scene), the benefits of certain methods, the time and costs involved, or the relevance of any given project to their own needs.


Stakeholder interviews are an opportunity for you to establish or sustain relationships with key players, demonstrate an interest in their goals, clarify thinking, and help everyone feel like they’ve had input in the project.


Pro tip from Roberta, our VP of User Research:
Just like customer research, stakeholder research comes in a few different flavors and you’ll want to choose the best method based on what you're hoping to learn.

• Individual or 1:1 interviews are great when you want more time to dig into understanding the needs and motivations of a specific individual

• If you’re in a time crunch and need to move a project along more quickly, sometimes a focus group type discussion or brainstorm can be a great way to get perspectives from a number of stakeholders at once.

Are there any drawbacks to stakeholder interviews?

Stakeholder interviews do come with their own challenges. As far as drawbacks go, they’re minor—and none outweigh the value to be gained. Still, it’s worth taking the following into consideration when planning stakeholder interviews:


They take time

The entire process takes time—potentially a lot of time. You can usually manage the challenge simply by structuring your project's schedule such that you only do X amount of interviews over Y amount of time. Or there may be projects where it makes sense to partially curtail the interview process in order to finish in a timely manner, or combine interviews. 


Some stakeholders don’t want to participate

Some stakeholders love to be consulted. Others, not so much. You will have to gauge their interest in participation so that you don't ask more of stakeholders than they’re willing to give. Making sure that your interviews are well-organized and professionally conducted will help inspire confidence in you.


They create expectations

Once people are involved in the research process, they tend to develop certain expectations. They want to see results, outcomes, and answers to their questions. Some stakeholders may even want to dig into the data or watch clips from research sessions. Have a plan for communicating research findings throughout the process, and make sure that artifacts and reports live somewhere stakeholders can find.


How to conduct internal stakeholder interviews

1. Clarify your own research goals

As with any research, the very first thing you need to do is to figure out your goals—what do you hope to learn from your stakeholders?


The essential question at this stage, which we’ve borrowed from Michael Margolis at Google Ventures, is:

“What would need to be true for this to be successful?”


For stakeholder research, that question could be rewritten as:

What do you need to learn in order to move forward with this research project?


For instance, you may be trying to answer:


  • Does everyone agree about project objectives, or do they have conflicting goals and ideas?
  • How do they perceive their own role in the success of the project?
  • What work has already been done, and what needs to be started from scratch?
  • Can you clarify who each stakeholder believes is the end user?
  • What does long-term success look like to each stakeholder, in the context of this project?
  • Why are we building this product?
  • What user need led to this?
  • What do we know about our user's preferences around this product, and likewise, what are we not yet sure about?
  • Are there competitive examples of what we're building that we should take a look at?


These questions can form the basis of a loose interview moderator guide.

2. Identify stakeholders

Anyone whose job will be impacted by your research is a stakeholder, regardless of seniority or job title. 


When making a list of stakeholders for this project, be prepared for the possibility that you could have hidden stakeholders—people whose input and approval you need, but whose relevance isn't obvious. These could be people like customer support specialists who will end up shouldering a lot of the burden of bad product design, or they could be silent partners who might weigh in heavily at the tail end of a project. 


The more enmeshed you are in an organization, the easier it will be to identify your stakeholders for any given project. Rely on your team’s management or folks with greater institutional knowledge to help you find the right people to involve. 


Potential UX research stakeholders include people who:


  • Have organizational influence
  • Make decisions about time, money, and resources
  • Are involved in the UX and product design process
  • Have information relevant to your project
  • Will be expected to act on research insights


If there are so many stakeholders that you cannot realistically interview everyone, choose representative team members or leaders whose points of view are rooted in knowledge of your customers, business goals, and internal operations. 


It can also be useful to group people by role, knowledge level, or involvement in the project. You can then create different moderator guides for each group, rather than trying to dig into the same set of questions with both marketers and engineers, for instance.


3. Define your timeline, budget, and interview schedule

Once you know the scope of your interview process, you can finalize how much time you’ll spend on interviews. 


Do you want to spend a few days on this work? Or do you have the luxury of time? 


If you can, condense your interview schedule over a short period of time. You’ll build momentum, avoid context switching, and free your time up to work on the other aspects of your project with as much information at hand as possible.


In most cases, interviews can be conducted by phone or video. If travel is required, make sure to work this into your timeline and budget. Here's an example of a stakeholder interview schedule that you can copy and adapt.


4. Create a moderator guide

Revisit the research questions you identified in the first step. What interview questions might you ask to get the information you need to satisfy the goals of your stakeholder research?


Prepare a moderator guide with a list of questions to ask stakeholders (see below for a list of examples). We use the term ‘guide’ rather than ‘interview script’ because you want to avoid over-structuring your interviews. 


Keep it natural. Ask open-ended questions that get to the heart of the problem you’re trying to solve. 


Sample stakeholder interview discussion guide:

  1. In your view, what is the objective of this project?
  2. Why is this project important? 
  3. How does answering this research question fit into the broader context of the business?
  4. What does success look like for this project?
  5. What concerns do you have about this project?
  6. What challenges do you foresee this project possibly running into?
  7. What is your role in this project? What would you like it to be?
  8. How will this project impact your day-to-day and your overall job?
  9. Above all, what problem are we trying to solve for users?
  10. How will you use our insights to guide product development?
  11. What questions do you have for me?


Pick a few key questions to start with and let the conversation flow. Don’t plan to read off a script, but do keep your moderator guide on hand so you can come back to your key interview goals if things go off track.


You will also likely have more specific follow-up questions, depending on your interviewee's role. For example, while talking to someone in marketing, you might talk about the company's branding and how the product you’re developing should support that identity. Meanwhile someone from engineering would be able to tell you about the existing systems that your product must integrate with or replace.


Be sure to leave time to respond to the questions, comments, and concerns of your interviewee.

A template stakeholder interview discussion guide

Get the template

5. Prepare for the interview

Before the interview, send the interviewee a list of types of questions you intend to ask. This will let them get their thoughts in order ahead of time, which can save both of you time, and may help you go deeper during the interview itself. 


Also, some projects can be sensitive—if someone is already feeling defensive, getting the questions in ahead of time could help them not to feel ambushed.


18F, a digital consulting agency for the US government, also recommends asking stakeholders to share materials that are essential to their job, or that might provide you with extra context for their work ahead of the interview:

What helps them get things done right now? Consider looking into books, blogs, mailing lists, meetup groups, etc. that are related to what they do. Even a quick glance over these materials helps ensure that you’ll use your time together wisely.


6. Flex your interviewing skills

Stakeholder interviews, by nature, tend to be more come-as-you-are and casual than interviews with external research participants. But that’s not an excuse to get sloppy with your interviewing skills. 


Break the ice

Most interviewees already have a sense of what’s happening, but some may not. For example, an interviewee's supervisor may have told them to talk to you, but not explained why. 


Even if you think the interviewee already knows who you are and why you’re there, state your purpose and let them know what to expect from the interview process. 

"One of the first things I tend to do during interviews is to explain my process and agenda for the next hour. Most people haven’t been in a stakeholder interview before so it’s natural that they are unsure of what to expect. I usually begin [by explaining that] our goal is that we want to understand the reason behind the project. In order for the project to be successful, we need to tap into all their experience and knowledge. We need to make sure that we have a cohesive vision of what it is that we’re supposed to create."
Anton Sten, UX Lead


If you plan to record the interview (and we recommend that you do), be sure to ask the interviewee for their approval before hitting the ‘record’ button.

Pay attention

It's not unusual for interviewees to casually drop some interesting and important information when they are literally on their way out the door. Be observant, listen closely, and watch those non-verbal cues too! 

 

Be flexible and responsive

Some people don’t want to talk. It’s your job as an interviewer to gently draw them out. Some people love to talk, and you’ll have to manage them by managing time and  diplomatically steering things back to topic. 

Dig deeper

Many of the most important insights are ones you won’t have anticipated when planning your questions. Listen carefully and follow up with clarifying questions. Andrew Maier of 18F advises:

"People tend to shy away from asking clarifying questions because of how others might perceive them: no one wants to look stupid. Yet the goal here is to document your stakeholders’ understanding—not your own—which means you should absolutely ask clarifying questions, even if you think you know the answer."


Wrap it up

Make sure to leave time at the end of the interview to answer questions and thank stakeholders for their time. 


7. Transcribe your interviews

Use a transcription tool or service to get your interview recordings transcribed for analysis and reference. If you took notes during the interview, transcribe them as soon after the interview as possible, while the conversation is still fresh in your mind. 


And as Andrew Maier explains:

"Transcribed interviews are also really useful for sharing back with stakeholders. Everyone loves to read things that they said — they might regret it, or they might be proud of it, but they definitely want to read it. Further, sharing transcripts back with stakeholders builds trust by showing that you’ve actually listened to them, that you respect their ability to speak for themselves, and… [w]hat’s more, stakeholders usually add information after the fact!" 

8. Analyze, synthesize, and share your findings

Some interviewees are quite compelling, either because they have extra strong opinions or because they’re especially charming or otherwise deeply engaging. You might be tempted to make decisions on this one person’s feedback. But be sure to review all of your data before your decision-making is swayed. The loudest person isn’t always the one who best represents the needs of the whole.


As with user research, the records of your interviews are data, and they’re not of much use until they’ve been analyzed. You’ll need to conduct some qualitative research analysis on your interviews—both from each individual interview and from all the interviews collectively—to figure out what you’ve learned.


And just like user research, the benefits of stakeholder interviews can only really be felt once the insights are documented, shared, and socialized within the wider team, so it's important to track the impact of your work.


After each interview, write up a summary (it can be brief). Your objective is for anyone on your project team—even those who never spoke to any of the interviewees—to have full access to the insights you gleaned from talking to stakeholders. If there’s sensitive information that shouldn’t be shared with everyone, be prudent. The key thing is to identify patterns in feedback from participant to participant.

Examples of stakeholder interview questions

The right questions to ask during internal stakeholder interviews will naturally vary depending on the goals of your research, the data already available to you, and who you’re interviewing.


Here is a list of questions you might ask, depending on what is you’re trying to learn:

Project vision:
  • What would success look like for this project?
  • What are the potential pitfalls of this project?


Business goals:
  • What are the short- and long-term business goals?
  • What should this project accomplish for the business?
  • What are the business implications if this project failed?


Product:
  • What actions do we want users to take?
  • If users could wish for any change to the product, what would that be?
  • What are the biggest product challenges today?


Marketing/positioning
  • What similar tools do people use?
  • What are those tools’ relative strengths/weaknesses?
  • How would you describe the core value prop of our product?
  • What user problem do we solve?
  • What are the main marketing messages? 
  • Do users understand these marketing messages?


Users
  • Who are the primary users?
  • What is their defining attribute?
  • What defines a successful experience for the user? 
  • Are the users also buyers?
  • Where do users get stuck?


Customers:
  • Who are the target customers?
  • What customer problem do we solve?
  • What does the buyer journey look like?
  • What defines success for the customer? 
  • How do you engage with prospects?
  • What is a surprising thing you learned by working with these customers?


Context of use/workflow:
  • What frustrations/ pain points do you experience with their current process?
  • What data do you currently collect? 
  • What tools do you use as part of your job?
  • How will the results of this research impact their workflow?

Wrap-up
  • What should I have asked about?
  • Is there anyone else you think I should interview for this project?
  • Do you know how you like to receive research results and deliverables, and how often?


Tips and takeaways

By now, you should understand how (and why) to conduct successful internal stakeholder interviews. As with all research skills, your stakeholder research skills will improve with practice.


We’ll leave you with a few final tips and takeaways to help you make the most of your time with key project stakeholders:


Planning: 

  • Be clear about the goals of your stakeholder research. Well-defined objectives and goals will help you conduct more focused interviews, make analyzing the results a lot easier, and will allow you to effectively communicate the insights you gain from your stakeholders’ time. 
  • Plan at least 45 minutes for each interview—this is typically a manageable chunk of time for busy stakeholders, but still leaves time for the conversation to flow, to dig into interesting topics as they arise, and to answer questions from interviewees.
  • If a stakeholder simply cannot meet with you in-person or remotely (perhaps due to differences in time zones or other scheduling conflicts), it is possible to conduct asynchronous interviews over email. There are serious drawbacks to this method—you can’t read non-verbal cues, conversation doesn’t flow as freely—but if this is a key stakeholder, email interviews are better than no interviews. Just make sure you’ve given extra thought to your written script, and that you ask clarifying follow-up questions, like you would in a synchronous interview.


During the interview:

  • Don’t be dismissive of stakeholder concerns or skepticisms about the research process. Take time to acknowledge their concerns and answer their questions. These conversations are a great opportunity to establish trust and start educating internal stakeholders about user research. 
  • Try not to read off a list of questions. Keep your list of must-asks short (2-3 questions) and memorize them. This should feel like a conversation, not an interrogation.
  • Show genuine interest and curiosity in stakeholders—their jobs, frustrations, observations. Remain engaged with their responses—stakeholders will lose focus quickly if they feel like you’ve checked out.


Analyzing and sharing interview data:

  • Transcribe and analyze the results of each stakeholder interview after each session, and share these summaries with your research team as you go. 
  • Once you have analyzed and synthesized the data from all the interviews, consider sharing insights out with the broader team in chunks vs. as a single document—this will allow you to really focus on a particular insight and any recommendations or next steps that came out of this process.
  • Compare what stakeholders said with your initial assumptions. What surprised you? Which assumptions were confirmed? Share these learnings with the team.


After the interviews:

  • Stakeholder interviews are not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. You’ll have project milestones, and each milestone should include another phase of stakeholder communication. These stages may be less intense than the initial round—you could even gather stakeholders together in one place, at one time, periodically. Or, if your company defaults to async, share updates and solicit feedback in a dedicated Slack channel. However you manage it, be sure to keep communication going throughout the build process.
  • Stakeholders can change. Companies reorganize, people take on new and unrelated projects, budgets are rearranged. And priorities change, especially over the course of longer projects. Stay up to date on who your stakeholders are. Frequent communication with stakeholders will ensure that you don’t miss important shifts that could affect your project or broader research strategy.


And there you have it—everything you need to know about conducting stakeholder interviews for UX research. Now you’re ready to start talking to some users...

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