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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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:
For stakeholder research, that question could be rewritten as:
For instance, you may be trying to answer:
These questions can form the basis of a loose interview moderator guide.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
Make sure to leave time at the end of the interview to answer questions and thank stakeholders for their time.
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!"
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.
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:
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:
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...