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Customer Interviews

What you can learn

Whether over the phone or in-person, taking the time to interview your customers or potential users is a very useful method to truly understand their needs. The idea of just talking to people is a simple thing and can easily be overlooked. Very often it is the most powerful way to find a truth about their behaviour that you otherwise may not consider.

This behavioural truth is typically known as an insight. A good insight can be transformational in shaping how you present your offering or develop you service for users. The interviews can also give you real stories that you can use to illustrate those insights.

It's a chance to move away from your perception of the world and your company's internal views on how things are. Interviews give you the opportunity to see the reality of your customers' lives and how they think. Whilst the process isn't rocket science, good interviews do take a bit of time to organise.

How to do it

There are a few stages to organising successful interviews:

1. Define the scope

It starts with deciding what you want to get out of the interviews as you can't cover every subject and you'll want to keep conversations on track. Define what the focus will be and the areas of behaviour you're looking to understand. It will usually be a particular process (e.g. building flatpack furniture) or thoughts about a product that you want to discuss.

2. Write a guide

Once the direction has been decided you should capture what you want to cover in a discussion guide. Essentially this is the list of questions that you want to ask your interviewees and the topics you want them to talk about.

Collaborate with others in your team to put this together and use it to get sign-off on the scope of the research. It will form the basis of your interviews but you don't have to follow it to the letter.

3. Recruit

You'll also need to recruit your interviewees. You'll either want to find existing customers of your site or people you see as your target audience. For the former you should have contact details of people who have purchased from you or who have enquired, whom you can reach out to—though don't harrass them if they don't respond.

To get potential users you might have to put out adverts to find them or get help from a user recruitment company. You'll need to offer an appropriate monetary reward for their time.

Whoever you target you'll almost certainly need to contact more than you actually speak to, so expect to spend a bit of time on this. I'd aim for about 10 people in a set of interviews but if you've got the budget and time you can go for more.

4. Talk the talk

When it comes to doing the interview, it can be done either in-person or over the phone/Skype/Zoom/whatever. Start the chat off with some small talk and try to build a bit of rapport before launching into the questions. Then once you're in the conversation you should mostly stay quiet and encourage them to speak, as it's their experiences you're interested in.

If you're on your own you could record the interview so you can play it back and capture anything you missed later. Where possible I prefer to have two people do the interview: one can focus their attention on the interviewee and hold the conversation while the other can capture notes of interesting points. This saves recording, which I think is best avoided unless really necessary.

5. Analyse

After the interview is done you should spend a bit of time reflecting and analysing what was said. This can just take the form of the two interviewers chatting and comparing thoughts, before noting down key points of feedback. It's best to do this straight after the interview or things can be forgotten.

If you then want to disseminate this knowledge more widely, the key findings from all your interviewees can then be written up into a report.

Also don't forget to analyse the process of interviewing itself: what worked well, what didn't? Are there any questions you could tweak or drop altogther? A lot of it you'll learn through doing and is hard to get perfect first time.

Watch out for

Recruit widely

Try and recruit a range of types of people that use your site, don't just settle for the easiest ones to find. Sometimes the best insights are to be found in the extremes and the users that do odd/unlikely things. You also don’t want to just have the same interview over and over again.

Avoid leading questions

Be careful to avoid our old friend 'leading questions' (just like when running design testing and surveys), which mean the interviews can just confirm what you already think. This is a great opportunity to go in with an open mind and see what surprising ideas can come up (not that you have to use them all).


Some interviewees can dry up or give short answers. It's your job to encourage them out of their shell and make them feel comfortable to speak further. Try simple things like saying 'tell me more about that', 'what do you mean by...' and of course, 'why?'. Often asking why several times gets you to the true reason behind a person's behaviour and that magical insight, so don't just settle for their well-rehearsed initial answer.

Focus on problems

Be aware that people are bad at explaining what they would like and predicting the future. Don't get them to tell you what they want, instead get them to give you concrete examples of actual past behaviours. It's your job after this to identify a proper solution that will help meet theirs and your goals.

You don't need big insights

Insights may not be all that revelatory when they appear so don't only be on the look out for something earth-shattering. They can be quite simple but if they contain a kernel of truth about how users actually behave/think they can shape the direction of your project. Something as basic as 'customers will only buy if there's free shipping' can cause a huge shift in the way you sell.

Don't overlook the admin

A big part of creating a good interview experience for your interviewee is being organised with your dates, times, and email notifications. This will help things run smoothly so don't ignore it—here's an example of when no attention was paid to this creating a poor interview experience.

Tools (and cost)

Most of the tools for interviewing aren't going to be particularly fancy and are things you should feel comfortable using. It's a good idea to write your discussion guide on a collaborative writing tool like Google Docs.

Calendly is a very useful tool for allowing interviewees to book in times in your diary for the actual chat. The main tool for interviewing is just a way of recording it—these days your phone will do a decent job—and notes can obviously be taken on a device, or paper and post-its.

The online service User Interviews looks really useful, and will recruit people for you from $30 per person.

How long does it take?

Writing and setting up the interviews is the time-consuming bit and can take a few weeks. Each interview should be 30-60 minutes.

How often should you use it?





Last updated on 4 May 2020

Save time with this

Customer Interview Script Template

Customer Interview Script Template


(+VAT in EU)

For Keynote, Powerpoint & Google Slides

A template for helping you create great customer interview scripts (aka discussion guides). 12 pages and over 30 example questions to help you be sure you've covered off the different sections that make up a good interview.

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