The case for interviewing potential customers


Your potential customers will question you or your product before deciding to commit, but most startups don’t realise that they should do the same.

[Related: To succeed, you’ll have to reject customers that aren’t the right fit for your business]

What do you do with a business idea? Many entrepreneurs turn to their family and friends for initial feedback, risking the possibility they’re telling you “it’s great” to save hurt feelings. Besides, they’re not likely to be your target market. So how do you do some real market research?

User interviews are a specific type of market research that can give startups deep insights into how customers and potential customers think, behave and experience your product or service, sometimes beyond even your understanding of your offering.

Here is how you can conduct your own user interviews and then analyse them to validate or refine your business offering.

Developing user interviews

Start with a hypothesis and an objective. The key question before developing any new product or service is:

What is the problem we are trying to solve, and for whom?

Recruit interviewees through social media, referrals from friends and family, or your professional network. Specify your target market as best you can and be selective with interviewees; new entrepreneurs tend to regard ‘everyone’ as a potential customer, whereas it’s better to focus on a niche of potential users/buyers, rather than the general public. Conduct at least 25 user interviews – the more the better. A good sample size will show you patterns that smaller numbers won’t.

It’s best to conduct interviews face-to-face; you extract more information when you’re in the same room. (If you’re unable to, use a platform like SurveyMonkey or Typeform and be sure to craft your questions carefully.) There is a temptation to do group interviews because it will take less time on your part, but try to do it one-on-one, as having other people in the room can influence responses.

Be clear about the purpose of the interview and provide context to the user, but don’t tell them your solution upfront. If you plan on recording the interaction – a good practice so you can actively listen instead of writing notes – declare this and don’t record personal details that identify the interviewee.

For example:

We are working in the startup community and are interested in how people ___. We are conducting an interview into ___. We’ll be recording your interaction as part of this interview.

Designing user interview questions

Develop a list of questions to help you understand your users. Remember that participants will be experts in the problem but not the solution. A list will ensure you don’t forget anything, and asking the same questions will allow you to compare responses.

Ask pre-qualifying questions.

  1. Have you experienced ___?
  2. Are you someone between this age group who does this ___?

Ask follow-up questions. Don’t be afraid to probe and be flexible.

  1. What are your thoughts on how ___? Why?

Ask open-ended over yes/no questions, as they give you more information and invite interviewees to tell a story about their experience. Ask after specific instances to establish a pattern of behaviour. For example:

  1. How do you feel about ___?
  2. What do you think about ___? (How would you improve it?)
  3. What things are of particular interest to you in ___? Why?
  4. What do you see as the biggest ___?
  5. How do you currently engage with ___? Why?
  6. Do you have any other comments that you feel would benefit ___?
  7. Describe your experience__?

To prevent biased responses, design questions that avoid leading the interviewee. Also, be mindful of your body language and facial expressions as you interview to avoid leading people to answer in a certain way.

In addition to interviewing 25+ people, try to interview at least five people of the same subset to test pattern recognition.

Analysing user interviews

Review the interviews carefully by listening to/watching recordings and combing through your notes. Identify patterns, clusters of insights and feelings, across interviews. This will show you how big the pain point is by volume, so your view isn’t skewed by a particularly opinionated interviewee. The areas with the most comments should be your immediate focus – let this guide your priorities.

It’s easy for interviews to become an exercise in confirmation bias, so take an evidence-based approach. Anything you take away from an interview has to be something observed or heard, not assumed. And be open-minded. Don’t be so wedded to your initial idea that you are blind to other opportunities afforded by the research.

The insight you’re after is a deep truth about the user, based on their behaviour, beliefs or needs. By the end of this process you should be able to answer:

  1. What is the customer doing?
  2. Why are they doing it?
  3. What is their current pain point?

You can then turn this into a viable product or service as Heineken did when they identified that, on a night out, women tended to avoid beer because they thought it was too bitter but found the quality of wine offered inconsistent. Heineken then developed cider-based Jillz as a successful alternative.

Without truly understanding what the customer wants, you’re at risk of spending all your time and money building an offering that no one will buy because it’s not what the market needs. User interviews allow you to listen to your customers and turn good ideas into successful businesses.


About the author

Christie Whitehill is an award-winning entrepreneur and mentor in the Australian tech space, dedicated to empowering and educating women in startups, tech and innovation. She is the founder and CEO of Tech Ready Women and the creator of the Tech Ready Program—a ten-week accelerator specifically designed for non-tech female founders who want to step confidently into the tech space. It was recently awarded Startup Accelerator of the Year at the 2017 Australasian Startup Awards.