Get the User Interviews Right

How many times have you heard that majority startups failed because of a lack of product-market fit? I used to have a vague understanding of what a true product-market fit is. Unless it is a completely new market, established companies tend to work with the given known users and their needs.

On the other hand, getting the users right is so critical that hands-down I will rank it an early startup’s #1 priority! Recently I reflected on Photofaire’s customer development process and redesigned an alternative user interview process that could have helped answer the below key questions:

  • What problems we are solving?
  • Who are our users?
  • How does our product fit into our users’ lives?
  • What makes our product so much better than the existing options?

Rule #1 — Never ask users how they like your product features

Instead of testing the riskiest assumptions, we jumped right into gauging user feedback on the product features we had in mind. I remember asking users what they think about transparent and standardized pricing, a key product feature we planned to have. In hindsight, we should have never asked about the specific features initially. It is not about finding users for your solution, it is about finding a product to solve your user’s problems! What we didn’t realize was, we encountered confirmation biases by getting the exact answers we wish to hear.

Here is an alternative approach by first listing out some of our riskiest assumptions and then designing the questions to validate them:

  • We believe we will facilitate photographer booking by streamlining the photographer booking process (demand-side problem)

What device do you use for taking family photos? Why?

When was the last time you used a professional photographer? Tell me how you found and booked him / her?

If there are 3 things you can do to change the photographer search and booking process, what are they?

  • We believe photographers are seeking a cost-effective marketing channel for their business (supply-side problem / users who)

Can you tell me a typical day for you as a photographer?

How do you get your clients these days?

When was the last time you paid for an advertising service? Tell me more?

  • We believe our core users are families with small children who value high-quality work from professional photographers (users who)

When was the last time you used a professional photographer to take family photos? What about pregnancy, newborn or milestone photos?

What made you decide to hire a professional photographer?

  • We believe we can reach the customers through personal network and social media (channel)

Can you tell me how did you find your photographer last time?

What made you decide to hire him / her instead of someone else?

  • We believe we can reach the photographers through cold call / email efforts and social media (channel)

When was the last time you received a solicitation email / call about an advertising service? Did you respond and why?

Why did you decide to use X to list your service?

Rule #2 — Recruit the right people for the user interviews

When we were planning for the user interviews, we focused primarily on recruiting photographers. Now looking back, we made the mistake of assuming we already knew everything about the demand-side user needs. After all, we are designing a product for users like us, how can we be wrong? Well, turns out we went down the wrong path — you will never find out who your true users are if you make too many assumptions initially. When recruiting candidates for user interviews, try to keep the following in mind:

  • Get a good mix of the different type of users in your interview panel

In our case, we should have recruited both the demand-side users and photographers. For demand-side users, we should have recruited moms, dads, bride-to-be, event planners, professionals so we get a deeper understanding of the user persona. For supply-side users, consider full-time pros vs. part-time pros vs. photography students. In addition, think about wedding vs. family / newborn / kids vs. event photographers etc.

  • Important to recruit total strangers into the panel

We often start from families and friends around us because that is the easiest route to go. However helpful they intend to be, some of the user feedback can be biased. Would you tell your best friend from college what she has been working on is useless? Nope. So keep this in mind and be creative in finding your interview panel. The google user research team suggested using craigslist to recruit users and be sure to include an online questionnaire to screen out the participants to achieve your desired interviewer mix.

Now, how about telling me your own experiences in user interviews and getting to the right product-market fit?