Tips on how to run effective customer research sessions

Interviewing users is one of the most beneficial investments you can make in the development of a product, but it can also be one of the most challenging.

We’ve run quite a few of these sessions over the past couple of months and thought we’d share some of the lessons we’ve learned.

Preparing for the session

Deciding what you need to learn

You should be talking to users at the start of a new project or when introducing a new feature in order to validate that the problem you’re trying to solve exists. For example: “we believe people struggle to share photos of their important events”. Talking to users allows us to prove whether our assumptions are correct or if we should be focusing on something else.

Recruiting the right people

This is a task in itself but is hugely important: you need to speak to the users that you’re trying to solve a problem for. Hopefully you’ve already identified these users and can refer back to your user personas for reference to be sure that you’re speaking to the right people.

Managing your participants’ expectations

Prior to the session send a quick note introducing yourself and explaining the format of the session. This has caught us out before when a user thought we were there to help fix problems with existing software and so had prepared a list of grievances and ‘how do I …?’ questions, when really we were there to understand more about his daily goals and tasks with a view to redesigning the software.

Managing your client

If you plan on having a client involved in the session be mindful that they have a much greater vested interest in the project. They may feel compelled to interject during sessions to correct mistakes or offer their interpretation of a user’s actions. Explain that you’ll offer time at the end of the session or at specific points during the interview to follow up on any particular points raised, but remind them that they’ll get the most out of it if the user feels uninhibited to disclose their real understanding, opinions or behaviour to a neutral party (you). It can be immensely beneficial to have a client in the sessions, but you just need to make sure they don’t have any impact on what you’re there for: to learn.

Writing your questions

Deciding what to ask

The types of questions you ask will depend entirely on what you need to learn. “Interviewing users — How to Uncover Compelling Insights” by Steve Portigal has some excellent pointers such as asking about:

  • Sequences: Describe a typical work day, what happens next?
  • Relationships: How do you work with that 3rd party system?
  • Exceptions: What happens if that doesn’t work?

Have a document that contains the questions you intend to ask and contains a reminder of the problem you’re trying to validate to ensure you stay focused. Again Steve Portigal has a great example of this on his website. However, during the session you should try to not rely on this too heavily, especially in small rooms, as the participant can see you’re reading from a script and will try to preempt your questioning by having a sneaky look.

Ensuring your session runs smoothly

We’ve found it very beneficial to have two people in the session; one to lead the questioning, the other to take notes and offer support to bring the conversation back on track (as it will inevitably veer off track quickly!)

We’ve found the following helps:

  • Trying to run the session in an environment the user feels comfortable in — for example at their desk.
  • Limiting the numbers of attendees to as few as possible and where practical to run interviews one on one.
  • Group sessions may be necessary if time is a factor, and you can still gain some valuable insights but they are difficult to keep on track and users could gravitate to the opinion of louder people in the group.
  • Ensuring that the person leading the interview starts the process and introduces themselves & others, this takes the focus away from any potential stakeholders in the room.
  • Explain why you’re there — briefly run through the structure of the session and reassure the user that they’re not being tested in any way: you are there to learn from them.
  • Ask users if they mind you recording the session (audio only is fine). It’s unlikely you’ll listen through the whole thing again but they complement written notes if you want to follow up on a point captured but were unsure as to exactly what was stated.

Asking your questions

Asking questions takes practice, a couple of tips that we’ve picked up along the way are:

  • Approach questioning with total naivety, as if asking for the first time. What one person may have told you in one session maybe totally different to the next.
  • Check your body language. It’s easy to slouch a little or lean back and cross your arms but try to maintain an open and interested appearance which will ensure your participant knows they’re being listened to.
  • Let your questions hang… This can be tricky but silence can be so effective. If you ask a question such as “could you talk us through a typical morning?” it will take the participant a while to remind themselves and it’s so tempting to fill the silence by offering examples or rephrasing the question. Don’t. Let that silence hang and your participant will inevitably fill it with their insight. If they ask follow up questions then by all means, respond!

Some good techniques to probe deeper include getting the user to instruct you while you carry out their routine tasks (i.e. using a piece of software), or leveraging your position as an outsider to ask the ‘stupid’ questions that your users may just take for granted (i.e. “Why do you have to speak to that person before you can proceed?”). These usually uncover a lot of hidden information.

Conclusions

Above all we’ve discovered that despite your best planning these sessions rarely go exactly to plan. The sooner you accept that and embrace the unpredictability the better you’ll become at adapting the circumstances to suit what you’re trying to discover.

Remember it’s not the specific questions that are important, it’s what you’re trying to learn.

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