How to get started with customer interviews: 10 mistakes and how to avoid them


Having empathy for your users is at the heart of the human-centred design or design thinking approach so building skills in this area can be a useful asset to any venture design or product/service development team.

I was recently involved in training a non-profit with interviewing for insights into their supporter base and it reminded me of a lot of the challenges that newbies face when they are starting out with consumer or, for example, user testing interviews. Having taught this subject around the world over a number of years it occurred to me it might be useful to share my observations on the things that often go wrong in the early days in the hope that people setting out on this journey might be able to avoid those pitfalls. 

I’m a huge fan of teams finding ways to get closer to their users or customers. To be able to develop a gut feel for how she feels about your service so that your day to day decision making is easier because you have an affinity with what she needs or wants. That can be really valuable in the early stages of developing a new proposition.

 You can debate whether interviewing should be left to experienced market researchers and I would say definitely for some more tricky topics getting the pros involved is best, but for a basic grounding I feel that the power of face to face feedback is more potent and worth the effort of building some skills. Getting going with interviews, even if it is on a small-scale DIY basis is a great way to start.

So based on my experience the top ten newbie mistakes, and how to avoid them, are as follows…

1.     Jumping in at the deep end

As with any other skill, practice brings confidence and confidence makes your interviewees feel at ease, so you want to be building that virtuous circle from the outset. If you are starting out make a plan that allows you to build your confidence and begin in the shallow end. It is much easier to conduct a friendship pairs interview than either a solo or a group interview, in my opinion. So start there. Recruit a couple of friends to talk to about the subject you’re interested in and learn the ropes that way.

2.     Biting off more than you can chew

Newbies writing their first discussion guide tend to try to do too much in one go. So, my tip would be to write down all the topics you want to talk about on post-its and then re-order them in order of priority. Divide them in half – top half and bottom half. Then throw the bottom half away and forget about them until another day.

3.     Neglecting to pilot the discussion guide

Once you’ve got a discussion guide that you are happy with you still need to check it works in practice and the best way to do that is try it out, pilot it and adjust if necessary. Managing time in an interview is one of the hardest skills to master which everyone struggles with to begin with and if you keep looking at your watch it’s going to look rude.

4.     Forgetting to listen

This is probably the most common problem for newbies. They have a discussion guide that they “want to get through” and they are so determined to do that they are so busy thinking about the next question they forget to listen to the answers. So, it becomes a one-way street not a two-way conversation with a purpose. Always listen first and then check the next question.

5.     Inadvertently leading the witness and hearing what you want to hear

Whether you like it or not you probably have pre-dispositions about particular topics, especially if you are discussing something you’ve helped to develop. The risk is that you either lead the witness in the way you question them or you are selective in what you hear them say. The risk is that you look for confirmation of what you think! Being neutral and non-judgemental in the way you conduct interviews is a tricky skill to master. Practice.

6.     Switching off towards the end

Sometimes when the interview is officially over the interviewee relaxes and they tell you what they really think as they are getting up to go home. So if you are recording the interview leave the tape running. You might just catch a pearl.

7.     Keeping it a bit too superficial

Getting to real insight requires getting beyond the surface and what people say to be polite. The job of the skilled interviewer is to dig a little deeper whilst keeping their interviewee engaged. If something does not make sense or you feel that it’s all a bit superficial do not be afraid to keep asking why.

8.     Avoiding the discomfort of silence

Some people don’t like silence in a conversation as it makes them feel uncomfortable. In fact, they’ll go to lengths to fill a silence. Actually, in interviews where you are seeking to get to the bottom of things you can use silence to encourage people to think about their answers. Jumping in too early to fill the void can let them off the hook.

9.     Lack of reflection

At the end of a set of interviews the temptation for the newbie is to jump in and start analysing the outcomes. I would always encourage a period of reflection, ideally sleep on it, before trying to abstract the important themes.

10.  Not seeing the wood for the trees

Related to this is to get too hung up on particular pieces of feedback or understanding and failing to see the big picture. Take a step back. Cluster findings to see themes.

I hope these tips are of some help if you are looking to run your own user testing interviews. If you’d like to know more, or your team could do with some training, then please get in touch.