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User Research Interview 101 for Hardware Companies

Please welcome today on MakingSociety Alan Povall from Product Nimbus who reached out to me after the call for contributors. If you’re interested in contributing on MakingSociety, please send me an email at mathilde [at]

[alert style=”3″]user-research-interview-guestMeet the Author

Alan Povall is the Founder of Product Nimbus, which provides business resources for hardware tech start ups. Alan’s been involved with B2B HW product development for over 7 years and works with aspiring entrepreneurs, start ups and charities to turn their HW product visions into reality.

Make sure to check his website at[/alert]

Settle in and grab a coffee, this is a big one.

Customer interviewing (also called user research) is one of the great arts of product development. It’s often filled with vague advice, a gaggle of unanswered questions and a dash of rhetoric for good measure.

I’m personally by no means a professional interviewer, but based on my own experiences I’m going to take a good stab at demystifying it for you to the point where you can go FBI agent on your customers (just keep the good-cop bad-cop routine to a minimum if there’s only one of you).

In this article we’ll be focusing on how to uncover and dig into the issues that your customers face, as opposed to the interview sequence one would traditionally follow to ‘pitch and validate’ a specific product idea.

Image: blvdone

Image: blvdone

The reason for this is that, from my experience, customers are absolutely terrible at articulating what they really want. A complex mix of upbringing, cultural & societal expectations, not to mention their own biases all provide very strong filters which need to be skilfully overcome if you want to really understand and help your customers.

So if you’re reading this, you probably already have a product idea. You think it’s a great idea, your friends (and possibly even co-founders) think it’s fantastic, even your grandmother thinks it’s good. So why spend 4 – 6 weeks (or more) talking to customers when you could be spending that time finalizing the design and perhaps even talking to contract manufacturers?

Because in a nutshell, you’re probably scared. Reaching out and talking to strangers can be an intimidating experience, at first. I know I was when I first started doing it (I started with cold email & phone calls). You get a deep, hollow pit in your stomach (my stomach used to get upset too, I’d get that stressed), your palms get clammy and a huge amount of irrational internal dialogue comes flooding out:

  • ‘Why would they want to talk to me? I’m a nobody. I don’t know if this idea will even work. What if they think I’m a fraud?’
  • ‘What if they think I’m an idiot and get angry?’
  • ‘What if they start yelling at me and tell me my idea is dumb and that I should just quit now and stop wasting their time and go get a job?!’
Inner Workings - Courtesy of brunobarillari (DollarPhotoClub)

Image: Bruno Barillari

I’ve lost track of how many interviews I’ve actually done over the years, but what I describe above, doesn’t happen. Just. Doesn’t. Happen. It’s all in your head. The two worst interviews that I had involved:

  • One guy that said he didn’t have the time to help me and hung up.
  • Another guy that sounded annoyed and disinterested in my questions but still tried to answer them (I freaked out a bit and ended the conversation early).

Barring these two guys, everyone I’ve talked have just been great people. Everyone’s curious to know what you’re working on, the issues you run into, the design choices you’ve made and why it doesn’t come in Ferrari Red. If anything I’ve had more trouble keeping interviews focused and on track than I have had people being rude.

Another reason engineers, hackers and HW entrepreneurs don’t go all out on user research is because they don’t want to find out that there isn’t a market for their new idea, and have people tell them that their baby is ugly. Coming up with a new idea, getting excited about it then only to find out no one cares is a pretty deflating experience.

Inherently we know that there is a chance of it happening, and like all normal humans we try to avoid discomfort whenever possible.

User Research – The Real Meat

I think you understand that user research is important by now, so let’s dive into the goods stuff: A step by step process, specific questions, tips, tricks and pitfalls to avoid. When going through this section, keep in mind that at this stage you are trying to gain a deep understanding of the issues your customer face and test your assumptions about them.


Step One

List All of Your Assumptions So Far


In a previous post I talked about listing all of the assumptions that you have about your customers, your product and how you think your customer will use it.

User research is all about uncovering and systematically addressing any assumptions you have.

The more assumptions you can positively verify or discredit, the higher your probability of success. Before starting to formulate questions to ask your potential users, you should have a list covering your assumptions about:

  • Your customers.
  • The problem your customers face.
  • How your customers currently solve the problem.
  • What competing products / alternatives / workarounds they currently use.
  • How important the problem is to your customers.
  • How you think your customer will use (and misuse) your product.

Take a bit of time to go through these if you haven’t already. Just one major unproven assumption can throw a major spanner in the works for you later down the track, possibly even forcing you to circle back to user research in the middle of a development cycle, which is infuriating not to mention extremely expensive.

It happens more often than most hackers & HW entrepreneurs will care to admit, so don’t let it happen to you.


Step 2

Plan How You Are Going To Reach Customers


I’ve previously written about brainstorming the various places you think your customers would hangout, both online and in the real world. Now you need to take that information and form a bit of an action plan on where exactly you are going to go reach your customers.

Ideally you’ll want to talk to them in the real world, in the environment that they’ll be using your product. If you’re creating a product for mountain bikers, go to a bike park. If you’re making a product for hikers, join a local hiking club. There are no right or wrong places to talk to customers, just wherever you can find them. Get creative and have some fun trying to find the wackiest places you can do good customer interviews ‘in the wild’.

If I can’t get to customers in their native environment, then my go-to method is send a quick email (or phone call) telling them what I’m up to and offer to take them out for a coffee in exchange for playing 20 questions with them.

There’s two reasons going out for coffee is a good choice:

1) It’s is a low social-obligation activity, compared to lunch or dinner for instance where you can get stuck with the person for an hour or two. If you are creating a B2B product, then taking someone out for a coffee-interview is a good way to let them loosen up a bit out of the office and show them that you’re serious about helping.

2) It’s cheap. Good coffee goes from anywhere from $2.5 – 4.5, which is actually pretty damned affordable by any standard (fun fact: ‘traditional’ focus groups employed by market researchers cost around $4,000 – 6,000, spending $35 – $150(!) per person interviewed, usually with mediocre results. $4.5 doesn’t sound so bad now does it?).

Image credit: Susan Nilsson CC BY SA

Image credit: Susan Nilsson CC BY SA

Lastly, there’s a lot of discussion within the market research & customer development circles as to whether one-on-one or group interviews are best. I’m definitely of the opinion that group interviews don’t really work.

The main reason (that I’ve found anyway) is that there are almost always one or two very strong personalities in the group that either dominate the conversation or end up influencing the quieter members of the group, which can stop them from expressing their opinions (especially if their opinions are in conflict with those of the more vocal members).

One-on-one interviews allow you to bypass any social pressures, then go deep on problems, needs and core drivers.


Step 3

Put Your Questions Together


In my experience, customer interviews typically follow five rough stages:

  1. Breaking the ice
  2. Meeting your user
  3. Digging into problems
  4. Questioning the solution
  5. Getting referrals and wrapping up

These aren’t necessarily completely discrete stages with clear demarcations, but with each flowing into the next and even back & forth at times depending on how the conversation is going. Let’s dig into each one a bit further.

1. Breaking the Ice

Icebreakers only really apply if you are approaching complete strangers in person. If you’ve set up a meeting with your interviewee prior to meeting in person and they know that you want to ask them questions, then icebreakers aren’t necessary and you can skip straight to building rapport.

However if you are stepping out and talking to a stranger for the first time, it can be a bit intimidating. Having a few icebreakers handy makes the process a lot less scary. While I’d love to offer standard lines like ‘Sooo… come here often?’, I personally prefer to take a slightly more holistic approach which depends on the situation you happen to find yourself in.

I like to open a conversation by asking a quick ‘curiosity’ question. For example, if your target audience is mountain bikers, you easily start with an opening line such as:

  • ‘Is that a 29er/650b (it’s a wheel size)?’… ‘I’ve been thinking about getting one, how do you like it?’
  • ‘Hey sorry to bother you, but I see you’ve got a [brand/product x], is it any good?’

And just like that you’re away. People love giving their opinions about things, and this a perfect way to break the ice and start building a bit of rapport. The icebreaker doesn’t necessarily have to relate to your product idea, it’s just something to get the conversation started. Experiment, have fun and see what outrageous opening lines you can get away with.

If the above approach isn’t for you, then remember it is perfectly acceptable to walk up to someone, tell them you are doing some research, introduce yourself then ask if they are OK with answering a few questions. This approach can sometimes place people on the defensive a bit as they’ll immediately sense that you want something, but if you can soften people up and build a bit of rapport, it works great.

2. Meeting your User

Rapport is important in user interviews. If the person you are talking to isn’t comfortable with you, your questions, what you are trying to achieve, and so on, they will provide guarded responses which leads to less than ideal answers to your questions.

Diversity Vignette - Courtesy of Rawpixel (DollarPhotoClub

Image: Rawpixel

The easiest way I’ve found to build up rapport with strangers is oddly enough through asking questions.

There’s a bit of a balance which needs to be struck up when doing so, but here’s a few tips:

  • Ask for opinions: Lead a question with ‘What do you think about … [x]?’
  • Avoid accusatory questions / tone: No one wants to feel like they are being interrogated, or their choices judged.
  • When coming up with your own questions, ask yourself ‘If someone asked me this question, would I feel awkward/uncomfortable/judged? Is it possible for it to be misinterpreted?’
  • Smile and relax: I find that smiling helps people feel at ease (no Cheshire grins though please). Nervous energy puts people off as well, so just take a deep breath, and relax as you let it out. Always easier said than done the first few times, but if you just being conscious of your own nervousness will do wonders for controlling it.
  • Share your own thoughts / opinions: User research is all about the customer, but sending a barrage of 100s of questions in as many seconds can put people on edge, so sharing your thoughts on occasion helps put them at ease (making the process seem more like a conversation and less like an interrogation).

3. Finding & Understanding Problems

Use the assumptions you’ve brainstormed to form the core of your questioning here. Here are some guidelines for turning your assumptions into questions:

Frame the problem…As part of your assumptions you should have an idea of the benefit which your product idea will impart, and thus the problem it is solving.

The two things you really want to find out here are:

  • That what you think the problem is, is the same what your customers think it is.
  • That the problem is as important to them as you think it is.

Ask around a topic… It’s easier to go straight for the jugular and ask direct questions, but sometimes poking around the edge of a topic yields better results. For example you may have made the assumption that ‘All car drivers want GPS units’, and so could ask the direct question of ‘Do you have a GPS in your car? If not, why not?’. Most people won’t really be able to answer that question and would give a misleading and useless answer like ‘It’s expensive’.
Instead try asking ‘Have you ever used a GPS in your car? Did you find it useful? Did you enjoy having it in the car? Why / why not? Do you still have one? If not, why did you get rid of it/choose not to buy one?’ Now you’ll get to the core of why people don’t have a GPS much faster.

Focus on Emotions… Try to gain an understanding of the emotions that are associated with the problems you are talking about with your customers. What are the underlying emotions of the problem? Fear, anger, anxiety and frustration? The need to standout & feel good? People will rarely admit it, but emotions & feelings are the real drivers behind our decisions.

The benefit of having the problem solved… If your customers try want the problem solved, what is the benefit of having it solved to them? Try to dig beyond the obvious. Will it save them time and money, or will it remove frustration? What is the importance of having more time and money (or less frustration) for your customer? Will it allow them to spend more time with their family for instance? Is that important to them?

4. Questioning the solution

If your customer happen to already have a solution that they are using, don’t be put off. No solution or product is ever perfect, so understanding where a product falls short allows you to tackle unaddressed needs.

Image: stokkete

Image: stokkete


Here are some examples you can use to formulate your own questions:

What do you like about [competitor’s product]?

  • What don’t you like about it? Why not?
  • Why is that important?
  • How important is that to you?
  • How do you feel about it not working the way you would like?
  • Is there anything you wish [brand x] had done better or differently? Why?
  • Where did you get [competitor’s product] from?
  • Did you buy it? If so, from where?
  • How much did it cost?
  • Do you feel it was good value for money? Why / why not?

Non-consumption… Here you look for why customers who are experiencing a problem aren’t using a specific solution (an alternative, a competitor’s product, etc). By understanding why customers don’t buy, you gain a much better understanding and appreciate being their purchasing decisions. Specifically you could focus your ‘non consumption’ questions around:

  • Cost
  • Usability / ease of use / accessibility
  • Features / functions

5. Referrals

You’ve made it. You’ve survived five rounds with one of the world’s scariest monsters, your customer. You’re almost home free, just two more things you want to do before thanking your user for their time and high tailing out of there:

1) Ask them if they are OK with you contacting them in the future to be part of the first user trial of your soon-to-be-completed prototype.

2) Ask them if they have any friends they think would be interested in being part of the trial that you could talk to as well.

In both cases have a pen and paper handy to take down contact details.


Step 5

Review and Feedback


As you go through the process of user interviews, I would highly recommend take a step back at the end of each interview and ask yourself:

  • How well did that interview go? Am I happy with the way it went?
  • What went well? What should I do differently next time?
  • Do any of the questions need to be changed or updated?

Write down the key points of the conversation as soon as you can, while they are still fresh in your memory. If you are busy and on the run, make an audio recording of the key points that you can transcribe later.

I personally find that reviewing how well individual interviews went is critical to improving technique and enabling you to go deeper in your questioning.


Step 6

Know When to Stop

Another question that comes up often is ‘How do I know when I’ve done enough user interviews?’

The generally accepted answer is that 8 – 10 are sufficient for you to start reviewing your findings. I disagree with this somewhat as it makes the assumption that people are completely proficient at carrying out customer interviews, which in all probability they are not, at least not yet.

I have found that when I get into a new market, it takes me 8 – 12 interviews to get up to speed, get zoned in and get my technique for the market right. Then it takes another 8 – 10 to really dig in and get to the gold. Maybe I’m slow, but that’s been the general pattern. The first 8 – 12 aren’t useless by any means, but they usually aren’t good enough that I would rely on them solely. If you are new to the process, be ready to do up to 25 interviews before doing a full review of your findings. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t.

A few last words…
I hope now you have enough of an understanding of the user research process that you can dive in head first and start making some real progress on validating your product idea through understanding the pains your customers experience.

If you have any questions or comments, post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Alan Povall

[alert style=”3″]user-research-interview-guestMeet the Author

Alan Povall is the Founder of Product Nimbus, which provides business resources for hardware tech start ups. Alan’s been involved with B2B HW product development for over 7 years and works with aspiring entrepreneurs, start ups and charities to turn their HW product visions into reality.

Make sure to check his website at[/alert]

Image banner modified from CC BY SA Rob Allen

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