Can Customer Interviews Improve Product Development?

By Joe Taylor Jr. | Posted January 28, 2013

If you're looking for ways to improve the products or services that your small business offers, consider this: user-experience specialists interview company customers to obtain feedback. That real-world knowledge helps designers and developers to create stronger products.

By asking follow-up questions in a distraction-free environment, interviewers can uncover the kind of insights that help polish product and service offerings. These four small business tips can help you mine the most information out of your interview session.

How to Conduct Effective Customer Interviews

1. Create a safe place for conversation

According to consultant Michael Hawley, setting proper expectations can put interview subjects at ease. Assure your subjects of anonymity, and you can expect surprisingly frank discussion from customers who want to see your product succeed.

Stage the meeting somewhere relaxed and neutral to avoid distractions and interruptions. Ask your interviewee for permission to record your conversation -- either audio or video -- for the sole purpose of transcribing the interview.

2. Follow the 80/20 rule

Depending on your role within your organization, you might not be accustomed to keeping quiet during a meeting. Instead of conducting a major presentation, spend 80 percent of your interview time listening to your customer.


On her blog, user-experience consultant Whitney Hess recommends a tested journalistic trick to keep interviews moving forward: ask your question, then pause. It's human instinct to fill gaps in conversations. Let your customers step up to answer the question, especially if they have to take an extended moment to formulate their response.

3. Ask follow-ups without leading questions

With jobs, budgets and reputations on the line, interviewers can feel pressure to deliver results that validate their team's best guesses. Avoid steering your customer toward responses that you (or your boss) really want to hear. Instead, according to the authors of O'Reilly's "Effective UI" guidebook, ask follow-up questions that focus on the experience, such as:

  • "Did you get the outcome you were hoping for?"
  • "Is any part of this process difficult or frustrating?"
  • "What's the most enjoyable part of this process for you?"

Keeping your initial questions open-ended lets you ask follow-up questions that draw out even more information about your customer's experience. You may discover that your biggest concerns don't even register on your customers' radar, while different problems lurk beneath the surface.

4. Triangulate your results

Some managers may feel like individual interviews could lead to a too-narrow slice of the customer experience. Therefore, consultant Jenny Schade recommends scheduling more interviews than you think you might need to mathematically make your customers' case. When reporting your results, Schade recommends making the feedback anonymous to avoid any accusations of bias.

Customer interviews shouldn't replace surveys or focus groups entirely, but they can offer compelling arguments for or against certain aspects of your product development plans. For companies that don't have the resources to carry out full-blown research campaigns, interviews can prevent waste and inspire new directions for product teams to pursue.

Joe Taylor Jr. has covered personal finance and business for more than two decades. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, Fox Business, and ABC News. He recently completed a personal finance book entitled The Rogue Guide to Credit Cards; (Rogue Guide Books, 2012).

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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