Confession time. I’m a product manager and up until a few weeks ago, I absolutely dreaded the thought of doing customer interviews. Mostly because they inevitably involve talking to strangers and that is downright an introvert’s worst nightmare.
I am a part of a team at d.labs that helps early-stage founders discover the right digital product for the problem they’re trying to solve. Understanding and embracing the founder’s big vision is the first step. The next one is desk research — it’s quick, exhaustive and ridiculously effective to map out the product’s ecosystem and gain truly meaningful insight into the business opportunity. It’s also an introvert’s dream.
However, true product magic needs something more than that. To design a solution that will address real pain-points, you do eventually need to get out from behind the desk and speak with your customers. As it turns out, it’s not as paralysing as it may seem at first. It brings you closer to the founder, the product and the customers. It also brings clarity and empathy.
Here’s how my first round of interviews went down and what were the ‘introverted interviewer’ learnings that came out of this experience.
The interviews took place at the founder’s charming home in London. The slots were lined up back-to-back to fit the busy afternoon schedules of the people I was going to speak to. The first conversation was kind of a mess. I didn’t get to set the context, I was terrible at steering the conversation, the room was too noisy… It was time to replan. I did a retro in my mind and came up with some quick fixes. In the next 10 minutes, I moved the conversations to a more quiet and cosy room, changed the intro and switched the order of the questions. It worked. In the next 3 hours, I ended up doing 6 more interviews, with each being more focused, open and insightful.
Getting out of the product-building comfort zone was not easy. It was not that I couldn’t do it, I just required a different process. So I just did what I usually do to cope with similar social situations such as public speaking, networking or client workshops — I resorted to my standard “introvert’s toolbox”.
For anyone struggling with customer interviews hesitancy, I’ve outlined 6 techniques from this toolbox that might help you ease your mind for your next customer interview session — no matter where you are on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, whether you are a Product Manager, Founder or a UX researcher.
1. Reframe to reduce anxiety
Try not to think of them as interviews, but as conversations. And try not to think of the interviewees as strangers, but as people who will most likely be the first to love your product. Especially when it comes to problem interviews, they know you are talking to them because you care about a problem they have, want to understand how painful it is for them and want to help them solve it.
2. Prepare yourself, you can’t ‘wing it’
Improvisation is not an introvert’s trait, so to manage the stress of having to talk to strangers, preparation is key. What I like to do is write up an entire script, not just the key points. Always start with a quick intro that explains who you are, why you’re doing this, and how their insights will help you. Then outline the questions you want to ask them. Try to group them by topics, so the interview follows a logical flow. In the end, wrap-up by thanking them for their time and try referring to something especially insightful they shared. After you’re happy with the script, go through it as many times as you need to feel confident. When the interview starts, try to forget about the script.
3. Take a back-seat and listen
If you think about it, introverts make perfect interviewers. Who is better at listening, absorbing information, and focusing on the subtle clues during a conversation? Take advantage of this superpower when doing 1:1 interviews. You don’t need to take a lot of notes (always record!), so you can focus fully on active listening and steering the conversation the way you want it to go when you sense there’s some valuable information for your product. Sometimes you can also ask them to show you how they go about doing some task if you feel like they’re struggling with an answer. If you ask about their digital habits, for example, you can have them show you the apps they have on their phone and use frequently. This might be a much more valuable insight into their behaviour than words. Don’t be afraid to challenge them when you believe their answers are biased. Just do it gently.
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” ― Malcolm Gladwell
4. You don’t need to do small talk
The most wonderful thing about customer interviews is that they are very goal-oriented. The agenda is clear to everyone and that significantly reduces the stress that usually comes with socializing with strangers. You may be courageous enough to recruit interviewees from a pool of strangers, but more likely in the discovery phase, customers are referred to you from a network of friends and acquaintances. In my case, the founder did a heartfelt in-person introduction, which enabled us to jump right into the interview afterwards. Talking about what the weather, was completely optional (even though it was raining cats and dogs outside).
5. Don’t pitch
Especially when you’re doing problem interviews or customer discovery, you should really avoid pitching or selling the idea. As a matter of fact, don’t even mention it at this stage. This comes naturally to introverted people, as we’re not sellers and hate to be in the spotlight. This can be a real perk as biting your tongue to prevent yourself from influencing the interviewees probably won’t be necessary. It might happen though, when you are not the only one in the room, there is a chance someone will slip and go into pitch mode. In this case, make sure that everyone is completely aligned and you have a strategy in place in case it happens. It could be a code word like ‘Cilantro’ — anything to help get the interview back on track, hopefully with little damage.
6. Schedule time to recover
It’s done, you can breathe. Try not to jump into listening and analysing the recordings immediately, as you’re probably overwhelmed with the information you got. Take some time to let it sink in and most importantly, regenerate. Introverts know the draining after-effects of reaching a quota of social interaction. After this round of interviews, I needed a lot of quiet isolation before I could go out into the world and talk to people. If possible, cancel all your meetings for the next day or two. When you reflect on the interviews, be compassionate to yourself, you might not have got all the answers, but you’re definitely closer to understanding your customers and their motivations.
I’m not going to lie, the interviewing experience is exhausting, but also extremely rewarding. A big inspiration for me throughout this process was The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. It’s one of the best books out there for doing customer interviews and its learnings will stick with you even outside the interview room. Ever since I read it, I’ve caught myself casually asking people questions like “Can you give me an example”, “What are you currently doing to solve this?” and “What else didn’t I ask, but I should have?” in conversations with friends, family and colleagues. I got some funny looks, but it ultimately helps me understand people and their behaviour better.
Want to chat more about doing customer interviews for your tech venture? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.