Interviews as a gateway to customer requirements in agile projects

Interviews to gather insights.
Interviews to gather insights. - Foto:

In agile projects, the question of the customer’s point of view arises at many points. The involvement of this stakeholder is even an elementary component. One way to generate these insights is through interviews – but there are some hurdles here.

Agile playbooks are often well done. They succinctly outline methods and tools that integrate well with different steps in the process of agile project management. Some more straightforward methods or methods are already aimed at people more familiar with the mindset.

The problem with the interview is that while it is elementary, because accurate contact with customers is one of the essential mantras of agile methods like design thinking. But it can’t be “learned,” on the other hand, with a playbook page. It’s anything but a straightforward method. The problem: Many of these playbooks and tips have this claim: Read one page, and after that, you are the perfect interviewer!

Example: Asking why three times misses the point

Some “methods” around interviewing try to support more focused questioning. One of them is asking why, which is very popular in the agile environment: The interviewer should ask why three or five times after an initial question.

But now, please imagine what happens if someone stoically asks you why three or five times after the first question in a normal conversation. In the extreme case, it will be a kind of interrogation. In the best case, it will be at least an unpleasant situation.

The goal of this method – namely to inquire about the core of the statement, the underlying need – is indeed correct. But the way to get there is not. At least not if you make this questioning technique the sole linchpin of your interview. Because it’s not only the goal of an interview that’s important when interviewing customers but probably even more important is the type of interview. And for a straightforward reason: if an interviewee feels uncomfortable, doesn’t feel respected, thinks that the interviewer isn’t interested in them – they won’t tell you the exciting stuff but will say things under pressure that can even mislead.

The big difference between preparation and execution

In terms of the interview, there is good news and bad news: even someone who has no interview experience can prepare it very well. However, the bad news is that it doesn’t mean that it will be conducted well.

I’m a journalist by background: And among journalists, it’s clear that research is the essential part of an article. Writing is purely a tool of the trade. Research takes up 50 to 80 percent of my time writing an article. And it’s pretty straightforward: If I’ve done lousy research, even with the best dramaturgy and the most beautiful style, I can’t subsequently conceal the destructive content resulting from the wrong research.

The interview is an important research method for journalists. Transferred to an agile process, a poorly conducted interview will ultimately lead to missing or wrong insights. From a purely technical point of view, even less experienced interviewers can evaluate and process an interview, such as jobs-to-be-done statements or for the how-might-we…? method. However, in terms of pure content, the result is fragile due to poor interview management.

How do you conduct good interviews?

Now, of course, the question arises as to how you can still conduct good interviews. To do this, I recommend looking at three very different aspects:

  • What is the goal?
  • What role does the context play?
  • What is nature?

Even with the first question about the goal, many methods in the agile environment are no longer of much concrete help. However, it is elementary – and Rob Fitzpatrick describes it very nicely in his book “The Mom Test.” If you want to generate real insights from an interview, you can’t ask questions that are just meant to reassure you.

Such questions might be about a price your customer would be willing to pay for your product. Or whether they like a specific feature. Your interviewee’s answer will be untrue – out of politeness and because that are purely hypothetical questions. It also does not lead you to the actual core of the problem. You want to know whether your product could be attractive for the customer. And not as abstract: What is a natural solution for a specific problem of your customer.

To find this out, however, you must first find out what your customer’s actual problem and need is, at least in the initial phases of idea generation.

Example: You are thinking about an app on sustainability for cars. You now ask someone, pure coincidence, who doesn’t have a car. If your first question was: Would you install an app that would allow you to measure the sustainability of your car journeys? – then, the interview would be over after just one question. And interestingly enough: You would have missed an excellent opportunity for real insights – even though the interviewee does not belong to your core target group. You could have asked him very intensively about his mobility solutions and why he uses them. And also the opportunities and difficulties, the underlying needs, the fears, and the wishes. That would have taken you much further in your attempt to explore the underlying needs and problems with mobility and sustainability.

What is the proper context to conduct an interview?

Participants are sent out into the street to interview strangers in many design thinking workshops. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, and I’m highly uncomfortable with aimlessly interviewing people in some pedestrian mall.

And I seriously wonder what the numerous coaches want to prove with this experiment. Can that coolness be learned?

Because they don’t come any closer to the goal of questioning an idea in such a pressure situation, neither will the passerby in the shopping street have the calm and the time for good answers. And the interviewer won’t be able to ask deep questions either.

The only effect is that all sides feel uncomfortable, ashamed, have to jump over their shadows. But for what?

It makes much more sense to provide a proper context. There’s nothing wrong with explicitly looking for interview partners, for example, in your circle of friends or even more specifically in the direction of companies with which you might want to work. We can’t collect representative results with our customer interviews anyway. But that’s not the point. We want to gain insights into problems and needs that we didn’t have before.

The right way to conduct an interview

While you can quickly work out the first two essential aspects of a good interview, the question of the right way is much more difficult. It is also related to your experience. If you have never conducted an interview before, you will be nervous, and later you will be annoyed that you did not ask everything. It’s perfectly normal: with experience comes composure. To always conduct better interviews, here are a few general tips:

  • Create a pleasant atmosphere: You can achieve this by setting the proper context and interviewing a normal conversation. In other words, don’t start asking questions right away, but do a warm-up first. Depending on the interviewee’s situation, this may take longer or shorter.
  • Do not work through a list of questions: It is wrong to go into an interview with 20 ready-made questions. The important thing is not that you have asked everything, but that you have asked about the exciting aspects. At most, write down the topic area and the three central key points beforehand: What are your interview partner’s wishes, needs, and problems?

Of course, your interview partner will answer abstractly at the beginning. Listen for the surprising, exciting aspects that trigger you personally and ask more and more detailed questions.

You are allowed to comment, classify, ask double questions, and ask funny questions. It’s normal because it is also standard in a typical interview situation. After all, you don’t want to publish the interview as a fascinating article afterward, but it only serves to provide you with interesting insights.

Example: I often send interview partners ten guiding questions before an interview. But I don’t do that because I stick to them. Instead, it serves the sole purpose of reassuring the interview partner. I ask something completely different from the very first question. If, for example, for my podcast on social media, I had also included in the mail to the interviewee the question of how he increases his followers, then it may still be that I do not ask about it at all in the actual conversation. Or, if I state that I am interested in all social media channels, I may still ask him exclusively about LinkedIn. The background is quite simple: In the course of the conversation, I had the feeling that exciting things were lurking in my interview partner. I don’t have to ask about the entire world; it’s enough if I draw an authentic and vivid a picture for one aspect of his life, which reflects his wishes, needs, and fears.

In the social media interviews, my opening question was usually very open: What does social media mean to you (professionally)? A conversation could then develop from this.

Conclusion: Don’t see an interview with your customer as a sales pitch or an interrogation. Just talk to him in a usual way about his everyday life with his problems, wishes, and needs. And you will generate interesting insights. And it is true: Only those who conduct many interviews will eventually conduct excellent interviews. The simple tricks of some playbooks will, unfortunately, lead you astray.

Jörg Stroisch is an agile coach and journalist focusing on design thinking. He offers introductory workshops on Design Thinking. He also offers special trainings workshops on interviewing and observation in agile projects.

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