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Customer Interview Script: Discovery Phase (i.e. before you've built anything)

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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“Oh, wait, if I could just…”
It’s as if suddenly, after wandering through the forest looking for something, anything, that could turn into a business, you have an idea. A kernel of something that might get you to where you want to go.
It’s a beautiful moment.
And then, after a short period of time, you think to yourself that you need to figure out if other people see this like you do. If this is a problem they experience to enough a degree that they’d want it solved in a new way.
This is where this customer discovery script comes in.
(It will also come in if you have an existing product and have gotten enough breadcrumbs from customers about an adjacent product you might build.)
The goal of a Customer Discovery Interview is, at a very basic level, to figure out whether the problem we think exists does exist for other people, and then whether our conceptualization of the problem matches our potential customers’ conceptualization of the problem. We also want to get a sense for the different steps involved and the internal/external people involved, which can be make-or-break.
(I use “potential customers” there with caveats: think of them as stand-ins for your actual future customers, which will help reduce the drive to try to sell them. You can always email them in the future asking for feedback, but again, not as a pitch.)
The key goals of this interview are usually along the lines of:
  • Do people experience this problem I think I’ve noticed?
  • How frequently do they experience that problem/process?
  • How painful is that problem/process?
  • What have they tried to solve that problem/process?
  • How are they currently paying to solve that problem/process (money/time)?
  • Who else inside/outside their organization is involved with this process?
Note that I use “process” in somewhat of a broad way: it can mean a defined step-by-step process that takes a person an hour, or it can mean a nebulous process that takes decades.
I used to spend a lot of time interviewing people about their process to retire. That was a very different conversation with people who were age 64 vs 72 vs 31, who were each facing different complexities within different timeframes.
In a B2B context, “the process to schedule an internal meeting” will have a much shorter timeframe than “the process to land a new enterprise customer.” Note that a process that takes a day can have just as much complexity as one that takes a year. Regardless of the length of the process, there will probably be plenty of depths for you to explore and treasures to discover.
Where this fits in your process
This is generally one of the first touch points in an exploratory research process, along with some high-level competitor research and more quantitative market sizing research, analysis of data we might have on hand or be able to find, and so forth. All of these kinds of information play a role in our discovery process.
The customer research process can vary a lot based on company size, but especially so in the discovery phase.
I’m writing this with the potential bootstrapped software founder (or 1-2 person company) in mind. The need to find a genuine problem that is solvable is high, but the level of research rigor is probably lower than it would be in a 100-person company, if only for the simple reason that you don’t need to widely communicate and defend your findings, and risk aversion is generally somewhat higher since there are more salaries on the line if something goes wrong.
You will probably find things you can use in here if you’re not in a small company situation, but I just want to throw that out there now. If you do want to have some more rigor involved, I highly recommend The User Experience Team of One.
One of the hardest parts of this phase is just finding people to interview. I gave a walkthrough of how to recruit on Reddit in another issue, and those tactics can be applied with modifications to Facebook groups, Twitter, LinkedIn, Discord/Slack communities, and so forth. One of the keys to getting complete strangers to talk to you is offering an incentive. A $10-25 Amazon gift card per person should be enough. Make the incentive clear in your initial post. You also want to make it clear that it’s just research and isn’t a sales pitch. I go into this with specific templates in the Reddit recruiting guide.
Customer Discovery Script Template
You’ll notice this script has a lot of similarities with the Switch interview script. Where it differs is that with the Switch interview, we’re talking to someone who has freshly switched to our product. They have overcome inertia to make a change, or an intent to change. By contrast, in a discovery interview we have no idea where we might find people in that Timeline process, if at all.
Remember to use lots of validating statements, especially after the first meaty question.
Starting questions
  1. Hi, is this [person]? Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I’m so excited to talk to you. I’m [briefly introduce yourself]
  2. Before we get started, I just wanted to ask if you had any questions for me?
  3. [Optional: if you promised them an incentive] I also just want to check if it’s okay I send you a [$25 Amazon gift card] after we get off the phone here? (More on incentives/thank-you gifts below)
  4. [Optional: if you’re recording] Oh, just before we get started, is it okay if I record this interview? It’s just so I can listen to what you’re saying and don’t have to be scribbling notes the whole time. It won’t be shared outside our team.
Meaty questions
  • I’m interested to learn more about how you [problem you’re looking to solve.] Can you walk me through what that process currently looks like for you?
  • Can you just tell me a little bit about why your company does [this process] in the first place?
  • How has this process changed since you’ve been at the organization?
  • I’m wondering, how often do you find yourself doing this?
  • What manual steps are involved with [this process]?
  • Would you be able to tell me what kind of tools you use in this?
  • How long have you been using those tools?
  • How did you decide to switch to those tools from the other ones?
  • Are there any tools you tried but didn’t really work that well?
  • Would you mind telling me how much you pay for those tools?
  • Is there anyone outside of your team who was involved with selecting those tools/determining which tools you used?
  • How many team members on your end are involved with [process]?
  • Is there anyone outside of your team who is involved with [this process]?
  • Is there anyone you have to deal with outside of your company for [this process]?
  • What is your least favorite part about [this process]?
  • This is a little bit of a silly question, so bear with me. If you could change any part of this [process] with a magic wand, what would it be?
The reaching for the door question – after you’ve covered the above and feel like you have a good grasp of the timeline (~ halfway through the time you’ve told them this interview will take)
  • Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’ve learned so much from you today. Is there anything else you think I should know?
When you’re actually ready to get off the phone
Thanks again for taking the time to talk to me today.
Is it okay if I go ahead and send you that Amazon gift card now? Can you confirm that [email address] is the right place to send it to?
If they say they can’t accept the gift card: I totally understand. I’d still love to send you a thank you note, where could I mail that to?
If the interview has gone well: I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. If we end up building something that tries to solve it, can I reach back out to you and get your thoughts?
Well great! Thanks again. Have a good one!
I have more notes about interviews in the Relatively New Customer script. I would ask you to consult those as well as the few I’ll add here that are particularly relevant to this type of interview.
How many people to interview
The minimum is five, but as Jim Kalbach recommends in the Jobs to Be Done Playbook, you might not start hearing the same things over and over again – or “be able to predict what people will say” in Kalbach’s words – until ten interviews, or maybe even twenty. If you find yourself with five interviews under your belt and you’re hearing wildly different things from each person, that’s a good sign your problem scope is too broad.
How to conduct the interview
Most UX literature will suggest you try to meet in-person with people. This is a fantastic and truly fascinating way of understanding the customer, but is unfortunately highly impractical for people operating without a budget (and unadvisable in Covid times).
I usually conduct interviews over the phone or on audio-only on Zoom. This is important: I’ve found that people are much more willing to be open on an audio call than they are on video. It also removes the stress of monitoring your facial expressions and frees you up to take notes.
If you can, it would probably be incredibly useful if you could get someone to screenshare and show you through their current process, but I don’t think this is a requirement. I would consider this an add-on/next step to an interview, as most processes (even technical ones) usually have offline elements like internal approvals that may not surface in a screenshare.
I suggest scheduling a minimum of 45 minutes, if not an hour, to give yourself time to really plunge the depths of their process.
Always write a thank you note. Template here.

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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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