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How to practice customer interviews (+ an action to take now)

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
Like it? Order the book:
If you feel some trepidation about the thought of interviewing a customer or potential customer, let me tell you that your fears are completely normal.
I think if we were to sit down with that anxiety and listen to it – and not challenge it, or try to overcome it, or act like it doesn’t exist – and gently ask it what it needs, I think it would ask us for just a little bit of practice before we bring this out into the wider world.
A nice, low-stakes environment to practice these skills in and get a sense for just how this sort of, quite frankly, socially unusual situation plays out.
So that is what I am going to walk you through today: finding a calm venue to practice these skills.
For this, you will need:
  • A script (below)
  • Someone to interview (more below)
  • 15-20 minutes
  • A pencil and paper
But first, I want to tell you a story.
About four years ago, some friends and I started a Meetup group for people interested in JTBD for the DC area. Most of the people in the meetup in the beginning were JTBD curious and not practitioners themselves yet. People were excited about doing interviews and how it could reshape how they thought about their products and customers, but there was some uncertainty about how to actually do an interview.
So, we decided to do an interview workshop. We paired people up, and had them practice interviewing one another.
(You can see the slides from that Meetup here. I approach presentations from the perspective that the slides are mostly there as wallpaper for when the audience gets bored of looking at you, so the slides are mostly puppies. Just fair warning.)
I was paired with a woman named Rachel, a product analyst with a quantitative data analysis background. I remember her being a little nervous about interviews, and approaching it somewhat tentatively.
We followed the script below, with a similar prompt: “What’s something new you bought in the last three months?” The idea was to ask about a purchase we’d made that was new to us and understand why we switched.
The product that I said I’d bought recently was a bottle of shampoo: a bottle of Suave Professionals Sea Minerals Shampoo, to be exact.
When I bought it, I hadn’t really thought much about the purchase. It was on sale 2 for $6, and I saw it on the end cap as I was going through the grocery store and grabbed it. (Grocery merchandisers, rejoice.) Simple, right?
Well, what Rachel was able to discover – which impresses me to this day – was that it was much more than something I happened to grab as I walked by in the store. Why had I picked that one, even though there were many other varieties also part of that same sale on that same shelf?
Through the script, she was able to uncover that that particular item had jumped at me – among a sea of other options on that shelf – because I’d gone to the beach a few weeks beforehand with friends, and thought my hair looked good that week, and wondered whether it was the salt in the water that helped my hair look good. I have, and had, no idea if that was true, but I was willing to try. She was able to find my hope for the product (make me look as good as I did at the beach) and what the original problem was I was trying to solve (my hair is very thin and getting more volume into it is a constant struggle). The thought of my voluminous beach hair – and the feeling of being at the beach, wind in my hair, good friends around me – is what led me to take a chance on that particular bottle of shampoo.
And Rachel was able to find all of that underlying emotion and memory even as a first-time interviewer, with about the same amount of training on qualitative customer research than you’ve received by reading this newsletter.
We then switched, and I interviewed Rachel about her own recent purchase. In her case, it was a phone subscription, and we talked about why she’d switched (so she could watch Netflix on the bus to work) and whether it was working as she’d hoped.
It was almost magical to see the gears turning in her head, how doing the interview and being interviewed herself made the gears turn and help her see not only how to do the interview but the kind of insights they unlock that lurk below the surface.
Rachel was able to take the confidence from that workshop and start interviewing real customers to augment the quantitative data she was already analyzing. She continued doing so, and went on to become a product manager and is now a senior PM. I kept loosely in touch with her for a few years after – she and my husband were coworkers – and every time I saw her, somehow, the shampoo came up, and she’d then excitedly tell me about interviews she’d had recently and what she’d learned.
Put another way: I know this practice activity will help you overcome the hill of getting started with interviews, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
So let’s jump in, shall we?
JTBD practice interview script
For this practice, we’ll use the Switch approach of looking to see why someone made a change. We’re going to ask them about something they bought that was new to them. They key is that it should be something a) they purchased themselves and b) is a new purchase (i.e. not something they buy regularly. A new-to-them-but-used item is fine).
  • Can you tell me about a product you bought for the first time recently?
  • Where were you when you bought it?
  • Were you with anyone else when you bought it?
  • How did you make the purchase?
  • Before you bought it, did you have any fears or anxieties or anything that was unclear about it?
  • Where did you first learn about the product?
  • What did you do when you first came across the product?
  • Did you talk to anyone else before you made the purchase?
  • What were you hoping the product would do for you?
  • What other products did you try before this?
  • How did it go when you first used the product?
  • Can you tell me about whether it did what you were hoping it would do?
  • Would you buy this product again?
Someone to interview
A great partner for this is someone who is either a stranger or someone you’re loosely connected to. A close friend or family member is not a good candidate, since either probably have somewhat of an understanding of their psychology and purchasing habits, or they may wary of sharing too much.
Think: a coworker in a different department, your sibling’s girlfriend/boyfriend, your friend’s roommate. A person you tweet with occasionally but don’t really know in real life. Someone you vaguely know, but not too closely.
Update: you can join the Deploy Empathy Discord community to find a practice partner. Join here!

Join the Deploy Empathy Discord Server!
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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