5 basic rules for conducting problem interviews to identify consumer needs

    In this article, I talk about the most basic principles of clarifying the truth in an environment where the interlocutor is not inclined to be completely honest. Most often, you are not being deceived for malicious purposes, but for many other reasons. For example, due to personal errors, poor memory or not to upset you. Often when it comes to our ideas, we are prone to self-deception. The methodology of problematic interviews reveals facts with a high degree of reliability.

    The vast majority of businesses die because they offer a product that consumers do not need. This is a famous statement by Eric Rhys, author of Lean Startup.
    How not to fall into this trap with your project? The solution has long been known - before creating a product, you need to study the needs of potential consumers using the methodology of problematic interviews. A comprehensive guide to conducting problematic interviews is contained in Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, “Ask Mom: How to communicate with clients and confirm the correctness of their business idea if everyone lies?” This book has only 150 pages, in Russian it was published in 2015, but nevertheless, most startups still do not know how to conduct problematic interviews.

    About myself

    My name is Igor Sheludko.

    I have been an entrepreneur in the field of software development and sales since 2000. I have a higher technical education. I started my career as a programmer, also led small teams, was engaged in both product and custom development.

    For 3 years I have been cooperating with the Accelerator of the South IT Park (Rostov-on-Don) as a tracker for startup projects. During this time, more than 20 projects have passed through my caring hands of an individual tracker, and more than 200 projects have passed through the Accelerator.

    What are problem interviews?

    This is just a conversation in which you ask the right questions. During such a conversation, it is important to find out the actual past experience of the interlocutor regarding the problems of interest to us. It is highly desirable to record the questions and answers of the interlocutor. It’s ideal to record a conversation on a voice recorder so that later you can verify the correct interpretation of the answers.

    Rule number 1 - To conduct a conversation we need a conversation plan

    The conversation plan is based on your hypotheses about consumer needs.
    A good plan option is a hypothesis map, which I wrote about in this article .

    After a polite greeting, the interlocutor should tell you in general terms what you want to talk about, or rather listen to. Your task is to make the interlocutor speak, and you listen. It is important to immediately find out the interlocutor’s attitude to the problems you are interested in. Ideally, this is worth finding out even when making an appointment and the time of the conversation. If the conversation occurred suddenly, then immediately indicate what will be discussed.
    To clarify the interlocutor's attitude to the problem, you can use questions such as:
    Have you ever ...?
    Have you been in a situation ...?
    How often happens to you ...?
    When was the last time you were in a situation ...?
    Are you worried ...?
    How does it affect your life ...?

    It is possible that your interlocutor will have absolutely nothing to say on the merits and he will be tempted to talk on a given topic in an abstract, not based on personal experience. It is worth learning to distinguish between such situations and not perceive what has been said as facts. An interlocutor who does not have actual experience may be useful to you as a link with other people. Ask him to introduce you to his acquaintances who have actual experience on a topic of interest to you.

    A hypothesis map as a conversation plan is much more convenient than a list of questions, a conversation script, or any other linear plan, since the interlocutor, answering your question, may not go exactly where you expected. If the interlocutor begins to talk about what you have as hypotheses related to other problems, then you can quickly notice the connection of information with current hypotheses and continue to dig up the issues raised. Then, when this direction has been exhausted, you can return to the original problems.

    Rule number 2 - Do not allow yourself to talk, let the person talk to you.

    The most common mistake novice interviewers make is to slide into a dialogue or even a monologue, talking enthusiastically about their product. This is absolutely impossible to do. As soon as the interlocutor understands that you invented or developed something, he ceases to speak sincerely and begins either to praise you or to argue with you. The interview turns into a discussion of a product that usually does not exist yet and you begin to exchange fantasies and hallucinations. If this happened to you during the interview, then this interview should be considered unreliable.

    Rule No. 3 - Ask More Open Questions

    The answers “yes”, “no”, “sometimes” and the like give very little information. To get more information, ask open-ended questions - such as which the interlocutor will have to give a detailed answer.
    Examples of detailed questions:
    Can you recall the case when you were in a situation ...?
    Tell us in more detail how ... was it the last time?
    Can you tell me what you did then?
    Tell us more about how you solved this problem.
    Do you always do that?
    In other similar cases, what did you do?
    How do you solve this problem now?
    What difficulties do you have with this decision?
    What does not suit you in the current decision?
    Why did you do that?
    What other options did you consider?

    Of course, the questions should be adapted to the course of the conversation. If the interlocutor told you that at that time the solution he had chosen was the only one, you should not ask what options he was still considering. That is why the conversation script is less convenient than the hypothesis map, however, without training, you may not immediately be able to construct questions during the conversation. So practice with friends and your co-founders.

    Rule number 4 - Ask as specific questions as possible and look for the value of solving consumer problems

    Try to “dig out” the details and facts from the interlocutor’s experience, finding out specific numbers, names, dates, periods, number of repetitions, places, sources of information, etc., since these facts give us information to assess the degree of awareness of problems.

    If a person agrees with you that he has an overweight problem and says that he does sports from time to time, it is very important to find out how often he does and what sports. If he replies that he is swimming in the pool, it is important to find out how often he visits the pool, which pool, how he chose it, what time he does, how much he swims at a time, how much time he takes for it, whether he eats after classes sports and in general how he eats. This is important because the truth lies in these specific facts.

    A misunderstood interlocutor leads to unnecessary functions in products and even to useless products. Inadequately tested hypotheses lead to significant costs in subsequent stages.

    Finding out the specific circumstances of the interlocutor’s experience helps to find out not only the presence of problems and their awareness, but also the value of solving these problems.

    Value can lie in economic benefits or savings, reducing risks, both financial and reputational.
    Questions that help you find out the value:
    Why is the solution to this problem so important to you?
    What results did you achieve earlier by solving such problems?
    What happened when you did not solve this problem?
    What difficulties did this lead to?
    What costs did this result in?
    What did you lose in that situation?
    How much time or money did you spend solving this problem?

    One of the most important results of problem interviews is the found, found value of solving consumer problems, expressed in money or time that is saved or earned when solving a problem.

    If we find out how much the consumer will earn or save on average by solving a problem, we can start from this when choosing a price for our solution.

    Rule number 5 - Ask only about past experiences and avoid opinions, abstract thoughts and discussions about the future.

    This is the second most common mistake of beginning interviewers - to allow the interlocutor to reason abstractly - what he would do if he found himself in a situation that interests us.
    These considerations do not have any direct benefit, since in the event of such a situation, our interlocutor may act completely differently.

    Numerous experiments suggest that in conditions of danger, stress, need, pressure from society, people act in a completely different way than when they are not in danger.

    These are the most basic rules, compliance with which will allow you to start practicing in conducting problematic interviews.

    I highly recommend reading Rob Fitzpatrick’s book “Ask Mom: How to communicate with clients and confirm the correctness of your business idea if everyone lies around?” - it is small (about 150 pages) and easy to read.

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