Customer Development Interviews How-to: What You Should Be Learning

I wrote earlier about finding people for your customer development interviews.

Once you’ve found people for your interviews, you’re probably thinking, “Great, I can ask them if they’d use my product!”


OK, you’re thinking, “then what should I ask them?”

A better way to think about it is, what should I be learning from this interview?

It’s really important to understand the philosophy behind the customer development interview, particularly because it runs so counter to entrepreneurial instincts.  Be direct. Act. Get stuff done.  You ask questions, you get “70% good” information, you decide.  But when it comes to identifying a problem and potential solutions, the direct approach doesn’t really work.

Why? Because people are too polite to say ‘no’.  Because people can’t imagine technologies that don’t exist yet.  Because people overestimate how much effort they’re willing to put into something.  Because people think incremental, not disruptive.  Plenty of reasons.  Let’s accept this and move on.

So, what should I be learning from the customer development interview?

  • How is your customer currently dealing with this task/problem?  (What solution/process are they using?)
  • What do they like about their current solution/process?
  • Is there some other solution/process you’ve tried in the past that was better or worse?
  • What do they wish they could do that currently isn’t possible or practical?
  • If they could do [answer to the above question], how would that make their lives better?
  • Who is involved with this solution/process?  How long does it take?
  • What is their state of mind when doing this task?  How busy/hurried/stressed/bored/frustrated? [note: learn this by watching their facial expressions and listening to their voice]
  • What are they doing immediately before and after their current solution/process?
  • How much time or money would they be willing to invest in a solution that made their lives easier?

The important thing about these questions is that they set up an environment where the customer is the “expert”.  They avoid yes/no answers, and give people the opportunity to tell a story – one that may trigger them to think of related problems they’re having, or may trigger more questions from you to ask later.

These questions are applicable for both consumer and enterprise products.  (I’ve used this question list on B2B internal tools, B2B2C consumer-facing apps, and B2C widgets.)

Can you give me an example?

These questions make a lot more sense when applied to a concrete example, so I’ll make one up: an online grocery shopping application. Your hypothesis is that busy households need a better way of making sure they don’t run out of things and don’t have to make a zillion trips to the market.  You’ve found customers to talk to – now you need to understand how they feel/behave when it comes to grocery shopping.

“Tell me about how your household handles grocery shopping…”

Whether they describe a detailed or haphazard process, this is your competition.  This is what you have to be substantially better than, in order to get customers to change their behavior.

“How is that process working for you?”

If you’re lucky, a customer may launch immediately into a rant on how they’re always running out of Cheerios or spending too much because they have to buy milk at the overpriced corner store.  If not, you may gently prompt them with triggers like “Do you generally have the ingredients you need to make dinner?” or “How much time do you spend shopping?”

Validation check: they might not care enough to change their current habits, even if they’re not 10o% optimal.

“Have you tried other approaches, like online grocery delivery or keeping a list on your iPhone?”

Customers who have tried other approaches = a good sign that this is enough of a problem that they’re motivated to fix it.

Validation check: Even if your customer thinks they spend too much time grocery shopping, if they’ve never tried any approach to fix this, then they don’t care enough to try your product. (On the other hand, if they have tried other things, you should try to learn why these other approaches didn’t help or were unsustainable.)

“If you could improve anything about your grocery shopping routine, what would it be?”

If customers don’t immediately have an idea, you could gently prompt with “spend less time, less money, have fresher/healthier foods on hand…?”

This question is going to prompt people to jump to solutions (like “I want a cost comparison tool”), rather than articulating their problems, so you need to immediately follow up with:

“If you had a cost comparison tool, how would that make your life easier?”

(basically, the 5-Whys approach)  You want to discover what’s at the root of this suggestion – is it more important that they pay the lowest prices, or do they want to cut down on trips to several different grocery stores, etc.

Validation check: if they really can’t articulate why this solution would make their lives better, it probably won’t.

“What people in your household buy groceries?”

These are the potential stakeholders of your solution.  This can also open up insights – if your customer says “I do all the shopping, but I wish my teenage kids could pitch in too”, that’s an area ripe for product exploration: how can we help division of labor? how can we shift simple tasks from the time-constrained/expensive resource to a “cheaper” one?

“What do you do immediately before you go grocery shopping?”

This is a great way to find ways to differentiate your product – to most people, grocery shopping starts when you walk through those electronic sliding doors.  But to your customer, it might start with asking your wife and kids what they need, making a list, looking up recipes online, or getting the baby changed and buckled into her carseat.

(Your product probably won’t solve for the baby thing, but it gives you insight into your customers’ state of mind – how busy they are, how stressed, do they only have one free hand to use…?)

“What do you do immediately after you go grocery shopping?”

Again, to your customer, grocery shopping isn’t over until the frozen foods are in the freezer and the cans in the cupboard.  This may reveal new product stakeholders: the 8- and 10-year old who never go to the grocery store, but who unload the car and put things away.

“Would you be willing to spend some money to get a cost comparison tool or other tools that would make your grocery shopping easier?”

If the customer says yes, suggest an amount (“say, $10 a month?”)

Validation check: If the customer says ‘no’, or says ‘yes’ in a hesitant way, they’re not going to use your product.

And finally…

After all these questions, feel free to ask about your specific solution and how interesting the customer finds it.  Give them the opportunity to ask questions of you.  You never know where inspiration will strike!

47 thoughts on “Customer Development Interviews How-to: What You Should Be Learning

  1. I've been meeting with English teachers and librarians about my product all week and have been conducting my interviews like this, not because I'm smart and knew that was the right way to do it, but because I needed their expert advice more than I needed their patronage. I even forget some times that their potential customers.

    P.S. I recently discovered you and the knowledge you're creating. I shared one of your presentations on my blog

  2. I would also add that the same approach works well for product managers of established products during site visits of existing customers. This approach to probing business (or consumer) processes applies there as well.

  3. Recently discovered your blog, and already have found it very useful! My question – how can these interview questions be adapted to something more recreational, like video games? Here the “task” is optional (unlike grocery shopping which pretty much everyone has to deal with), and the “problem” is less well defined…at least in my mind, but maybe you have a different take? Thanks!

  4. There is a good book, Outcome Driven Innovation that deals with exactly what the title says, “outcome driven innovation” – its a good ancillary read to the customer development material. I believe the work stems out of Clayton Christenson's work.

    The idea: “customers” have “jobs” they are trying to get done (tasks and activites) and they have outcomes they are trying to achieve (metrics used to define success of a job). Also, they have constraints that may prevent them from adopting or using a new product or service.

    Based on that, you don't test solutions or features, instead you test outcomes, jobs, and constraints. It helps you 'get inside your customers head' to find where they link value to products and puts you in a better position for success when utilizing the customer development methods.

  5. Cindy, thanks for such a wonderful and insightful post. I've come back to it several times in the last few months and always find it useful. The specific questions and the grocery example are a big help and launch pad for my own discovery questions specific to my business.

    I've also found Ash's first Customer Development checklist a helpful source of these type of questions:

  6. Thanks a landlord it! I acquired yet some insight. Life is so colorful, we should be able to live in, such as Korea and honor the planet. Human life is like rivers, slowly flowing, flowing rivers, flowing through the snow, flows through the prairie and ultimately into the sea, return to the embrace of nature, start a new reincarnation. Allow us to feel the meaning of life will come only to those you have those memories

  7. The concept of “saving money” is easier said than done for most people. I understand that it is ‘easy and logical’ for some people, but I also understand it can be a difficult habit to break for others.

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  9. Hey Cindy, just discovered your blog and am pleasantly surprised at the amount of useful actionable knowledge you’ve created and curated.

    A follow up question pertinent to this post: Most of these questions are great for a face to face interaction, would you say they work just as well in an online survey?

    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  10. Nope, I wouldn’t use these in an online survey. It takes a lot more effort to write, and people are more self-conscious about seeing their thoughts in writing, so they tend to self-censor. You also totally miss the emotional component; you can’t tell whether they were scowling or grinning when they wrote an answer.

    That said, you definitely don’t have to do these interviews face-to-face — I do the majority of my customer dev over the phone. It does take a little practice to adjust to the rhythms of listening and replying, but you can get most of the same value out of phone.

  11. What’s the frequency of conducting these interviews? Do you do
    this once before every major release or continuously on a weekly basis to
    validate every new feature?

  12. This is right on…as a product person it’s easy to fall in a self validation trap…especially when it’s based on a person’s word instead of data.

    Do you think it’s important to preface the interview with basic questions that try to validate your assumptions…like the ones you bullet pointed above.  Then from there  do you get into seeing how they use the product?  We’ve just released our MVP so we’re aiming to both test our assumptions and see how our users use the product.

    Thanks Cindy…you’re work is awesome!!

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  14. I am developing a product that is a more dramatic problem, and it’s one that customers are in most cases only going to use once (it’s a set of government application forms to obtain government approval). So it’s not like they have any experience to relate. But what I do have is a stream of prospects accepting a free phone consultation, and I convert a lot of these. How can I use this process in this situation?

  15. Great concrete example questions that avoids yes/no answers while helping you to understand your potential customers. Getting to understand your customers are quite essential. However, I think many start-ups struggle to find their potential prospects at low-cost within a reasonable time. Do you know any effective cold-email/cold-phone calling techniques that work well with trying to establish a potential meeting with your prospects?

  16. Great article!

    Friends and I have idea to create one app. We are still building concept, but I would like to test it and see can we really solve problems we addressed and is there market we are looking for. What concern us the most is that someone will steal our idea. :)

    Any suggestions how to overcome that?

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