The art of interviewing in Product Discovery

Key takeaways of this article:

  1. Accept there is no objective reality
  2. Free the words
  3. Listen actively
  4. Hunt down language shortcuts
  5. Ask for behaviors rather than opinions
  6. Go up to the Need level
  7. Mitigate only one biais (confirmation)

1/ The problem : there is no “objective” reality

In the 19th century, Kant said : “We see the world and things not as they are but as we are”. So, it’s been a while since we know that no matter how hard we try, we will never be totally objective when conducting Discovery interviews because we alter the reality we see and hear.

  1. Perception : our senses alter what we see. An extreme exemple is a color-blind person unable to distinguish between colors… But you can also think of these pictures that you can see in two different ways (eg. the chin of a young lady being the nose of an old woman)
  2. Processing : our beliefs impact the way our brain turns a signal into a memory in our brain by giving a certain meaning to it (ex. a Coca Cola can will be described by some people as a “red cylinder” while others will talk of “symbol of capitalism”)
  3. Rendering : when rendering the information to others, mainly through language, human language will again “transform” the informations. Inuit people have 16 words to describe “snow”. So if we talk to them about “snow”, they will just say “Ok, but what kind of snow ?”
Distorsion between what the User did and said they did
Distorsion between what the Interviewer said the User said (he did)
The Product Management lifecycle (credit : Marty Cagan)

2/ Free the words

What is the point of interviewing a user if you don’t give them the chance to fully express what they think ? PMs spend a huge amount of time finding users, scheduling interviews, shaping a questionnaire, yet they often jump too fast in the interview. This results into the user providing the interviewer with poor insights.

  • User won’t be “effective” if no framing
  • User won’t be honest if no relation

3/ Listen actively

How can you not listen actively ? Mainly by interrupting the user, wether to show them that you knew what they were about to say, or by trying to convince them (that your product idea is a good one). As you can see, ego is the enemy that lies behind these behaviors. By doing so, you prevent the user from going deep into their memory to reveal what they really have in mind.

  • Leaving blanks
  • Rephrasing
When the User looks up/right/down, don’t interrupt !

4/ Hunt down language shortcuts

In our every day talks, our brain operates multiple shortcuts when rendering information through language. Otherwise, it would be too much of a cognitive load. In the context of User Research, these shortcuts might prevent you from gaining access to key insights. If you don’t challenge users’s language shortcuts, you may only surface users’s journey and drivers. You will certainly get low level insights. I like the Meta Model in the NLP framework that highlights three main types of shortcuts:

  • Generalization : they are the easiest ones to spot. Words like “never”, “always” are generally a good sign. You can challenge them by asking something like : “Always ? Really ? It never happened differently, even once ?”
  • Deletion : these ones are quite easy to spot as well. They are expressions that are very vague like “It was not so good”, “It was ok”, “I feel better”. You can question them by asking for more context : “What makes you feel better ? Compared to when ?”
  • Distorsion : they are a bit more difficult to spot. Distortion occurs when something is mistaken for that which it is not. For instance “The hiring manager never replied to me, I will never get the job”. You can question them by asking “what demonstrates that you won’t get the job in the fact that the hiring manager did not answer ?” Indeed, the hiring manager might just be expecting the final results of another candidate or is about to close a more urgent recruitment…
  • Assess their attractiveness on the labour market
  • Monitor outstanding opportunities even if they don’t feel like moving

5/ Ask for behaviors rather than opinions

I am often asked if “closed questions” are a problem. My answer is that if they relate to a behavior, they are ok. But if they relate to an opinion, I have concerns. It turns out that closed questions are not the problem but asking about opinions is. People can’t lie (at least less easily) about their behaviors whereas opinions do not convey any real value per se. So every time you can, ask about the behavior that lie behind an opinion to get proper insights.

6/ Go up to the needs level

I talked about the Product Pyramid in a previous article so I will shortly reintroduce it : we generally talk about solutions when having product discussion, when it should be the conclusion. So your aim as an interviewer is to climb up the pyramid : the solution you are talking about is solving which problem ? That relates to which need ? That appears in which context ?

The Product Pyramid

7/ Mitigate only one biais (confirmation)

There are tons of articles about biases. There are also dozens of biases. If you want to know more, this article from Buster Benson is one of the most useful. I attached below his cognitive bias map to give you a hint about the number of biases, don’t feel overwhelmed !

  • It makes you influence the user to hear what you want
  • It prevents you from hearing what you dont want
  • Pairing : interview by pair, one as observer, the other as interviewer. It will bring two different perspectives. Try to pair with “non similar” people to maximize perspectives
  • Awareness : before interviewing, try to become aware of your biases. What do you want to hear ? (because you always want to hear for something special). What do you think the User will tell you ? By becoming aware of these elements, you give you a chance to mitigate them strongly.

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Pierre FOURNIER

Pierre FOURNIER

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Tech entrepreneur, Coach, Trainer | Founder @WILL, ex-CPO (Chief Product Officer) at ManoMano, ex Founding Partner at Artefact