When you're starting a new business, it's tempting to just grab a whiteboard and start scribbling product ideas. But the most important thing your team can do is talk to potential customers—and the only way to get the real details you need is through user interviews.

Just imagine: If you've been working on the same product for 6 months and you finally launch it, but no one wants it, you'll have wasted all that time and effort. But if you took just a few hours early on to interview someone who needs what you're building, and then changed your product accordingly, you could save weeks of work. It's like going to the doctor for a check-up before getting sick: Much better than going to the hospital when things go wrong.

So how do you conduct an effective user interview? Let's find out:

1. Prepare for your interview.

To get the most out of user interviews, you need to prepare for them. After all, your users are willing to spend their time talking with you about your product — it's only right that you invest time in preparing for those conversations. That means taking the time to plan:

  • Define your goals before you start interviewing. The goal of an interview is not necessarily to collect data; the goal is to learn something that can help improve your product or business strategy. Instead of asking, "What information do I want from these interviews?", ask yourself, "What do I hope to learn?"
  • Research your users ahead of time. Know what type of user you're trying to learn more about and have a basic idea of who they are and what they might be interested in before you begin reaching out. For example, if you're launching a new dating app, know whether you're targeting people near college campuses or parents juggling work and family responsibilities, then tailor your questions accordingly. If possible, talk with them ahead of time so that when the interview starts rolling around, there's already some rapport established between both parties and everyone feels comfortable.
  • Schedule at convenient times for your users' schedules rather than yours: Ideally in-person (in their home), on the phone (rather than over email), and during times that aren't too busy for them (not around meals or while they're working). A general rule is one hour per participant unless it's an ethnographic study that typically takes multiple hours of observation (which isn't possible if you're not conducting it in person nor live nearby).

2. Find and recruit the right participants

As you can see, user interviews are an excellent way to get insight into your customer. But you need to find the right people to interview.

Let's talk about recruiting participants for your research study.

Recruiting is one of the most important parts of running a user interview study. You want to find and recruit participants who are representative of your target market.

If you've conducted customer development or have some data on who's using your product, use it! Make sure they're similar to the people already using your product today AND who you want to use in the future.

You also may need to recruit from outside of your network, especially if there is a niche group that makes up a majority of your users (e.g., female millennials). Don't be afraid to go out and find these users by yourself through Facebook ads, Reddit threads, or Instagram posts — whatever works best!

However, if you don't have this information yet and aren't sure exactly who uses or will use your product - that's okay! Just make sure they're similar based on what you know about them today and ask demographic questions at the start of your interviews as well as in any pre-interview surveys - age, income level, location/geography where they live (if applicable), gender identity or expression (if relevant), sexual orientation (if appropriate), race/ethnicity (if relevant) — all things that might help define them as a person outside of their role as a potential user for your product or service.

3. Create an interview script

The next step is to create an interview script. The interview script aims to help guide your conversation and ensure that you don't forget anything you want to ask the user. It's also important to keep track of the answers so that you can later record them in a separate document and share them with your team or other stakeholders involved. Some tips for creating an interview script include:

  • Write down everything you want to learn from the user and any questions that will help you achieve this goal. For example, if you're trying to learn more about users' habits when using a certain tool or product, write down anything about their workflow that might be relevant to your research.
  • Leave room for follow-up questions, which will allow you to dig deeper into issues or topics brought up by participants during their responses. This will help ensure that all of your questions are answered and give users a chance to provide valuable feedback on how they use a particular product in different situations (e.g., while they were working vs while they were at home).
  • Be prepared! Make sure that before conducting any interviews with users, you have all necessary equipment (e.g., video camera) ready and accessible to capture every moment during their response time and after each question has been asked and answered.

4. Write open-ended questions, and avoid leading questions

  • Write open-ended questions

Your questions should serve as a starting point for a conversation rather than as a checklist. Open-ended questions, which usually start with “how” or “why,” can help participants expand on their thoughts. For example, instead of asking, “How often do you use your mobile phone?” ask, “Tell me about your typical experience using your mobile phone.”

  • Avoid leading questions

Leading questions can manipulate answers. How you phrase a question can influence how the participant responds to it. Phrasing such as “Isn't our design really cool?” may tempt people to answer in the affirmative out of politeness even if they don't actually think so. Instead of focusing on the outcome, try asking for their impression without judgment—for example: "What do you think about our design?”

5. Conduct your user interviews

Now that you’ve identified the type of interviewee and interview you want, it’s time to start conducting your interviews. You can conduct interviews in person or over the phone; it depends on how your interviewees prefer to communicate and how much access they have to a computer. Make sure that you set up a quiet space and away from people who might try to interrupt your interviews.

Once the user enters the room, introduce yourself and explain the interview. This should be similar to what you already said during the screening call. As for equipment, prepare a computer with recording software so that you can capture both audio and video from your conversation with them. Use headphones so that their words come through clearly on your recording, but also make sure they feel comfortable wearing them too if needed (not everyone likes wearing headphones).

Recordings are essential for proper note-taking; there’s less chance of missing information later down the line. If there are no tech problems with your equipment, all you have to do is sit back, relax, listen and take notes! Try not to interrupt your participant while they speak; instead, let them take their time answering each question before moving on to the next one (you can always ask follow-up questions after they finish). Keep an eye out for any interesting body language or habits such as tapping their fingers or biting their nails––this could tell you what emotions people experience when using your product/service without explicitly telling you themselves!

Remember: this isn’t an opportunity for sales pitches or trying to persuade people into using/buying something new. Instead, think of it as a chance for customers to help improve upon existing products by voicing their concerns/issues directly to company representatives like yourself!

6. Analyze your results

Now for the fun part: data analysis. There are a lot of options here, and it really depends on what you’re trying to get out of your data.

You can use a spreadsheet to manually sort the information in different ways that help you conclude what users are saying and how their answers relate to one another. This is fine for smaller data sets but gets much harder to manage as you collect hundreds or even thousands of responses.

If your data set is larger and more complex, you can use something like Excel or Tableau to make sense of it all. These tools have built-in statistical functions that can be used on your user research data. They’re great if you want to run deeper analyses than sorting different groups of responses into individual spreadsheets. Airtable is another option that makes creating databases super easy (and fun!).

So, there you have it!

While there are plenty of challenges to conducting user interviews, the main thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to be a professional interviewer to get some great insights from your users. By keeping your questions open-ended and focusing on how users actually do things, you can gain a lot of valuable information for your startup.