How does a Product Manager go about Customer Discovery?
+ Questions to ask in discovery interviews + Interesting Case Studies
Q: “So, how do I go about User Interviews as a PM?”
First off, let’s make a distinction between two types of interviews that are used interchangeably:
Discovery interviews: Find out pain points of potential customers, validate if they have the problem you’re out to solve & gauge its intensity.
UX Interviews: Figure out how existing users are faring with the product, identify friction areas and uncover other adjacent areas that you could serve value.
Some tips on performing customer discovery:
Who should you interview?
Aim for a defined audience with a specific demographic or firmographic presence e.g. middle-aged freelancers working remotely OR SMBs working in the hospitality industry.
If you’re not sure where to start, then go broad. Interview a diverse set before figuring out which segment to further delve into.
How should you get interviews?
Simply ask. Start with people in your circle if the product is relevant to them.
However, do NOT limit yourself to them. Leverage LinkedIn to get introductions, find people on Facebook groups or Slack channels. If you position your ask with humility with pitch devoid of a salesman vibe, you’ll see many will oblige.
How many interviews should you do?
There isn’t a magic number here but the idea is to do enough to establish a pattern.
In B2B product launches, I remember we needed at least 6 interviews. B2C products required a lot more before there was convergence (25-30).
But isn’t that statistically insignificant?
It does seem like acting on anecdotal evidence is a bad idea. However, validation from your first interviews means you have evidence for a specific persona profile who will likely be your initial customers. After all, you have to start from somewhere.
Take your findings from the initial cohort and repurpose that into a wider survey to collect more data points.
Tips to keep in mind during the interviews:
People will be a bit guarded when you begin an interview session. You need them to relax and open up. Give them a brief of what the idea is and why their opinion is important. Follow up with a compliment or some small talk. Then, segue into your questions when you feel they’re flowing.
Conduct the interview in their native language. Don’t let language be a barrier. If a person is comfortable with say, Arabic or Spanish or Punjabi or Pashto, bring along a translator if you need to but let them speak naturally. Just make sure you don’t lose things in translation though.
What are things to watch out for?
An eloquent person can impressively make a smaller problem look bigger than it seems. At the same time, a reserved person may not be able to highlight a massive problem with justice.
Thus, learn to distinguish between primary and secondary pains.
To understand how big a problem this really is, ask them if they’ve been searching for alternatives lately and what happens if it isn’t fixed. Also, ask them to compare the problem with another problem to understand priorities.
Asking a series of “Why” can help you get to jobs-to-be-done faster.
Prospect: “I don’t book doctor appointments on websites. I call the clinic.”
Prospect: “I don’t trust the websites. The clinic helpline gets me a confirmation.”
PM: “Why don’t you trust the websites?”
Prospect: “Because their agents have to call us first to confirm the appointment.”
PM: “Why do you have issue with that?”
Prospect: “Because I don’t want to wait for an agent call first. I sometimes miss the call and my appointment is cancelled.”
The job-to-be-done here is to provide instant, reliable doctor appointment confirmations to patients as they are booking it.
Learn to talk less during an interview.
The job is to glean as many insights as you can from the customer so keep the mic on them. Ask tons of open-ended questions: Ex: “How do you deal wit this problem today?” “Walk me through your business process?”” “Why is this such a big problem for you?”
How do you get people to talk more?
Two tips that have helped me:
the awkward pause. When they finish talking, pause for a bit and they might want to add a bit more to fill the silence.
mimic what they said with a summary. “So, what you’re saying is that X is your problem”. They will re-evaluate if they’d like to add anything to that insight.
When doing interviews for B2B, you need more perspectives- ideally of the user and the buyer. Your interviews need to unpack the decision making process, buying cycles, considerations & competition.
Pay attention to the before and after situation - this is the critical insight you need:
When, why and how do customers find themselves in a problem?
What does a resolved situation look like?
Ask open ended questions and let them talk through experiences.
Observation: People are generally bad at averaging out their needs.
If you ask: “what do you use your existing grocery app for?” they’ll give you a number of products that don’t really reveal insights.
Instead, ask: “what was the last thing you bought with the app? Walk me through it.” You’ll get a lot more specifics and an understanding of the journey.
If they haven't tried exploring or fixing a problem they've had, then be curious as to how they are managing.
Always ask for referrals at the end of the interview - it makes getting more data points easier.
Learn a bit more about the prospect beyond the problem. Without being too nosy, find out what they care about? What’s their daily routine like?
What should one ask during the interview?
Be curious about:
Trigger: the trigger point that leads them into the problem
“Talk me through the last time that happened.”
Hurdle: why they can’t solve the issue themselves
“What’s stopping you from exploring [alternative]?”
Alternative: what are they using today?
“How are you dealing with it now?” — “What else have you tried?”
Utopia: what does an ideal situation look like?
When solving “this problem”, what does success look like?
Dependencies: who else is involved in the problem process? who matters?
Note down other actors involved in their story.
Loss: what happens if the problem isn’t solved for long?
“If this continues, what would happen?”
Cost: can the customer quantify the extra time or cost they’re spending today?
“What makes this so awful for you specifically?”
Passion: what problem do they resonate with the most & have the most to talk about?
Why is it important to solve “this problem”? Why does it matter at all?
Resistance: what class of solutions are they showing resistance to or have been burned by?
“Why have you stopped trusting or opting for X?”
Sample Discovery Interview
Do you really know what your customers use your product for?
Nitto-Denko is a Japanase brand that manufactures high-quality plastic tapes.
Their tapes are meant for electrical insulation. Electricians & handymen often carry them for wiring jobs.
However, if you were to inspect the buyer demographic of Nitto tapes in Pakistan, you'd find an oddball segment in there:
=> Cricket-loving teenagers & young adults.
Since the 1980s, the Pakistani youth has been infatuated with the concept of "tape ball" cricket: street cricket played with a tennis ball neatly enveloped in pvc tape to give it weight & strength.
The manufacturers at Nitto never saw this coming.
After they caught onto this trend, you started seeing stores stock them specifically as "tape-ball tape".
Nitto eventually became an essential investment for all street cricket tournaments.
That's why it's so important to conduct customer research to uncover jobs-to-be-done.
Why is your user "hiring" your product?
The data on your analytics dashboard may just show just that: numbers e.g. Nitto would have been seeing their sales rise.
However, it's only upon understanding how your consumer is actually using your product that you can:
👉 pivot the product to move into more lucrative, voluminous segments
👉 improve the product to create better product-market fit
👉 discover new personas that you weren't thinking of
👉 understand ways you can circumvent competition by playing on a different turf
Here's another example:
Photoshop's goal was to deliver a powerful, sophisticated design tool that would allow users to virtually create any digital design that the human mind could conceive.
However, it was over-serving the market.
Because most working professionals:
🔸 aren't designers. Or at least they don't consider themselves as one.
🔸 don't have the patience to learn the tool.
🔸 don't need to create the next Mona Lisa.
They're just looking to put up a nice social post, youtube thumbnail or presentation cover.
These people needed to "hire" a product that helped them produce professional designs in minutes that made them look good in front of others.
Enter Canva - built a product that met the buyer needs by focusing on templates & an easy editor.
Similarly, there was a certain video assessment platform that I worked on that was used for screening candidates during recruitment. We later learnt that we had prospects that were considering it as a tool to audition actors remotely for movies & talent shows. 😲
So, don't buy into pre-conceived notions of why users use you.
Get clarity yourself by:
1- Shortlisting users for interviews.
2- Asking them the problem they are trying to solve.
3- Using the 5 Why's method to get to the root motivation.
You might just be surprised with the results.