Crafting Your Exploratory Interview

by Sean Boyce

Imagine you are an auto mechanic and a new customer comes into your shop with a car that needs to be repaired. Are you going to start fixing the car without asking questions? Not likely! You will no doubt start by asking a few simple questions such as, how long has the car had this problem, what kind of noises is it making, and is there a problem when driving? Depending upon the answers you receive and your level of experience, you may look under the hood at that point and begin to examine the car. Or, you may ask a few more questions. Regardless of the details of the conversation, the conversation is not likely to be long, because the purpose is to discover the core problems and issues the customer is experiencing.

You may have a wonderful idea for a new product, but before you start designing it and fleshing out the details, you need to find out if there is a critical need for it in the market. The best way to achieve that goal is to conduct personal interviews.

The methodology to follow

The best way to conduct your interviews would be in person, since you can learn so much more from non-verbal communication than mere words on paper. You might be better to gauge the seriousness of a customer’s problem by the level of frustration exhibited. And you can gain much more vital information from a subject’s body language. If an in-person meeting is not possible, a video chat is the next best thing. If all else fails, a phone interview would probably work as well.

What you want to avoid is the use of focus groups or written surveys to gather information at this stage. Those methods tend to be formally structured and comprised of too many questions with built-in preconceived notions. In the early stages of this process we want to avoid the pitfall of focus groups, which I refer to as groupthink.  In this unfortunate scenario, a few more vocal participants can drown out others with completely different, and possibly more important, problems.

The structure of the session

For this initial interview you need to keep it simple and conversational. You will want to keep the number of questions to a minimum, so as not to dominate the person’s time. The primary focus should always be on the customer’s problems and not on your solutions, so you will do more listening than speaking during this session. You can use a script, but keep it short and interesting, allowing for the conversation to naturally lead to the information you really need to discover. By and large the most important question to ask is, “What is your biggest challenge?”. Let them talk, you’ll be surprised by the amount of valuable information a response to this question can provide.

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Remember that you are the innovator. It’s your job to translate their problems into solutions that make their lives easier. When the mechanic is told by his customer that they think the problem their car is having is due to a timing belt issue, whether that’s the case or not, it’s the mechanic’s job to be objective. It’s also his job to find the actual solution to the problem and fix the car. Similarly, it’s your job to find solutions to your customer’s problems, regardless of what they imagine would fit their needs.

More is better

We recommend that you conduct as many interviews as possible to be able to get a good cross section of your market’s needs. Every one of these preliminary meetings can provide information that’s not only helpful, but also critical when developing your new product.  To make things easier, always ask at the end of an interview if the person knows anyone else that has similar challenges. See if they’ll make a warm introduction for you. Everyone has problems and everyone wants them solved. You’ve already found one great source of information. Chances are they know others suffering from similar problems.

If you have a product idea that you’d like to bring to the world, NxtStep can help you turn that idea into a successful product business. Lean more by booking a a free product strategy call today or send us an email at

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