Talk to the Nice People - Insight Interviews
Monday, April 15, 2013 at 3:31PM
Mair Dundon in customer development, interviews, lean UX, lean startup, process

In my previous post "What Customers Are You Creating?" we talked about creating customer persona - a picture of one representitive group of our customers - so we would start noticing these people out in the world. Isn't that good enough? Haven't we "gotten down" the people we're designing for? It's time to get to work - right?

Nope. If we're using the concepts of lean startup and UX, the next thing we want to do is "get out of the building" to test those hypothesis. In this case, we're going to have to get out and "talk to the nice people."

And when we get out to talk to them - we're not talking to them about our solution - we're asking questions to find out how these people are solving this problem WITHOUT our product. We're literally getting to know how they think and why they choose to do things a certain way.

Lizard Brain Training

First, let's acknowledge the reality of the situation. Talking to people is one of the most difficult tasks we have as we create our products and services. Even the most extraverted of people struggle to keep themselves talking to people that they aren't comfortable with or that have a different context than they do. But, if we're smart, we'll train ourselves to overcome that lizard brain reaction and begin stepping in and trying things out in this part of our world, just as we do in all the other parts of our business.

"You'd be amazed how often we create customers who we don't really like and who don't interest us. Ah, that crafty brain at work again - trying to convince us that we don't really need to go out and talk to those "annoying, stupid, frustrating, strange, scary, not us" people. But maybe, just maybe, I might want to go out and talk to a few "Michelle's." Therein lies the game."


Let's say you "recognize" a person who might fit your persona as you move through the world. What do you say to them?

Most of us instinctually launch into an explanation of who we are and what our product is and how we're doing what we do and…and…and. Seeing any problems with that? Who's doing all the talking in that scenario?

90% listening
It turns out customer development is not really about TALKING to people but rather LISTENING. It's about asking the questions that allow people to tell their stories about how they navigate the world without your product, as well as what delights or disappoints them in those situations and why they do things a certain way. It's being honestly curious about those "decide" moments when they choose to buy, participate or choose another direction.

In other words, you'll be listening for their personal story, which invariably points out where your made up assumptions don't even vaguely match reality (you're wrong) - and helps find new intriguing patterns and deeper underlying motivations you didn't know about to investigate. Their stories inspire you to keep moving, thinking and trying things.

Enter kindly
I have a friend who always greets me at the door, face alight and hand out to grasp mine. Saying my name, she pulls me in the door and then quickly seats me so she can ask me a questions about how things are going. In that simple greeting - she has taught me everything I need to know about talking to the nice people.

A big part of calming both ourselves and others in our interviews is having an "entrance" that is memorized but practiced enough that it has become natural. This is one of our big tasks in the LUXr workshop on conducting quality interviews.

In the accelerator programs we work in I suggest they try a strategy of learning. "Hi, my name is Mair Dundon and I'm an entrepreneur who is just learning to do customer interviews around how people do XXXX." When working on my own product - I tend toward something a little less formal. "Hi, my name's Mair. Would you have a couple of minutes to talk about the apps that you're using on your phone? Would you like a coffee? My treat." Find a way to quickly fit in what you'd like to talk about. Comfort the person by setting a time frame. Offer a gift.

Know your focus
Each time you go out to do customer development, you need to be clear what you need to learn. Can you learn about what makes people crazy about something in the problem space you're working in? Maybe you'd like to hear more about what different types of services a person uses to download photos. Is there anything they particularly love about any of those services? Can you learn more about their particular workflow?

Last week when I was doing some customer development for my upcoming workshops, my friend Scott Tran told me that he's begun going into his interviews looking not only for stories about how people do things without his product, but also learning about that "buying moment" - why did the person decide to get that service, upgrade or change how they do things. He'd learned about that idea in another workshop and simply wrapped it right in to his practice.

Ask open "story" questions
Asking questions really is an art form. I recently read a wonderful post in which the author felt his success was because he had learned how to ask questions when he worked as a journalist. The type of questions that we'd like to ask during insight interviews are both specific and open ended. Before you head out be sure to get a set of topics that give you a good foundation for subject matter (the problem space you're working in) and then try a few of these leading questions….

"Have you ever…."
"And then what happened…"
"Why (or how) did you do that…"
"Can you say more about that…"

Taking notes is one of the big challenges in doing customer development. When I'm working on my own - I tend to ask if I can record the conversation so that I can relax and listen more carefully. Always ask permission before you record any conversation. Some people take a 2nd person along just to take notes. This is interesting because both of you will hear different things. This does take practice though - as you want to keep a single focus for your customer. 

If neither of those options is available then I simple jot down quick one or two highlights of the conversation on a piece of paper and then fill it in as clearly as I can immediately following the interview. Go after the "why" and "how" moments in the conversation.

Graceful exits
What if they say, "No."? This is a good thing. Thank them for letting you know and quietly exit. AND notice two things - notice if anyone around you feels badly for that other person saying "No" to you. If you're quick you can catch them as you leave. "Did you have a few minutes to talk to me about…?" Also notice that the person saying no will almost always feel guilty even if they're annoyed with you for interrupting (you'll discover people are SOOOOO much nicer than you thought they were). If you'd like you can offer them an out - "Maybe I can catch you later" or "Can I give you my card?" are both options I've used.

Everyone has a story
Don't throw out people who don't "fit" your customer persona. I've actually seen hyper-focused entrepreneurs "drop" the human being they are speaking with when it becomes evident they aren't the "right" person. Really? As you become more practiced at talking to people you'll discover that having a conversation with almost anyone brings insights - even if it just shows you more clearly who isn't your customer.

And if they don't fit the persona  you're working with then maybe they're a different group - one you hadn't ever imagined as being your customer. Keep track of them until you begin to see a pattern emerge. As we grow our companies we all have moments where we need to democratize or move out into wider markets and new segments. Consider outliers and "not right now" people as valuable - they're the ones that can provide "ah-ha" moments and game-changing insights needed to shift our direction.


Creating offerings using customer development really turns our business on it's head. First we hypothesize that we might have a solution that customers need. Then we test that assumption by getting out and talking to them. 

As we interact with our customers we gain "insights" that translate that back into new or shifted hypothesis. And if that tells we're on a strong path, we then create the smallest experience (MVP) we can think up to test whether our solution really does solve a user need. And eventually we create a company and business model that best serves ongoing growth and innovation.

Throughout it all - we need to continue customer development. This means that we better get really good knowing who our customer is, finding them, asking good questions and then listening to them to shake out even more patterns and insights.

Join me as I continue iterating my Talking to the Nice People workshops where you can practice all of these skills. Customer insights are just one conversation away - let's get started!

Article originally appeared on Mair Dundon | quietAction | Creative Entrepreneur & Lean Product & Business Design (
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