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Doing user interviews as a startup founder.

Doing user interviews as a startup founder.

Here are a few lessons I have learned about doing user interviews as a founder.

#1 The definition of users will keep changing

Our definition of who our users are (or going to be) keeps changing. Starting from something like “all restaurant owners” to “restaurant owners in Singapore” to “restaurant owners in Singapore who run bakeries that sell designer cupcakes, and have one outlet”.

#2 Having a really narrow definition is okay

After accepting that the definition of the user is going to keep changing, it’s best to start by talking to the ones who fit in your current definition. If you’ve already built something, show it to everyone who fits your definition, and find the one, two or five people who “get” it.

#3 Listen to users, seriously

Show them whatever you’re working on, whether it’s on a napkin, a presentation, a prototype or a product demo, doesn’t matter. And then start listening. Two things can happen, either they start talking about “this is how I could see using it”, or “this is how I could see other people using it”. If it’s the first, dig deeper.

#4 Ask your users who you should talk to next.

At the end of each conversation, ask the person you speak with — who else you should talk to about your product or idea. You’ve spent time explaining what you do/have in mind, and they know people.

#5 Ask questions that will hurt your feelings

What do you really think about what I’m showing you? If they say they love it, ask them to give you money upfront, or write a testimonial, or sign a letter of intent, or get on a call with investors to tell them your idea or product is awesome. If they don’t, ask them why not? And they’ll tell you their problems with it.

#6 Figure out how to save them time, or make them money

The world is running fine without our startups existing. If our goal is to change it in some way and make it better, we must figure out how it is currently getting run. The baker in this story is selling his designer cupcakes and running his business.

#7 Listen until you can accurately predict what you’ll hear

When you’ve found a bunch of people, who just seem to “get it” — and every new conversation you’re having seems to be repetitive. You keep hearing the same thing again and again. You’ve found the set of people to go after. Define what’s common between them, and figure out how to address it.

#8 If it feels like you’re going in circles, you’re probably not listening.

People can say the same thing in a million different ways. “It’s really hard to train new bakers”, “getting the colors mixed right takes a lot of practice”, “the first time I ever tried this, it was a disaster”, etc.

#9 Listening actively takes practice.

Getting good at picking these up takes a lot of practice, but in general, two simple things can help quite a bit. First taking super detailed notes, or if you’re going alone, recording those conversations.

#10 Emotions indicate something worth digging into.

Pay close attention when you sense that the person is emotionally engaged in the conversation. It’s an indicator that they care about something. And people care about things that affect time and money.

#11 If you’re not 100% confident about your next steps, you haven’t talked to enough users.

Each time you’re guessing why something isn’t working, or what you should be doing next. The default answer is talking to users. Even though it might feel counterproductive, time spent talking to users never goes to waste.

#12 Everyone is nice until you ask them for something in return

To know if you’ve really got something, always ask the user for something in return. Whether it’s their email address, a referral, a cheque, or a recommendation — no one, other than your friends and family will give you something if it doesn’t bring them some value in return.

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