How do you organise interview data?

When I first read the Mom Test and started doing customer interviews, it became clear that I’d be accumulating lots of notes and recordings of interviews I didn’t know what to do with.

There were two of us doing interviews at the time. We would do a bunch of interviews and then share takeaways with each other. Whoever was doing the interview was still a massive bottleneck to the actual insights.

We tried recording sessions when we got permission, but going through every recording took too long and was unsustainable. I’m going to share the process I’ve settled on since.

I’ve come to rely on a tool called Dovetail. I have no affiliation. I’m just love  their product. You can probably use a free Kanban board to replicate most of this, but Dovetail makes the whole process a delight.

The raw input here is a transcript of your interview (or notes as a fallback).The idea is to go through the interview, line by line and highlight points of note. I don’t think there is a correct way to do this, but my points of note are insights, opportunities and verbs.

A blurry example from a real project so you can see how I highlight and tag points of note .

An insight is anything that resonates with you (explicit or implied). How do you know what’s relevant when you’re not sure what you’re trying to figure out? Close your eyes at the end of an interview, the two or three bits that stick out most vividly are your key insights.

An opportunity is more practical. Julia wants a way to listen to the audio at double speed. Listening to what people ask for is not to same as building everything they want. Make a note of what people ask for so that you can start to see patterns in the underlying problems.

Then there’s verbs. If someone talks about the highlighter feature acting wonky, tag that under ‘highlighting’. If people bring up the text being too small, tag that under ‘reading’. When people talk about your product, capture the action at the centre of the conversation.

The goal here is to to cluster all your notes around the verbs your users use to think about your product experience. I think of our product in terms of feature A, B, C and D. They’re great features but people only think about the product in terms of reading , writing and highlighting. Sometime’s there’s alignment here, most of the time there isn’t. The latter is all that matters.

Insight, opportunities and verbs. That’s how I organise interview data. There’s going to be a lot of overlap, but just relying on verbs doesn’t let you capture general insights and opportunities. Dovetail lets you tag the same thing in multiple ways so that’s not a problem.

To keep track of all this you can organise everything in columns. I start with 4: Insights, opportunities, verbs and one for my research question. When clusters begin to appear I pull them into their own column. So I start with 4 and then let the rest form organically.

A blurry example from a real project so you can see how highlights eventually get organised into columns

For example, if 7 of the verb highlights are about editing then I will make a new ‘editing’ column and move everything over. Then I rename the tags to describe what it is about the editing experience they’re highlighting (slow, no-redo button, autosave, placement, etc).

This is fundamentally a qualitative database. A place you can turn to when you want to know the customers perspective. Organisation by verbs means you know how people group the experience in their heads. Now you also know what most people care about when it comes to ‘drafting’.

The process scales to small teams well. Double entry work best in groups. Transcripts gets analysed then reviewed by another before it’s ‘done’. Helps everyone stay on the same page (and minimises bias). Double entry is a luxury few teams can afford though.

I’ve also learned that exposing stakeholders to 2 hours of raw research every 6 weeks is key. If you’re interviews are 20-30 minutes long then shortlist 4-5 for people to watch every 6 weeks. I didn’t pull that number our of a hat, learned it from Jared Spool. It works. 

Customer discovery and doing user interviews is about grounding everyone’s decision making process in your customer’s perspective. A minimum of 2 hours inside your user’s heads every 6 weeks makes collectively judging whether stuff will be useful becomes much easier. 

Being able to recall actual conversations when you’re making important decisions means you never have to rely on bullshit personas ever again. 

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