Listening To What People Say

I got accepted to CXL institutes’ conversion optimisation mini-degree scholarship. It claims to be one of the most thorough conversion rate optimisation training programs in the world. The program runs online and covers 74 hours and 37h minutes of content over 12 weeks. As part of the scholarship, I have to write an essay about what I learn each week. This is my ninth report.

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UPDATE: A more recent and expanded version of this article is now at

Listening is an important part of building a product people want to use. It won’t solve all your problems but it will give you a clearer picture of what better means to the people that use your product. That might sound simple but it’s not. The concept of better is meaningless outside of the human context it’s being discussed in. Better for who? Better at what? Speaking to people and listening to what they say is a quick and powerful way to answer these questions.

Here is a simple three-step plan for conducting useful customer interviews.

1. Establish Your Learning Goals#

This is trickier than it sounds because we don’t know what we don’t know. Define your learning goals too precisely and you may miss out on things you had no idea people cared about. On the other hand, keep things vague and it will be hard to get anyone to speak to you. A good learning goal focuses on testing the riskiest part of a business. Most businesses and features are built around the idea that people will want X because of Y. If you don’t have more specific learning goals then testing these assumptions is a useful place to start.

2. Create A Data Collection Template Based On These Goals#

Conversations with humans are a messy affair. This lovely mess is the fertile ground from which insights are gently unearthed. As lovely and messy as things may be, it’s important to catalogue insights so that you can act on them later. A template helps you do this by giving you a place to collect, organise and sort through insights. Not capturing insights means that you either forget everything, or that everything stays locked in your head and nobody else can act on it.

Think of a data collection template as a worst case scenario. It helps you establish the three most important things that you want to learn from customers. If the conversation goes nowhere then at least you have asked them your three most important questions. The exact phrasing of these questions will evolve as you interview more people, but the learning goal stays consistent.

This isn’t a complicated template, I just use a spreadsheet. One column for who the person is, one column for each of your learning goals (a maximum of three), and one massive column for additional notes. If the conversation goes well and you get loads of notes that’s great. No matter what happens you will leave with some contribution to each of your top 3 learning goals.

3. Begin Speaking To People#

Speaking to people is a delicate matter. If you come off as a robotic questionnaire then people’s shields go up and the conversation goes nowhere. If you hit it off with someone and have a great conversation then, despite their best intentions, they will almost certainly lie to you.

I cannot talk about the customer interview process without referring to Rob Fitzpatrick. His book is the single most useful resource I have ever read on the matter. It’s called ‘The Mom Test’ because it helps you formulate questions that even your mum can’t lie to you about. Here are two of Rob’s key points on how to stop people from lying to you:

Have Nothing To Sell#

If you try and push a feature or sell an upgrade then the conversation becomes a sales call and stops being a customer interview. The moment you start pitching anything or talking about what you should build, they will instinctively veer towards telling you what you want to hear. When you have nothing to sell, people don’t know what you want to hear, so they can’t lie to you. Customer interviews are about the customer, not your product. The goal is to learn about their motivations and why they got themselves into the problem in the first place.

Only Discuss Specifics#

Hypotheticals are toxic shiny objects because they sound great but mean nothing. People are terrible at predicting their own behaviour. Instead, only talk about specifics that have happened in the past. It’s harder for people to lie about specifics.

When you start pitching stuff, or talking about what someone might do, then people automatically try and tell you the correct answer, regardless of how true it is. It’s not that people want to lie to you, it’s just what we do in polite conversation. It is often the path of least resistance. Avoid bullshit by not having anything to sell and only talking specifics.

So What Do You Actually Say To People?#

As little as possible, is the short answer.

A good interview usually lasts about 15 minutes. You want to be talking as little as possible during this time. This post is called how to listen to people, not how to talk to people. The more you talk, the worse you’re doing.

Getting someone to talk means asking good questions that get straight to what they care about. You must start with pleasantries (Thank you for taking the time) and you need to frame the conversation (As I mentioned in my email, we want to improve our product but we need to make sure we’re heading in the right direction), then jump straight into what matters.

I’m not big on using scripts. They can be helpful but I use my data collection template to guide the conversation instead. I also have a list of fallback questions and follow ups if I stall. Beyond that, just focus on having a conversation and actually listening to what people say.

Here are my top 3 starter/fallback questions.

1. Is there anything that frustrates you about [our product] at the moment?#

Sometimes the only reason someone will take the call with you is because they have clear frustrations they want to vent. Address these first and understand why they are important to the person you are speaking to. There is no point doing exploratory research when they already have a clear list of problems they want to talk about.

The danger with asking this question is that people might start giving you ideas for features. In general, people are terrible at identifying features they will actually use. Figuring out features is your job, the reason you are speaking to people is to understand the specific problems people have faced in the past.

When feature requests do come up it’s important to follow up and gauge how serious a request is.

2. What Is the hardest part about doing [the problem your product helps people solve]?#

Another way to phrase the same inquiry is: Why do you bother [doing/solving X problem]?

This question is fantastic because it reveals what’s important about a problem space to the person you are speaking to. If you are doing customer interviews to understand what better means to someone then this line of inquiry usually highlights relevant information.

Good follow up questions here are:

3. Is there anything else I should have asked?#

This is a great question for the end of an interview because sometimes people understand what you are trying to do but you just haven’t given them an opening to say what they want to say. Other times you can sense that the conversation isn’t over yet and it’s because they have questions. I always ask if they have questions for me before ending the call.

These are the questions I use. They broadly apply to digital products. They are not a formula. The questions you need to ask will depend on your learning goals. I usually start with these three questions and then progress to better questions once I’ve spoken to a few people.

Speaking to people and listening to what they say is one of the best ways to understand how to improve something. It won’t solve all your problems but it will help you understand what better means to the people who use your product.