Hacking Your Customer Interview

Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don’t care about the idea, the startup fails. – By Eric Ries

Following the Lean Startup principles, I have been doing some research on how to interview with our customers for one of my hack week projects. Here are my notes for the research. Most of the content comes from Customer Developer Lab, which is found by Justin Wilcox.

Ground Rules for Interviewing

Before we discuss about how to interview, let’s talk about what we should not do during an interview.

No Pitching

This is about listening. If you find yourself trying to propose an idea and want to get feedback from it, STOP. This is pitching. It changes your mind from learning and absorbing information into trying to pitching something and sell a product. But our goal is all about learning and listening to your customers.

NOT Ask Questions about Future

Do not ask hypothetical questions about the future, like “Would you…” or “Will you…”. Instead, ask questions like “Have you ever…” or “Tell me about the last time…”. The reasons are if we are asking our customers about future, we are getting our customers’ predictions which are basically useless. Most customers don’t know their answers for the future and if they say something we happen to want to hear, we will be misled. Another reason is that if we begin to ask questions like “Would you…” or “Will you…”, we are actually pitching.

What to ask?

Customer Interview Script

  1. Tell me a story about the last time <problem context>
  2. What was hardest?
  3. Why was that hard?
  4. How do you solve it now?
  5. Why is that not awesome?

The most trickiest part above is how to define the <problem context> for question #1. Let’s talk about an example shown in Justin Wilcox’s blog. Assuming we want to build a vegetarian Yelp, we don’t want the problem to be so specific that everyone could guess what you want to solve , like:

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about finding a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

And we don’t want to be so broad that we are inviting discussion about a range of problems we have no interest to solve:

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?”

We need to ask about a significant problem context:

Ask: “What’s the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?”

The answers to the last question will help us to validate our hypothesis, if they don’t, will point us to one if they do have.

Bonus Points

Fulfilling the script above is just the basics for the customer interview. Bonus will be given if we can achieve some of the points below.

  • Emotions
    Observe your customers’ emotion when they are talking about this problem. Try to understand them.

  • Repeat for 3 times
    Repeat the above script for at least 3 times.

    Ask: “Tell me another time when you…”

  • 3-Whys
    Apply the theory of The 3-Whys to understand a problem.


Customer Dev Labs
The Lean Startup