Business is a bad place for surprises—after all, how many surprises in your life went well? If you’re starting a business or working on a new product, there are efficient ways to save yourself from unexpected things happening—like your product failing and you losing money. If you want your product to be successful, you have to know your customers. But simply knowing your target audience isn’t enough. You have to know exactly what they want and how to deliver it to them.

Don’t Forget To Ask

The easiest way to know about the needs and wishes of the audience is, of course (wait for it) to ask them. I understand that few developers ever want to hear people criticize their apps, but if you want your product to sell, you’ll have to accept what’s coming at you. While you’ll be hiding out in the bushes, some other team will be improving their product and making more money from it.

The sad truth is, if you don’t get your product out there and get feedback, you losing a ton of money that you invested in the product (the same money you could spend on slurping piña coladas on an island). It happened to Google (imagine that!) when they presented Google Wave in 2010, because no one really understood what the hell it was and how it was supposed to work. But the good news is that customer interviews are virtually free, and it would be a crime not to use them for your product’s sake.

Customer Interviews: What They Are, and Why They Matter

Okay, okay, you say: “just tell me what to do to save my business from failure.” This is where customer interviews can save the day. They are basically a part of the customer development process and tend to give the best insights; ones that can potentially improve your product and its features. You can talk to people personally, or over the phone; either way, use these methods to get elaborate responses. You can learn your audience’s language, and see their non-verbal reactions by focusing on what they do instead of what they say.

Now that we’ve established that customer interviews are a vital part of product development and briefly explained their benefits, let’s talk about how to conduct customer interviews efficiently in different stages so that both your product and your audience can profit from it.

Before we take action and show how to interview customers, here’s a short intermission. How do we actually find people to interview? First of all, there are plenty of free options. But if you have a little money to spare, you can add more methods to your arsenal.

Stage 1: Establishing Product/Market Fit

The most important thing you need to remember is that you should only work on a product that you’re sure people really need. At Stage 1, customer interviews should help define your product/market fit.

Let’s say you’ve decided to help people with their relationship problems. (Oh wait, there are therapists for that… whatever, it’s an example!) But, you’ve gone one step further and decided to create an app that will solve relationship problems. Naturally, you expect your app to hit the mass market—this is where you expect your income to come from.

However, there’s one little problem with that. An app like that can only help people who know they have problems, and who are looking for solutions. But most of the time, people have trouble describing what is wrong, or admitting that something is wrong, for that matter.

Conclusion: you can’t sell a problem-solving app to people who don’t realize or understand their problems. Sadly, you will soon fail with a venture like this.

However, not all is lost: you could have used some customer discovery questions to get a better idea of your intended audience:

  • Are they in a relationship? If yes, what kind? Are they married, or dating? Do they have kids?
  • How long have they been in this relationship?
  • Are there any problems in this relationship? In previous ones?
  • How do they usually solve them? (For example: therapy, drinking, running, kayaking, getting a sad tattoo, etc.)
  • Have they ever seen a therapist to discuss this matter, and why?
  • What pros and cons did they see in seeing a therapist? (For example: price, attitude, reliability, etc.)
  • Have they ever used any dating or psychology apps, and if so, which ones? What did they like and dislike about them?

After you’ve talked to your potential customers and collected the data, define the insights and improve your idea accordingly. Other people’s insights might be a lot different from yours, so your product development may take an unexpected turn. But this is another thing you shouldn’t forget when developing a product—you are not your own target audience. By this point, you will have a good idea of who it is—and newly married couples in their honeymoon phase are less likely to be part of it.

Also, you may gain useful knowledge about your competitors by learning what people like or dislike about other similar apps. Bonus!

Stage 2: Gathering Your MVP Feedback

By now, you’ve gathered the feedback from Stage 1. In our example, the feedback would be pretty clear: people don’t understand and don’t try to solve their problems on their own; they either see a therapist for that, or leave the problems alone.

But therapists are expensive, and you’re convinced that your app will be able to give expert relationship advice for much less than a therapist would charge. Your goal is to give people a little “genie”; a therapist inside a phone, including reliable data, psychological approaches, diagrams, and analyzers of behavior, level of happiness, etc.

But again, this can fall pretty flat on its face for a couple reasons: people a) don’t trust non-human therapists; and b) expect an app to be easy to use, and your app is not (as most MVPs are in their baby stages).

Going back to customer interviews, you can avoid your MVP missing the mark by asking a few insightful questions:

  • Have they previously sought help from a therapist, and if not—why? If yes—was it a relationship matter they needed help with?
  • What are the pros and cons of their therapy? Did they get good value for money? Did they find the specialist reliable?
  • Or did they get relationship advice from friends, and why do they think it works better?
  • What lifestyle, health, or advice apps do they use, if at all? And what do they find especially helpful about them?

This information would help you build your MVP—a Minimum Viable Product, or a piece of software that has just enough functionality to be let out to the market. By conducting user experience research, you will find out where the beta-version of your app needs improvement directly from the end-users. The results of the UX research will then help you avoid costly changes in the future.

For instance, when Pokemon Go was launched in 2016, it had just enough features for people to catch all the pokemans. Users could only do a minimum with their avatars. It was only later that more features were introduced. More food and types of pokeballs were introduced with updated releases.

All of this was done only when the creators confirmed that their game was wanted by customers (i.e., they tested it on early adopters and validated their product). And this is what customer interviews at this stage would help you achieve.

Depending on the feedback, you’ll see if your app needs an easier-to-use interface; or if you should give it a human face, like engaging a real-life therapist and sending relationship advice on their behalf.

By the way, according to CB Insights, lack of need for the product is the reason why 42% of startups fail. Another 18% fail because of pricing issues, and 14% of startups fail simply because they didn't listen to what their customers had to say. Customer interviews can help you avoid all three of these issues.

Stage 3: Product Validation Interviews And Final Touches

This stage is one last check before you develop your final product. Using the data you collected during your Stage 2 customer interviews and what came out in the UX research, you’ve now improved your product as much as you could. Check and see if you took all the important aspects into account: pricing, UX, insights, etc.

This is your chance to interview your customers and apply final touches to your app before deployment. This is your app, so you can make it anything you want, but it could go something like this: your customer…

  • Chooses his or her goal: saving a marriage, understanding one’s role in a relationship better, or better identifying the problem;
  • Answers questions to let the app know about what is bothering him or her;
  • Gets personalized information and everyday recommendations from a real therapist on how to identify and/or solve the problem.

This could be the basic structure, but you can add other features to your brainchild.

Done? Congratulations—your app is ready to conquer the universe!

The Stage That Never Ends

This is no time to relax, though. From now on, you’re in the stage that will last as long as you want your product to exist. All the customer interviews you’ve conducted while developing your app are capturing one particular time—with certain client needs, IT standards, and possibilities. But the UX is changing, and the demands are changing and growing constantly.

Thus, whenever you want to update, improve, or expand your product, you should ask your customers. At this stage, you should have enough customers to create conditions for conducting customer interviews and surveys in reliable way. If you don’t, the number of users will decrease, and your product will lose competitiveness.

Let’s take StoryTold, a B2C project designed to help improve parent-child communication. At the very beginning, creators conducted customer interviews to find out what problems parents have communicating with their children, especially when it comes to long-distance communication and apps. These interviews confirmed existing problems and showed that the target audience of the app doesn’t include stay-at-home mothers who spend all their time with their kids.

Next step: customers get to use the app for a couple of weeks, StoryTold creators watch closely.

What were their findings?

  • Competition among messengers is way too hard; the app needs to shift more into storytelling;
  • Gamification didn’t help—kids ignore communication with parents;
  • Kids don’t give feedback to their parents—app developers need to keep an eye on statistics and how much time kids spend browsing different pages;
  • Parents react extremely positively to motivating push notifications.

Customer interviews led to some serious changes in StoryTold’s functionality and business model. Right now, the app is up and running, and the StoryTold team uses all possible metrics to analyze all the user data they can get—what features are used the most and when, and how users behave. They use this data to point out several user categories and introduce updates and improvements accordingly, and then use email and Skype to ask for the paying users’ opinions.

As you can see, StoryTold is a great example of a considerate team that valued customer insights from the beginning and takes into account data they get from customer interviews not only during the development process, but after the app’s release as well.

Moreover, they’ve proven that there’s no need to be scared or anxious about customer interviews—you can conduct them even if you’re a small team. If you do it right, it can radically change and improve your product.

Customer Interviews: Questions to Ask Potential Customers?

Now that we’ve established where customer interviews exist in the process of product development, let’s take a closer look at what and how we ask. It’s not like you can just ask whether a person likes your product; you need to get specific information from your customers.

There are two kinds of questions: closed-ended and open-ended. The answers to closed-ended questions are limited to a certain structure. These include yes/no, true or false, or scale-based questions. In contrast, open-ended questions are designed specifically to encourage elaborate responses. They’re great for your purposes, as they elicit deeper connections and emotions, and may even help you get insights that you hadn’t thought of when you started your project and which may inspire you to take your product in new directions.

Open-ended questions in customer interviews will give you the most value. Always ask why the customer made the decisions they made; their motives will help you narrow your priorities.

There can be a lot more questions; this is only a couple of examples. As you can see, they’re roughly divided into questions about the customers themselves, people’s problems, greatest pains, and your solution. You can (and should) compile your own list of questions following this division.

You can also transform closed-ended questions into open-ended ones. Instead of asking if a customer has any questions, ask what questions you can answer for him or her. Instead of asking whether customers liked your app, ask them about what features were the most useful. The goal is to draw out actionable information and questions from your user, so it’s important to match your language to that goal.

To better train yourself to identify closed-ended and open-ended questions, start paying attention to what kinds of questions you ask the people you encounter. If you find yourself asking a closed-ended question, think about whether you got the information you needed, or whether an open-ended question would have dug up more valuable info for you.

On another note, try asking personal questions; it builds trust between you and the customer, which is vital to successful interviews. For example, the FBI employs this method when interviewing serial killers. What’s good enough for the feds should be good enough for a small and harmless business, right? (Have you watched The Closer? I wish I could engage clients in my interviews like Chief Johnson does her suspects.)

Besides, people love talking about themselves—so just ask away, and then listen to what they have to say. Ask people to talk about themselves, about the problems they have that are relevant to your product, about how they tried to solve that problem (if at all), and why their solution didn’t work.

When talking to a customer, be conversational. If your interview doesn’t feel like a cut-and-dried interview, your customers might open up a little more. In the same vein, don’t be afraid to go off script; sometimes the best stuff comes out when you dig deeper into a subject that lies close to the customer’s heart.

Beware, though! People might want you to like their answers, which is why they can say that they “love love love! your app”. Avoid too-generic answers like, “the app is great!” Always ask the person to elaborate and explain. Ask direct questions about certain features.

Here’s a customer interview template to visualize the concept:

Thus, you find out the person’s needs, present a solution, get feedback, and ideally, end up with a subscription—or at least the person’s contacts, so you can follow up.

And Finally, Take Your Customer Interviews Seriously

As you can see, getting to know your customers is as important as it is fun. You talk to your (prospective) customers, get their insights, and put them all together to get a full picture. As soon as you get to test the waters and find out whether the market is ready for your product—and if people indeed have problems your product can solve—you can go for it and develop whatever it is that you want to sell. If you aren’t considering customer interviews, or don’t think they offer enough to your startup, I urge you to reconsider. Interviews can unlock the best of your product, reveal actionable information for you to improve on, and connect with your audience better than almost any other technique.

A final disclaimer: be prepared to take a little criticism. In fact, that is exactly what customer interviews are for—seeing the real situation in the market, and meeting the real target audience if there is one. Researching your customers and their needs could potentially save you a lot of money and time, and (most importantly) help you make your product the best it can be.

That about wraps it up! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas to chew on, start the conversation below with your fellow IndieHackers!

Read the original version of this article here!