“Talk to the people: customer interviews for content strategists” – Kerry-Anne Gilowey at Confab

Confab Events logoI’m attending Confab 2013 in London today, watching my laptop battery indicator dip into the red as I try and get all my notes published as quickly as possible. Why oh why oh why can’t Apple be using supercapacitor graphene already, eh?

“Talk to the People: Customer Interviews for Content Strategists” – Kerry-Anne Gilowey

Kerry-Anne Gilowey gave a decent overview of user research interview dos and don’ts, not least of which being why do them at all. Personas, analytics and audience segments delivered by the marketing department only get us so far towards hearing the real voice of the user. “If we can get the voice of the customer into the room,” she said, “it helps us decide on a lot of even the most basic things.”

Typically, Kerry-Anne says, an organisation will often just ask “Can’t we do it with surveys?” Sure, she said, surveys are cheaper, faster, easier and “certainly not as daunting”, but they carry a lot of disadvantages. People don’t always express themselves very well in writing, you can’t ask direct follow-up questions, and you don’t get any non-verbal cues.

Kerry-Anne appreciated that with a lot of introverts in the audience at Confab, meeting people face-to-face can be a scary prospect, and one technique she suggested was using props, like paper, Post-It notes and pens to give a session a focus that would help get over any awkwardness. And also help the interviewee remember more details about their customer experience.

And you have have to remember that it is their customer experience you are trying to get at. Kerry-Anne said one of the most useful phrases is “Tell me more about that.” It isn’t a question, it is more of a subtle command. She also urged interviewers not to interrupt. Leaving long awkward pauses can be hard, but it needs to be done. “Their train of thought is more important than yours” she observed, and said the most valuable thing you are going to have during these interviews is them talking — why step in and stop that?

There is a conflict when interviewing between empathy and objectivity, but you have nothing to lose by being friendly at the start. You need to make a connection with the subject in order to get them to open up. Asking questions about jobs, kids and pets to break the ice can often also yield extra contextual information that can inform later questions.

I was reminded of Raffaella Roviglioni’s talk at EuroIA in Rome last year, about her unexpected path from being an agronomist to doing UX design. One of her projects had been a field study in Africa, and she had learnt that it was better to have a vague plan of what you wanted to discuss and explore, and go with the flow during the session, than have a rigid script which you were unwilling to deviate from.

At Confab today, Kerry-Anne Gilowey suggested that giving a bit of that plan away to the subject might be helpful. There would often be a “temporal disconnect” between when they had experienced the service you were asking them about, and the interview itself. Giving them some forewarning of the topics to be covered would help the subject recall the details and prepare.

Kerry-Anne also mentioned that some people can just be hard to get stuff out of. I must confess that is one reason I end up favouring the DIY approach. I feel like I’m happier cutting an interview short myself, than watching someone I’ve commissioned gamely struggle to make a session last 45 minutes because that is what they have been contracted to do.

A final great tip from Kerry-Anne was to listen out for the word “obviously”. It almost certainly leads into something that will help you understand the mental model the user has constructed about how your business or business sector works.


Well, the battery is getting low on the laptop, so likely I’ll be conserving power and just note-taking rather than publishing from hereon in. Expect more blog posts tonight or tomorrow morning. Hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage so far.

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