The Magic Interview Question

Posted on June 27, 2022.
You can empower an entire team to build qualitative insight with the right question.

Talk to your customers. You’ve heard this advice repeatedly (often from me). Some teams do this regularly. Others still don’t do this. The excuses vary from not having the people or the time to talk to customers to not having access to them. Talking to customers gives a better sense of their motivations, goals and the drivers for the way they behave when using our products and services. The challenge has always been how to do this in an effective, cost efficient and trustworthy way.

Everyone can talk to customers

The Lean Startup movement effectively brought talking to customers (aka “customer development” or Steve Blank’s favorite phrase, “Get out of the building”) mainstream — to many trained research and UX professionals’ dismay. “How can an untrained person produce trustworthy research?”, they asked.

The concern is valid. Waiting for only trained professionals to speak with customers however is risky. The ratio of trained researchers to “other” people on the team is tiny. This creates a bottleneck for qualitative learning. For time-sensitive, agile teams the delay in getting this insight essentially ensures it will never be incorporated. Surely there’s a way to empower untrained team members to have productive conversations with customers. It turns out, there is and it comes in the form of one simple question. 

One question to rule them all

When we talk to our users our goal is to get stories out of them. We want them to share their recent experiences with our products or services or with solving the problems our products promise to alleviate. We don’t want them to speculate about the future (at least in some cases). We want to understand what they’ve tried, what’s worked well, what’s failed and where there might be opportunities for our product to unseat their incumbent solution. 

We can learn these things and elicit the stories that come with them with this question:

Tell me about the last time you [did something].

Each time you sit with a customer ask them this question. Replace “did something” with the activity your product supports. For example, if you’re in fashion retail the prompt is, “Tell me about the last time you returned a shirt you bought online.” If you work in B2C banking your prompt could be, “Tell me about the last time you applied for a mortgage.” In B2B, your prompt could look something like, “Tell me about the last time you integrated with our API.

As your customer begins to share their story, you can follow up with questions like, “What was hard about that?”, or, “Why did you like the way that worked?” Your goal is to build a robust picture of the experience your customer had. While the steps in the customer journey are important, the story that drives those steps is equally as important. Inevitably, you’ll start to discover patterns across users that drive their behavior. It’s these patterns that then become your opportunity for differentiation. 

The other benefit of this question is that you are avoiding speculation about the future. Your customers aren’t telling you about a future reality that may or may not actually happen. Instead they’re sharing something with you that actually took place. 

Consider this example:

Jeff, what will you have for breakfast tomorrow?
I’m going to start eating healthy tomorrow so it will be half a grapefruit and a cup of black coffee.

Jeff, what did you have for breakfast yesterday?
Well, I had eggs, bacon and potatoes which is what I normally eat.

The second prompt is essentially, “Tell me about the last time you had breakfast.” And the answer is vastly different than a future looking line of questioning and far more relevant to your team’s work. 

Empower the team and bias towards action

This simple prompt can empower an entire team, not just trained researchers, to have effective conversations with customers. Instead of waiting for a full-fledged study to take place (which have their place and need) you and your team members can start to build a set of customer experiences that can focus your OKRs, prioritize your backlog and set you down the path of better meeting your customers’ needs.