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“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, said that decades ago, and  it remains the default position of many leaders today. Customer Interviews and Focus Groups are a structured way to take qualitative conversations and turn them into quantifiable data… the data you need to influence your CEO.

Speaking directly with customers can be difficult, messy, time consuming, distracting, and intimidating. It’s one of those tasks which, objectively, every Product Manager will say is very important, but it is also the one which is not done consistently. It’s easier to send a survey, speak with internal stakeholders at your company, or even to monitor and analyze comments on social media. Yet the insights you can glean by speaking directly with your customers – the people who are using your product or who have chosen to buy it – can enliven dry powerpoint statistics.

Get out there and interview your customers, run focus groups, and learn how they are using your product, why they bought it, and whether your future plans will meet their future needs. Some say NIHITO (“Nothing Important Happens in the Office”), and if you believe it, get out of the office and meet some customers (physically or virtually).

What are Interviews & Focus Groups and Why Use them to Gather Customer Feedback?

“Customer interviews are a common mechanism for gathering the voice of the customer. Customer interviews are usually conducted one-on-one with an individual customer or with a small number of people from the same business or family unit. They provide an opportunity to get in-depth information from a single customer,” writes Kenneth Crow of DRM Associates.

Focus Groups involve a “small number of people (usually between 4 and 15, but typically 8) brought together with a moderator to focus on a specific product or topic. Focus groups aim at a discussion instead of on individual responses to formal questions, and produce qualitative data (preferences and beliefs) that may or may not be representative of the general population.”

A distinction: focus groups are not usability tests and usability tests are not focus groups. “If you want to learn how quickly and effectively a participant can complete tasks with your product, then you should run Usability Testing. Watch your [participants] use your product to see where they are successful and where they struggle in order to improve the user experience.” More on usability tests in a future post.

Customer interviews can be more time-consuming than focus groups, but because you are speaking directly with a single customer, you can focus on their particular experience, and also hear directly from them. Alternatively, Focus Groups have the advantage of allowing participants to hear and respond to what each other is saying. In the hands of a skilled moderator, a focus group can highlight key issues without devolving into groupthink.

Focus Groups are not Usability Tests. “Would you purchase this product?” is only loosely coupled with “How would you complete this task?”

What kind of feedback will it get you?

Customer interviews and focus groups are often used to validate and refine assumptions related to defining a product and bringing it to market. They can help you reduce the risk of going to market with a dud of a product. For example, according to Andrew Kaplan, LinkedIn uses customer interviews and focus groups to validate these topics:focus-group-data-400x400

  1. “We want to know who is our likely target customer.
  2. We want to prioritize the features we develop now rather than later.
  3. We want to know if there is any market for our product and if we should even build what we’ve planned.
  4. We want to test our narrative and positioning.
  5. We want to learn which other solutions are the closest comps.
  6. We want to understand how to price.”

I recommend that you read his full post. It contains lots of in-the-trenches insights on conducting customer interviews, especially in the “Ask the right questions” section.

The Facts

Collecting the Feedback: Difficult. It takes time to figure out what you want to ask, and how you want to ask it. Conducting the interviews themselves is taxing both mentally and temporally. Yet the insights you can gather are second to none. Conducting a customer interview can be taxing both mentally and temporally. It can also be the most important conversation you have all day.

Analyzing the Feedback: Difficult. Do enough interviews and patterns might start to emerge, but it takes time and a keen assessment to pull out the patterns and trends. Customers are notoriously bad at predicting the future and expressing their needs in terms of new product features. But they are excellent at telling you where your product falls short and the pain points they keep experiencing. You need to be able to ask appropriate questions, and listen for what they are, and are not, saying.

Reach: Limited. Surveys are used when you need to canvas a broad spectrum of customers. Focus Groups and individual interviews are much more intimate.

Scalability: Difficult. You can share interview scripts and objectives so focus groups and interviews can be conducted by any number of people. But inherently, these types of interviews are more intimate, conducted in real time by real people. They take time.

Cost: Expensive. Even if conducted virtually, finding customers to interview, scheduling and conducting the interviews, and analyzing the results takes both manpower and money.

Pros… with Benefits

Cons… with Weaknesses

Using Interviews & Focus Groups Throughout the Product Development LifecycleCustomer interviews throughout the product development lifecycle

At what point(s) in the PDLC will this type of feedback be most useful?

Product Development Lifecycle:

Tapping into Interviews & Focus Groups is helpful throughout the Product Development Lifecycle.

Best Practices & Pro-tips

Learn to Ask Great Questions

good customer interview questionsWhen it comes to conducting a customer interview or running a focus group, the questions you ask form the backbone of the experience. So, before spending too much time planning out the interview or focus group:

Lucky for you, I’ve already written a couple of posts on these topics which <humblebrag> I’ve been told are quite phenomenal, although I find it hard to believe </humblebrag>. Check them out so you, too, can tell me how amazing they are.


how to plan a focus group or customer interviewGood interviews and focus groups require great planning. Understand your objectives and subject matter, structure the questions you want to ask so you can compare results across sessions, and turn anecdotes into trends.

Running a Customer Interview or Focus Group

Start by establishing the ground rules for the interview. Your primary objective is to make sure that participants understand their role in this process, while also making them feel comfortable enough to honestly express themselves. Let them know what the information will be used for, whether it will remain anonymous or be attributed to them, and with whom it will be shared.

A logistical side note: assign a designated note-taker, preferably a different person than the one conducting the interview. If it is not possible or practical to have a note taker, ask participants if you can record audio or video of the interview itself. Just remember that many people become self-conscious when there are recording devices present.

Signposts to look for during the interview:

How Not to Interview

Justin Wilcox gives some sound advice on interviews:

How TO Interview

how-to-interview-customers-800x533Justin Wilcox uses these 5 questions as a springboard for the customer interview:

  1. “What’s the hardest part about [problem context]?
  2. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
  3. Why was that hard?
  4. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
  5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?”

He goes on to explain that for question 1, “you want to ask about a significant problem context – situations that occurs frequently enough, or are painful enough, to warrant solving.”

Other questions Justin will often include in his script are:

Read the rest of his post for more insights.

Thanks for the data… Now What?

Summarize the findings of each session and all meta-findings as soon as possible. Field Guide provides some concise guidelines in a post on Medium:

The bottom line of your summary: did the customers validate or invalidate your hypothesis? What are the key learnings? Are there any adjustments you would make in the next sessions based on what you learned?

Above all, don’t jump to conclusions. Allow the series of interviews or focus groups play out before deciding to pivot or abandon. It’s hard, but essential, that you get critical mass. Just don’t draw conclusions that weren’t there. “Resist the temptation to infer things that your customers didn’t tell your explicitly,” says Andrew Kaplan.


Customer Interviews and focus groups are the best way to get detailed information about how and why customers are using your products. Speak with your customers and seek to understand their motivations. Through strategic use of interviews, you can validate your hypothesis about future product direction and get confirmation about your upcoming product improvements. Make no mistake – conducting and analyzing customers interviews is very difficult and time-consuming. Done well, they will give you the confidence that the product you are releasing will be a winner.

Steven Telio

About Steven Telio

Steven is a Product Management Consultant who specializes in defining and delivering stellar digital products. He has held senior level Product Management roles with a number of startups, including 4 which had successful exits. He has led projects in a variety of industries for organizations that include EMC, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Syngenta, Boeing, NASA, and Harvard Medical School, and began his career doing technical support for a medical device start-up, where he answered “patient-on-the-table” service calls from neurosurgeons.