Customers can tell you a lot about how and why they use your products and where they fall short. Yet so many product managers fail to make the most of customer interviews by asking probing, insightful questions. As a result, they receive shallow, rote, and rather wasteful answers.
Open-ended questions often lead to more thoughtful responses and encourage the person being asked to give a narrative reply. They typically start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” or “how,” and give the person responding the opportunity to decide what and how much to reveal.
You will almost always learn more with open-ended questions. As Stephanie Vozza writes, “Open-ended questions encourage the person being asked to expand on ideas and explore what is important to them or what is comfortable to reveal….For example, instead of asking ‘Do you agree with this decision?’ ask ‘What do you think about …?’ or ‘What do you want to do next?'”
She continues, “Open-ended questions show respect for the views of others because they don’t lead people to a certain type of answer… [S]ome leaders are uncomfortable asking open-ended questions because control goes to the person being asked, but the technique goes a long way to building rapport and increasing understanding.”
With that said, here are 7 open-ended questions that will yield helpful insights about where you can improve.
1. What do you think of this product?
Marketer Mike Fishbein suggests that this a good question because it is “intentionally vague.” While the question seems deceptively simple, it’s what you’re listening for that matters. Says Fishbein, “Listen to whether they talk about wanting to use the product or how it could be improved. Given how vague the question is, the former is positive, while the latter may be a sign that improvement is needed.” Because it’s so general, it’s a good place to start.
2. “What is the the one thing I should do to make things better for you?”
Greg Dyke, the then-newly-installed Director General of the BBC, asked this question when he took on the job as a way to learn, rather than preach his views.
3. “What should we stop doing?”
As a product manager, you’re in the business of creating and improving. Sometimes, subtracting beats adding. Ask yourself, your customers, and your allies this question frequently to remain focused on core competencies. “If you can’t figure out what you should stop doing, it might be an early warning sign that you don’t know what your strategy is,” says tech writer Warren Berger.
4. “Can you give me an example?”
If you have an opportunity to drill down into the specifics of a concern, take it. These answers will give you hard evidence when you need to support or reject a feature idea.
5. “Why?” or “Why not?”
Asking “why” repeatedly might remind you of a small child’s game, but it’s often the way to get down into meat of a particular challenge. You may be familiar with the “5 Why” technique used by Toyota — the “5” refers to the “number of iterations typically required to solve a problem.” You may not need (or want) five of them, but if you’re suspicious there might be more behind a customer’s challenge, don’t be afraid to go down the “why” path to uncover a root cause.
6. “What annoys you about this product the most?”
Ask this question to dig into pain points. This is a good question to pair with a few “whys” — some customers may be hesitant to really dig into their frustrations, but don’t let them off the hook. You should leave this question really understanding what gives them grief.
7. “How does or doesn’t this product solve problem X for you?”
This question has the potential to mirror the answer to question 6. If it does, you have strong validation of a major issue. If it doesn’t, you still walk away with some great additional information about how your product might be plaguing or helping your customers.
Keep these seven open-ended questions in mind so you can make the most of customer interviews. The meaty responses that these answers solicit provide fantastic context for what is and is not working with your product, helping you to develop a validated and improved product.
For further reading on great questions to ask, check out Steven Telio’s article on how to ask better customer interview questions.