For Better User Interviews Be An Outsider

Two Groups People Divided

Over the last few weeks I've been talking to WooCommerce store owners. I've been asking them questions about what they're struggling with, what they want to learn about, and where they want to go.

I've been asking these sorts of questions for the last couple of years. But recently I've heard different responses:

“There’s a perception in the community that Automattic is taking over all the things”

“I’ve been using [WooCommerce] since 2011. It was pretty crap back then.”

“The Woo people were the least interesting, most boring, most useless talks.”

I'm getting lots of positive feedback but I've seen an increase in negative feedback.

Sharing Negative Feedback

Getting negative feedback from a user is actually quite difficult. For someone (especially someone you know) to share negative feedback they have to believe three things:

  1. They have to want the change
  2. They have to believe the change is possible
  3. They have to know that you won't judge them

1. Wanting a Change

Wanting a change is easy. Nine times out of ten someone will want to change something about your product.

2. Believing Change is Possible

Believing that change is possible is a bit harder. The company you represent has to have integrity. That means your actions & messaging have to line up.

If you say, “we care about the environment” and you keep bulldozing trees you're not in integrity. And instead of giving you useful feedback people think, “what's the point of telling them what I think – nothing will change”.

So if you say “we're going to work on that” you better work on it. And make sure that the work is visible. Otherwise your users will lose faith in you and they'll stop making suggestions.

3. No Judgement

This one might be the trickiest. Most interviewees have a hard time delivering criticism. It feels mean even though it's exactly the type of feedback I'm looking for.

You have to convince the interviewee that you won't judge them. That negative feedback is okay. A good first step is using your body language to make them feel at ease. But this doesn't solve everything. There is no magic button to making people feel comfortable. And this brings me to why I think I got so much more negative feedback.

Be An Outsider

If you're part of the company that makes this product you're an insider. And the person you're interviewing is an outsider. This puts you in two different groups. Groups that don't always trust one another.

And try as hard as you might. It can sometimes be really hard for an insider to empathize with an outsider. And even if you do genuinely empathize with an outsider they might not believe it.

When you're an outsider you don't have this problem. You're in the same group.

When someone says, “I'm disappointed with how long it takes for support to respond” I can agree with them and it feels honest:

“I know! I submitted a ticket last week and they still haven't responded.”

I can join them in an honest and authentic way. I don't have to imagine their pain. I've actually been in their shoes and experienced it myself.

Andrew Warner, expert interviewer, calls this “joining the resistance” (start listening around 22:35 for the backstory). It's what your therapist does. They always have your back. They're on your team. And you don't have to protect yourself from your own team.

I'm amazed at how much more information I'm getting out of users. I wish I could say I learned some magical interviewing skills. But honestly I think it's my position. I'm not longer on the inside. I'm on the outside looking in. I think what they think and I feel what they feel.

If you want to get better feedback you might want to consider hiring someone who is on the outside.

BTW I've been interviewing users for WooConf, the official WooCommerce Conference, which will be in Seattle Novemberish. I've spent the past few weeks planning the content. It's going to be great. Hope to see you there. 🙂

2 thoughts on “For Better User Interviews Be An Outsider

  1. I think you nailed it with being an outsider, Patrick. As such, I might see you as someone with whom I can commiserate and maybe blow off some steam if I have gripes.

    Whereas I may temper my frustration with an insider, both because I simply want to be kind and respectful to another person, and because I would like to win that insider over to take up my cause to work for a solution.

    Perhaps the phrase “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” from my childhood is still ringing in my ears even when more direct feedback is desired and invited. 🙂

    • When I was on the inside I could try to listen and try to understand. But we don’t have the same experience. If I have a problem I can ping someone. You would have to wait until a ticket gets answered.

      It’s hard to imagine being in your shoes when my experience is totally different and has a much smaller effect (my test site vs your business).

      It makes me think about how important empathy is. More so than sympathy.

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