Why Interview Stakeholders?
As soon as your immediate stakeholders express interest in conducting a study, schedule a 30-minute meeting with them. These stakeholders may be, for example, a product manager and lead software developer or a designer and marketer. You should interview your stakeholders for the following reasons:
- They are aware of the business goals for the product.
- They have a clear understanding of priorities.
- They can help you identify the right audience for the product and characteristics of study participants.
- They’ll establish the development timeline and lead the implementation of any changes that might result from your study.
- They’ll—especially software engineers and designers—actually make the changes to the product based on your study findings.
- They may provide you with the wireframes, mockups, or prototypes you’ll be using during the study.
- They’ll be great at helping you capture critical observations.
- They might also play a critical role in recruiting study participants.
Question 1: What Is the Product?
In some cases, you may be so involved with the product team that you do not need any introduction to the product. If so, you could skip this question—but beware of skipping it entirely. Even if you are involved with the product team, people may forget to update you about a new feature they’re working on, so you should always ask some form of this question. For example, We’re talking about product X, right? Anything new I should know about it?
If you’re not familiar with the product, ask stakeholders to give you a short product pitch: Why should it exist? What is it for? What does it do? Have you launched the product yet? Why did you develop it? What user needs does it meet?
Try to get stakeholders to give you answers that are less about the technology and more about the business of the product. Don’t get into too many details. At this point, you need a high-level pitch only. You’ll get all the necessary details later when you prepare your study proposal. Once you’ve got the gist of the product, it is time to find out who its users are.
Question 2: Who Are the Product’s Users?
It’s a good sign if your stakeholders’ answers to this question generate a discussion. This means that someone, at some point, has actually thought about the people who are or will be using the product. If there’s a debate about their characteristics, that’s okay. The discussion should lead to a decision about what participants you should invite to the study.
So ask the stakeholders these questions: Who are the users? Are there different groups of users? Why? Try to lead the discussion toward identifying one group of people who share certain well-defined characteristics. If you notice that several groups of people, having different characteristics, come up during your discussions, that’s natural and probably okay. Don’t push too hard to come up with a single group at this point in time. You might return to this issue later on during your study’s planning process. For now, you just need to make a quick decision.
As you hear your stakeholders’ answers, consider whether it would be hard to recruit the group of people that they’re describing. If it seems difficult, ask your stakeholders to come up with alternative characteristics or a different user group—just in case it turns out to be extremely challenging to find the people they want for the study.
One special case of the Who are the users? question is when that question is itself the focus of your research. In such a case, their answer is usually something like: “This is what we want to find out.”
Now that you know the what and the who, it’s time to talk business and discuss the core reasons for the study.
Question 3: What Do You Want to Know? Why?
Ask about things that seem to be related to the study request: What do you want to learn by conducting this study? Why do you think you need this study? What decisions do you need to make based on the results from this study? Try to find out why the stakeholders have made their request for a study. However, if you suggested the study, you’ll probably be the one answering these questions.
At this point, once you have some answers, you might be tempted to start thinking about what research method would help you to close the knowledge gap you’ve identified. But try not to think about that just yet. Instead, focus on listening to your stakeholders and gathering information. You can think about an appropriate method later. Take good notes on the discussion. This step is critical to your coming up with appropriate research questions.
For example, if you get an answer like “We want a usability test because we want to learn whether users like our product,” you might be tempted to observe that there are three challenges regarding this answer:
- The stakeholder has mentioned a specific research method—a usability test. According to best practices, you should first define your research questions, then choose a research method that is effective in answering those particular questions.
- The stakeholder has chosen the wrong method to answer his question. A usability test is not the best method for determining how much people like a product or service.
- The stakeholder’s statement reflects a built-in bias—the assumption that users like the product—and the desire to prove this hypothesis right.
Some researchers might respond to such a stakeholder request by explaining why it is wrong. But I would strongly recommend that you don’t say a thing about it. The reason is that, at this point, you are trying to gather enough information to enable you to come up with a coherent study plan with crystal-clear research questions. Your research questions will make this argument for you later.
Timing is everything. The next critical topics to discuss with your stakeholders are time, schedule, and deadlines.