2017 Apr 11

In my ideal world every design project would involve extensive research.  I would study the inner workings of an organization and its employees. I would learn everything I could about its target audience and their environment.  And throughout the project I would iteratively test out designs and make changes based on observations, not assumptions.  It would be an endless cycle of researching-designing-testing and everyone would skip to work while eating chocolate.  This, of course, is just the rant of a UX designer daydreaming away…

Reality, more often than not, is very different.  Tight budgets, strict deadlines and lack of resources sneak into the equation and rear their ugly heads.  Most projects cannot accommodate endless research and some none at all.  

When I cannot conduct my own research I rely heavily on stakeholder interviews.  These interviews become my proxy into the organization, its offerings, and its end-users.  I try to answer as many questions as I can to reach a level of shared understanding.  In other words, I milk them for all they are worth!

The following are tips and tricks I have picked up along the way for successful stakeholder interviews.  

Step 1:  Ask your questions ahead of time

When I started conducting stakeholder interviews I would bring a long list of prepared questions.  These interviews were not very successful and ended up feeling more like the lightening round in a game show.  I desperately tried to get as many answers as I could within a given time limit.  The atmosphere was a little tense and I often walked away with shallow insights and just more questions.  

I now send a list of questions ahead of time and ask for answers a day before we are scheduled to meet.  

This works because:

  • The stakeholder has adequate time to think through each question.
  • If the stakeholder isn’t sure about an answer they can consult other resources such as co-workers or their web analytics data. 
  • It sets the stage for the interview and the stakeholder has a better understanding of the type of information I am after.
  • Getting answers ahead of time allows me to decide what areas need further investigation.

My questions center around the following topics:

  • Understanding who uses the website or product:  Is there one primary user group or several? How old are they?  What do they do for a living? Are they technical?  What percentage are new vs. returning? 
  • Understanding the business goals: What is the vision for the website/product? What service does it provide or promote? What needs to happen for the project to be considered a success? What company and brand values need to be communicated? 
  • Understanding the user goals: What motivates users to try the website/product?  What benefits will they receive? What should they be able to do easily and quickly? What frustrates them?  What do they not understand?
  • Understanding the context of use: Will the website/product be used at work or at home?  How frequently will users return? Will they be alone or in a group? What do people navigate to? How did users discover the website/product?

For an extensive list of stakeholder questions check out Dr David Travis’s excellent online course How to carry out a usability expert review.

Step 2: Structure your interview as a walkthrough 

Doing a walkthrough of the current website or product helps add context to the answers you collected ahead of time.  Reviewing every web page or product feature with someone who understands it inside and out can be very revealing.  You will learn what areas they are passionate about, what they hate, and motivations for past design choices.  This is also a good method for keeping the conversation on track and avoiding side-tangents or solution-based discussions.

Throughout the session, pay special attention to areas that confused and surprised you but that seem intuitive to the stakeholder.  If the purpose of something wasn’t clear to you it probably won’t be to other users either. 

Most importantly, ask all of your questions, even the dumb ones!

When I started out I was afraid to ask too many questions.  I thought it would reduce the client’s confidence in the project and make me look inexperienced or unprepared.  What I soon learned is that not asking questions early on can be damaging and costly in the long run.  You want to avoid making assumptions and get the correct answers when you have the chance.  Remember if you do not understand something chances are new users will not either.  

Step 3:  Stop taking notes and record your session

Don’t waste time scrambling to take notes.  No matter how hard you try you will not capture everything.  Stopping to take notes also damages the easy-going and conversational nature of the interaction.  Recording the interview means you can take notes at your own leisure afterwards.  Listening back on sessions is also a great way to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each interview.  This will make you a better researcher!  

Step 4:  Summarize your findings and share them with your stakeholders

The main purpose of a stakeholder interview is to come to a shared understanding.  To confirm this happened, close the loop and share your findings back to the stakeholder.  This confirms that nothing was lost in translation and you aren’t stuck in a game of broken telephone. 

Here at Industrial we use the following template inspired by a user centered design canvas

Template for summarizing a stakeholder interview

In summary:

Stakeholder interviews may not replace other forms of user research but they are a valuable tool for aligning project goals and priorities.  Best of all, they are cheap and low-tech.  I am often surprised by the amount of actionable insights these interviews produce.