Deploy Empathy by Michele Hansen - Part 3

This part is all about the actual Interview. How to ask useful and impactful questions for different types of interview scenarios.


The different types of interviews:

  • Discovery interviews - for exploring a new idea or problem space
  • Switch interviews - to figure out why someone switched to your product
  • Long-time happy customer interview
  • Cancellation interview
  • Interactive interview - to test a prototype, wireframe
  • Card sorting interview - to understand which problems are high-pain and underserved

The author generously shares her interview scripts here. A lot more in the book, so get the book!

The overall goal of interviews is to understand the following:

  • What they're trying to do overall
  • The steps they take to do that
  • What they've already tried
  • Where they spend time and money
  • How often they experience the problem
  • How long it takes them

Interview Preparation

Conduct Interview over Audio

Do audio only interviewing. If you're using a video conferencing platform make it clear it'll be audio only. Do screen share only when necessary, such as if you want the customer to walk you through how they use a product.

[book] Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

I’ve found that people are much more willing to be open on an audio call than they are on video. It also removes the stress of monitoring your facial expressions and frees you up to take notes.

Mute phone notifications

Set yourself up to focus and get in the zone to be a "sponge"

It's okay if the interview doesn't follow the exact question order

One tip is to use printed scripts with plenty of space between each question to jot down notes.

**Stick to the amount of time you've scheduled

Most literature recommends 1 hour. Start with 30 mins and extent to 45 mins.

Thank you notes and incentives

Author recommends sending a handwritten thank-you note in the mail. [Umm..I don't see myself doing this with strangers, but I can see sending this in an email]

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about why you use [your product]. I appreciated hearing more about [process your product/services solves] from your perspective and how we could improve our product.

What type of incentives to offer for different types of interviews:

  • For discovery interviews with people you found on Reddit and Twitter, you may not need to provide an incentive. They are already talking about their problem and the fact that someone is willing to listen may be incentive enough
  • For colder outreach on an email list or facebook group, $10 gift card
  • For existing customers, swag works better (money can be uncomfortable or awkward). Stickers! hats, pens, notebooks, socks. Gender-neutral things that do not need to be sized. So no t-shirts.
  • For churned customers, cash incentive is pretty much always necessary like $25.
  • Screen-share interviews are most complicated incentive-wise. May not be necessary for current customers but needed for non-customers

[Insight] All of this thinking around incentives for interviews is new information. I wouldn't have intuitively come up with the above.

How to think about incentives:

50 to 125 dollars (for 5 interviews) is a lot of money, but it’s a lot cheaper than spending several months building something only to launch to silence. Your time is not free, and it has value. And the disappointment and demotivation that comes from launches like that has a mental cost, too.

Ask permission before recording

Zoom makes it easy to record. free to transcribe if you record via Otter while the call is happening (so you can search instead of having to re-listen). Intercom for storing notes / sharing with co-founder/team. Nugget is a tool to record and annotate interviews as they happen

Decide how you'll capture notes ahead of time

Type notes or write them out on a piece of paper while you listen. Or just listen and then analyze the transcripts later. Decide what works for you.

Capture feature requests during an interview, even if you're not sure if you'll build that. In case you do, you can reach out the customer for more details or to close the loop and share the feature with them.

Ask others to join you

Doing interviews in pairs can be useful as people pick up different things. Never more than 2 people. Okay to have silent listeners.

Don't do more than two interviews in a day

At most 1 or 2 per day. No more than 5 per week. Allowing yourself to completely submerge in someone else's experience can take a lot of mental energy.

Never sell them on the call
You can never sell someone during a customer interview. Even something like "oh our product already does that" to a need they express that they thought was unmet. Follow-up via email later instead.

Discovery Interviews: How Can I Evaluate This Idea

This is when you have an idea that you think could turn into a business and you want to find out if other people see it like you do. If this problem does exist for other people and whether your conceptualization of the problem matches their conceptualization.

Key goals of this interview are:

  • Do people in fact experience this problem I've noticed?
  • How frequently do they experience the problem/process?
  • How painful is the problem/process?
  • What have they already tried to solve that problem/process?
  • What are they currently paying to solve that problem/process? (time/money)
  • Who else inside/outside their organization is involved with this process?

Script and substantive questions

The book contains the entire script for this type of a discovery call. Here is one bit about asking for permission to record (I would feel hesitant about asking this, so this is helpful):

"Before we get started, is it okay if I record this interview? It's just so I can focus on listening right now and don't have too be scribbling down notes the whole time. It won't be shared with anyone outside of our organization."

Lots of insightful questions in the book, jotting down couple that feel relevant to me:

  • Would you mind telling me how much how pay for those tools?
  • How has this process changed since you've been at the organization?
  • I'm wondering, how often do you find yourself doing this?
  • Is there anyone you have to deal with outside of your company for this?

reaching for the door question

This should actually be asked half through the scheduled time, to allow time for all the useful info that may follow.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate you telling me how [process] work from your perspective. Is there anything else you think I should know?

When you're ready to get off the phone, and if the interview has gone well:

I've really enjoyed our conversation. If we end up building something that tries to solve it, can I reach back out to you and get your thoughts?

Switch Interview: Why Did They Buy?

This type of interview is useful when you are trying to get more customers. It could also be useful in the discovery phase to interview someone who recently bought a competitor's product.

[book] When Coffee and Kale Compete by Alan Klement

Key goals of this interview are:

  • What was the journey they went through?
  • How did they discover your product?
  • What prompted them to switch from one provider/tool/process to yours?
  • So far, are they satisfied with that decision?

Substantive questions

Possible opening question: "Other customers have told me how they use [X]. I'm interested to hear more from your perspective about how you do [process] at your company?"

Many awesome questions in this script. Here are couple that stand out, that I wouldn't have thought of:

  • Before you started using [product], was there anything you were unsure about or was unclear?
  • If you weren't able to use [product], what would you do instead?

Happy Customer Interview: Why Do They Stick Around?

The goal here is to find out why long time customers are happy? The desired outcome is ideas for new marketing messages, new landing pages that speak to their use case, new places to market a product. The best case outcome is that the customer offers to do a testimonial and decides to stay a customer for a long time.

The difference here is that you specifically ask for feature requests in this one. And you get the context around why they would need that and how they'd use it.

I waned to leave a lot of space here for you to tell me what you think of the product and whether you have any ideas or suggestions for us. [long pause]

Cancellation Interview: Why Did They Cancel?

This is for when someone downgrades a plan, deletes their account, doesn't convert on a free trial.

Cancellation interview are the most challenging interviews. Do not start with them if you're new to interviewing.

For a solo-founder, there are feelings involved here of not only disappointment but also rejection (of your product and therefore you!).

It makes sense to make room for those feelings and process them first so you can conduct the cancellation interview without getting defensive.

The goal of a churned customer interview is not to make them a customer again...The of goal is to figure out what their use case was and how they came to the product so you can stop attracting people with use cases that aren't a good fit.


  • Keep it short, 20 to 25 mins. Schedule it for 30 mins and purposefully give them time back
  • Validating statements are more important than ever in this interview
  • Offer gift cards as an incentive. Do not offer company swag.
  • Ask the "is there anything else I should know?" question at 10 min mark

Interactive Interview: What Do They Think?

This type of interview is for testing something "physical" like a prototype or a landing page or a wireframe. The goal is to learn about usability of your product but also learn about the value (in the usable, valuable, viable, feasible framework).

[aside] The story about Geocodio building a product for patient data and not being able to close customers for 6-12 months due to to legal and security review is a really good one (and yup. I worked at a health tech startup for 6 years, I know all about PHI/HIPAA and these security/vendor reviews).

The moral of the story? Get your products in front of people. Get your prototypes, drawings, products that have been around for five years, get them all in front of people.

[Personal Insight] I think until now, I've been thinking that since I'm not a SaaS founder yet, I don't have any customers to Not true.

[Possible Action] I feel inspired (and equipped!) to talk to people! I'm super curious to learn what they actually think. Possible contenders:

  • Exploration interview - my landing page for CodeCurious Group Mentorship / Learning Community
  • Happy customer interview - My "programmer dictionary" ebook - I have never asked readers for feedback. But I have thought about it, and dismissed it as not important for such a small project
  • Cancellation interview - mentees who have ended in 3 months or less. Julian already told me his thinking. Kamron I am curious about, I should reach out to him.
  • Exploration interview - writing feedback group. I ran this for free and 40+ people signed up and 7-8 actually showed up weekly. Questions to explore - would people pay for this? what do they think of my format with the spreadsheets and zoom calls?

Tips for interactive interviews

  • audio-only call and give them permission to screen share
  • schedule them for 30 mins. An hour may feel more mentally taxing
  • offer monetary incentive if these are non-customers
  • resist the urge to explain how to do something even if they are struggling to find a button or menu item.
  • deflect if they ask what will happen "will this let me do [X]?" with "can you tell me more about why you'd want to do that?"
  • follow-up - if you fixed something that you learned was confusing from this interview, email the person back and tell them that they helped improve it for others!
  • Avoid the word "confusing" instead "is there anything on this page that doesn't make sense?

Card Sorting Interview: What To Prioritize?

This can be used for prioritizing your internal roadmap. It can be a tool to get a better sense of which problems are currently underserved and which might have the highest willingness to pay.

You can actually make a Trello board and allow customers to drag the cards to a different column prioritized.

Do this with customers you've already talked to. And don't worry you're not giving them full rein over your roadmap. It's an exercise to learn.

The "Reaching for the Door" Question

This question is simple and you should ask it half way through the alloted time for the interview. It's a famous question that comes from the medical field. And it works well as people have a tendency to leave the most crucial information to the end.

Ask this in the most harmless voice you can muster:

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I learned a lot from you today. Is there anything else you think I should know?

After you ask the question. Pause. Wait. Do not prompt. Just wait.

9 out of 10 times people have more to share. And if they really don't you can go into the 'closing script' and ask again in a different way before ending:

  • Is there anything else you want to add?
  • Is there anything you hoped we'd talk about?
  • I just want to check, were there any questions or thoughts you had for me?
  • Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about this?

Once they start talking, you will find yourself diagramming their process and adding more detail to their previous answers. This part of the interview is unscripted and if that sounds scary here's tip from the author.

It might be scary to think that this part of the interview is unscripted and worry about what you might say. If that sounds like you, you might jot down a couple of validating statements to use at the top of your script as a little phrase bank for yourself if you start to panic.

How to Ask People How Much They Would Pay

The thing that we all want to know when creating a product is "would anyone pay for this? and how much?"

This section is about how to ask people what they would pay...without asking them what they would pay? Asking about facts rather than to predict the future.

Your goal is to find out what they are currently paying, in terms of time and money. And also the frequency at which that time/money is spent.

You want to look for high-pain, high-frequency problems.

Some questions:

  1. Can I ask what you're currently paying for that [tool] you mentioned?
  2. And can I ask how often you pay that?
  3. Could you tell me how long [particular step] takes you?
  4. Can I ask how often you have to do that?
  5. If you didn't do this [task], what would happen?

Pricing is one of the most complicated parts of having a business in my opinion—but finding those high-pain/high-frequency problems and nailing the billing model to match the customer’s mental model of the activity is the first step.

Debugging Interviews

Interviewing people is an adventure, but not always the good kind. Sometime things will go wrong.

You get one-word responses. A person is rude. They tell you they only have ten minutes when you'd scheduled thirty. They talk about something that's entirely unrelated to what you hoped to hear about. You get a no-show. This happens, and I want you to know that it’s expected that things will go a little sideways sometimes. That's okay, and it isn't a reflection on your own skills.

This section has tips for what to do in each of the following scenarios:

  • Interview is shorter than expected
  • The person seems nervous
  • The person is giving short answers
  • The person is being cagey
  • The person just wants to talk about feature requests
  • They expected onboarding help
  • Multiple people are on the call from their side
  • They are talking about something unrelated
  • They are upset about something
Show Comments