9 mins | 11 Oct, 2023

How to speak with your customers - a guide to conducting user interviews for manufacturers

There is a growing trend among businesses that have traditionally sold their products through a distribution network of attempting to sell directly to consumers. This is part of the COVID effect and has been seen most prevalently in the manufacturing industries, where businesses that make products are trying to future-proof themselves from the next lockdown event by setting up their own managed eCommerce stores that will ensure sales can keep happening if the shops shut again.

These businesses specifically face the challenge of having to learn how to sell products directly to the end user (which they may never have had to do before). Whether you fit into this camp or not, we can all agree that direct-to-consumer sales are hard, especially in times of economic uncertainty where customers are really watching what they spend. A person has to be more convinced than ever that parting with their cash will give them what they need.

One of the best ways to understand your customer's needs (and align your proposition to them) is to speak with them directly. If you’ve never conducted a user interview before, this article is aimed at helping you get over the anxiety of doing so. It will explain what you will get out of it and how to go about it.

Learning your customer needs is critical for B2C success

Consumers are choosy. They can afford to be because it's so easy to find alternative places to shop now. Most product categories are saturated with sellers and the number of eCommerce stores is growing substantially year on year.

We’re seeing this, especially among poorer countries as connectivity improves. Here we can see the predicted growth rate of eCommerce in countries around the world over the next 4 years, with the global growth rate predicted to be at least 11%.

Retail e-commerce sales compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2023 to 2027.
Retail e-commerce sales compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2023 to 2027. Source: Statistica

As a shopper, you have a good idea of what you want to purchase and maybe a number of requirements for that purchase. Those could be product-specific, like features, specifications, or style. Or they may be company-focused, like hitting a certain brand demographic or being manufactured from sustainably sourced materials. The reasons why we buy can be quite wide-ranging (for an in-depth look at this check out our article on problem-solving products) but we all have a checklist within us we look to complete every time we make a purchase decision.

As a retailer, it's your job to make sure the potential customers who visit your store have all the information they need to mentally check off their list of requirements so they are comfortable purchasing from you, instead of moving on. The good news for you reading this is that most retailers don’t do that. Most retailers just throw up a product listing with some basic details and hope for the best.

The fact you’re reading this article and learning about how to understand your customers better, shows you want to be part of the 10% of successful companies who do well. It's the companies that take the time to learn about their customer's needs that end up delivering the best experience. The best way to do that is to speak with them. Taking a selection of customers, incentivising them to speak with you and get to the truth of exactly what they want from a shopping experience (it may be different to what you imagine). If you do this well, you’ll give your customers exactly what they want and no reason to shop elsewhere.

What you’ll get from conducting user interviews

Interviewing your website users about their experience and expectations can be challenging but also very rewarding. You can glean so much useful information and turn that into actional insights. Here’s what you can expect to get out of conducting customer interviews:

  • Improved User Experience: Learning about your user's needs and wants, and also about their previous pain points will help inform the design process and lead to improved UX, where the right information is accessible and the journey flows in a way that compliments their desired product discovery process.
  • Optimised Marketing and Messaging: When you understand your users more, you can message them more effectively. Focusing on the specifics of why they have come to your site and ensuring you are talking about solving the right problems.
  • Competitive Advantage: Most businesses don’t talk to their customers, they just make assumptions based on what they think the customers want. By taking the time to engage in conversation you can really understand the nuances of why your product or service is useful to people, and also how they compare to your competitors. This information can help you push further, faster.
  • Reduced Risk and Costs: Speaking to users can help you understand where your business is providing the most for them. You can then use this to decide where to prioritise efforts and resources for the most benefit.
  • Customer-Centric Product Development: User interviews are a great way to learn about desired features. You may have a great product or service, but could it be improved? Your current customers are absolutely the best people to tell you that. Use this time to understand new feature requests or how things could be optimised.
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: If you speak to enough customers on a regular basis, you can use their insights to augment your business intelligence reporting to make improved decisions that effect product development, inventory, marketing, and all sorts of other key business decisions.
  • Inventory Management: For product buyers, you can use customer insights to help make decisions on new product rollouts.
  • Enhanced Customer Support: Knowing what challenges your customers face (buying from you and also with the problem they’re trying to solve with your product or service) can help you understand how to support them better.
  • Adaptation to Changing Markets: As times change, so do buying habits. Staying on top of how customers like to shop and buy will give you a competitive edge. The most agile businesses tend to be the ones who openly engage in conversation with their customers.

How to conduct a user interview

Conducting user interviews can be daunting at first, but fairly procedural once you get the hang of it. If approached in the right way, they can provide huge insights, but… there are pitfalls to watch out for too. To conduct a really successful interview, you have to plan properly for it.

Intereviewing a user

Define your objectives

The first thing you need to consider is what you want to get out of it. Setting some objectives or goals is beneficial to helping you plan accordingly. For instance, you may want to understand:

  • Where customers first hear about your product
  • How your product compares with others in the same market
  • What perceived value does your product have on someone's life

Gather real customers to speak with

Next, you need to recruit some customers to speak with. These should be real customers who have purchased your product. There are services where you can buy testers, which can seem like a quick solution, however, these are not real customers and will not give you the same quality insights as someone who actually sought your product to solve a problem in their life.

So, wherever you can, you should be recruiting from your actual customer pool. You may need to incentivise people to speak with you. You should consider the demographics of your customer base and diversify the group where it makes sense.

The more people you can interview the better as your results will provide a broader average of opinions. Consider the time it takes to recruit, conduct an interview, and process the results though (you don't want to give yourself such a huge task that you rush things or cut corners). It’s been said that as little as 5 individuals will give you a broad enough set of results to take insightful action from.

Preparing your user interview

Preparing the questions you wish to ask is perhaps the most important step to get right. You should consider a script for your interview session where you start off easy, perhaps even some general chat to make your interviewee more comfortable before getting into things (remember it might be the first time they’ve done something like this).

Your questions should wherever possible be open-ended and not lead a person to a certain answer. This is harder than you think to achieve. We’re all human and tend to put a bias on the things we say without realising it. Write your questions down into categories that cover the different topics you want to investigate. Practice them on a few people first, speak them out loud and really consider if they are the right ones to be asking.

Some sample questions you might include are:

  • How did you first hear about our product?
  • How often do you use it?
  • What is the most important feature to you and why?
  • What do you look for when considering this product alongside a competitor?
  • How important is brand/quality/cost/etc when considering a purchase?

Conducting the interview

The interview itself should be relaxed and informal. Try to treat it as a conversation to get the most out of people. In-person is great, but virtual (video call) works well too. Record your session for later viewing (always get permission to record people first).

User Interviews can be conducted remotely
User Interviews can be conducted remotely

Start off by outlining how the session will go. Set some expectations on the type of questions you’ll be asking and how long it will likely last. Let your interviewee know there is no wrong answer and you just want them to provide honest, genuine feedback to your questions.

A few things to remember:

  • Be an active listener
  • Try not to interrupt when your participant is speaking
  • Stay neutral when posing questions
  • Be ready to follow up on points raised and probe deeper if something of interest is said or an unclear answer is provided

When the interview is complete, remember to thank your participant for their time and set any expectations for follow-ups.

Things to watch out for

Sometimes interviewees can be nervous to begin with. This is often because they don’t know what to expect from the session. Be clear relaxed and informal in discussing how it will go. Often people warm up quickly once you get started.

If somebody doesn't understand a question, you might need to be able to convey it in another way. When doing so, remember to keep it open-ended and unbiased.

If conducting your session remotely, ensure you have a strong internet connection and the sound is working correctly at both ends.

What to do with your findings

So, once you’ve completed your interviews what do you do next? You’ll probably end up with lots of notes and video recordings, which will hold all sorts of insights. There could be common themes that came up often alongside standout golden nuggets of feedback. It’s important to take some time to reflect and take stock of all the information before deciding what to do with it.

Analyse and document your findings

The first thing you should do is analyse the user interviews and start forming the insights into something manageable. This is a case of going back over them and taking notes, pulling out the details and transferring them into something organised. There’s no set template to this as it all depends on the type of questions you asked and your interview style. However, it is usually possible to start categorising insights into groupings that make sense to your project. We will often start this process in a spreadsheet as it is easy to segment data and move things around. As you progress, you will likely see patterns and weightings towards certain areas and this should be enough for you to start formulating insights that you can use later.

Your aim is to end up in a place where you have a list of insights that you can point to and say ‘This is how our customers feel’ or ‘This is a particular pain point’. In addition, if you can show that certain insights are more commonly felt in users than others, this will give you a good place to start considering the priority of what should be tackled first.

Interview insights can be used to create target personas
Interview insights can be used to create target personas

Consider your content design

One of the more practical ways to get started with using your insights is to help them inform your marketing and sales collateral. If through interviewing your customers you find out that they don’t know a certain feature exists, you know you need to highlight that on your website. So, there could be quick wins to be had in highlighting unknowns.

More importantly, though, you can use these insights to really build up a picture of what users want your product for. What problems are they trying to solve? How will owning it improve their life? You can then use this information to build a narrative in your content that supports this. Remember the tick box exercise we go through when considering whether to make a purchase? Make sure your content allows all those boxes to be ticked to ensure the customer doesn't need to look anywhere else.

Consider your product development

A longer-term approach could be to use these insights to think about your product development. User interviews are great for highlighting gaps or missing features. Learning what your customers really care about within your product group can be hugely beneficial when considering your next strategic product move.

Final thoughts

I’ve been working with manufacturers for a long time, helping them organise their Product Information Management, and with eCommerce Design & Build. In more recent years, with our agency’s focus on User Experience Design, we’ve really stepped up user interviewing and I can confidently say it's been one of the best steps we’ve taken in truly understanding customer needs and desires.

Speaking with customers is not a quick and simple task. It requires effort and planning. The results can be very rewarding though and it really helps with user journey considerations and content design.

If you’re considering doing it for your business, then absolutely go for it. You can start small and grow your studies as you gain more confidence. Of course, if you want to bring an agency on board to help you from the start, I’d be happy to discuss that with you. And, if you want to dive deeper into the topic, then I’d highly recommend Steve Portigal’s book ‘Interviewing Users’ too.

Learning to speak with your customers will be one of the best marketing decisions you ever make, I am sure of that.

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