When you want to find out the best way to increase adoption and engagement with your product, what do you usually do? Chances are, you gather some kind of feedback, do a survey, or conduct customer interviews. And maybe you then go on to observe your customers in action with some user research. And you feel pretty good about this method - after all, it’s what the popular wisdom tells you is the best way to create and improve your product.

But if the method is so foolproof ... why aren’t you getting the avid usage you had hoped for?

The thing is, not all feedback is created equal. And even the best user research can’t help you if you’re proceeding from a faulty premise. Typically, gathering customer feedback involves asking customers what specific improvements they want. Users and potential users are asked about various product features, what they like, what they want, what they don’t like, etc. But users can’t really articulate this with any accuracy. It’s not the user’s job to come up with solutions. It’s your job. And listening to their laundry list of wants can create a confusing product that in the end doesn’t really address their needs at all.

Take the case of Kawasaki. In the early 1980s,  Kawasaki, the makers of Jet Ski, dominated the recreational watercraft market. So they asked their users what could be done to improve their product. At that time, standing models were the only type of Jet Ski available, and the voice of the customer was clear: they wanted extra padding on the side of the Jet Ski to make the standing position more comfortable. Kawasaki dutifully focused on giving their customers what they asked for. Meanwhile, other manufacturers developed models that allowed the user to sit down while operating the watercraft, and Kawasaki was eventually bumped from its position as market leader.

Kawasaki’s big mistake was asking customers what specific improvements they wanted. Or, to put it another way, if Kawasaki had focused on ascertaining what job(s) users were hiring the jet ski to do -- quickly and comfortably navigate a body of water, for example -- they may have innovated a seated jet ski and remained in the lead market position.

And when user research is based on faulty feedback, you won’t get an accurate picture of your product’s value. After all, user research can’t tell you if you’re testing the wrong things. Sure, you’re observing people. And in general it’s true that the qualitative data you gather from observation is more accurate and illuminating that quantitative research. But all the qualitative data in the world won’t help you if you’re observing the wrong thing; ie, something they don’t really need. Let’s say Kawasaki tested their comfortable standing seat. Users might have told them they loved it .. but that’s irrelevant when a better solution -- one the customers didn’t think of -- comes along.

A Better Way

But there is a better way to gather information from customers and set yourself up for success with accurate, targeted user research. We call it the SLOW interview. The key is understanding what customers can speak about with authority: the job they’re trying to do. And they can also articulate how they do that job now, the struggles they face, and the obstacles they wish could be eased as they try to make progress.

But there’s an art to extracting this information. The SLOW interview is about digging deep. It’s about asking targeted questions and uncovering insights that help you piece together a narrative to understand every facet of the job people are trying to do as well as the SLOW forces -- struggles, lapses, obstacles, and workarounds -- that are standing in their way. When we do a series of SLOW interviews, we really try to get inside the customer’s head and understand their thought processes, motivations, struggles, the obstacles to progress they face, and how they define success. We then use what we learn to focus on the most important components of your product to test and validate with users.

Because the SLOW interview digs so deep, there isn’t really a script for it. Each question builds upon the previous answer, and every situation and set of circumstances will be different. That said, there are are some general concepts to keep in mind.

The SLOW Interview, A Guide

In these interviews, you’re essentially trying to recreate a timeline. Think of it as putting together a documentary about everything that the customer does before, during, and after using a product to do a job. Your goal is to uncover that job as well as their triggers, motivations, hopes, and fears. The, you edit together the right solutions to fill unmet needs and remove struggles and obstacles.

To get customers in the right mindframe, try a variation of this template before you begin the interview. Adapt it depending on whether you’re creating a new product, or adding new features to an existing one:

We want to recreate a timeline, almost piecing together a crime scene. We’re playing Sherlock Holmes.. We want to find out every detail and occurrence leading up to you deciding to use [ this product], your experience of using it, and what it was like to use it for the first time. It’s like we’re writing an investigative journalism article. To begin, when did you first use [the product]?

Other important questions to ask and areas to probe include:

  • What were you using before?
  • Why did you switch?
  • When exactly did you become dissatisfied with what you were using before?
  • What were you hoping a new product would do for you?
  • When did you first use the product in question? Why? How?
  • What exactly did you do when first interacting with the product? (Step by step, in detail)
  • What did you hope it would accomplish?
  • What achievement were you hoping for?
  • How did you think or hope it might make your life better?
  • What difficulties do they have?
  • What frustrates/frustrated you?
  • What do you do about these frustrations?
  • Can you recall your first feeling of accomplishment with the product?
  • What did you do to make it happen?

What you don’t want to do is ask them how they would make improvements. Remember, it isn’t their job to innovate or create solutions. You’re trying to get to the root of the customer’s unmet needs and job they’re trying to do.

Keep in mind that the above isn’t a script -- it’s a guide that can help you understand how to begin to dig deeper.

And you won’t uncover gold with just one interview. Multiple interviews need to be conducted in order for the conclusions drawn from the interviews to be valid. One interview doesn't give you a full picture of the customer experience. But with, say, five, you’ll start to uncover overlapping insights. You’ll be able to pinpoint the customer’s true motivations and what they really need to accomplish. In this way, you’ll be able to create a product or new feature that provides real value by removing their struggles and helping them achieve success. And you’ll then be able to go on to perform targeted user research with actionable qualitative data.

To learn more about the forces of SLOW -- and how to uncover them in the SLOW Interview -- check out The SLOW Interview Part Two: A Closer Look.