Conducting Successful Interviews With Project Stakeholders
Published: September 10, 2007
If you’ve read some of my previous columns on UXmatters, you could be forgiven for thinking my entire working life is spent largely surrounded in a sea of quantitative data. This is, rather surprisingly even to me, not nearly close to the truth. Looking back over recent months, by far the most common form of research I’ve carried out is that stalwart of qualitative studies—the interview.
A simple, semi-structured, one-on-one interview can provide a very rich source of insights. Interviews work very well for gaining insights from both internal and external stakeholders, as well as from actual users of a system under consideration. Though, in this column, I’ll focus on stakeholder interviews rather than user interviews. (And I’ll come back to that word, insights, a little later on, because it’s important.)
Ten Guidelines for Stakeholder Interviews
Here are ten general guidelines I follow when conducting stakeholder interviews:
1. Set aside at least 45 minutes for each interview.
I often find I don’t need all of this time. However, occasionally, I do need all of it and am glad I allowed plenty of time. I’ve been lucky, on a few occasions, to interview people who not only understood the topic under study, but were also able to clearly articulate their thoughts. Such interviews are golden—for both the quality of insights they can generate and because of their rarity.
Suffice it to say, as you conduct more and more interviews, you’ll come to appreciate these golden moments and appreciate having the luxury of some extra time to interview such insightful stakeholders.
Conversely, I don’t feel compelled to stretch out an interview just to fill up a time slot. There are times when the person I’m interviewing doesn’t have a lot to contribute. In such cases, don’t waste their time or your’s. (I don’t mean to sound arrogant here. It’s quite frequently the case that I don’t get to nominate everyone on the interview list. Sometimes clients suggest that I interview certain people they think will be good sources of information about such-and-such, but they don’t necessarily understand what I need.)
2. Leave at least 30 minutes between interviews.
I use this time between interviews for two things:
- making any additional notes I wasn’t able to capture during the interview itself
- clearing my mind before the next interview
I can’t stress enough how important this time is—especially if I’m conducting more than four or five interviews in one day.
3. Limit an interview to just three or four major topics.
These might be topics like the following:
- What are the brand values?
- What sets your organization apart from competitors?
- What is the next big challenge?
- What does success look like?
I might ask three or four questions about each topic, depending on the length and quality of the answers I receive.
4. Talk about culture, challenges, and goals, not features.
I’ll usually let business stakeholders talk about just about anything within the scope of the topics for an interview—with one exception: I don’t want them to talk about features, functionality, content, search engine optimization, or anything else that deals with a solution.
Sometimes, though, it can be almost impossible to get an interviewee to let go of making the case for some pet feature they’ve decided a Web site, application, or widget absolutely needs. If this happens, I try to move the interview back on topic with a simple question: “What issue does this feature address? Let’s talk about that for a moment.”
5. Be prepared for your interviews.
Preparation includes obvious things like making sure you have a pen that works. Before conducting any interviews with internal stakeholders, I always try to get my hands on the following materials:
- a copy of the company’s most recent annual report
- any recent research the company has undertaken on anything related to the business—strategy, positioning, product range, brand awareness—going as far back as their last major business planning or strategy document
- a copy of their last major business planning or strategy document
- copies of print advertisements currently in circulation
- vision and mission statements, if they exist
- the company’s organization chart
There are several reasons for doing this:
- I don’t like to waste either my or the interviewee’s time, asking a question that’s already been answered, unless I want specifically to verify that what they say matches what appears in those documents.
- I find it works well if I can ask questions that are based on the company’s own internal documentation and plans.
- Interviewees appreciate the effort I’ve made to read and familiarize myself with this material before speaking with them.
- Finally, this preparation allows me to better spot inconsistencies between operational policy and strategy.
6. Let interviewees know in advance what you’ll ask them.
Whenever possible, I let interviewees know in advance what I’ll be asking—or at least the three or four main topics I’ve planned to discuss.
Once in a while, I get an interviewee who’s nervous, which is so unexpected. And yet, it finally made sense to me when an interviewee said, “I don’t know why I’m here! I don’t know anything about the Web.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “we’re not going to talk about the Web,” which led to a mixture of relief and confusion.
Such problems generally arise in cases where I can’t communicate directly with interviewees beforehand. I ran into this problem recently when conducting stakeholder research for a government project. I had to coordinate all interviews through a designated project contact, who chose not to disseminate the interview topics. This meant that none of the interviewees showed up with any clear idea of why they were there. One interviewee brought along a marked-up screen shot of a single page from the current Web site, which wasn’t even the project under discussion.
Since I work on such research projects every day—and have done for a few years, now—it’s easy to forget that it might be the first time interviewees have ever been asked to participate in something like this—especially in a research project related to the Internet—and they’re concerned about doing it properly.
So, let interviewees know the topics of discussion ahead of time, because
- they’ll feel more comfortable
- they’ll be better prepared
- you’ll get more directed responses
7. Don’t be afraid to ask one interviewee to comment on something another interviewee said.
Each interview adds to your overall picture of an organization, so whenever possible, I try to get interviewees to comment on or respond to things others have said. I’ve had cases where the head of one business unit has blamed the organization’s poor performance or capability on another business unit or some deficiency elsewhere. It’s entirely unlikely that Business Unit Head A is confiding some deep secret to you, so I feel quite comfortable putting that comment to Business Unit Head B and asking for his or her take on the issue.
The idea here is not to foment discord, but to take the opportunity the first comment presents to gain a deeper understanding of the issue. Don’t shy away from such internal tensions!
8. There is no correct number of interviews.
Interview as many people as you feel is necessary for you to build up a clear picture of an organization with respect to the project at hand. Sometimes this can be as few as three or four interviewees, and I’ve had projects where I’ve conducted twelve or more interviews.
9. If necessary, ask an interviewee to wait while you make a note.
I find interviewees are more than happy to hold off talking, so you can make note about something they’ve said. This is particularly important if you want to record a direct quotation before continuing with your next question.
A note about taking notes: I always take my own notes—whether I’m conducting an interview over the phone or face to face. If I have another person with me on the interview, I still take my own notes. I also have one rule: The other person doesn’t ask any questions. This might seem strange to you, but I’ve found from experience that having two people asking questions ruins the flow of the interview.
10. Decide for yourself whether you’ll record interviews.
I never record interviews. Well, I did once. I went to a great deal of effort getting permission to record from each interviewee, recording each interview, creating a transcript of each interview, and storing both the audio and the transcripts. Nobody has ever listened to the recordings or read the transcripts. So, five years on, I still have all the notes I’ve taken during interviews, and I still refer to them on occasion.
The archaeologist in me knows this is probably not the best approach, since I’m missing my one and only chance to make a recording of an interview. However, it doesn’t feel natural for me, and I know it affects the way I go about the interview when I do record, so I don’t do it. You should try this out for yourself though, and make up your own mind.
The Benefit of Keeping Your Interviews Informal
It’s important to remember that you’re doing informal, semi-structured interviews, not taking testimony. Why informal and semi-structured?
Given the opportunity, I’d like to ask a company’s CEO or COO different questions from those I’d ask, say, the customer service manager or the logistics manager. Working at very different levels of an organization, with narrower or more broadly defined areas of influence, stakeholders’ perceptions and thinking on each topic will be quite different.
Recall that I earlier mentioned I use interviews to gain insights. I find interviews are an excellent way of drawing out people’s perceptions and thinking. They do this much more effectively than a survey or questionnaire could ever do. The reason for this is the ability of an interviewer to ask follow-up, probing questions to clarify or expand on an idea.
Documenting the Outcomes of Stakeholder Interviews
The most useful deliverable from a set of stakeholder interviews is a summary document that provides a general overview of the picture you’ve built up through the interview process. My summary documents usually combine information I’ve gleaned from the literature I read before beginning the interviews and the responses interviewees have given to my questions. Where relevant, I use direct quotations to highlight or illustrate a particularly important point.
I also try to highlight cases where interviewees’ responses to questions indicate attitudes or operational policies that do not support the documented strategy or brand values. Such cases often show critical areas for realignment prior to the commencement of a project’s design phase. If a project involves work on an existing system, I also try to highlight areas of that system that aren’t aligned with the documented or de facto strategy.
Interviews with project stakeholders offer a rich source of insights into the collective mind of an organization. They can help you uncover areas of misalignment between a company’s documented strategy and the attitudes and day-to-day decision-making of stakeholders. They can also highlight issues that deserve special consideration due to their strategic importance to a business. Best of all, interviews are one of the easiest and lowest-tech forms of UX research you can conduct.
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