Brian Rhea Brian Rhea

Mastering Customer Interviews: Encouraging Honesty and Embracing Feedback

When you're kicking off customer interviews to collect feedback on a design or prototype, one of the most important things you should say is:

"None of the designers are on the call. You aren't going to hurt anyone's feelings."


"We're in the very early stages here, so please feel free to shoot down anything you see."

Even if it isn't true!

Nurture Honesty in Customer Interviews

People don't like hurting other peoples' feelings and your customers will lie to you to avoid the sense that they've delivered bad news.

You want to do everything you possibly can to relieve your customer of any sort of pressure or responsibility in the process.

It doesn't matter if I'm the actual designer that created the screens they're seeing and it's my favorite work of all time, or if we're one short sprint away from launching what they're about to see, at the beginning of all the customer interviews, I will say:

"This is very low stakes because we're still early on in this process."

"We're not at all invested in the specifics that you're about to see. But we are invested in getting it right so it's no big deal to us to blow this whole thing up."

"Feel free to be blunt, this isn't my baby. I've not put a lot of time into the prototype up to this point. My job is to poke some holes into what's here now."

Be Willing to Go Back to Square One

That whole thing about being willing to start back from scratch? You need to mean it.

A lot of the time, customer research folks will argue that you shouldn't show customers a prototype or a mock-up because it will prime their expectation and you'll be refined to a local maximum.

That's definitely true.

But in my experience, the greater risk is not that your customers will be primed or polluted by the prototype, but that you will!

Mock-ups are subject to the Lindy effect. Each time they're posted to Slack, someone will become attached to a certain element or offer an anecdote for why a potentially meaningless feature is an absolute must-have.

The longer mock-ups exist prior to customer research, the more likely they are to exist regardless of the results of customer research.

You have to be willing to trash your favorite screen, your favorite micro-interaction, your favorite anything if what you learn is that, in fact, it's not useful.

Neutrality is Easier When You're Early

You're going to get attached to your thing. Either because it becomes your Precious or because the inertia created by seeing it day-in-day-out lets you get used to it.

If you want to be able to mean it when you say, "Yeah, we're in the early stages here so be honest. You're not going to hurt any feelings," then have those conversations when that's actually true.

In building new things, the quote to always keep in mind is this gem by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman:

"If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late."

Take that approach to your wireframes, mock-ups, prototypes, and your MVP.

What often happens is that founders and teams wait until they've fixed all the things that they think are wrong before showing it to anyone else. This puts you into diminishing returns way too early as you fine-tune all your own specific preferences, when in fact, there are massive gains to be made from just five customer interviews.

In short:

  • Talk to customers
  • Talk to them early
  • Let them know that they won't hurt anyone's feelings
  • Believe that to be true

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