4 Ways to Listen to Your Stakeholders

“Talk to your stakeholders/audience/customers/constituents/users!” Sound familiar?

When it comes to design thinking, the focus is on the human user: to design better experiences, you need to develop empathy with them and better understand their unmet needs. And, one of the best ways of doing that is by talking with them.

A deceptively simple tool, the user interview has been further complexified by its various use cases: Need to uncover pain points and unmet needs? Talk to your target customers! Looking for some inspiration? Ask your audience! Want to shake up your brainstorms? Bring in a stakeholder! Need to get feedback on an idea? Calling your constituents!

However, each of these situations require subtly different approaches to how you’re engaging your stakeholders, or—rather—what you’re listening for.

The four most common types of interviews that I encounter in my work at The Design Gym are Empathy Interviews, Inspirational Interviews, Ideation Interviews and Feedback Interviews. In this post, we’re going to explore what each one entails, their individual nuances and what to keep in mind as you conduct each one of these interviews.

Empathy Interviews

Empathy Interviews are conversations with the people who are affected by what you’re designing (customers, target audiences, internal and external stakeholders, etc.). As its name implies, the goal of an empathy interview is to build empathy with your interviewees in an effort to better understand their experiences and points of view.

Empathy interviews are often deployed during the Examine Phase, the beginning of a design thinking project. They can be a great way to uncover unmet needs, follow up on observational or quantitative research, and check your assumptions.

When conducting an empathy interview, you want to listen with curiosity. Tune your hearing to the interviewee’s emotions, because that’s where the juicy details are. Negative sentiments generally point towards unmet needs or opportunities. Positive feelings, on the other hand, tend to signal significance or interest, which is also important to understand.

Tips for Empathy Interviews:

Structure your conversation: Start with some rapport building questions before diving into the specifics.

Use open-ended questions: Try to use questions that start with how or why.

Get creative: Consider incorporating techniques such as card sorting or journaling as prompts for your conversation.

Ask if you’ve missed anything: In general—but especially with empathy interviews—be sure to ask if you’ve missed anything at the end of your interview. This is often where you’ll get the most honest answers.

Inspirational Interviews

Inspirational Interviews are conversations that help shake up your assumptions and provoke new ways of thinking about your challenge. Inspiration can come from anyone, but there are two types of people that I find most inspiring in the context of a design thinking challenge:

  1. Extremes at either end of the usage spectrum (for example, first adopters and rejecters)
  2. People who have solved similar problems, though perhaps in a different context. For example, if you’re trying to design a more engaged community, you might talk to best-in-class experts (like community organizers and leaders) or ordinary users who have hacked their own work-arounds (like local neighborhood groups).

Inspirational interviews can be a valuable addition to your research early on in the Examine Phase of a design thinking project. They can also provide powerful forms of stimulus during the Ideate Phase. In either case, they are a great way to uncover other people’s learnings and leverage these tactics and strategies to the benefit of your own challenge.

For inspirational interviews, you want to listen with humility. Keep your ears open for the little bits of wisdom and insight sprinkled throughout the conversation. What can you glean from this person’s experience? How is it similar to or different from your own challenge? For instance, on a recent project to design a customized design thinking program for a large institution, we spoke with several individuals who had successfully lead design thinking initiatives within other larger organizations to see what we could learn from their experiences.

Tips for Inspirational Interviews

Assume ignorance (but don’t ask ignorant questions): The user is the expert and you’re there to learn. That being said, don’t waste their time by asking questions you could have googled.

Ask for illustrative examples and stories: Stories are a great way to make the abstract more concrete by providing additional context. Or, better yet, ask the user to bring the story to life by demonstrating or showing you their experience. For example, if you’re talking to someone about their coffee routine, see if they can walk you through their process of making a cup.

Encourage reflection: Ask questions that help the user better understand their own experience. For instance, in the earlier example where we interviewed design thinking leaders, we asked them not only about what worked well and what didn’t, but why. Especially when something is successful, people don’t always stop to consider the why.

Ideation Interviews

An ideation interview (more commonly known as co-creation or co-design) engages your stakeholders in the process of generating ideas. The goal of this kind of interview is to leverage the internal knowledge and experience of your stakeholders in creating possible solutions.

Not unsurprisingly, these interviews commonly occur during the Ideate Phase of a design thinking process. They’re a great way to involve your stakeholders, build excitement around your challenge, and create buy-in and internal ownership of the ideas from those involved.

During ideation interviews, listen with a mindset of possibility. Focus not only on the ideas that your stakeholders generate, but also the principles behind them. There’s a popular legend in the design thinking world that if Henry Ford had asked his customers how to improve transportation, they would have suggested a faster horse. As a design thinker, your job is to hear these ideas (some of which may be spot on) and dig deeper for their underlying needs and motivations that can inspire new possibilities.

Tips for Ideation Interviews

Provide context: Make sure your stakeholders understand the challenge you’re looking to solve—as well as the constraints.

Tap into the power of the group: Ideation interviews are a great way to engage multiple users at once to build off of each others’ ideas. To prevent groupthink (and make space for the introverts), carve out some time for solo ideation before jumping into group ideation.

Don’t ghost your stakeholders: Show them you value their time by keeping them updated afterwards as your work progresses.

Feedback Interviews

Feedback interviews are conversations with a stakeholder, generally in response to a prototype or mock-up, aimed at soliciting reactions and impressions. The goal of a feedback interview is to learn about the usability, feasibility or desirability of a particular solution.

Feedback interviews are most commonly conducted during the Experiment Phase of the design thinking process to test an idea’s key assumptions (this video from IDEO’s Toy Lab is a great example of how they tested some key features of their Elmo Monster Maker app with kids before building it). Additionally, feedback interviews can also be useful during the Explore Phase to gain insight on existing solutions and find opportunities for improvement (for instance, IDEO could have also gotten feedback from kids on what they liked about existing educational apps and games).

While conducting feedback interviews, you want to listen with gratitude. Pay attention to the person’s gut reactions and how they interact with the prototype. What aspects do/don’t they like, and—more importantly—why? What might they change to improve upon the idea? Gently probe beneath the surface level responses to find the broader meaning behind their reactions.

Tips for Feedback Interviews

Be specific about the level of feedback you’re looking for: Do you want them to share general impressions or pay attention to specific elements? Giving some guidelines will help you get the most out of the feedback interview.

Don’t get defensive about your idea: As they say, “feedback is a gift.” Even negative feedback can prove helpful in improving your idea. Remember—it’s better to receive feedback early on when you can modify and iterate on your idea, rather than get negative criticism once the idea is fully launched.

General Interview Tips

Independent of which interview you’re conducting, there are some best practices you’ll want to keep in mind, across the board.

Stop talking and listen: Set the context, ask your question, and then allow the person to talk freely more than you talk.

Channel your inner 3-year-old: Ask why (and why, and why…).

Encourage stories: Stories provide context and help us better understand through examples.

Pay attention to body language: Is the person’s mouth saying one thing, but their body is saying something else?

Embrace the silence: Some people need more time to think than others. One trick I’ve heard is to count in your head to 10 before jumping in to fill the silence.

Be prepared: Write yourself an interview guide and spend some time practicing with coworkers or friends to feel confident about the questions you’re asking.

Be open: If your interview takes a left turn into unexpected territory, don’t panic. Some of the most interesting insights come from these unforeseen lands! If you start getting too far into the weeds, however, you can always gently guide the conversation back on track.

Mind your Ps and Qs: These people are taking time out of their day to talk with you, so make it worth their while—or at the very least, say thanks. Decide on an appropriate form of thanks given your situation and budget: a high five, a handwritten note, a small gift or formal compensation.

 

User interviews are one of the most powerful and effective tools in the design thinking toolbox. By engaging and listening to the people who are directly affected by your challenge, you can gain valuable insights, inspiration, ideas, and feedback—and, ultimately, design a better, more empathetic and human-centered solution.

So, the next time you need to talk to your stakeholders, think about the purpose of the conversation and let that guide your listening. By becoming a better listener, you’ll become a better designer.

 

Kelsye Gould
kelsye@thedesigngym.com
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