Breaking The Wheel

A picture of a question mark, because customer interviews involve questions. Get it?

Customer Interviews: Conducting Effective One-On-Ones

Henry Ford once famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” More recently, Steve Jobs said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” What these quotes are really getting at is the danger of interview-driven design. If you ask people what they want, they’ll just say “faster, better, cheaper.” And creating new products is YOUR job, not your customers’. It’s unreasonable to expect customers to tell you what products to make. Imagining completely new products is not their in their skillset.

Customer Interviews: Getting Out of the Building

Customers don’t know what they want. But they do know what they like.

And that latter aspect is what you’re trying to get at with interviews.

Entrepreneurs are routinely told to “get out of the building” – to leave the safe, non-disconfirming confines of the office and go talk to people in order to stress-test ideas. That’s what customer research is about – testing hypotheses. It’s easy to bury yourself under a security blanket of your own intuition: “People will love this idea! I mean, seriously, how can they not?”

Then you go talk to people and find the myriad ways in which they can, in fact, not love your idea. And it’s often due to reasons that never occurred to you in your safe conceptual-echo-chamber.

The Goals of Customer Interviews

Your goal when talking with prospective customers is to start with your largest hypotheses. Namely, that your target customer is who you think he is and that your idea is actually appealing to him. If those hypotheses are validated, great, move on. Or, if they are partially validated (your target customer is different from your persona in X, Y, and Z ways, and your idea is appealing but with A, B, and C caveats), adjust them accordingly. And if they are flatly dis-proven, go back to the drawing board.

From there you move to the more nuanced hypotheses. For instance, whether particular features or visual styles are appealing to the target audience. You method for prioritizing hypothesis testing should be based on dependencies. The more decisions are based on a particular hypothesis, the higher priority it should be for testing.

Adjustments to or rejections of hypotheses should not be viewed as failures. Quite the contrary – you just dodged a bullet. You bailed on an idea that would not bear fruit before sinking weeks, months, or years of your life and lots of money on it.

And the first, and simplest hypothesis test is the one-on-one.

One-on-One Interviews

A one-on-one is exactly what it sounds like: you and a single prospective customer chit chat. The advantage of a one-on-one customer interviews is that it is highly flexible. You are free to diverge from your prepared questions at any time to chase individual lines of conversation as they come up. This can lead to some really interesting discoveries. You might find that a customer loved a particular game, but for some off-the-beaten path reason.

For example, if you were to ask me about the Grand Theft Auto series, I’d say my absolute favorite thing to do in any of those games (going back to the original) was to just try to get the highest possible wanted star rating and then see how long I could survive and how much chaos I could sew. This is information you would have missed if you had just asked me if I liked the game instead of why.

The downside is that these interviews are time-consuming (read: expensive) and they provide anecdotes, not data. You are using one-on-ones to inform and refine your hypotheses, but you can’t use the results to rigorously test those hypotheses. One-on-ones are qualitative techniques: they generate insight and help you understand the target customer. That being said, you may gather enough anecdotal evidence to convince you that your hypotheses needs a major overhaul before you move forward.

Running a good one-on-one is much like being a good dungeon master. You can’t force the conversation down a channel that hits all of the notes you want it to. You need to move with the flow of conversation and go where it leads you. That’s where the good discoveries are.

One-On-One Dos

  • Conduct the interview somewhere comfortable for the interviewee
  • Be respectful of the interviewee’s time
  • Help the interviewee relax by starting off with small talk and easy warm-up questions (Where’d you go to school? What are you playing these days?)
  • Ask what the interviewee liked or disliked about any game that comes up in conversation
  • Investigate what genres he/she loves or hates and why
  • Ask questions related to the persona to see how well the interviewee matches your assumptions; ie, ask the interviewee to tell you about his/her typical routine, favorite on-line or real-world hangouts, and activities other than gaming

One-On-One Don’ts

  • Don’t make the interview about you or your game; your goal is to find out about the interviewee’s interests and needs and whether your idea matches those interests and needs
  • Don’t conduct the interview if either of you is in a rush; just reschedule
  • Don’t conduct the interview over IM or email; in person is best, video-chats are 2nd best, and phone will work in a pinch
  • Don’t just out right say what you intend to make and ask what the interviewee thinks; write your questions in such a way as to Socratically lead to a discussion of the kind of game you’re going to make
  • Don’t correct the interviewee – this can put him/her on the defensive; just roll with what he/she says
  • Don’t ask “Why?” – this can be interpreted as prying or patronizing; use “Can you tell me more about that?”
  • Don’t belabor a line of questioning – this can also be interpreted as prying
  • Don’t ask “leading” questions: “Don’t you think…”, “Do you agree that…” etc; these types of questions can severely bias responses

One Final Note

Remember that strategy depends on focus. To that end, your goal is not to learn what make everyone happy. It’s to figure out what makes your target segment happy. If someone from a different segment hates your idea, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If that segment tends to be diametrically opposed to your target segment’s interests, the fact it hates your idea is supporting evidence for your design.


Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

Buyer Persona: Identifying Your Hypothetical Player

Video Game Market Segmentation

Sunk-Costs and Ugly Babies: On The Value of the Scientific Method


What’s Next?

You have a strategy, you have a target segment, and you’ve stress tested some of your hypotheses about the target using interviews. There are other forms of interview, of course, namely focus groups and surveys. I may cover those in a later post. But for now, you have some insight about who the target really is. It’s time to get a sense if that market can be profitable. It’s time to estimate your video game market potential. Click to read on.

Key Takeaways

  • The purpose of customer interviews is not to figure out what customers want, but what they do and don’t like
  • Interviews are a way of testing your marketing hypotheses and gaining insight into your proposed target segment
  • The most basic form of interview is the one-on-one
  • One-on-ones are time consuming, but highly flexible – you can pursue any interesting lines of conversation that occur
  • Don’t make one-on-ones about your game, focus on the customer’s needs and interests
  • Make sure to keep your interviewee comfortable, and don’t ask leading questions

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