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Research Trail Guide: The perfect interview intro

For the first instalment of our Research Trail Guide articles, here’s a quick run-through of the interview-opening principles we use ourselves and teach to clients to get conversations off to the best possible start.

A well-planned intro is the most underrated part of an interview 

– Andrew Muir Wood, a while back

At Muir Wood & Co, we help product teams power-up their research skills and processes. Something we’ve learned over the years, is how much the first few minutes of an interview make a difference to the quality of the conversation. So, for the first instalment of our Research Trail Guide articles, here’s a quick run-through of the interview-opening principles we use ourselves and teach to clients to get those conversations off to the best possible start.

It may be our full time job, but we think customer research is weird. You’re getting someone to open up, often about things they've never vocalised before, to a complete stranger, sometimes for a cash incentive. The way you begin that conversation is a crucial moment, it’s an elevator pitch for why they should reveal their inner thoughts and feelings to you.

In remote research it’s even more important, since you can’t rely on body language (and tasty snacks) to loosen them up and feel like they’re having a normal conversation. A good intro also helps you relax because you don’t need to think on the spot at the start. Plus, a standardised opener helps you (and your team) maintain consistency in your interviews: this is super important to ensure a fair comparison between different participants.

Here are four key principles to keep in mind in your opening minutes:

Remove any sources of uncertainty or discomfort

You don’t want participants feeling judged or interrogated – I’ll often explain that it’s not an exam, there won’t be trick questions and they don’t have to answer questions that feel uncomfortable for any reason.  

Describe the “shape” of the information you are looking for

It’s not leading to tell people how long you want them to speak, how detailed you’d like them to be and what you don’t want them to talk about.

Reassure the participant about how their data will be used

Is it helping you to improve the product? Resolve a disagreement in the team? Who’s going to see it? How long will you keep it?

Give them space to be negative

This is not a sales meeting, so don't pitch! Detach yourself from the product, brand or ideas being tested, let them know it’s OK to criticise or disagree.

One last point on rapport-building in remote interviews: in advance of our calls, we request that participants use a laptop (if they have access to one), with video on, so we see each other’s faces and can give them a big ol’ smile. NEVER start recording until you’ve verbally asked their permission, even if they’ve already signed a consent form that permits it. Arriving at a Zoom that’s already recording is super creepy, don’t do it (even for meetings it’s kind of sinister).

Yeah yeah yeah, enough of the theory. Here’s an example of an intro that we’d use in a research project to understand consumer breakfast habits for our fictional granola delivery startup, “Oat Couture”.

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So there you have it, a way to loosen up your participants and set your interviews up for success. Write it out verbatim, recite it in the shower and do test it on a friend or colleague to make sure it sounds breezy and natural, not robotic. It's a conversation, not a deposition. Let us know if it improves your interviews!

Get in touch if you’d like us to give your team bespoke training, adapted to your customer and product. We can offer one-off workshops or ongoing coaching for your research projects. And keep an eye out for our next Research Trail Guide where we’ll be spilling the tea on how to put people at ease in an interview.

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