Like it or not, research is the basis of effective conversion optimization.

Without research, you are just a glorified guess-taker. You might guess right a few times but more often than not you’ll miss completely.

Thanks to research you don’t need to guess anymore. You know what doesn’t work and what needs to be fixed. The next step is to just fix it.

The best way to research your audience is… to talk to them. Directly. Conduct user interviews. But you have to do it right or you’ll end up with polite but not really helpful answers.


People love to make other people happy. They avoid hurting one another’s feelings. Sometimes, they omit a few crucial things. Sometimes, to achieve this, they might even lie. The lies aren’t malicious—they’re about making other people happy and not hurting them.

However, when it comes to customer research, you want people to be honest—even brutally honest—when you are trying to figure out what to build.

When putting together a user testing plan, it’s critical to ask the right questions in the right order about the concepts that matter most to you.

A few basic rules of thumb for customer interviews:

  1. Ask indirect questions that help to shed light on the how and the why.
  2. Prompt participants to tell narrative stories by asking series of questions that start with the big picture and then probe for detail.
  3. Let participants speak with minimal interruption.

Think in terms of a guide, not a script

One of the benefits of having a real-time conversation with someone is that you can probe further and adjust the conversation to fit your needs.

Think about what probes you might want to use as follow-ups. For example:

Scenario: You’re considering creating an app that helps people plan and manage household chores in a setting where there are multiple people who are responsible for maintaining the house. The team wants to ask potential users about how they negotiate who does what.

Objective: Learn about how dishwashing fits into household management

  1. Tell me about your daily chores at home. What do you do? (Here, you want to learn what they really do – without leading them. If they do not report washing dishes, you may opt to skip the rest of the line of questions)
  2. (probe about eating habits at home) How often do you eat at home? (Not everyone eats at home every night. You want to know whether they are cooking at home or ordering in—that can make a significant difference in the number of dishes dirtied.)
  3. (probe about dishwashing) How do you clean dishes (assuming they use dishware vs. disposable)? (People have different preferences and desires around how they clean dishes. Here, you want to learn what tools they use and their typical practices.)
  4. (probe about preferences) What do you like about the process? (Some people love leaving the kitchen looking spotless at night. Some people love the meditative nature of dishwashing. Some people wash dishes because they don’t want ants. Find out what motivates people to wash dishes—or to avoid it.)
  5. What do you dislike about the process? (Learn about opportunities to make the process of washing dishes better.)
  6. About how much time did you take you to clean dishes last night? Was it a normal night for you?(Zoom in on a definition of success, i.e., minimal time spent washing dishes, an area of opportunity, or learn about whether this was an outlier or normal night to determine how much time it typically takes.)

Focus on the past—the future is uncertain

Asking people to report if they would behave a certain way in the future is almost certainly guaranteed to get you a poor answer. People can’t predict the future or what they’ll think with accuracy. However, they do a great job describing what they’ve done in the recent past.

Takeaway: Screen participants to be sure that you’ll interview people who’ve recently completed or who are in the process of doing an activity about which you want to learn. Ask them to describe what they actually did.

Getting to how and why

To get people to tell you a story, you need to ask them questions in a way that gets them to be descriptive about their reality. While this often means asking questions that start with “how” and “why,” this doesn’t always have to be the case.

Here are a few examples of how to improve your questions:

  • BAD: What’s the best way to wash dishes?
  • GOOD: How did you wash dishes last night?
  • BAD: Do you think that you’d use an app that enables you to assign chores based on what people in your household enjoy doing?
  • GOOD: How do you assign chores? Would you like to change how you do it? Why or why not?
  • BAD: Rate on a scale of 1-5 how often you’d use an app that would send reminders about when you need to do chores.
  • GOOD: How do you manage reminders about chores? About how much do you spend to do it? Are you looking for a way to change how you manage those reminders? Why or why not?

Other great ways to frame questions that prompt description and story-telling:

  • Tell me about a time when you….
  • Describe how you last….
  • Show me how….
  • What are all the tools that you use to….

Final thoughts

It’s likely that you will want to do multiple rounds of interviews with people to start with the broader objective first and then narrow down to hone in on clarifying questions later. In your first round of interviews, you may choose to focus on discovering all the pain points, and in later rounds, focus on an individual pain point.

By posing open questions without a specific goal in mind, you open yourself up to learning more about your customers. Also, it helps to be open to “bad” surprises that let you know that you might be heading down the wrong path.

The greatest power in discovery is in building empathy with your customers. Understanding what they need, how they live, what they prefer, and who they are helps your team to put themselves in customers’ shoes in all of the work you do.

How to get honest feedback from your customers

PS. When user testing your website, same rules apply. Don’t tell them to “add this product to cart and go through the checkout process”. Ask them “If you want to buy a product from category X, what do you do? … And what next? … And what next?”

I promise you’ll be surprised more than once when going through this process. Even if you think you know your audience inside out.