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User interviews and focus groups are the first step toward digital transformation success


By talking, and listening closely, to colleagues from across the organization you will uncover the richest opportunities for digital transformation.

Choose Who to Interview

The solutions to your organization’s digital woes may seem so obvious. “A new CRM will allow us to track all our relationships and produce business intelligence we can actually use!” But for enterprise-wide digital transformation, it's strongly recommended to gather a variety of staff perspectives before arriving at a technology solution.

Gather a diversity of perspectives. Think about the different roles, levels, locations, or other differentiators that exist in your organization. You'll want a representative cross-section, including the people who may not typically be consulted for technology-related initiatives. 

Interview enough (but not too much). Think about what a representative sample of staff would consist of. What you want to achieve is a research “saturation point.” This is the point at which you begin hearing the same things over and over. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to the percentage of a population that is needed to reach this point so you will have to use your best judgment. If you go through your initial round of interviews and feel that new insights are still being uncovered, perhaps this is a sign that you need to go a bit further before the saturation point is reached.

Set the Stage

Set the stage for successful interviews by being prepared and making it easy for your colleagues to participate.

Prepare an interview guide. Have a clear set of objectives and related questions to help you guide the conversation. If you have important stakeholders with you on this part of the journey, make sure they review and sign off on the interview guide before it’s used.

Be thoughtful. Work around your interviewees' schedules. Thirty minutes is usually sufficient, especially for people with packed calendars. And pick a time when they can really focus, aka not right before a big deadline or first thing on a Monday morning (or Friday afternoon!). You want them to feel appreciated from the start.

Create a safe space. The interview will only be useful if the interviewee can provide candid feedback. Create a safe space by clearly explaining why you're asking these questions and how the information will be shared and used. Always provide time at the beginning and end for questions. If delicate issues arise, you will want to ensure that all feedback is anonymized before presenting it to others (and reassure your interviewees of this as well).

Adopt the Right Mindset 

Leaving your assumptions and biases at the door will open up space for your interviewees to share beyond what you expect.

Be inquisitive and open. Don’t assume or act like you know or understand everything that is being shared. If something is unclear, ask. If the interviewee is making a nuanced point or alluding to something, probe more deeply. These moments of unexpected discovery are the gems of this process.  You’re here to learn so bring an attitude of open curiosity.

Avoid jargon. Using unfamiliar jargon can make people can create distance between you and the interviewee and makes it harder for you to get your point across. Use language most familiar to the interviewee when it comes to business terms related to your organization's work. They'll appreciate that you've made the effort to explain things in language they understand.

Don’t stick to the script. Your interview guide should be just that - a guide. Speak naturally and let the conversation go where there is interest and useful insights. Just be sure to steer things back to the topic at hand if things begin to wander.

Listen! This may seem obvious but actively listen. Pay attention to the person's tone and body language. Ask follow-up questions to get down to the real meaning or embrace an awkward silence. It can encourage the user to finish their thought. Silence is far better than interrupting their train of thinking.

Ask Questions the Right Way

As you create an interview guide, aim for a semi-structured approach. You want to achieve the goals you set out for yourself but don’t want to stifle conversation. We can look to psychologists for tips on how to ask questions to get the best responses. And no, it doesn’t have to be “How does that make you feel?”

Ask open-ended questions. “Do you like using System A?” could get a yes or no answer so reframe it as an open-ended question designed for discussion, such as “Describe your experience of using System A.” This will maximize insights. Ask for real-world examples, as people usually provide more detail and nuance in response to this type of question.

No leading the witness. “What don’t you like about System A?” assumes they don’t like it! “Tell me about your experience using System A” is open-ended and doesn’t assign a sentiment. Also, avoid mentioning potential solutions. Maybe you think a specific application could solve your company’s file management problems, but instead ask “How could we improve our file management systems?” It’s important not to hinder thinking at this point because you’re still gathering information, not generating solutions on the fly.

Finish On a High Note

As you wrap up the interview, leave time for big ideas, hopes, dreams, or anything else the user wants to share. Now is the time to spark excitement about the prospect of improving your organization’s digital workspace. It's very common for the most engaged interviewees to become the early champions of the digital transformation effort so leave them energized about what comes next.

Dream big. At the end of the interview, ask what the user’s ideal future state would look like. Even if their wish list seems impossible, write it down. Narrowing down ideas comes later. This is the time for brainstorming and thinking big.

Recruit. Share your immediate next steps and expected longer-term goals. You don’t want interviewees to feel this was a pointless exercise that won’t go anywhere. You’re building a coalition of digital transformation allies, one interview at a time, and you want them on your squad.

Follow up and share findings. Circle back at an appropriate time to share and validate what you learned and talk about what you plan to do next. You never know what thoughts might have developed since the last time you spoke.


*A note on conducting virtual interviews

With the global shift to working from home, there’s a strong likelihood that your interviews will be conducted virtually. With a little bit of prep and some extra care, these sessions can be just as productive as in-person interviews.

Technology is your friend. Default to video conferencing if you can’t conduct an in-person interview. More than a phone call, it will allow you to build a trusting environment and give you visual cues about the user’s feelings. As always, test out the platform beforehand to minimize any technical glitches and let your subject know that they'll be on video.

Don’t look away! Okay, this doesn’t have to be a staring contest, but you want to really be present during the conversation. It’s harder to pick up on people’s vibes over the computer so put extra effort into observing facial expressions and tone of voice. One way to do that is to record the conversation so you don’t have to take notes in real-time (of course, ask permission first).

Don’t speak. This might not be what Gwen Stefani meant back in 1995, but don’t jump in immediately at the end of a response. Giving space for the interviewee to finish their thought is always a good idea, but this pause is even more important during video calls where you might face delayed or garbled audio. While this might feel awkward at first, minimizing technology frustrations will allow the conversation to be more natural and effective. And if their audio isn't coming through clearly, say something right away! You want to hear every word and they'll pick up on you straining to understand.


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