How to get started?
This article has been originally published on the TestingTime blog in 2019. Back then, I joined a start-up and used this method on regular basis to align with the Business, Marketing, and Product Teams and establish an optimal baseline for collaboration. Today’s revised version reflects my learnings over the last 4 years.
In a previous article, we explored the definitions of empathy and of its meaning for us, UX professionals. In our line of work, empathy starts with our stakeholders, clients, and team members — it is our responsibility to start with a clear and exhaustive understanding of the business vision and values, of the expected outcomes and constraints that will frame the design project from day one.
The beginning of a new project is always an exciting time as it allows you to gain a deep understanding of the product or service you’re working on, including its requirements and constraints. This early stage of the project is also when you get to know the individuals and businesses behind the product or service, as well as the people you are designing for. That’s why conducting stakeholder interviews during this discovery phase is crucial for the success of the design process.
A stakeholder interview typically involves a one-on-one, semi-structured interview with each of the project stakeholders. To achieve the best results, it’s important to speak with all of the stakeholders involved in the project. If this isn’t possible, try to meet with a representative from each stakeholder group.
Know your Stakeholders
Before you jump into the redaction of your stakeholders’ interview, make sure to identify the persons that are relevant and may potentially have a say in the development of this project. To help you start, you may want to draw a stakeholders map. Doing so, try to answer a few key questions: who has a direct or indirect interest in this project? Who will be directly or indirectly impacted by this project? Who may influence the outcome of this project?
Once you got a clear visual representation of your stakeholders and of your communication strategy for each of them, you may want to move on with the responsibility-assignment matrix or RACI. This acronym stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed: this project management framework allows you to identify and map specific roles and areas of accountability for each Stakeholder.
Be strategic: like in any other type of research session, define a clear scope and success metrics. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:
- What are my stakeholder’s assumptions?
- What are their underlying frustrations and goals?
- How do I know that this interview was a success?
Why start with a stakeholder interview?
In many cases, you may not know much about the product’s environment. Even if you’re lucky enough to be familiar with the field, stakeholders provide valuable business insights. Besides, they are involved in future decision-making processes: by keeping their goals and constraints in mind, you can strategically communicate your research insights when the time comes. Conducting a stakeholder interview allows you to establish open lines of communication and build trust, which is crucial for working in synergy with your stakeholders.
Although your stakeholders are likely domain or product experts, you are the expert when it comes to identifying users’ pain points and goals. Through a thorough and reliable research process, you establish a baseline for further design explorations. Your stakeholders, like any other human being, may not be aware of their own biases. By identifying mismatches between their assumptions and the users’ reality, you prevent unpleasant surprises down the line.
5 steps to prepare for a successful stakeholder interview
Identify your research goals
What do you want to find out? Even if you are running a semi-structured interview, it is best to prepare a guideline or script to identify a few important questions you need answers to. Make sure to go beyond the project requirements: as with any user interview, you want to hear about the stakeholders’ pains and motivations, not just about the business plan. Also, experts tend to assume that what is obvious to them is obvious to all. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the full scope of the project.
Identify the stakeholders
Depending on the project you are working on, the stakeholders may be on different levels of an organization: management, engineering, marketing and communication, sales, technical support, etc. Every single person whose job will be affected by the product is a stakeholder. Once you have written up a list of the stakeholders, you will want to group them by level, activity, or involvement in the project. If you can clearly identify different groups of stakeholders, you will want to have a different set of questions for each specific group. For example, people in management might be less sensitive to technological limitations, while the engineering team might not be aware of the constraints caused by the market or competitors.
3. Define a timeline and a budget
When working on smaller projects or with a limited budget, time may become a huge limitation. However, do not try to save time by cutting the stakeholder interview phase short. Plan ahead and make sure you allocated enough time to each interview as well as to breaks in between to gather your insights. If you are limited by time, location and/or budget, you might want to conduct your stakeholder interviews in “guerilla mode,” which I will talk more about later.
Define the setup
Should you conduct a remote interview, make sure to plan enough time (ideally at least 45-60 minutes) and to test your software before the actual interview. Your connection should be stable, you shouldn’t have any interferences of any kind and the sound should be clear. Make sure you allow your interviewees to use tools they are familiar with. Alternatively, if you provide a new tool, guide them through the setup process, adding extra time ahead of the interview slot as needed.
Send an email to your interviewees beforehand
This is just as important as the content of the interview itself. Keep in mind that you are not necessarily dealing with people familiar with this kind of research. They might have several questions. Make sure to explain that the content of the interview will in no way be used to assess them, their professionalism or their knowledge. Present the context and the scope of the interview and inform them ahead of time so they know what is coming up. There is nothing worse than an interviewee feeling caught by surprise, possibly misunderstanding the purpose of the interview.
Last but not least
Be mindful of your stakeholder’s schedule -define the time you will require from them and respect it. They might not be familiar with the UX process and be reluctant at first to put aside time for what they’d consider another meeting. Should you, during the interview, realize that your initial estimation is wrong, kindly ask whether the interviewee would mind extending the planned slot or whether he or she would rather schedule a new slot to continue the discussion.
Leave space for questions from your stakeholder and take time to answer them. This is a user interview, no interrogation! Building rapport is as essential as getting your script right. When reviewing the goals and scope of the interview, make sure to io guide the interviewee through the questions (we will first have a look at this, then at that,…).
How do you structure a stakeholder interview?
First things first: start with an icebreaker
While it may seem obvious, it’s still a common mistake to make, especially when time is short. As we’ve seen before, starting the interview by following up on a previous email and asking a few general questions is a great way to begin. However, it’s essential to touch base with the stakeholder before proceeding, as some time may have passed since their response. Taking a moment to thank them for their time and summarizing their previous responses demonstrates your appreciation and gives them a chance to prepare for the upcoming questions.
Before starting with the interview schedule, take a moment to recap the purpose of the interview. If you plan on recording the interview, make sure you ask for consent beforehand. Explain how the recording will be used and ensure that it will be deleted once the analysis is complete. Consider using a script, checklist, or interview guide to make sure you cover everything.
As you approach the end of the interview, it’s important to allow some time for any questions your stakeholder may have. The interview may have sparked their interest in the research, and they may want to learn more about the project.
While they may have expressed doubts about the exercise at first, you’d be surprised how many people enjoy discussing their jobs, concerns, needs, and even fears related to a project. Each stakeholder is taking valuable time and energy to provide you with useful insights, so it’s crucial to express your appreciation and thank them for their input. Not only will this help establish trust, but it will also build a connection for future collaboration.
In my experience, many stakeholders show a lot of interest in the future of the project and ask to be kept up-to-date about the following steps. This is an excellent sign. Why not initiate this yourself by offering to keep them in the loop? You might want to use some of your stakeholders for further research with a focus group, for example.
The ultimate checklist for conducting a stakeholder interview
By now, you should have the necessary knowledge to conduct a successful stakeholder interview. This being said, keep in mind that each project has its unique specifications and limitations. Therefore, it is crucial to adjust your methodology to your research objectives and stakeholders. To assist you with this, you can use the following checklist:
- Forget to consider all possible stakeholders. Ensure that you cover a broad range of perspectives.
- Focus solely on solutions, features, or problems you may have identified: be aware of your own biases!
- Try to confirm your own assumptions: be genuinely curious and listen actively to each stakeholder’s concerns.
- Save time and effort on the preparation: good prep is the key to success.
- Allocate enough time for each interview (ideally 45 to 60 minutes).
- Send a brief email ahead of the actual interview to prepare the stakeholder.
- Dig deeper than just the requirements brief to uncover valuable insights.
- Build rapport – this will facilitate communication in the future.
- Be mindful of misalignment between different stakeholders.
- Consider any assumptions they may have regarding users and their needs.
- Be open to addressing any fears or skepticism toward your approach.
- Clearly define your research goals and prepare your script accordingly.
- Test your script with a third-party, not a stakeholder, to ensure it is effective.