Capturing and characterizing internal customer needs

imageHow can useful information be best gathered from internal stakeholders so that their insights can be recorded, their creativity can be engaged, their most important needs can be identified, and so all this information can be appropriately curated?  There are many different styles of elicitation techniques, but taking a structured interview approach to the interactions with these stakeholders is highly recommended. Be mindful that, as in the cartoon on the right, each person may only have partial knowledge of parts of the system of interest, and may not know how to explain what they know to you in an organized way.

The ultimate goal of such interviews is to try to define the problems that need solving and explore options for what it will take to solve them.  Anytime that a stakeholder recognizes that there is a gap between what they are able to do and what they want to be able to do, and they can't close that gap themselves, they have a problem. This gap should be well defined before solutions are proposed or considered. To define a problem statement adequately, you will need to understand:

  • Who specifically has the problem?
  • How often does the problem arise? How important is it to solve?
  • When did this need first arise? Under what scenarios would this need become more urgent, be more relaxed, or go away entirely?
  • What approach has been taken to solve such problems in the past? How well has that approach worked?
  • What specific gaps need to be closed to address this problem, and why?
  • How much of their own time and resources would customers be willing to invest to have this problem solved?
  • What small steps could be taken early on in order to validate the potential value of this idea?
  • What are the most challenging roadblocks that must be overcome to solve this problem? How could these roadblocks be overcome?
  • If a solution to this problem were already available today, what would be required to put it into routine use?
  • How mature would a solution need to be before it could be put into operation where it could start delivering value?
  • What small steps could be taken early on in order to validate the potential value of this idea?

To prepare for such interviews, the first step is to identify the stakeholders that should be interviewed. Each of these people are busy, so it is helpful if you can be specific in what you want from them, have done your homework in advance, and work within a schedule convenient to them. The knowledge that these stakeholders possess is crucial for testing hypotheses about possible solutions, and for successfully selecting the most attractive alternatives in concert with sponsors.

The second step is to reflect on the dynamics that may unfold while gathering inputs from stakeholders. Both interviewers and interviewees are susceptible to the ladder of inference:

  • When we make observations about situations, we see and hear what happens, but may not accurately remember our observations in an accurate or unbiased way after time passes.
  • We select snapshots from these observations through a filtering process, which introduces assumptions about which of these snapshots observed are important. This assumption about importance is based on how the things that have been observed affect me, or fit into my cultural experience.
  • We add meaning to what we have selected, and impart meaning using the norms of the cultures in our experience.
  • We make assumptions based on this meaning, and fill in our gaps in knowledge by assuming that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes of others should match our own. These assumptions take the guesswork out of understanding the situation.
  • We draw conclusions from this meaning and assumptions, including why others behave as they do. We also begin to experience feelings based on these conclusions.
  • We adopt beliefs about the situation, including the need for some form of action to respond to this situation.
  • We act on these beliefs, often in an emotional, rather than a rational way.

The third step is to prepare for conducting the interviews themselves. Where possible, interviews should be conducted with one stakeholder at a time, so no perspective can dominate the conversation, and so each stakeholder's mental models can be explored fully. Interviews should be conducted by following a script and using a form that reinforces the consistent capture of information. This will help the synthesis of elicited information into useful summaries of stakeholder perspectives.

  • Create a picture that will help to frame your discussions; a block diagram can be particularly useful to ensure different parts and interfaces of the system are covered.
  • Create a set of prompts that will help to probe more deeply into areas of interest.
  • Set the context for the interview when you are arranging the sessions
  • Ask people to assemble information in advance
  • Set up a uniform scale to capture subjective inputs in a standardized way. For example, here is a netpromoter score profile that may be useful.
  • Determine how you will explore the effectiveness and responsiveness of existing products in meeting the needs of stakeholders. Here are possible questions (modeled from here) that can be used:
  • What has your experience been with the product or service in question? (Explore their role and characterize the breadth and depth of their experience)
  • What has your experience been with the people who produce and support the product or service (characterize the relationships & the level of trust that their needs will be satisfied)
  • How likely would you be to recommend these products and services to others?
  • Looking forward, are there specific objectives for this product which should be receiving more attention?
  • Looking forward, are there objectives that are currently being pursued that should be de-emphasized?

The fourth step is to conduct the interviews themselves:

  • When the interview starts, go over the purpose of the interview, and ask for permission to take notes, and work within the planned agenda / timeframe.
  • Keep your questions simple, and structure your interviews so they can be completed within the available time. You can always ask for follow-up information later.
  • Be sure to listen, rather than dominating the conversation with what you've heard from others. If any opinions are stated that disparage your efforts, don't take the bait.

The final step is to produce a summary of the information collected, and share with the interviewee, to address any questions or misunderstandings. Once enough people from a particular stakeholder role have been interviewed, a SWOT Analysis can provide a method to summarize how they perceive the strengths and weaknesses of existing solutions or proposals, and characterize the internal and external forces that may be amplifying or constraining available actions available for the situations and problems that collectively are identified during the interviewing process.

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