A core element in the planning for a major website build or redesign is stakeholder analysis. Essentially, a stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in or will be affected by the environment you are building. Stakeholders run the gamut from the person responsible for the website to anyone inside or outside the organization who will benefit from, be affected by, or use the tool.
The stakeholder interview is an important means of collecting the information needed before laying down the bones of a website. Any seasoned strategist will have his or her own interview methods and much has been written on the topic, which I encourage you to seek out and read. But after scores of successful website launches and hundreds of stakeholder interviews, five practices have emerged for me as critical to success.
1. Interview people one at a time
Often, managers of teams will suggest group interviews in the interest of efficiency and time-savings. Since the group all works together, a group interview makes sense, right? Well, yes and no. From an efficiency standpoint, talking to a group of people all at once certainly saves time. But consider the value of the information you will receive during a session like this.
In a hierarchical organization, the most senior person is likely to be the most voluble while direct reports sit back and wait to hear what the boss has to say. Further, group meetings function along personality lines. Extroverts speak up. Introverts don’t. In a group meeting, you will gather only a partial picture.
Individual roles also make a difference here. Six people who work together are not all engaged in the same tasks. The leader is in charge of managing the team and the individual contributors each have their own part to play, with specific duties and their own challenges. Talk to them individually, and you will gather specific problems to be solved and more than likely multiple “a-ha’s” their manager will be surprised by in the final report.
2. Set up rules for confidentiality
Begin each interview with a description of what you are trying to accomplish — the collection of information that, when taken together and analyzed, will inform the creation of a new digital tool that solves problems. Let your interview subject know they can be honest and can let you know which pieces of information they would just as soon not have connected with their name in your final recommendations.
This is easy enough to do. Often, you will uncover pain points that can be solved by sound UX design. In your analysis and presentation, instead of stating that “Rhonda is currently forced to waste a lot of time doing X and hates it,” claim the pain point and pull Rhonda out from under the bus. A simple statement like “We note that process X is time-consuming and inefficient and could be greatly improved by….” highlights the problem and a possible solution without putting poor Rhonda in the hot seat.
3. Listen, for heaven’s sake, and take careful notes
Sad to say, many people are crap listeners. So, don’t be one. The most important thing you can do is listen, even if what’s being said seems irrelevant. Chances are, by the time you get to the stakeholder interview stage, you’ve already been told “here’s the problem” by the project owners. Now that’s in your head acting as a filter.
Make sure you go into each meeting with an established set of questions and listen carefully to each answer. Never interrupt, agree with nothing, and make no verbal conclusionary statements. Take copious notes or record the session (with participant authorization).
And here’s something that works: After at least one or maybe even two answers, leave a bit of dead air. People hate silence and will often fill it with something important they may not otherwise have mentioned. Look at an interview subject in a friendly and expectant way at the close of an answer, and incredibly useful floodgates may open after a few beats of silence. As the interview ends, ask, “Is there anything I should know that I haven’t asked?” You may be surprised.
4. Talk to sales
Marketing and sales don’t always have the best relationship, which means that sometimes, sales has no seat at the table when plans for a new web presence get underway. But sales force members are on the front lines. They have first-hand knowledge of prospects and customers — what resonates with them and what doesn’t. These are the people who know the competition because they run up against them every day. They know what the competition is offering and why business is won or lost.
Talk to those responsible for different customer segments or lines of business — corporate accounts, street sales, distributor sales — because their needs are different and specific. Cover the spectrum of sales activities, and you will unearth challenges and nuances that can point to big ideas.
5. Talk to customer service
These are the people who know what’s not working in the real world because they hear about it every day. Some of what they wrangle will be related to product/service quality. But just as often, they are the first to know about customer experience problems that could be mitigated by a well-designed digital tool.
Yes, customers may eventually want to talk to someone when they have a serious problem needing resolution. But unless it’s an emergency, today’s customer is far more likely to want to solve it themselves first online. By asking customer service, you will discover the most frequent questions and requests. Can these be solved with more online information of a certain type? Online chat? An email triage option? Some set of downloads? Or something even more basic?
The bottom line is that finding the right solution to the most common customer experience problems grows out of discovering what those problems are. And, customer service is your golden ticket.
And remember, the information gathered during stakeholder interviews is only valuable if it’s analyzed properly. Make sure you’ve transcribed everything along the way and that all commentary has been captured and reviewed. Careful review highlights important nuances that may otherwise be overlooked, overshadowed by the strength of the bigger themes.