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An 8-step guide to conducting empathetic (and insightful) customer interviews

Customer interviews uncover your ideal users’ challenges and needs in their own words, providing in-depth customer experience insights that inform product development, new features, and decision-making. But to get the most out of your interviews, you need to approach them with empathy. This article explains how to conduct accessible, inclusive, and—above all—insightful interviews to create a smooth (and enjoyable!) process for you and your participants.

Last updated

1 Feb 2024

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9 min

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Summary

To conduct an efficient empathy-driven customer interview, follow these eight steps:

  1. Define your research goals: this will guide everything from your recruitment process to your interview questions

  2. Find the right participants: use a virtual user interview tool to connect with your ideal interviewees, no matter where in the world they are

  3. Create your questions: map out the key things you want to ask (AI can help!)

  4. Create a comfortable interview environment: ensure your interview is accessible and inclusive—put participants at ease to get the best results

  5. Jot down some key points: make a few notes as you go, but stay present in the conversation

  6. Say thank you: let participants know you appreciated their time and insights

  7. Analyze the data: identify patterns and common themes in your participants’ responses to find opportunities and areas for improvement

  8. Create an action plan: combine your interview data with other quantitative and qualitative data to help you prioritize next steps

Reasons to conduct inclusive interviews include greater customer understanding, more impactful feedback, and increased user-centricity.

An 8-step framework for empathetic, user-centric customer interviews

Customer interviews gather insights that help you

  • Boost customer retention by identifying customer problems that cause churn

  • Generate customer delight by better understanding (and meeting) the needs of different personas and types of customers

  • Improve your product-market fit by exploring real customer use cases and using this data to tailor your roadmap or marketing materials

That’s incredibly valuable—but as far as customer research goes, in-person interviews can be limiting (and limited): you can only reach customers within a certain radius of you, and it’s often time- and labor-intensive for them to participate. 

That’s why we prefer virtual customer interviews. With the right user interview tool, you can talk to customers from anywhere in the world, unlocking valuable insights with minimal disruption to their day—and maximum results for your user research. 

Here are eight simple steps for running effective, empathetic virtual interviews with your customers.

Hotjar Engage makes it easy to recruit participants, schedule interviews, and share your findings, so you can focus on connecting with your participants.

Before the interview

1. Set your research goals

You know what they say: if you fail to prepare, you should prepare to…not have a very productive customer interview.

At the outset of this process, set clear goals for what you want to learn from your research. Examples of research goals include

  • Do customers find our website easy to use?

  • Why do users exit the checkout flow without making a purchase?

  • How do users feel about our product?

  • What would customers like to see from our company or product suite in the future?

  • What does our ideal customer profile (ICP) think of our new product?

Defining your goals in advance is crucial to every step that follows: it ensures you identify the right people for your user interviews, ask them the right questions, and get the right insights. 

2. Find the best participants

One of the biggest benefits of virtual customer interviews is that you can reach people from all over the world.

This means you can connect with the exact people you want to talk to, whether that’s existing customers from specific segments (like certain locations or industries), users who have churned, members of your target audience who meet the criteria for your ICP (i.e. potential customers), or any other grouping that makes sense for your research.

As you’re sourcing interviewees, be sure to recruit a diverse range of participants. This provides a greater array of viewpoints and helps you uncover things you might otherwise miss. Think about representation across various factors (such as geographical location, industry, age, gender, and language) to ensure you get a full picture of customer needs and experiences.

💡 Pro tip: effortlessly source and screen participants with Hotjar Engage. Interview your own customers, or select from our pool of over 200,000 people from all over the world to get diverse perspectives that meet your specific needs.

Using Hotjar Engage, UI/UX design and research consultancy UX studio has been able to quickly find global participants from underrepresented locations that meet their precise research requirements, reducing their recruitment timeline from 2–3 weeks to a breezy 1–2 days (and saving them hours of manual work).

“Engage is good for us because we have clients from different countries. Some regions are very difficult for recruitment, but with Engage, we’ve found people everywhere, from Norway to Brazil to India.”

- Barbara Bicskei, Studio Lead at UX studio

3. Create your customer interview questions

Next, decide what you want to ask. Customer interviews are the ideal time to ask open-ended questions, because you’re uniquely able to follow up in real time. This can help you to uncover unexpected insights and reveal new lines of thinking.

Virtual video interviews also enable you to ask sentiment-based questions—you can analyze what respondents say along with their behavior, body language, and tone of voice, giving you an additional layer of insight that text-based research can’t provide.

When preparing, you don’t need to draft out a full-blown user interview script or customer interview template, but you should definitely have an outline of key questions to ensure you stay on track and cover all the core topics. The questions you ask will vary based on your research goals, but here are some effective user interview questions to get you started—and help you come up with your own.

However, as we mentioned above, don’t be afraid to go a little off-track from your pre-made questions if a particularly juicy insight comes up. Taking a few minutes to explore an interesting point further can reveal some of the most valuable insights and teach you things you never knew you never knew.

💡 Pro tip: if you want to see the power of AI in speeding up your user research process, check out the Hotjar AI feature for our Surveys tool, which instantly whips up personalized questions based on your objectives. Just type in your research goal, let AI generate effective questions in seconds, and launch your survey to the masses for additional insights to supplement your user interviews. (And if you’re short on time, why not repurpose these questions for your next user interview? ♻️)

Use Hotjar AI to instantly generate survey questions relevant to your research goals

During the interview

4. Make your interviewees feel comfortable

Once it’s interview o’clock, aim to create a positive interview environment. Not only is this simply nicer for everyone involved, but putting interviewees at ease means they’ll be more comfortable speaking up and sharing their genuine feedback, leading to more accurate results.

Some ways of making your interviewees feel comfortable, building trust, and creating a good environment include

  • Running virtual customer interviews instead of face-to-face, so they can participate remotely from the comfort of their own homes (or favorite coffee shop—wherever they’re happiest)

  • Ensuring your user interview tool is accessible and catering to any additional accessibility needs, for example, by using assistive technologies like a screen reader or real-time captioning software

  • Introducing yourself and sharing the agenda at the outset of the meeting, so everyone knows what to expect and how the interview data will be used

  • Giving people time to think through their responses and avoiding putting anyone on the spot

  • Being empathetic and validating customers’ feedback and opinions to make participants feel heard and valued

5. Take notes (but not too many)

Taking notes is important, but so is staying present in the interview. The last thing you want is to be so caught up typing that you forget to listen to and engage with your participants.

The best user interview tools (like Hotjar Engage 😉) remove this problem by providing timestamped, autogenerated transcripts at the end of your session, allowing you to focus on the interview itself without worrying that you’ll miss something important.

Instead of trying to capture every point and gesture, just jot down key points or standout insights during the interview. Then, go back to the recording or transcript of your session to flesh out your points afterward and supplement them with specific evidence from your customer research.

💡 Pro tip: if you’re using Hotjar Engage, pinpoint key insights in the video with emoji markers to make it easier for the whole team to jump to relevant moments. You can also create short clips to summarize or support important points, and share or export them with stakeholders to get buy-in.

After the interview

6. Thank participants for their time

Once the interview is over, be sure to send a message to thank participants for their contributions. This reiterates that you value their time and feedback, leaving a positive impression. (It’s nice to be nice.)

As an added bonus, you can also use this as an opportunity to ask follow-up questions about any particular insights they shared, or enable them to share any additional thoughts that occurred to them after the interview.

7. Analyze your transcript and notes

Next comes the analysis phase. After each session, go through your interview notes, recording, and transcript and pick out key insights.

You can use a virtual tool like Miro to do this, or go old-school with Post-Its and a whiteboard; just make sure that each insight has its own (virtual or IRL) sticky note.

Then, group these insights into topic ‘clusters’, i.e. the overarching themes (such as ‘UX issues’ or ‘customer retention’).

Once you’ve created these clusters, look for patterns. Identify common points or contradictions between the responses to help you piece together the big picture and answer your research questions.

📖 Check out our guide to interview analysis here.

8. Turn your data into action

Now, make a strategic plan to address the feedback from your customer interviews in line with your research goals from step one. What did you discover, and how can you leverage these learnings to make customer-centric changes?

Some actionable ways to use the data and insights from your customer interviews include

  • Prioritizing new features or product updates based on customer feedback about what will be most impactful for them

  • Using evidence from your customer research to support proposals and get buy-in for new user experience initiatives, like a website overhaul

  • Share key takeaways with your marketing and sales teams so they can iterate on their messaging and better connect with prospective customers 

However you plan to put your data into action, do it in a measurable way and set key performance indicators (KPIs) to track your progress. For example, if your goal is to improve customer happiness, monitor metrics like customer satisfaction and Net Promoter Score® and look for a lift in these numbers after implementing changes based on customer feedback.

Combine interviews with other tools for richer insights

User interviews don’t have to happen in isolation. Take your findings and supplement them with qualitative and quantitative data from other behavior analytics tools, such as

  • Surveys: on-site or external surveys asking targeted questions, so you can capture even more data and recruit participants for user interviews at certain points in the customer journey

  • Feedback: an always-on widget that enables customers to leave ratings or comments about specific elements of your page at any time, and drop their email addresses if they’re willing to be interviewed

  • Recordings: anonymized, video-like playbacks that let you watch visitors navigate your site and see the user experience through their eyes, sparking new ideas for potential interview questions

  • Funnels: visual representations of the customer journey as users progress through—or drop off from—key conversion steps

Here’s just one example of how these tools might work together:

  1. 📊 Funnels reveal that users are leaving a product page instead of converting and making a purchase, so you click through to watch associated session recordings of users who dropped off

  2. 🔍 The session recordings show that users are scanning the page but then exiting, suggesting that they’re looking for something but not finding it 

  3. 👩🏽‍💻 You decide to run customer interviews to ask people first-hand about their experience with the page

  4. 🤔 The interview sessions reveal that customers want more information about the product before purchasing. Customers also mention that they’re not familiar with your brand, making them more hesitant to purchase.

  5. 🤓 You prioritize changes to the product page, adding more product information and customer testimonials to build trust and add social proof

  6. 📈 You compare the conversion rates of the product page before and after making these edits to measure the impact of your changes

Use data from tools like Funnels and Recordings to jumpstart your customer interviews

3 reasons to conduct inclusive customer interviews

Understand customer pain points and needs by talking to real people

With virtual customer interviews, you get all the insights of face-to-face customer research with none of the hassle, meaning they’re better for you and your customers. Using the right tool, you can create a more accessible, inclusive, empathetic customer interview workflow that makes it easier than ever to get the insights you need to make improvements they’ll love.

Conduct empathy-driven customer interviews with Hotjar

Hotjar Engage makes it simple to recruit participants, schedule interviews, and share your findings—so you can focus on connecting with your participants.

FAQs about customer interviews

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