Design Thinking: Customer Interview and Survey Design

Doing customer interviews is one of the best ways that an entrepreneur can uncover what works and what doesn’t work. What do customers actually need? Does your idea for a startup fit with meeting this particular need? By conducting customer interviews early on, you can find out if your idea is worth pursuing before you commit huge time and resources to it.

From the start, you can build a better business if you understand the customers that you are targeting.  Interviewing allows you to gain deeper insights that you can use to shape your business and your go-to-market plan. Your expectation should be to solicit as much valuable information as possible, yet without annoying the person you are interviewing. Your task is to listen, listen and listen, while asking probing questions, when appropriate.

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Finding your target audience

To find your target market, you should start off with identifying the problem first. Once you identify and focus on the problem you want to solve, then the “target customer” becomes more obvious because they are the ones with the problem to be solved. They share the same problem and see value in paying for a solution to it. Then you can define your customer type, including common characteristics about these buyers, such as demographics, profession, likes and dislikes, spending habits, etc.

Types of questions to ask

The types of questions that you will want to ask should start off focused on the problem to be solved. Collect quantitative information (data) that you can test later.

  • Ask questions about their habits and expectations
  • Ask about what motivates them
  • Ask about the pain points they have
  • Ask about the value they get or would get from a particular type of solution
  • Ask how they feel about a product
  • Ask them what are the barriers that prevent them from making a purchase

How to format them and ask them

It is best to ask open-ended questions, not closed-ended questions. When you ask someone a “Yes/No” question, you are asking a closed-ended question. But when you ask, “How do you feel about…? or “What can you say about your habit of…?”, then you are asking open-ended questions.

You should have a list of questions ready to ask at the beginning of the interview, but you will also need to change your questions based on the responses in the middle of the interview. Your questions should be fluid.

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  • Do listen and learn
  • Do build a positive rapport with the person you are interviews
  • Do focus on validating the problem you have identified
  • Do ask the person if there are any other questions you have not asked
  • Do inquire whether the person can recommend you interview someone else, too
  • Do develop a mindset that is agile
  • Do conduct the interview in person as much as possible


  • Don’t rope the person into commenting about your “awesome’ technology
  • Don’t ask leading questions (influencing the person to say what you want them to say)
  • Don’t inject your own biases into the interview
  • Don’t inject yourself into the content of the interview
  • Don’t ask the person if they think the product is too expensive
  • Don’t ask the person to sign an NDA for an interview, as it would limit them in their answers

How many to interview

We recommend that you aim to interview at least 5 or 6 per for every customer type / persona category you are exploring, but no more than 12. This should give you enough information and insights to start to see trends and patterns.

Industry best practices

Bigger companies do these types of customer interviews all the time. They are built into the daily practices. Being customer-centric is not a one-time thing for bigger companies; it is part of their culture because understanding the customer is part of their organizational DNA. History proves that, when a company loses the understanding of their customers’ needs and expectations, the company loses its way and often stumbles. Staying close to the customer, while cultivating two-way communication, is a best practice that success companies maintain on an ongoing basis.