Stakeholder interviews: essential insights for successful projects

Good stakeholder interviews can give you a real sense of what’s at the heart of an organisation.

I’ve been doing a lot of stakeholder interviews over recent months and I’ve found that they don’t just shed light on what an organisation is seeking to achieve. They are also an essential element in user research. They help to do the following.

  • Identify the problems that need to be solved.
  • Illuminate priorities.
  • Expose aspirations, objectives and visions of success.
  • Unearth evidence.
  • Foster buy-in.

There are three different categories of stakeholder to interview. Each needs a different approach.

  • Senior people
  • User contact people
  • Users

Senior people

The perceptions and visions of senior people are important to learn. Senior people can make things happen or they can stop projects. Perceptions can be changed, but it is important to know at the outset if your project is out of line with the perceptions of any key people.

It is important to pick up on differences of opinion. Fault lines in the senior management team can transform into challenges later when you are trying to get something you’ve built signed off. It is better to identify and resolve early.

User contact people

There are always going to be people in an organisation who are in direct contact with target audiences. These people usually have deep, well-honed insights into what’s really important for users.

User contact people are a source of compelling stories and valuable evidence.

Users

Remote user testing is great. But actually talking to a few users always sheds light on issues that are hard to get at in other ways. It can be helpful to use facilitated user testing as a way to facilitate interviews.

Testing and interviewing users in their preferred environment can reap even further benefits. Unfamiliar devices and software can lead to an incomplete picture of user behaviour,

Running interviews

The best way to run interviews is to make them semi-structured. In other words I develop a script for each category of user and use that script as a basis for the interview. It is semi-structured in that, unlike using a questionnaire, I allow interesting issues that arise to be followed up.

I make notes during the interview. I’ve tried recording interviews, but this adds to the processing time afterwards, causes stress for some interviewees and actually isn’t that useful in my experience.

I usually interview senior people one-to-one. Senior people can become competitive in group situations and tend to be more open in a one-to-one situation.

User contact people and users are often more comfortable in groups of two or three. A one-to-one meeting with a “consultant”, even a friendly consultant, can be a bit daunting for some interviewees.

Recently, I’ve done some interviews in which I’ve been accompanied by a project leader from the client organisation. This has proved to be really valuable in giving the client project leader direct access to insights that would otherwise have been processed through my post-interview reporting.

Conclusions

Stakeholder interviews are a vital part of any UX design project. Unless the project is very small don’t be tempted to neglect stakeholders. You only risk pain later.

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