Mastering User Interviews: A Guide for Startup Founders (From YC)

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May 10, 2024
Mastering User Interviews: A Guide for Startup Founders (From YC)

Understanding the Value of User Feedback

As a startup founder, one of the most critical steps in building a successful business is to deeply understand your users and their needs. The best founders in the world recognize the immense value of maintaining a constant dialogue with their customers, learning from them, and incorporating their feedback into the product development process.

In this blog, we'll explore the non-obvious advice on how to effectively talk to both current and potential users, run impactful user interviews, and interpret the insights to inform your minimal viable product (MVP) and beyond.

Identifying Your Target Users

The first step in talking to users is to determine who they are. It's easy to start by interviewing people you already know, such as friends, family, or former colleagues. While these individuals may be willing to provide feedback, they may also be less inclined to be completely honest, as they may not want to hurt your feelings.

To get a more objective and valuable perspective, consider reaching out to people outside of your immediate network. Leverage platforms like LinkedIn, industry forums, or even attend relevant events to connect with potential users. These individuals are more likely to provide unbiased feedback that can truly shape the direction of your product.

Conducting Effective User Interviews

Once you've identified your target users, the next step is to conduct meaningful interviews. It's crucial to remember that the goal of these interviews is to deeply understand the problems your users are facing, not to pitch your solution.

Here are some best practices for running successful user interviews:

Use video or phone calls

These formats allow you to pick up on nonverbal cues and have a more engaging conversation compared to written surveys or questionnaires.

Build rapport

Take the time to establish a comfortable, trusting relationship with the interviewee. This will encourage them to open up and provide more honest and detailed feedback.

Ask open-ended questions

Avoid yes/no questions and instead use prompts that encourage the user to explain their thoughts and experiences in depth. Questions like "Tell me more about that" or "Can you give me an example?" can be particularly effective.

Listen, don't talk

Your primary role in the interview is to listen and learn, not to pitch your ideas. Resist the urge to introduce your proposed solution until the end, if at all.

Take detailed notes

Even if you're recording the interview, jotting down key points and observations can help you better analyze the feedback later.

Questions to Ask (and Avoid)

When conducting user interviews, there are certain types of questions that can provide invaluable insights, as well as some that are best avoided. Here are some examples:

Effective Questions:

  • Tell me how you currently handle \[the problem you're trying to solve\].

  • What is the most challenging aspect of \[the problem\]?

  • Why is it important for your company to address \[the problem\]?

  • What have you tried to solve \[the problem\] in the past?

  • How often do you need to deal with \[the problem\]?

Questions to Avoid:

  • Would you use our product?

  • Which features would make our product better?

  • Yes/no questions

  • Multiple questions at once

The key is to focus on understanding the user's problems and motivations, rather than asking about specific solutions or features. This will help you gather more meaningful and actionable insights.

Turning User Feedback into an MVP

After conducting a series of user interviews, you'll likely have a wealth of information to sift through. The next step is to synthesize the learnings and use them to inform your MVP development.

Start by organizing the feedback into themes or buckets, identifying the most pressing problems that your users are facing. From there, you can begin to formulate hypotheses about potential solutions and test them through prototyping and further user feedback.

When testing prototypes, avoid telling users how to interact with the product. Instead, observe their natural behavior and listen to their thought process as they navigate the experience. This can provide valuable insights into the language, flow, and functionality that resonates most with your target audience.

Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with your early users is also crucial. Consider creating a dedicated Slack or WhatsApp group to keep them engaged and give them a sense of exclusivity as your product evolves. Regularly sharing updates and incorporating their feedback can help build trust and ensure you're developing a solution that truly meets their needs.


Talking to users is not a one-time event, but rather a continuous process that should be woven into the fabric of your startup. By deeply understanding your customers, listening to their feedback, and incorporating their insights, you'll be well on your way to building a product that truly resonates and succeeds in the market.

Remember, the best founders in the world are those who maintain a constant dialogue with their users, learning and adapting every step of the way. Embrace this mindset, and watch your startup flourish.

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