Facing Your Fears: 4 Research Tips for Talking to Strangers

NEW VENTURES

February 04, 2019

“Get out of the building.” Steve Blank’s plea to founders has become such a regularly used phrase, it risks being reduced to the stuff of motivational posters. Someone’s even printed it on a T-Shirt.

So why are we still so bad at doing it? From entrepreneurs to new ventures teams, we see it time and time again – piles and piles of desktop research. Some conversations with co-workers. A project submitted to the user research team, somewhere else in the building.

Before you know it, you’ve broken the cardinal rule. You’ve put together a budget and a product roadmap – all before talking to a single user.

Reality check: the internet alone is not enough

Google is a glorious starting point for exploring possibilities for new ventures. But there will be a point at which the internet fails you. Despite its seemingly vast and unconquerable depths, there is really only so much you can learn from other people’s research and reports.

You’ll hit that point without even realizing it. All that work you’ve done will make it feel like you’ve really gotten somewhere. You’ll look at the neatly organized files on your desktop, and the guessing game will start. Should we build this or that feature? Should we target these or those people? Should we focus on this or that market?

Talking to users won’t solve all of your problems as a founder, but it will at least help you steer the ship when it feels like you just don’t know.

The trap: the easiest path is the most tempting one to take

We all agree that customers are the people with the answers (the T-Shirt and motivational posters, remember?) So why is it the thing that teams put off as long as possible?

Because it’s scary.

Every day, we talk to lots of people we don’t know. The barista at our local coffee shop. The bus driver who gets us to work in the morning. The cashier at a grocery store. These micro-interactions happen without much thought, because we have a script: a simple ‘hello’ here, a ‘thank you’ there.

User research forces you to violate all these norms. Talking to strangers? About an area you don’t know very much about? That’s a feeling that, for a lot of people, is uncomfortable.

Being uncomfortable is ok. But you still have to do it.

It’s easier when you have a script

I’m a researcher by profession. Talking to people is literally my job. But even I find myself in situations where I unconsciously avoid this crucial step of the process.

Recently, I dove headfirst into uncovering insights for a potential venture in a space I knew absolutely nothing about: eSports. I’ve played video games exactly once in my life: as a 12 year old at a summer coding camp. During rec time, I tried to join in the daily Starcraft tournaments.

Despite enthusiastic coaching from our counselor, I got crushed. Every. Single. Time. Dejected, I put video games in my mental box labelled “not for me”, and instead dedicated my time at camp to building my lime-green webpage about Sailor Moon.

So to say I knew little about video games and my users at the beginning of this process would be an understatement. I was understandably nervous about diving back into the world of gaming.

Clefairy hitting buttons with caption "I have no idea what I'm doing"

Real footage of me playing starcraft

Luckily, there’s a method to the madness. The steps I took to dive back into the e-sports world are the same ones you can use to get started.

Tip 1: Go directly to your users

Do the up-front work to identify where and when you are most likely to find users open to speaking with you. Where can you find a high concentration of your users? Where will they have a few spare minutes? Where can you observe how they interact with each other or with products?

I needed to speak to a bunch of gamers in a short period of time, and our timelines meant it wasn’t feasible to find them and ask them to come to our offices. Instead, I had to go to my users.

I researched several eSports bars, and asked my network about the vibe of the space. I was looking for something casual but social where I could chat with people.

I also checked to make sure to avoid tournaments or more competitive environments – while these might be busier, they might not be the best environment to ask my users to take time out for their day!

Tip 2: Plan your questions ahead of time, and bring your notes

Go into the conversation with the questions you are looking to answer. What do you need to know at this stage? Our nerves can sometimes get in the way, and we forget important questions. Tools like Topic Maps and Discussion Guides can help you plan ahead, but are flexible enough that they leave room for you to have a natural conversation.

Setting yourself a target – like today, “we’re each aiming for 10 interviews” – will help keep you focused.

Agree with your team on your structure and objectives ahead of time, and bring a notebook to record your conversations. Before I set off for the eSports bar, I armed myself with a trusty topic map. No matter how uncomfortable I got, I knew I always had something to keep me on track. Jotting down notes or looking at my map gives me a moment to pause, think, and make sure I’m answering all the questions I wanted to when I walked in the room.

Tip 3: Bring Backup

Recruit someone to be your sidekick. Who is a good note taker? Who is interested in the topic or would benefit from hearing a user first hand? Does someone have more contextual knowledge of the subject than you? Do you want someone to bounce ideas off of at a later date?

When you’re trying to have an authentic conversation with a stranger, keep your nerves under control, and ask all your key questions, it will be hard to remember what happened after the fact. Bringing a sidekick can help calm your nerves, and help ensure you’ll have good notes to look back on.

Luckily, I had several colleagues who all really like video games and were stoked at the idea of going to an Esports bar. We took turns being the interviewer and note taker, and we even got in a few quick games ourselves. Afterwards we were able to quickly debrief on what we learned, helping all the information we gathered really sink in.

Tip 4: Read the Room

Find the people that are open to talking to you –because not everyone is. Who looks like they are waiting around for someone? Who is on their own? Who is it socially appropriate to talk to in your context?

Walking into an Esports bar by myself, I confirmed my worst fears: I was literally the only woman in the whole room. I quickly realized that interrupting people who were playing games would be a terrible start to a conversation. So, I did what any normal person at a bar would do: I sat down and befriended the bartender.

This calmed my nerves, and made it easier to start a conversation with the guy sitting a few stools down, staring at his phone. After I told him why I was there and he was more than happy to talk to me for 10 minutes waiting for his friend to arrive.

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Unveiling insights is the most challenging part of launching a new venture. Conducting user research to gather insights is a skill. Just like any skill, the more you practice, the better you become at it.

If I can walk into an Esports bar, I know without a doubt you can walk into any situation, talk to your users, and start to develop your own research skills. Use the tips above to help you prepare and feel confident, but at the end of the day you really just need to stop avoiding it. Get outside!

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Paige Halam-Andres is a New Venture Director on Highline BETA’s user research team.

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