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The ‘NOVA Problem Interview’

A problem interview and what it can achieve

Megan Kearns

Marketing Lead

Updated 22 April 22



In order to build something of value for your users – something that truly solves their problem – it is important to understand what methods they currently use to try and remedy the issue. 


Understanding the existing customer journey, and the problems encountered along the way can help to recognise the pain points/opportunities for innovation. A simple, but highly effective way to gain this insight unbiasedly is through what we call a ‘problem interview’. And it is something at Nova that we use all the time to capture information and build our startups’ user panels.


Why problem interviews are important

The problem interview is all about capturing a factual customer journey - from the trigger point, to wherever the customer ends up in the purchasing funnel. The problem interview helps identify the pain-points and problems your potential customers encounter along this journey. By the end of an interview(s), you should be able to identify: 

  • - Characteristics and attributes of your ‘early adopter’ user/customer.
  • - The old solution (what they were using before the selected existing alternative) and why it was no longer good enough.
  • - The current solution (chosen existing alternative) and why they picked it.
  • - What problems and pain-points are associated with the current user journey / solution (existing alternative).
  • - What is the jeopardy? (The impact of the problem on the user - usually time/cost/quality)
  • - Will they sign-up to your User Panel?


Guidelines and techniques for recruiting early adopters to your user panel

Your early adopters are the group of people that will be willing to pay for your new innovation. Consider who they are specifically and what ‘trigger point’ causes them to buy. Below are some guidelines and points to use with your research:


  1. Target your top existing alternatives

If you know the existing alternatives your customers use to solve their problem, start with the top 3. If you are unsure what existing alternatives your customers use, turn your focus to triggering events and ask yourself the following... 


When a customer [encounters a triggering event], they [use possible existing alternatives].


Super simply using a restaurant as an example…


When chefs run out of ingredients, they go to the supermarket to buy more.  


By using this exercise, you may end up with indirect and even complementary solutions. This is fine. You can use this to find potential customers to interview and through the interview discover the existing alternatives rivaling your innovation.


  1. Focus on people who recently switched

Because memory has a short life, you need to target people who have recently purchased/used an existing alternative within the last 90 days. This time frame allows people to recall important details and gives enough time to allow testing and evaluating the existing solution (e.g. does it get the job done?).


  1. Never ask customers what they want! 

Trust is a key dynamic. Customers/users need to feel open enough to give you honest answers about their past experiences. At Nova, we never ask them what they want. Why? Because often this is a solution disguised as a problem, meaning it’s a biased question. 

To avoid this, ask the below 2 questions:


  1. What are the characteristics of the solution (value), not the features (product) that they are currently using?
    2. What caused them to switch to that solution?

New problems worth solving are discovered by understanding how current customers use existing alternatives.


  1. User Panel Sizing

Something to consider about your user panel is its size. There is no golden number for this but at Nova we have a general rule of thumb; taking into account your type of customer. 


Are they mice or whales?


I’ll explain...


The diagram above puts into perspective different pricing tiers (X-axis), and the rough number of sales that would need to be made for a business to be viable (Y-axis). How many customers you need to hit for your startup to be successful, reflects the size of your user panel should be.Graph of average revenue per account per year by number of customers


For example, for a typical B2C tech business like Uber, whose product is relatively low cost, would need lots of users to succeed (🐭 and 🐰). 


On the other hand, a B2B digital health business selling their product to the NHS won’t have (or possibly need!) as many customers (🐘 and 🐳 ). 


Therefore to reflect their customer segment size, Uber and the Digital Health business would need very different sized user panels. We usually say 10-20 people is indicative of mice and rabbits, whereas 1 or 2 organisations would be enough for elephants and whales.


  1. Data Capture

When it comes to recording the interviews that you have with your users, it is imperative that you capture the conversation in some medium, with the view of writing up your discussions post-interview.


There is no set process of how you can go about this. Best practice is to either manually take notes or preferably, record the meeting so that you can focus on your interviewee (user) to build a rapport and get more in-depth information.


It is extremely important that this is captured as it forms into the evidence that is driving your startup forward and will be assessed during the Nova Application Process.


  1. What is a trigger point and why it’s important

A trigger point can be defined as a moment in a person's life where something happens that causes them to do something in order to achieve a desired outcome. 


Therefore during the interview, we are really interested in using the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework - it helps us identify which problems to solve.


We can do this by focusing on the specific need and asking ‘why?’ - starting with the trigger point. This helps us determine how people are actually buying. We often use Customer Journey maps as a way of visualising this along with the problems/pain points along the journey towards the desired outcome.


It is all about us chasing wants over ‘the needs’.


Conducting Interviews

Next, we'll walk through a typical interview structure. This is a framework and should be adapted to your own startup space and the problem(s) that are on your lean stack programme portal’s Lean Canvas.

XXXX = Most Popular Existing Alternative


  1. Welcome (Set the Stage)

This should only be 2 minutes. Briefly set the stage for how the interview works: 


Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. 


We are doing some early research around how and when people use XXXX. I'd like to stress that this is not a pitch. Our objective is to learn from you, not to sell or pitch anything to you. We are more interested in learning more about you and how you have experienced XXXX previously.


The best way to think about this interview is there are no wrong answers. We simply want to get your raw story. It sometimes helps to think of us shooting a documentary film. We are the producer and director and we'd like all the details in order to fill out the story.


Does that make sense? 


Use the rest of the script like a meta-script. The best script for discovery is no-script. But remember to be curious and try to piece together the customer's story by asking short open-ended questions and always asking ‘Why?’. 


  • 2. Demographics and User Background

Gather more information about your user so that you are able to characterise them when you collate the data:


Who are they? What is their relation to the problem (user/customer/stakeholder)?


If B2B, then what is their role in an organisation and is that a decision maker or user? How often does the organisation feel the problem?


If B2C, what are the characteristics about them that make them specifically an early adopter - i.e. why do they have the biggest pain point above other customer groups?


Ask usual demographic questions (Location/Age etc).


  • 3. Customer Journey

Zoom in on the problem and their user journey - you want to work out the whole process they follow to achieve the desired outcome.


From this, you are looking for them to tell you about the pain points and frustrations within this user journey. This is the main focus. Start by asking these 8 simple questions:


  1. How do you currently go about X?
  2. Tell me about the process that you follow… What are the steps you take?
  3. What are the biggest challenges that you face in this process?
  4. Why? (Using the 5-Whys analysis you can drill to the root cause of the problem)
  5. How frequently does this happen?
  6. How do you solve the challenge(s) currently?
  7. Does this solution work?
  8. Why?
  1. Inviting the user to join your user panel.

    It was a big enough problem area for them to give up some of their time to speak to you and provide information. Chances are they’ll be willing to do it again! Don’t forget to invite them to join your user panel:


I am attempting to solve a problem in this space and I can see you would be a perfect early user for my eventual solution (unsure what it is at this moment) but with the view of solving this problem for you - would you be willing to give me some time to help me test it? It will not take much effort from your side, just feedback and the opportunity to speak with you intermittently (e.g. 2-3 times a month).


Remember to take details of the User including name, phone number, email. It’s always worth asking if they know anyone else that would be willing to help out as well!


Useful Resources For Your Interviews 

    • - This is a great video that outlines what investors are looking for in early-stage businesses (Including Nova!)


  • 2. Watch: The Mom Test
  • - Talk about their life, not your idea.
  • - Ask specifics in the past, instead of generics or opinions about the future.
  • - Talk less and listen more 
  • - Avoid - Opinions - what do you think about our idea? (Don’t fish for compliments).


  • 3. Watch: Customer Discovery: What Do You Ask?
  • - Don’t pitch your solution. 
  • - Don’t talk about the future, talk about the past and present instead. 
  • - This helps you identify what the frustrations and pain points are with the current way of doing things.


  1. Watch: https://leanstack.com/problem-interview-script
  • - Setting up Problem Interviews with your Customers with Ash Maurya.




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