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Quick Guide to Stakeholder Interviews

Updated: May 5

Black and white photo of a small meeting room. Four people are sitting around the table and a person wearing glasses is visible on a screen on the wall.

There’s a lot of debate over whether user research (or research in general) needs to be done by specialists or if it can be generalized inside a company. I believe there are quite a few repetitive, general research tasks that can be standardized and distributed; and at Berkadia, I spent some time building research templates and guidelines for folks across the company to use, no matter their position.

With "researcher" in my title, I am frequently asked for advice or pointers on interviewing a stakeholder, usually someone internal, who plays a key role in a project or product. Researchers often participate in this kind of internal context gathering before reaching out to external audiences. Here is a quick guide I’ve developed for internal stakeholder interviews:

  1. Research your research. The last thing you want to do in a stakeholder interview is walk in and waste someone’s time. Before you even schedule a meeting, do your research on the project. Identify who has direct contact with the teams, what their role is, who is a decision maker, and who is just weighing in with opinions. Then identify secondary stakeholders, what their interest in the project might be, and plan to interview them if the primary stakeholders don’t round out the picture for you.

  2. Send an invite. Pick a time. (Tip: The availability check on a calendar is super valuable -- use it!) If the interviewee has a receptionist or assistant, consider emailing them with your request and only cc’ing the subject expert. Choose a date with enough lead time that they can adequately prepare. Write a clear subject line and a brief explanation that you’d like to interview them about Project J. But most importantly (and maybe bold it in case they’re skimming), state the goal of your appointment. What is the one burning question you need answered by this person?

  3. Two are better than one. Recruit a teammate or fellow UXer to join you as note taker. There are a lot of benefits to being able to look the interviewee in the eye, be completely present as the conversation flows (and able to pivot if an unexpected direction comes up), and still get an accurate record of the meeting. This also gives you the opportunity to double check what you heard with the note taker after the interview for clarity and confidence.

  4. Be prepared. Often, internal stakeholders are sponsors or executive level, so they’re short on time and appreciate a clear line of questioning. Write out all the questions you want answered, answer as many as you can beforehand, and then choose and prioritize the most vital questions first. The rest you can use if you have extra time. If this is your first time meeting this subject matter expert, prepare a brief introduction for yourself to concisely give them context about your interest in the interview topic.

  5. One foot in the door. Show up to the interview a few minutes early. When you walk in, maintain eye contact with the interviewee, shake their hand (if appropriate), and thank them for their time. Then introduce your note taker. Restate the goal you sent in your email before launching into your questions.

  6. Apply some psychology. One of the hardest parts of interviewing is thinking you understand what the other person is saying. It’s helpful to practice mirroring and reflection techniques before the actual interview. [Side note: mirroring and reflective listening are just helpful in general with other humans. Try it with your teammates and see if it doesn’t improve the quality of your communication!] Mirroring is primarily physical: match the interviewee’s posture and tone. If they’re relaxed and casual, mirror their more laid back approach. If they’re very formal, imitate that. But let it be subtle and natural. Reflection is more verbal: it’s restating or saying back to the person what you believe you heard them say. The goal of reflection is to give the speaker a chance to correct your understanding or refine their point.

  7. Don’t assume. Write your interview questions to be open-ended. If the subject can answer with “yes” or “no,” those are closed questions. You want them to tell you their opinion, what they think or believe, what their goals and motivations are, who and what they value, and what metrics or mile markers they’re watching. Go in with an open mind, curious and interested in what the interviewee is going to tell you, and not holding any assumptions, bias, or foreknowledge in immediate context to their answers.

Photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

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