I was once talking to an entrepreneur who had designed a label for their product. It was ugly. I told them so. And they said, “But everyone I’ve asked told me it’s good!” And I’m sure they did, because everyone lies.

House had the right attitude.

They don’t do it because they’re bad or trying to hurt you. They lie for lots of reasons, even without realizing they’re doing it. Most of their lies come from a good place. But the effect is always the same: your startup dies.

So this time, we took that label and showed it to three random people who were around The Family that day. We didn’t say it was the entrepreneur’s product. Instead we said it was something we had just bought, and we wanted their feedback. Basically, we took away any reason for them to lie. The label became neutral, it wasn’t part of the entrepreneur sitting in front of them. So they told the truth, every single one: “Oh, that’s really ugly.”

The best feedback will come from people who don't care about you.

Again, the people that entrepreneur asked before weren’t trying to hurt them or their business. If anything, they wanted to avoid hurting them. But the result was the opposite.

A big part of the problem is that the first piece of advice any entrepreneur hears is, “Talk to your users!” (Even that should be the second piece of advice. First is “Get users!” ;)

With so many people telling you how important it is to talk to users, you’d think they’d say a little more about exactly how to do it. What does it mean to talk to them? What questions should you ask? What traps are out there for entrepreneurs trying to break into the European market?

Before you even start, understand what you’re looking for. You don’t need what people say, you need what they think. Concentrate on what they do while you’re talking to them, not on what they say. Use small chat to figure out their tells. If someone responds quickly when talking about little things, but then starts to hesitate a lot before talking about your product, they’re diving into their imagination to find a lie. That’s also why the best thing you can do is what I described above — don’t let them know it’s your product. That eliminates their biggest reason for lying. If you can’t do that, try to get them a little worked up. When people get excited and agitated, they start telling the truth.

Get 'em worked up and the truth comes out.

Next, pay attention to who you’re talking to. Just like your product has a target market, you need to have a target for interviews. Not everyone is interested in what you’re doing, and so not everyone is qualified to answer your questions. Don’t waste your time and don’t risk going down the wrong path by not filtering those people out.

When you actually start talking to people, remember a big difference between interviews in Europe vs. the US/UK: there is a culture of feedback in the US, and to some extent in the UK, that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Many native English speakers are used to closed, yes/no questions. You go down the list, they answer, and they actually answer about as honestly as they can.

But in Europe, people aren’t used to giving feedback. Closed questions don’t get you anywhere. Instead, you need open, interesting questions that push people toward a real debate. If you can push people into a debate, it was a good question. You’ll get more out of one great question that creates a real debate, and the follow-up questions that come from it, than by writing down a list of fifteen questions about your product.

When you ask an open question, only ask one thing at a time. If you try to ask two questions in one, people get confused, things get mixed up. Keep it straightforward. A good question naturally leads into other questions — don’t try to rush things.

One question at a time, and pay attention to the responses.

It’s always good to have a credibility test in your head. True story: a music startup needed feedback, so they went out to talk to people in the street. But they needed honesty from people who knew about music and cared about it. So they made up the name of a band and asked people what they thought about that group’s (fake) music. 80% of the people acted like they knew the (fake) group. Immediately, the startup knew to ignore everything else that those people said. They could focus instead on the 20% who didn’t try to act cool, and even more importantly on the 1% who said, “I’ve never heard of them, are they even real?” That 1% was the real target, and so not only were they the ones whose responses mattered, they were also the ones who told the truth.

Also, people everywhere love to look smart, so ask for advice. Don’t always follow that advice, of course — you can’t outsource product design or anything like that to anyone else. You’re the entrepreneur, that’s your job. But you can listen to that advice and use it to understand your problem, your target market and your product.

Getting good feedback through interviews is like creating an impressionist painting: it’s a blend of colors, some are hot, some cold, they all merge to give you an overall feeling. It’s not a realist painting that tries to precisely record a moment in time. So take good notes, but notes that do three things:

  • Describe: if you see something that’s out of the ordinary, write it down
  • Infer: use your observations to make assumptions
  • Evaluate: try to build a theory, which you’ll then be able to test

This might all seem complicated and hard. But there’s good news: you need to do it A LOT. And anything that you do a lot, you’ll get better and better at it. Interviewing people about your startup should be a reflex, something you do anywhere, everywhere, at all times. It needs to just be a part of your daily life.

And it should be part of your employees’ daily lives, too. Make sure your employees learn how to interview, how to judge feedback and how to deal with honest feedback. There’s nothing worse than an employee who starts to panic because they get bad feedback from someone who isn’t the target — they’ll go off and start fighting the wrong battles. Getting good information and fighting the right battles should be part of their daily lives just like it is yours.

Bottom line, you need to talk to users all the time. When you’re doing it, one thought must be in your mind: “Everyone lies, and I must demand the truth.” Turn your users into innocent children, find ways to take away their social filters, give them space to truly reveal their thoughts. It’s uncomfortable — if every experience you have with users is just a warm, fuzzy feeling, you aren’t doing it right. Demand the truth, embrace the discomfort. Your startup will be better for it.