As a people-centric product organisation, we care deeply about what we build and how it is faring on the field. In our process of finding solutions to unprecedented problems, we often find ourselves asking the following questions:
- What are the most pressing issues faced by the users?
- Is it making their work easier and better?
- Are there important user needs that we haven’t thought of?
After all, without regular interactions with the people who use what we build, we can’t know the answers to these questions, can we?
We found this to be particularly true of Simple, an app for hospitals to manage their patients with hypertension. At Obvious, we are responsible for designing and conducting user research for Simple, as part of a larger team based across Bengaluru, New York and Delhi.
Post deployment in October 2018, the Simple app is being used by healthcare workers in over 700 facilities in India, and across two other nations, as part of the India Hypertension Control Initiative. Many of the public hospitals where Simple is used are in remote towns and villages. Naturally, then, the healthcare workers become our users and, by default, whom we're building for in the long run.
It might sound basic, but regularly scheduled phone calls bring us closer to our users on the ground and help us identify patterns of concerns. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that phone calls are one of our most effective ways to keep our fingers on the pulse of Simple in the field, given healthcare workers are busy day in and day out, and remote processes are increasingly becoming the norm.
We've learnt a lot through our journey with Simple, and more so when it comes to user research. We'd love for these insights and epiphanies to be available for next-gen designers, researchers and engineers who are looking to build bigger and better.
Here are some of the key aspects of our interview process that get us helpful and actionable insights:
Create a safe space, quickly
At Obvious, we believe that if we want to gain authentic feedback
from users, the first step is to create a safe space for them, and that
too, quickly. This initial step leads to the conversations being very
effective, because we get an opportunity to learn a lot in a very short
Within the first one minute of the call, we establish that we intend to listen
to them. We pay attention to their words, tone and underlying emotions,
and we ask relevant follow-up questions. We ‘reflect’ what we hear to
confirm our understanding of the users’ experience and to help them feel
heard. We are interested in the details of their everyday work, both
the minuscule and the massive. We're keen to understand more about the
issues that they face, both related to the app and to the broader
context of their work.
Most importantly, we listen in a way that makes it clear that the person we are speaking with is more important than the software we are building. We've noticed that this first step enables our users to share honest feedback with us — both positive and negative — and that is really valuable.
Keep the interviews short
We understand that our users are busy people with demanding jobs, so we always try our best to keep the interview short (10-15 minute phone calls). A phone interview does not need to be exhaustive — in fact, a short interview works wonders in helping narrow down the questions to the key issues. Short interviews also mean faster synthesis afterwards, so that the regular cadence of interviews won’t become a burden to you and your product team.
Structure the interview
We structure our interview to ensure that it flows well, is not
rushed, and covers all the questions that we have planned for. Here's a
glimpse into what an interview structure looks like:
We begin by introducing ourselves, explain the purpose of the
interview, and check whether our user has ten minutes to speak with us.
2. Initial question about interviewee
We ask them about their role and their primary responsibilities at the hospital that they work at.
3. Feature usage questions
We ask them about their use of three primary features of the app. We
learn about how they use these features, and if they are working well
4. Satisfaction rating
We ask the user to rate the app between 1 and 5 and support their
rating with reasons. We also encourage them to share what they like
about the app and any issues that they might be facing related to the
We further ask if there’s anything else related to the app that
they’d like to share. If they can't think of any at the time, we
encourage them to reach out on the support group for anything that
they'd like to let us know additionally. Finally, we thank them for their
time, and that's about it!
For the success of this entire operation, the key is to be listening intently to the users throughout, while ensuring that the interview progresses according to the structure. We'll stress once more that we try to keep the length of these interviews at less than 15 minutes because 1) healthcare workers have busy work lives, and 2) it keeps our telephonic interviews process lean and inexpensive.
Psst: Here is the interview guide that we use that might just help you too!
Keep a regular cadence
Our product team is always busy, and we bet yours is too! So it makes
sense that the only way we keep our interviews on the rails is by
scheduling them ahead of time for the whole year. Our suggestion is to
block off your calendar for a couple of days on a consistent schedule,
explicitly for conducting and synthesizing your phone interviews.
It’s key to maintain a regular cadence; in our case, we call users every 3 weeks. Each time, we select one of the districts where Simple is deployed and speak with 5-6 active users from the district — and this helps us find patterns.
Ask the same (or similar) questions every time
We ask a consistent set of questions every time. These help us
evaluate the performance of the most important features of the app over
time, and also across locations as we continue to scale.
For example, back in January 2019, the patient search feature was causing the most issues for users in Punjab. The Simple team made several improvements to address it, including introducing a scannable patient ID. As a result, in interviews conducted in October 2019 post that improvement, we received extremely positive feedback. Much to our joy, 5 of 5 users of the district shared that they were using the new features to find patients and no longer faced issues in finding the right patients in the app. Over a year of persistently asking a consistent set of questions, we've successfully tracked the progress of Simple's key features across the board.
Stay in tune with the product team
The focus of the phone interviews is to get feedback and findings
that are both current and relevant. This helps us move fast as a team when we release a new feature or a big change, we include a relevant
question in our next interviews. Learning whether the feature is working
well and how the feature is being used helps us make decisions on
improving the product.
For example, when we released the “Recent Patients” feature (a list of recently visited patients displayed on the app home screen), we spoke with nurses and healthcare workers to understand how they use the feature, if at all. We learned that it was being used in a variety of ways — some that we hadn't even anticipated while designing the feature! This understanding helped us iterate on and refine our designs. Later, during our field visits, we observed the use of the feature and further strengthened our understanding of it.
Collate satisfaction rating along with the supporting ‘why’
We find it very essential to collate the ratings our users give the app, along with the supporting reason. For example, users who gave the app a rating of 3 or 4 did so because they were facing issues while using the overdue list feature, or while looking up patients. Users who gave a rating of 5 stated that the app worked well work for them, and it had simplified as well as enhanced the quality of their work.
We take care to ask this question towards the end of the interview, once a comfortable space has been established. Later, we share these ratings with the team, and do a collation of them every few months (here's a peek of the consolidated ratings from June 2019). We are constantly striving to improve these rating metrics with every new feature and iteration.
Phone interviews should be part of a larger effort to learn from users
Phone interviews complement our other customer support and user research efforts. Usually, issues reported to customer support are initiated by users. But in the case of phone interviews, we proactively reach out to users for the same. What this means is that sometimes, we are a step ahead of finding issues in the field! Secondly, it also helps us reach out to people who may otherwise be uncomfortable or too busy to voice concerns proactively. When we visit the field (which we do often), we can validate these findings from the phone interviews and decide on next steps.
Over the past year we reached out to the 50+ users across all of the 7 districts that Simple was deployed in at the time. Phone interviews have established a continual feedback loop between the product team and the users of Simple. They are a foundation for our product development process because they keep us in close touch with our users over time. Through conducting these interviews we’ve learnt that if you create the right environment and with a strong plan, you can learn a lot from a short 15-minute phone conversation. If you maintain a regular cadence and collate the findings on a regular basis, the interviews will provide excellent insight and direction for your product.
- Tanushree Jindal for writing this article, and Padmini Ray Murray and Daniel Burka for editing this article
- Anand Rama Krishnan for the photography
- Daniel Burka, Dhruv Saxena, Akshay Verma, Pragati Mehrotra, and Mahima Chandak for their valuable inputs to the phone interview process over the last year.