We did too many stakeholder interviews (again)

Stephen Hale
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At a retrospective the other day, during the “what went less well?” bit, someone added the card: “we did too many stakeholder interviews”. 

It’s not the first time we’ve come to this conclusion, and it made me wonder about the value we get from talking to stakeholders, and why talking to too many might be a problem.

First things first. I think that talking to people who have a stake in a thing (but aren’t users of it) is a valuable part of research. It’s worth doing.

Stakeholder interviews are not useful for understanding user behaviour, and are certainly no substitute for user research. But it is useful to understand the range of different opinions about a thing from people who know a lot about it. 

Stakeholder interviews can be a handy shortcut to understanding context. And when we’re making recommendations, it’s useful to have heard about some of the politics involved – there’s no point in us recommending something that can’t or won’t happen. 

Sometimes what we hear from stakeholders complements what we see and hear from users. Sometimes the stakeholder findings contrast with what we get from users. Either way, it’s useful stuff to know.

So they are worth doing. But we do too many. Why?

For a good sized discovery, we might plan (and budget) to interview about 10 stakeholders. That covers the immediate team and their management chain, a few people from inside the same organisation, as well as some external interested parties. 

We can end up doing more than this for a few reasons: 

  • because some of the stakeholders we talk to suggest additional people that we ought to talk to
  • because clients realise the internal communications value of us asking a few more of their important colleagues what they think
  • because clients remember people later in the process, and they don’t want anyone to feel left out (“could you just talk to x?”)
  • because once we’re into a subject, we can’t resist having a few more interesting conversations – it’s just a couple of phone calls after all, and there may be more to learn

But if we interview too many, we risk just hearing the same things over again. And we risk the balance of our work shifting away from our research with actual users.

And of course, we need to think about our own bottom line. If we do more interviews than we’ve budgeted for, then we can end up effectively working for free.

So how to avoid doing too many? Some ideas:

  • Commit to fewer interviews at the outset: Reduce the number of stakeholder interviews in our proposals, relative to the user research activities.
  • Stick to agreed numbers: Decline any additional interviews once we’ve completed an agreed number. 
  • Increase the price per interview: Put up the price per interview to account for the likely extra conversations that will be needed.
  • Trade other activities: Swap additional stakeholder interviews for other planned activities. “We’ll talk to x and y, instead of doing that card sort we’d planned”. 
  • Book fewer interviews:  Only book 70% of the interviews that are budgeted for, keeping a few slots up our sleeve for later.
  • Suck it up: Just do more interviews – we’ll learn more, and it keeps the client happy (default).

Some of these feel a bit unworkable, or even counterproductive. But I’m hoping that the right combination will hit the sweet spot that gets us the insights we need, whilst protecting us from doing too many stakeholder interviews (again).

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