How to improve your site using stakeholder interviews

Paul Boag

Most websites are more than a marketing tool. It is therefore important that other stakeholders outside of marketing get a say about the future of your site.

I recently wrote a post talking about the importance of thoroughly researching business objectives before starting your next web project. Although the post focused on expert reviews, heuristic evaluation, stats and competitive analysis, it did make passing reference to stakeholder interviews.

For Headscape, stakeholder interviews are a crucial tool in our web design arsenal. But what exactly is a stakeholder interview, why should you bother with them and how do you run one anyway? These are the questions I wish to address here starting with what a stakeholder interview is.

What is a stakeholder interview?

A stakeholder interview is a semistructured discussion held with any individual with a vested interest in the success of the web project you are undertaking. That may be somebody who works directly on the website (such as a content editor) or other individuals within the organisation who rely on the website to achieve their business objectives (such as departmental heads).

Stakeholder interviews do not need to be limited to people within the organisation. Stakeholders can also include prominent customers or suppliers who rely on the website to do business with your company.

Typically these interviews last for approximately one hour and are held on a one-to-one basis.

Although they have a simple format, they can prove an invaluable tool for setting the scope of the future web project.

Why stakeholder interviews are so valuable.

You would be forgiven for mistaking stakeholder interviews as an unnecessary step that delays a web project from beginning in earnest.

Although it is fair to say that not every project requires stakeholder interviews, we found that in large organisations with complex projects, they are invaluable.

In this type of situation they provide 3 benefits.

  • They bring us (the web design agency) up to speed with organisational requirements. When faced with a complex business model in a new sector, stakeholder interviews are an invaluable way of understanding the unique requirements of a client. Through speaking to stakeholders we learn about the sector and organisation, while also identifying how the website can help meet business needs.
  • They provide a more complete perspective on the role of a web project. Most web projects within large organisations will impact on work being done by numerous parts of the business. To fully understand the role of any new web project it is important to discuss it with all parties. Often these projects are commissioned by a single department such as marketing who have a particular perspective on the projects objectives. By talking to all the stakeholders you ensure that the web project helps rather than hinders others within the organisation.
  • They are politically advantageous. Unfortunately internal politics is a reality of most large organisations. This means when it comes to most web projects there are no shortage of people who want their voice to be heard. Stakeholder interviews provide them with an environment where they can express their opinions and feel they have been listened to. We have found this goes a long way to diffusing potential conflicts further down the line.

In short, well run stakeholder interviews ensure your web project has clearly defined goals which will benefit everybody in the organisation, while at the same time achieving buy-in from all parties.

With the potential benefits so obvious, the next question then becomes; how do you run a successful stakeholder interview?

How to run a successful stakeholder interview.

At first glance running a stakeholder interview is simple. It is just a matter of sitting down with the stakeholder and running through a series of questions in an informal discussion. Of course as we all know things are never as easy as they first appear.

Getting the most out of a stakeholder interview takes a degree of practice. Nevertheless there are some things you can do to improve the chances of success. The most important of these is to ensure you have a damn good set of questions.

The importance of your questions.

In my experience your questions need to fall into 3 categories.

  • Questions about the person. These should focus on the person’s role, responsibilities and objectives. This will help you identify ways that the current web project could help them.
  • Questions about the organisation. The focus here should be on companywide business objectives and the character of the organisation. Knowing the organisation’s business objectives will help inform the focus of your web application. Understanding the organisation’s character will influence the branding and aesthetics of the website.
  • Questions about the website. This is the opportunity for participants to express their feelings and frustrations about the website. This normally consists of things that they do not like, and elements they would like to see on any future site.

Having a good set of questions helps a huge amount. That said, it is important not to be constrained by your pre-prepared questions.

Allow tangents.

The best way to look at your questions is as a starting point for discussion. A stakeholder interview is not a survey but rather a discussion between 2 individuals.

It is important that the conversation is allowed to evolve naturally, which may mean setting aside the questions and following a particular train of thought.

This is important for 2 reasons. First, these tangents often lead to interesting insights that would otherwise be overlooked. Second, it is important that the stakeholder has the opportunity to express whatever he or she wants. These “pain points” often deserve particular attention and even when they do not it is important that the stakeholder feels you have listened to their concerns.

The need to let everybody express all they wish to is one of the reasons that stakeholder interview should always be one-on-one.

Ensure they are one-to-one meetings.

Stakeholder interviews do not work well if treated like a committee or focus group. The problem is that group meetings radically shift the dynamic as one or 2 dominant individuals monopolise the conversation. This has 2 consequences.

First, the dominant individuals tend to be fairly senior and so people do not wish to disagree with them. This means that they tend to get agreement from the rest of the group and use that consensus to amplify their own opinions.

Second, quieter participants don’t have the opportunity to express their opinions. This means that not only do you miss out on their contribution, but they also feel resentful that nobody listened to them.

There is a hidden benefit to these one-on-one meetings. By meeting with people individually you are the only person that has the entire picture. This makes it much easier for you to propose a way forward without it turning into design by committee.

Finally, it is also worth noting that one-to-one meetings offer an opportunity for anonymity.

Keep things anonymous.

The turning point in many stakeholder interviews is when the interviewee gets up and closes the office door and lowers their voice.

When the stakeholder feels that they can share information in confidence, it often leads to revealing insights. These can dramatically change your perspective on the web application you are building.

It is important to ensure the anonymity of those sharing. This means when reporting back, names should not be mentioned even if you shared some of the comments they confided.

For somebody to feel confident enough to share this kind of sensitive information, they need to know you are truly listening to what they are saying.

Balancing listening and speaking.

The primary objective of any stakeholder interview is to get the interviewee talking. It is therefore important not to do too much of the talking yourself.

That said there is a balance to be found here. Without a doubt, good listening skills are vital. Nevertheless, engaging discussions encourage more creative thinking and great ideas.

The interviewer should act as a sounding board for the stakeholder. The stakeholder should do most of the talking, but the interviewer should not be afraid to express opinions or suggest ideas.

A powerful tool

Hopefully this post has demonstrated that done correctly stakeholder interviews can be a powerful tool in defining the shape of a web project.

I believe that they are particularly beneficial when considering broader web strategy that will have an impact across the entire business.

Where once a website was just a marketing tool, now it is a crucial component in everything from recruitment to delivering products and services. As a result it is important that all stakeholders are adequately consulted.