In the first part of this series I explored what makes a good stakeholder interview in general. In this article, I will write about how to use open questions, sketches and thinking out loud during stakeholder interviews. These techniques from the fields of usability and user experience can make interviews with project stakeholders more effective.

Let’s look at an example.

Barbara is project manager for the redesign of a document management system (DMS). She is preparing to interview Michael, a key stakeholder for the project, to determine Michael’s requirements and expectations.

Barbara has prepared a list of questions for Michael. She has also sent him a brief overview of the project via email. This way, he will be informed about project goals, major milestones and who is on the project team. Barbara will not have to spend time during the interview making a project “presentation.”

Barbara also plans to show Michael wireframe sketches for the new document management system. Although the sketches are basic, Barbara hopes that by observing Michael’s reaction to the sketches, she will better understand his needs and expectations.

Prepare Your Questions in Advance

Preparing a list of questions in advance is essential. Although you may not ask each stakeholder every question on your list, at least you will be able to compare the answers of individual stakeholders for the questions that you do ask. If you are interviewing stakeholders about an existing product or service, use questions to try to gain insight into how they currently use the product or service, what they like best about it and what they dislike. In our example, Barbara identified questions in the following areas:


  • What kind of documents do you use in your job?
  • Can you provide some examples of how you use the document management system?
  • What are the most common things you do with the DMS?
  • What types of content would you like to see in the DMS?
  • Are there any documents you would not keep there? Why?


  • What parts of the DMS do you use most?
  • How often do you access the documents?


  • What do you like best about the DMS? What do you like least?
  • What content would you expect to find on the home page?


  • How do you work around problems?
  • What concerns do you have with the system?


  • Do you have any tips and tricks for using the DMS?


  • Who else should I talk to?
  • Who else needs access to which kinds of documents?


  • What content would you like to have that doesn’t exist?
  • Have I missed anything?

Asking about problems is important for two reasons. First, you will identify areas in need of improvement. Second, the stakeholder may already have discovered a solution to the problem. If you are developing a new product, you may discover innovative ideas by asking people about their experience with existing products or services.

Tips on How to Ask Questions

Avoid asking “closed” questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” Instead, ask “open” questions that start with how, why, or what. Open questions encourage the stakeholder to provide rich, descriptive information.

Avoid:Have you ever used the document management system?
Better:Can you provide some examples of how you use the document management system?


Stay as objective as possible and refrain from offering your opinion. Avoid asking leading questions. Remember, the purpose of the interview is to determine the stakeholder’s needs and expectations and to build a relationship with them.

Avoid:Where do you feel that the existing document management system needs improvement?
Better:What do you like best about the system? What do you like least?


Avoid using terms that might confuse the stakeholder and stay away from technical jargon. Unless the stakeholder is an IT expert, the first question in the example below may be too technical.

Avoid:Do you feel that 128-bit SSL encryption provides adequate data security?
Better:What are your security concerns with the system?


Bring in Sketches

Sketches can be helpful in providing an overview, clarifying a specific function, or visualizing ideas. For stakeholder interviews, simple line drawings are preferable to polished computer-rendered sketches. You want to convey ideas without giving the impression that the design is finished! In fact, showing a detailed user interface at this point would be counterproductive—stakeholders would likely focus on the details of the interface rather than on the overall system.

For example, Barbara might show Michael a sketch of a wireframe for the document management system front page and follow up with questions to hear Michael’s thinking.

Barbara: “Here are some elements that the team has identified as important. Are we missing anything?”

Also see my post on the value of sketching.

Use the “Think out Loud” Technique

We often gain valuable input when we ask others to do something and observe them doing it. It is important to ask the stakeholder to “think out loud” while they work through the task. If they have trouble doing so, ask them questions to keep them talking. In our example, Barbara might ask Michael to find a document on the existing system.

Barbara: “Michael, you said earlier that you use the DMS for [task that Micheal mentioned]. Could you please find the most recent [document related to task] on the system and explain out loud how you go about it?”

This way Barbara gains insights into how Michael is currently using the system. Michael not only gets a refresher on what life is like with the current system but will reflect on what he is trying to accomplish. This may lead to a valuable discussion and a list of things to do to improve the overall user experience of the system.

Tips on Conducting the Interview

  • Do not hesitate to paraphrase and ask clarifying questions. “Do I understand you correctly that…?”
  • Don’t let the stakeholder run the interview. You are there to get the stakeholder’s input, not to defend the project. Of course, you should be polite and try to answer questions, but be sure to gently redirect the discussion back to your list of questions for the stakeholder.
  • Remember that the interview is not just about getting information; it’s also about building a good working relationship with the stakeholder. You will need their support and input during the project and the interview is an opportunity to get the relationship off to a good start.
  • After the stakeholder answers a question, wait a few seconds. Often, the best information will come after a short silence.
  • As soon as possible after the interview, summarize your notes and send them to the stakeholder. Ask the stakeholder to review and correct any factual errors. Also ask them to add anything that they feel was missed in the interview. Keep them in the loop.

Further Information

Boxes and Arrows has three articles on managing stakeholders for design projects:

Image: eLiving Campus Paper prototype by Samuel Mann licensed under CC BY 2.0