Anyone can ask a question and listen to the answer. But some market researchers are better than others at going beneath the surface and gaining a real understanding of people’s perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors. Here are five tips that great qualitative interviewers know by heart:
1. Develop a script, then throw it away.
Did you ever plan out a difficult conversation in your head? Did you ever spend a lot of time scripting both sides of the conversation, only to find out that it didn’t go the way you expected because the other person didn’t follow the script? Qualitative research is simply a conversation. It takes unexpected twists and turns
A script allows you to identify a path to your research goals. But the important thing is to learn what you need to learn, not to have all of your questions answered. Don’t be afraid to ditch the script and see where the conversation leads.
2. Keep probing.
The difference between a so-so focus group and an enlightening one is the follow-up questions. Ask questions like, “What do you mean by that?” “How do you define that?” “Why?” “How do you know?” The value of qualitative research is that it answers the “why” questions. But to know the “why,” you usually have to go beyond the initial answer.
Don’t be afraid to keep digging until you know what people are really saying.
3. Don’t take notes.
You cannot effectively multitask during an interview. If you’re writing or typing, you can’t be fully present. And if you aren’t fully present, you can’t think of the important follow-up questions. It’s also much more difficult to develop a rapport with the people you’re interviewing if they’re looking at the top of your head.
If someone else can be present to take notes, rely on them. If not, record the interviews so that you can listen to them later.
4. Listen more than you talk.
Good interviewers talk a lot in the introductory part of the interview. They explain the process, give some background about themselves, tell people where they can find the restroom, etc. This establishes rapport and puts people at ease. But after the introductions, it’s important to minimize the amount of talking you do. Ask a question, explain it a bit as necessary, and then let them talk. (And, God forbid, don’t answer your own questions.)
5. Get comfortable with the silence.
Interviewers hate silence. It makes us uncomfortable. When you ask a question and get silence, here’s the recording that plays in your head: “I asked a question that this person can’t answer. That makes me a terrible interviewer. And an incompetent idiot. Such an incompetent idiot that I’m going to get fired and never be able to get another job and then I’m going to die penniless and alone in the gutter.” The beauty of this recording is that it only takes three seconds to play out in your head. So we only give people those three seconds to respond, and then we start talking — clarifying the question, asking a different question, and just generally babbling.
The fact is that sometimes people need time to think about their answer to a question. Some of the best questions you can ask in a qualitative interview require many moments to form a thoughtful reply. So ask the question, and then shut up. Sing the national anthem in your head. See how many state capitals you can remember. Do anything to avoid talking until someone else talks. Eventually, someone will talk. And if you’re in a focus group, once one person talks, they all will.
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