by Kendall Nash
My six year old inspects a few of my gray strands of hair and the (beginning) creases around my eyes. “Do you like getting old?” she asks. She has no context to understand how our culture has historically viewed aging as something to avoid. She also has no perspective that aging can be an honor – it’s a badge we wear of the things we’ve learned and the road we’ve walked. She doesn’t intend the question to be loaded, point me in a particular direction, or elicit a deep introspective. Rather, she knows that in her world aging means she can sleep in her own tent at eight, get her ears pierced at ten, and finally have her own phone at thirteen. (Okay, probably twelve if she wears us down.) The questions she poses day in and out are framed within the context of her own life, and of course she sees the world through the lens of her own six years of experience.
As researchers, the questions we ask seem straight-forward enough. We assume participants will interpret them the way we intend. Yet, the simple wording of our questions has the ability to shut someone down, or – infinitely better – the power to unlock something within them that they haven’t thought about or even said out loud before.
The way we frame our questions directly impacts the level and accuracy of learning we glean. It can be the difference between insights that shine and false starts for a brand.
Behavioral economics reminds us that we are irrational humans and take mental shortcuts all the time to make decisions more efficiently. Which means the way we frame questions, and the order in which we ask them, will impact an individual’s ability to thoroughly assess their own thinking and behavior.
Qualitative research affords us an opportunity to tailor questions to the context of each individual we look to learn from; it is also an opportunity we cannot take for granted. While asking something seemingly blunt might be the most effective approach for one individual, others might respond better if we walk them to the water before asking them to take a drink. Therefore, we must also consider the order of the questions we ask so that we establish trust and build a foundation upon which we can ask the tough, or more sensitive questions. The questions we are privileged to ask participants is the way we communicate our desire to truly understand them and who are they are, and that it’s okay if they aren’t logical, rational, or completely put together. It’s our chance, as researchers, to constantly build rapport and define research as a safe space to bring their true selves.
Authentic, human conversation will always yield the richest insight.
During an interview, there is no need to over-engineer, over-plan, or expend an exorbitant amount of energy focusing on every word. However, we do need to be diligent as we craft discussion guides so that we don’t create an extensive list of questions that has to be covered verbatim. We need to be deliberate in developing open, “golden” questions that can unlock unexpected territory.
It’s important to also be cognizant of the context around our questions. For example, there is plenty of debate in the industry about whether or not we should be asking the question “why.” Why is a very conversational question. It demonstrates care for learning beyond the surface response. For example, someone at work says, “I’m having a terrible day.” My typical response would be along the lines of, “Oh no, why?” However, the challenge in over-using the question in research is that the context can put participants in a posture of defense, that they must have a really good reason for feeling or thinking the way they do. It also can seem obtuse.
Consider the following question, “You said that healthy living is important to you because you want to feel more energized. Why is that important?”
Two items to note:
- At this point, the person I’m talking to thinks there is a chance I haven’t internalized the things they’ve shared with me. Why is it important to me to feel more energized? Come on. Even though I’m looking for specific language for a questionnaire, it feels like a ridiculous question to the person being asked.
- Then, even if the participant is kind and plays along (as so many nice people do), I’ll likely get a very basic response in return.
If instead, we simply tweak the question to “You said that healthy living is important to you because you want to feel more energized. When you feel more energized, what does that do for you?”
It’s a small change, yet this scenario can easily launch into physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual spectrums of dialogue. It can present entry points for me, as the researcher, to ask personal follow-up questions. It will open doors for a host of paths I can choose to explore or table for later. That said, there are plenty of times I still use the question why, but I do so deliberately when I trust it will be interpreted in an unassuming way and when the context is right. Depending on the personality of the researcher, it works for some and not for others.
Like my six year old, I’ll certainly continue to view the world through my own lens. However, being aware of it, I can use the power of questions to tap into the potential insights within each consumer I meet.
There isn’t a magic formula, but being more aware of the questions we ask, how we ask, and the order we ask them will bring us infinitely closer to discovering the diamond in the rough.
…And be aware that asking people if they like getting old may not be the optimal opening to an interview!
As a member of Burke’s Qualitative team, Kendall Nash is passionate about bringing her clients closer to consumers. She loves studying and interacting with people and strives to reveal their authentic reactions, needs, and emotional connections to brands.