6 characteristics of a good qualitative researcher, and 13 ways to ask effective questions in interviews.

When new people join Market Gravity, we run an Academy. It’s a week-long ‘project on fast-forward’ to give them a grounding in our methods, and get them to create a proposition of their own — an idea based on customer insight, fleshed out with great features, backed up by a sound business case, and brought to life with a mini-prototype.

Together with my colleague Lee Chapman, I run the half-day Insight training part of the Academy. One area we touch upon is how to be a good qualitative researcher. More specifically — how to be a good qualitative researcher in a corporate environment, which is a bit different from academic research.

Below is a quick recap I use in Academy, of what I find to be important qualities for a researcher to cultivate. I’d welcome any additional thoughts you have!

  1. Curious and open-minded. Always dig deeper when talking to people. Pursue interesting new lines of inquiry as they are revealed. Don’t let your existing knowledge blind you to learning something new — it’s often better to pretend that you know nothing.
  2. Aware of wider business context. You are working for a specific client, particular stakeholders, and doing a project around a unique business challenge — not just having interesting conversations with people. Remember these lenses when carrying out your research.
  3. Empathetic and patient . You need to be able to connect and bond with different types of personalities for effective communication. Make every participant feel special — listen to them, and make them see, by the way you interact with them, that they are being listened to.
  4. Using multiple research methods. Tailor them to the unique characteristics of your participants and the study topic, to uncover the un-obvious insights, especially at times and in places where you aren’t interviewing someone in person. Plan in advance, so costs and timings don’t prevent you from using the methods you know will give best results.
  5. Collaborative. Understand the importance of bringing key stakeholders on the ‘insight journey’ — you need them to really see what you are seeing. Yes, when you’re doing research, there is little time and it’s tiring — but people don’t like it when you ‘go dark’ and come back with findings several days later. Get designers and other key stakeholders to observe interviews. Prepare a template for an ‘insight wall’ in advance — whether a real wall in a shared work space, or a shared document online. Try different ways of keeping notes during interviews which will make summarising information easier and faster — could you actually be doing it on the fly? This has to work for you — for some it’s pen and paper, for others it’s mind-mapping software where you can tag on the fly. Sometimes you need a note-taker to assist you, so you can concentrate better and run the interview faster.
  6. Ethical. Don’t be afraid to challenge participants to dig deeper, but don’t make them upset, anxious, or do something they don’t want to. It is sometimes OK to conceal certain things temporarily, so as not to lead participants, and in a corporate environment you will often have to conceal the true purpose of research, the client, etc. due to commercial sensitivity — this is usually not allowed in academic research.
A very curious, if not a particularly ethical researcher…

13 tips for running effective in-depth interviews

You could say that there are two types of research — when the researcher is present and is able to steer the conversation (e.g. an interview), and when she is absent and isn’t interacting with the participant (e.g. a survey). Writing good survey questions is a whole topic of its own, but interviewing people effectively does take practice even if you think you’re confident and chatty.

In most Market Gravity projects our clients are working together with us in a fast-paced ‘mission squad’. This often means everyone mucks in, including in doing customer research. I find it helpful to run a short briefing session with our squad mates, to cover these tips for running effective research interviews.

  1. Ask open-ended questions as much as possible. These are questions that can’t be answered with ‘yes / no’. Closed-ended questions do have their place, but you can usually turn them into more informative ones by starting with ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘what’. As an aside — if it makes sense, consider asking your participants to do and send in a ‘mini homework’ before they come in, e.g. keeping a log of certain activities. This will arm you with a ready supply of things to explore further in the session.
  2. Ask non-leading questions as much as possible. Always consider whether part of the answer is accidentally contained in your question, or whether you are subconsciously directing the participant to answer in a certain way. Think of it as interviewing a witness, when the other attorney can complain that you are biasing the outcome. Try to balance questions by including both ends of a spectrum (e.g. not ‘how easy was that?’ but ‘how easy or difficult was that’). Don’t ‘butter up’ what you’re testing (e.g. not ‘do you think this design is modern?’ but ‘what do you think of this design?’). However, as with closed-ended questions, ‘leading’ questions have their place, e.g. to force an opinion or to clarify your understanding of a participant’s answer.
  3. Turn people’s questions back at them. Participants will invariably ask you questions, e.g. if they are frustrated or curious. Resist the temptation to tell them all about it! Ask them right back — ‘Well, what do you think about this / how this works?’, ‘Well, how would you like to see it working?’ It will reveal a lot.
  4. Use the ‘Five whys’ technique. Don’t give up questioning early, keep drilling to get to the core reason why someone does or thinks something. E.g. ‘Why do you shave?’ — ‘To look good’. You could stop here, but you don’t have the whole story yet — without asking ‘why’ again you might be presuming incorrectly. Do they want to look good to impress a new love interest, or maybe their boss (and even then — why? To better fit into a new social circle? To get a promotion?). Suddenly the customer needs for whatever you’re designing are diverging, and you’re getting different customer segments. A gap between what people want and their current means of getting there is a design opportunity, but people often can’t clearly state their motivations without prompting. (By the way, it’s called ‘five whys’ because by the fifth ‘why’ you will have surely got it — but you don’t have to ask five times!)
  5. Use basic prompts. Some participants explain themselves beautifully, with others it’s ‘water out of a stone’. But avoid getting flustered and building over-elaborate questions. Two of the most powerful interviewing prompts, used by professionals like journalists are ‘Tell me more…’ and ‘And then what happened..?’ Also, try the trick of repeating the last few words of their last sentence, but as a question, to keep them talking and elaborating.
  6. Keep people talking with silence. This may sound completely counter-intuitive, but just try it! Most people find silence unbearable and will get an urge to fill it. After they finished talking, but you think there is more to it, just let the silence hang… Combine it with a subtle gesture like raising your eyebrows and face slightly, keep looking at them. Before long they’ll spill the beans. Don’t over-do it though, or it will become weird and irritating — it’s more of a precision tool for certain situations. It also doesn’t work well for phone interviews.
  7. Ask people to refer to real-life examples and stories as much as possible. I find this crucial and spend a good bit at the start of each interview to get such ‘context’ about them, their life, and activities relevant to the research. After the participant is gone, it’s invaluable for understanding whether what you’re designing will really be useful to this person or not. It can also turn out that something a participant says she does ‘all the time’ was actually once, a year ago. This leads me to the next point…
  8. Don’t be afraid to cross-examine using previous answers. If you notice that the participant is contradicting himself, don’t be afraid to call it out gently but directly. E.g. ‘I just want to check something. You said earlier that you only have one bank account. You also said that you would use the feature of this app which allows you to view all your bank accounts together. Can you explain?’. It can also help as a reality check if you notice the participant being overly enthusiastic about something you’re showing her: ‘I’m just wondering, based on what I heard from you earlier… Would you, personally, really do this in real life? Can you give me a few examples of real situations when you would do this, or when it would have been useful to you in the past?’
  9. Ask people to recall strong emotions and specific events to jog memory. It’s a good way of eliciting stories especially relevant to them, e.g. ‘Tell me about a time you were really frustrated by… / had a fantastic experience with…’ Or get them to think back to a time when they did / bought something, then work backwards a little to explore what led up to it, and then work forwards to find out what happened next. Ask people to recall exactly where they were, what the weather was like — little things like that are actually powerful ‘snags’ that bring memories flooding back.
  10. Don’t lose focus of what you need to discuss, and keep an eye on the time. It’s very easy to drift off into interesting conversations which don’t actually move your work forward. Don’t feel awkward to gently but firmly change course. It’s a good idea to point out in the introduction that time is regrettably short, that you have a bunch of interesting stuff to cover, and to ask the participant not to feel bad about you skipping between topics.
  11. Don’t stay wedded to the discussion guide, if you feel it makes sense. Make choices about where to take the conversation. Pursue fruitful new lines of conversation, and ask questions out of order with the discussion guide, if you feel it makes sense. Park new questions in your head to ask later. Clients observing research often say to me afterwards ‘I don’t know how you manage to keep it all in your head!’ I find that when I am running the interview, it just happens —but it takes practice, and is one of the main things that come with experience. Jotting down prompts also helps :)
  12. Finish with a wrap-up summary. Don’t just stop the conversation. You may think you’ve covered everything, but asking the participant to re-focus and to consider what she thinks in summary is a powerful final check. It may surprise you that it contradicts what you think you’ve learned so far, e.g. they were enthusiastic about your idea/prototype so far, but now on balance are not convinced — or vice versa! During analysis consider what you learned during the interview, and during the wrap up — the truth can be somewhere in-between. Wrap-up questions will depend on your study topic, and whether you’re doing exploratory or evaluative research. In general they try to get at: whether the participant understood what you showed them, whether they would adopt it, and which way do their thoughts / feelings lean, overall. Some example questions could be: ‘What do you think overall about what you saw today? And just to remind you, I’m really interested in what what you personally think, and how it applies to your own personal circumstances’ (to get overall thoughts). ‘How would you describe what you saw today to a friend?’ (to check understanding). ‘If this product was available today, what, if anything, would you use it for / use it instead of, and why?’ (to check interest / likelihood of use). It’s funny but participants often thank me at the end of an interview because they’ve gained some insight into themselves and found the interview somewhat cathartic. The wrap-up helps that.
  13. ‘The Columbo technique’. As the great detective used to say — ‘Oh, just one more thing…’. Hit them with a frank question right at the end, when the interview is actually over and they are packing to go — in a cards-on-the-table kind of way. ‘You know, realistically — would you really use this app?’ It’s similar to the wrap-up, but participants can again give a very different and revealing answer when the spotlight is off them and the camera is off — and it’s a useful final check. I’ve learned interesting things while walking participants to the front door! It’s also a reminder of why it’s good to tell participants at the start that you have no connection to, or vested interest in anything you show them — even if that’s not true!

Finally, these are just useful techniques. It’s helpful to remember that each interviewer has a different personality and a different way to ask questions, which will develop with experience.

I hope that this has been useful to you as a budding or even an experienced researcher, and chimed with your own experiences. Do let me know any comments and further tips below.

I am an Insight Lead at Market Gravity, and have been running qualitative research studies for over 10 years.

Market Gravity partners with the most ambitious companies worldwide to create and launch breakthrough propositions that make their customers’ lives better.

Get in touch with me at igor.zakhleniuk[at]marketgravity.com to talk about where your company wants to go next, or about anything to do with customer research.