Editor's note: Sarah Faulkner is a principal at Faulkner Strategic Consulting, Cold Spring, Ky.
Looking to get the most out of your qualitative research endeavors? Consider the following three principles. While each one covers a different area of the process – from setting accurate objectives to fine-tuning your recruiting and nailing the debrief – they all point up the value of careful planning and preparation.
1. Set qualitative objectives for qualitative research.
There’s a common misperception that qualitative research is faster, cheaper and easier than quantitative research. There’s a vast range of methodologies within each type, so in some cases that is true, but when each is done correctly, quantitative can actually be significantly faster and cheaper than qualitative for many types of research objectives. To know which is appropriate, check your objectives against the three Cs: confirmatory, checkbox and counts.
Confirmatory: If you absolutely must do confirmatory research (research done just to validate something you already are planning to do), a quick quantitative screener will give you an answer much more efficiently than qual.
Checkbox: Avoid just asking respondents which one they prefer or to pick the best option. At the risk of oversimplification, if you want to know “what” or “which one,” use quant. If you want to more deeply understand the “why” (and sometimes “how”) use qual.
Counts: If you need percentages, tallies or any numerical data at all, you need quantitative research. Don’t let anyone cheat by talking about or reporting any statistics from qualitative data – it’s just incorrect, misleading and dangerous for decision-making.
Discussion or interview guides should be just that – guides. A discussion guide should be an outline of topics to be covered in an approximate order. Professional moderators should be expert at guiding discussions organically so you get a more authentic view of your consumer while still getting all the research questions answered. If you’re doing self- or team-moderation, first ensure that everyone is trained on interviewing basics. This is not a survey checkbox exercise; this is a conversation.
Try putting yourself in the respondents’ shoes. How interesting would it be to answer a series of closed-ended questions for an hour? Now back to our researchers’ shoes: How much more can we learn by asking for stories, examples and analogies? Not to mention, designing creative exercises that access the unconscious mind and observing actual consumer experiences in real life context.
2. Maximize the value of every respondent.
What does “wasting” respondents mean? It could mean dumbing-down recruitment screeners to hit a certain incidence level for cost reasons and the resulting opportunity cost of an imprecise recruit. It could also mean investing the time to find on-target respondents but not spending sufficient time with them to go beyond surface responses. These two are inextricably linked because to extract the full value from each respondent and make it worth spending significant time with each one requires the investment of time up front to ensure precise and rigorous selection.
First, let’s look at the importance of the screener for qualitative research. While it may be important to talk with a diverse set of consumers, qualitative recruiting, by its very nature, is not meant to be nationally representative. Qualitative research is your opportunity to find the leading edge, the trendsetters, the extreme users, people who absolutely love your product and people who absolutely hate your product. Don’t be afraid to use the ends of the scale as criteria! Will it decrease your incidence and drive up costs? Probably so. Will you maximize every consumer interaction because you have something unique to learn from each person (and therefore can recruit fewer respondents overall)? Absolutely!
Next let’s look at the value of time spent with each respondent. If you’ve taken the time to do the perfect recruit and find the exact few consumers you want to talk to, why limit your time to only an hour, a single interaction or a single location? To extract the full learning value from every respondent and gain the opportunity to deeply understand their life context, consider multiple interactions over time. Depending on the objective, this could range from a day-in-the-life ethnography session or an “expert panel” where you engage with a select group of respondents once a week for several months to iterate or co-create. If you’re doing a longitudinal interaction, think about how you can keep people engaged between discussions – invite them to participate in an online community, write in a journal or blog or contribute to a Pinterest page on the topic, etc.
3. Translate learning into insights with a well-planned debrief.
Now the research is over and you’ve just invested many hours observing and listening to consumers speak about your category, products or services and how those things relate to their lives. Rushing out of your research without the diligence of an in-depth debrief session with your team is like spending hours preparing a multi-course gourmet meal, taking a couple bites and then throwing the rest of it in the trash.
Qualitative research and the debrief session that follows should be planned in tandem. Think about the outcome needed and work backwards to purposefully plan the exercises and experiences that will give you the raw input you need to put it all together afterwards. For example, “day in the life” ethnography sessions might be translated into a single story or daily schedule for your target consumer. Or, metaphor elicitation can provide the input for creating archetypes in the analysis session. It takes more time and discipline to plan this kind of research but it’s difficult (if not impossible) to get deep, actionable insights without it. It also drives team engagement, yielding diverse perspectives and buy-in for the resulting conclusions and recommendations.
How do you get maximum value from your research debrief? Using listening guides during the research and/or creating analysis templates in advance can be a big help. Consider learning-processing activities like picture analysis (for consumer collages), mind-mapping, creating consumer hierarchies of need or other mental models. Listening is the easy part; putting it all together to actually extract the insights is hard. An experienced moderator with strong facilitation skills can be invaluable for this.
As a rule of thumb, the more concrete and specific the research objective, the shorter the debrief and vice versa. For example, if you’re doing a handful of interviews to optimize a specific piece of creative, you can probably debrief in an hour or two. However, if you’re doing fundamental consumer segment understanding, gathering inspiration for innovation, or doing in-depth ethnography, consider spending at least half (or even up to 75 percent) of the time spent with consumers doing debriefing/analysis afterward.