Editor's note: Susan Fader is a qualitative researcher and business strategist at FaderFocus. She can be reached at susanfader@faderfocus.com. 

When you begin a research study – be it a qualitative interview/focus group or a large-scale quantitative study – the first question you ask in the study tends to put horse blinder constraints on what the person will share with you and can even taint the ultimate research findings. Your questions outline a path that most will default to following, and in many cases keep them from sharing anything off the path that might be relevant, i.e., oh, they want me to talk about X, so I wouldn’t even mention Y, even though to me it might be a relevant part of the topic that is being explored.

I visualize a research study as a long hallway with multiple numbered doors. Behind each door is a topic area. In research we take the person by the hand and start with door number one and then go to door number two because that is the order that makes the most sense from your perspective as a researcher. However, if you let the person lead the discussion, they may start with door number seven, go to door four and then go to a door that you didn’t even know existed! When you let the participant lead, you get a lot more insight into the person’s worldview and how they make product/purchase decisions. You will get a deeper insight into their worldview by seeing the order of how they share information, their descriptive words, what they share and what they leave out.

A study I did with heavy users of fabric softeners for new fabric softener product ideas illustrates this. In past research studies (which I hadn’t done) the conversations always started with people sharing likes and dislikes of fabric softeners and then going into sharing new product ideas. However, I wanted to see what door each person might start with. 

As a pre-work I had them do what I call a self-diagnostic ...