Researchers, stop leading the conversation 

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

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.

Qualitative pre-work: Using a self-diagnostic ethnography exercise 

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 ethnography exercise and self-observe as they did laundry that week and note the three things that they like best and least about laundry. I had them do the exercise on laundry and not fabric softener because fabric softener lives in the world of laundry. Guess what? A number of these heavy fabric softener users did not even mention fabric softener! If we had started with a more constrained conversation perspective on likes and dislikes of fabric softener, we would have been evaluating the ideas from a completely different perspective and mind-set.

Quant and qual: Tips for when you don’t have time for pre-work

If you don’t have time to do pre-work in your qualitative study, you can use a one word or phrase exercise at the beginning of the interview or focus group, as I did in my recent fitness research project. All participants had been recruited for having exercise routines of similar frequency and duration, with most also encompassing some aspect of running. I asked them to come up with one word/phrase that captures how they feel about their exercise routineIn almost every group, every single person within the group had a different word/phrase – for example some of the things we heard across the research were: ritual, habit, effort, energetic, me-time, therapy, love/hate relationship, monotonous, lifestyle, intense, mind-clearing and relax.  

In quantitative, you can take a similar approach and start your survey with an open-ended question where respondents might choose two words or phrases to describe something and then ask them to explain their choices. It will make them do some introspection about how they really think about a topic. This is very important since a lot of behavior is subconscious, and you want them to consciously think about their point-of-view and behavior prior to asking them survey questions. The bonus to this approach is that for some of my clients this has allowed them to create additional crosstabs. For example, in my fitness study all participants were recruited based on a specific segmentation the client had, but their perception of exercise allowed the analysis to delve deeper.

So, don’t limit what you can get from the research by holding people’s hands and constraining the conversation. Let participants choose what door to open first.