Editor’s note: Layla Shea is founder and chief insights officer at Upwords, a Canada-based market research company. 

A client who was new in their role called me recently to say they were confused because a moderator on our team was not asking questions in the same order during each in-depth interview they conducted. They said, “You know, it feels like it’s a conversation rather than research.”

It took me a moment to process before I calmly replied, “Thank you for the feedback, it sounds like they’re doing exactly what a qualitative research consultant is supposed to be doing!”

In recent conversations with some of my counterparts at the Qualitative Research Consultants Association Virtual Summit, I realized there’s a somewhat disturbing trend. Many have noticed that clients’ lists of objectives are becoming exceptionally long and varied. This results in discussion guides that are so full, the interview feels somewhat robotic with no room to generate empathy with the participant, and no room to explore what participants really think and feel. While we understand clients are being challenged to do more with less, this trend of cramming as many objectives as possible into a project has the potential to greatly undermine the value of the qualitative research. 

One of the main goals of conducting qualitative research, whether it’s marketing research, user experience research or human centered design research, is to empathize. That’s deeply understanding the customer (or your target) as a human and seeing situations from their perspective. 

Think about someone you know well or feel you understand on a human level. Chances are you’ve had some in-depth conversations to get to know more about who they are and what makes them tick. You don’t rush through a list of “getting to know you” questions with friends. Doing that would seem unnatural and likely make the friend feel like you were putting the...