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You Don’t Say! How To Get Respondents to Open Up

January 8, 2011
One on One Interview

Sometimes respondents talk freely, so freely, all the interviewer has to do is get out of their way.  But not always.  Projective techniques such as free association, personification and storytelling are often invaluable tools to “loosen up” respondents.

But there are other conversational techniques that can similarly encourage respondents to give fuller, richer responses, even among those already disposed to.

Here are three of them and why they work:

1.  Don’t Look.   The best way to earn someone’s trust is to give them space while minimizing your presence. It would seem that maintaining eye contact would show interest and be engaging. But when delving into issues that require concentration or evoke negative feelings (e.g., anxiety, shame, guilt), the opposite is sometimes true.

In psychoanalysis, patients lie on the couch in order to free associate more freely.  In depth interviews, you may achieve a similar effect if you have respondents close their eyes (although for some, that’s intimidating). Another possibility is to occupy yourself with taking notes.  The important thing is to free the respondent from having to face you, and the tendency to tailor their responses based on your (nonverbal) reactions. And who doesn’t like to feel what they say is so important, you’re writing down their every word!

2.  Don’t Help. Don’t hurry to fill in the silence after posing a question.  Give respondents time to reflect on the question.  Sometimes the sheer passage of time is needed.  Sometimes it’s the question itself that gives pause. Either way, it’s better to let the question hang there awhile before probing further. If there is resistance to answering the question, cycling back with the same question in a different form often gets results.  Even though you are asking the same question, it may be perceived as different or easier to answer when asked in a different way.

3.  Don’t Give Up. It’s the moderator’s job to get beyond platitudes and safe answers. Not surprisingly, respondents often prefer to stay in their “comfort zone,” giving answers that make them look good, don’t make them think too much or work too hard, don’t make them feel certain emotions, or for any number of reasons.  But, sometimes, those with the greatest resistance have the most to say once they get started.  Although it may feel wrong to press for more (and there is of course a limit), oftentimes respondents seem to feel a sense of accomplishment, discovery, and satisfaction when they go beyond their usual pat answers.  Comments such as “I didn’t know I knew that!” or “I never thought about it that way,” are not uncommon.

Getting respondents to open up is not always easy.  By downplaying the audience (the moderator), allowing conversational a “white space” in the interview, and persistently seeking the heart of the matter can lead to richer output and insight.


Merlien Institute’s "Qualitative Blogs" Listing

September 21, 2010

Just a note to say that has been listed in Merlien Institute’s list of qualitative blogs.

Merlien Institute is “an independent organization dedicated to the advancement of qualitative research” in business, academic, and policy environments.

I’m pleased to be part of such a great list of qualitative bloggers!

Qualitative PowerPoint Reports: From Bullet Points to Poetry

September 15, 2010

Boring:  Too Many Bullet Points in Powerpoint

What’s Wrong with PowerPoint?

The denunciation of PowerPoint presentations as boring and superficial is not new.  See “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” and “Dumb-Dumb Bullets“ in which two of the many criticisms are that (a) for certain kinds of data and in certain contexts, complete sentences and paragraphs are necessary and incompatible with PowerPoint, and (b) bullet points that say too little are meaningless and can be misleading, especially when the slide format is slavishly adhered to in ways that put form over substance.

Whose Fault is it—PowerPoint, or the PowerPoint User?

As pointed out in Ray Poynter’s “In Praise of PowerPoint,” PowerPoint offers a number of options beyond simplistic use of bullet points.  And compared to other presentation vehicles, it offers a number of user-friendly features not found elsewhere (such as, for example, re-sizing of photos without distortion, and the slide sorter which allows for easy organization of slides). So, lazy or unimaginative ways of using PowerPoint may be more to blame than the platform itself.

PowerPoint Innovations–Zen, Rules, Poetry Slams

Since the early days of PowerPoint, there has been a call to move away from word-packed presentations to presentations that are briefer and less “busy.”  For example:

  • Garr Reynolds’ “Zen PowerPoint” recommends visual design that is “simple but not simplistic,” and consistent with the context and objectives of the presentation.
  • A more directive and rule-governed approach is the 10/20/30 rule which requires that a PowerPoint presentation should “have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.”
  • And a more extreme approach is “Pechakucha” (Japanese for “chatter”) applies a rule of 20 slides for 20 seconds each.  At its best, “the result … combines business meeting and poetry slam to transform corporate cliché into surprisingly compelling beat-the-clock performance art.”

Qualitative Research:  If used right, PowerPoint offers the potential to:

  • Tell a story.  That doesn’t mean plowing through the findings and then briefly listing implications.  Rather, it means presenting findings in a way that represents consumer experience in a certain context and what that experience means for marketing purposes.  The sequence of the story is ideally determined by the context of that experience (not, for example, by the order of the discussion guide).
  • Support the story with a consistent theme.  Color, layout, and graphic design elements should coincide with the context and message  of the findings, rather than competing with them.
  • Reveal different dimensions of consumer experience.  PowerPoint tools allow you to add texture, in the same way that poetry does, by engaging the imagination as well as the literal mind. Texture may come in the form of stock photos, graphics, verbatims, music, animation, or any other device that helps convey the depth and breadth of consumer experience.  So for example:
    • A respondent’s collage showing a butterfly in flight or someone hanged in a cell shows a different side of brand imagery than a verbal description ever could;
    • Stock photos of consumer segments as “handles” bring them to life as actual (virtual) people rather than a list of bullet points; or
    • In package design studies, visual mock-ups of where the yellow highlight should go, or the desired font size  “new and improved” — show at a glance what respondents want to see when looking, for example, in the cereal aisle.

The point is, a qualitative presentation should not try to be all things at once.  It’s not a stand-in for more detailed description, nor should it be a breezy document with stray bullet points.   At best, it’s thought provoking, informative, and entertaining, as is true of art.

What’s Hot Under the Qualitative Sun?

July 20, 2010
Face to face focus groups are still a key staple in qualitative research.  But everywhere you go, people in the industry are talking about exciting innovations in market research. Those innovations are driven by new technology, the economy, cultural changes, and more. Here’s a partial list:
  • Web 2.0: The Web on Steroids. The introduction of Web 2.0 capabilities (which allows interactions between those who post things online, and those who read and respond to them) has opened doors to a whole new world of possibilities.  That interactivity alone is changing qualitative research.
  • Online Research: Remote Control and More. A whole slew of new online qualitative platforms and techniques take advantage of the ease of interacting on the web. The benefits? They include speedy research and output, geographical reach, less group influence, greater “think” time for respondents, and more. See “Market Research: Ten Trends for 2010,” in which Jane Mount of Digital Research, Inc. predicts declines in in-person qualitative research as newer innovations take hold.
  • Consumer Banter: Mining for Insights. The growth of social networks and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, blogs, Market Research Online Communities (MROC’s), and other online data are being scoured for research purposes.  Whether the data are analyzed in-house or out-sourced, this new source is raising new options (“natural chatter”) and challenges (privacy concerns).
  • Facebook: Letting it All Hang Out. Communication, and attitudes about it have undergone seismic changes. Openness is the new trend. If you think it, you can write it, take pictures of it, and make it viral. That’s true in both personal and business lives. Doing business has changed from advertising through traditional media, to creating relationships on the web. The result? More information means more data for research. Ad agencies, aware of consumer use of social media, are using it too, to make up for the decline of traditional advertising media.
  • New Portable Devices: Can You Hear Me Now? Smart phones, Flipcams, Webcams, and the like extend and expand research options. Want to know what a shopper thinks while she peruses the shelves? She can send pictures with the flip of a phone, and text you while it’s happening.
  • Going Global. The opening up through social networking mirrors the opening to international markets and marketing. Whether in France or Japan, market research requires translation not only in terms of language but to local cultures as well.  Moderating and analysis have to bridge the gap between whole cultures now, as well as between target segments.
  • The Economy Today. Research buyers are looking for savings, pure and simple. The specter of increased taxes, the cost of healthcare, the sluggish recovery, and uncertainty all around make for wary buyers. Companies are interested more than ever in insights that affect the bottom line.  That means greater challenges than ever for qualitative research:  results need to be keenly focused and integrated with marketing objectives.
So where does that leave us? In the posts that follow, we’ll discuss new qualitative techniques affected by these emerging technologies and trends. In the meantime, it’s important to realize that one thing hasn’t changed: People are people. What really matters is understanding where they’re coming from and why–whether the old- fashioned way: face to face focus groups, or the marvels afforded by 2010 technology.


The Myth of the “Matching” Focus Group Moderator

June 8, 2010

But don’t we need a (fill in the blanks) moderator?  How often do you hear that question?  Sometimes, a well-meaning client will request that the moderator  have the same background or orientation as the respondents.  African Americans, Gays, Zebras…you name it.  The stated concern is that respondents won’t feel as comfortable with an “outsider,” one with whom they can’t identify.

Moderator Identification.  Is It Always Good? Listening, really listening includes empathy , attending to verbal and nonverbal cues, and a heightened sense of awareness.  From that comes identification based on the human condition, or a shared experience. Feeling connected to the moderator may make respondents feel “safe.” But…

  • Identification is a double-edged sword. If the moderator and respondents are strongly attuned to each other, isn’t there a risk of the moderator “understanding” a respondent only too well?  An “outsider” may just be clueless enough to ask about the obvious.  That in turn could lead to a fresh perspective.
  • As for respondents themselves, what respondent (or anyone) wouldn’t appreciate a genuine show of interest from anyone who wanted to know more about him or her?

More often than not, the skill of the moderator is more important than the “group” they presumably belong to.  Here’s why:

It’s The Focus Group Moderator’s Role. Moderators are trained to be objective.  Not only do they set the stage for respondents, making them feel relaxed, open, and respected – a good moderator acts as if she or he knows nothing about the topic at hand. The respondents are the experts.

Ethnicities and Minorities are People First. The bigger picture is that people are often more alike than different when it comes to basic needs and wants. For example, in qualitative research among African American and white denture wearers, the findings were identical:

  • Dentures wearers across the board feared above all the social embarrassment of wearing dentures (e.g. exposure as denture wearers, having dentures fall out, denture breath, etc.)  They were most drawn by advertising that addressed those fears.
  • And that was true whether ads showed African-Americans, whites, or both.  So, a common and universal emotion, fear, was more motivating than race in marketing the product.

Highly Sensitive Topics and Other Issues. There are exceptions.  You can’t interview someone in English who doesn’t speak it, for example.  And some topics are so sensitive that respondents need a moderator they feel safest with (e.g., a sensitive gender-related topic).

That said, even the best moderators may be asked to step aside simply because it’s assumed they can’t relate to a particular ethnic or minority group. In that case:

  • Consider suggesting mixed groups over segmented groups. If necessary, conduct separate ethnic or minority groups and compare results with those of the mixed groups.
  • Consider co-moderating with someone whose background or orientation is more directly related to a particular group. The outside moderator may even enhance the discussion, if respondents are encouraged  to help the outsider understand.

“Moderating With Spirit”

June 8, 2010

See this presentation of what meaningful qualitative research requires: heart! The more passion the moderator brings to focus groups or other face to face qualitative research, the richer the output.

Moderating with Passion

“Out of Focus”

January 13, 2010

See this creative and hilarious book on one person’s notes and drawings as he observed, from behind the one-way mirror, participants in focus groups. The book’s author, Bradley H. Olsen-Ecker, says: “At all the focus groups I would sketch the participants who were interesting and said outrageous things. I’ve kept it to look like a sketch book.” Click here to see video of the book

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