From the desk of Carole Schmidt
Observations and insights are not the same thing. Observations provide us with behavioral thematic “buckets” of potentially meaningful fodder. Observations can be visual, auditory, tactile, and even latent in form, e.g., witnessing compensating behaviors. Envision multiple customers each unconsciously biting open a package and spilling the contents because they didn’t understand they were holding the packaging upside down.
Genuine insights, on the other hand, don’t roll off the customer’s tongue. Insights emerge from thoughtful review, deep analysis, creativity, and persistence. We love supporting brand teams by discovering those underlying, emotion- and value-driven motivations and barriers, those personal, deep-seated beliefs that consciously—or, more often, subconsciously–influence customers’ decision-making. Where do her confused beliefs about hygiene come from? Why is he so focused on fuel economy? What makes the association with “professional” so compelling in this category? Why doesn’t she trust our brand like she does our competitor’s?
Just like the developing romance of a couple, you can’t get a full sense of either partner’s underlying motives from simply observing them or reading texts. Insights are realized by creating an environment conducive to intimate conversation with the customer–whether at home, in the car, or on the worksite. Then, the participant has to be nurtured, sensitively guided using active listening and precise, skilled probing. This tango of comfort and trust is essential for a rich and revealing exchange.
So, how do you achieve conversational intimacy in qualitative research?
Champion the value of quality time with your customer. Latent beliefs, perceptions, and values do not surface in 20 minutes, nor on a mobile survey. The “why’s” that exist below-the-surface require hours with each participant to explore for underlying emotions and covert beliefs. Yes, it’s labor intensive, but there is good news: all of that time doesn’t have to come in the form of a single long interview.
- Best practice: Implement a series of three touchpoints with each participant, to encourage a speedier development of a moderator-participant partnership. Three touchpoints can provide a surprising level of comfort to the participant because of the accumulated familiarity and trust with the moderator, leading to evocative dialogue.
- Conduct a 10 to15 minute pre-call for introductions, Q&A, establishing legitimacy, setting expectations, and calming fears
- Assign the participant a brief but relevant activity, then discuss it together by phone before the home interview
- Conduct the main interview at home (whether online or in person) at the easiest time of day for the participant (often mid evening), which further makes the conversation feel like old friends reconnecting.
Avoid the fishbowl. Just because research participants may permit a 4-5 person research team to come inside and chat doesn’t mean we should. Could you share your cleaning idiosyncrasies, the struggles in your family relationships, or bare your honest financial picture for buying a new car–with 4 to 5 faces staring at you? Social anxiety may not always be visible to the research team excited to see “real customers,” but we certainly can tell when it blocks intimacy and inhibits emotionally charged conversation.
- Best practice: Research has shown that respondents feel most accepted, flaws and all, when engaged in one-on-one conversations. We suggest including only those members of the research team who are truly vested in the customer’s experience. We also suggest that you limit viewers at each interview–to one team member. Simply rotate team members across interviews. We’ll optimize that team member’s role so they’ll blend into the background enabling intimacy to bloom. As the only viewer, your team member will be fully engrossed as the sole interview witness, keener to identifying insight territories as they surface.
Surrender to the quiet. Closeness is the ability to let down the inner barriers that allow the moderator and viewer to see the customer as s/he truly is. When you feel close to another person, you don’t mind if that person sees you without your normal defenses—psychological and otherwise. This is where meaningful insights are born. According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, “even the most autonomous of individuals needs the kind of human contact that intimacy can bring.” This intimacy sometimes calls for patience and silent, contemplative moments that lead to participants exposing important emotional vulnerabilities. These silences feel unfamiliar and even uncomfortable to some team observers, who tend to fill these audible vacuums with the impediment of small talk.
- Best practice: We are trained to communicate positively in an intimate relationship by being both active and empathic in probing our participants’ experiences. But we also practice being comfortable with silence. This is important for in depth exploration. For example, we may encourage a participant to wander into another room as s/he thinks about a particular query before answering. We find that many times, that momentary “silence” causes a participant to return to the discussion “dance” with an even richer, more revealing story to tell!
Strategize the seating. We request in our pre-talk conversations with participants that our chats and meetings occur from the most physically-comfortable hang-out spots at home, leveraging what already makes our participant feel relaxed and naturally contributory.
- Best practice: Encourage participants to sit where they typically do. Create an “intimacy triangle” by sitting 90-degrees from the participant, with the observer at the far end of the triangle, observing from afar. This encourages one-on-one dialogue with the moderator, allowing the team observer to discreetly take notes or photos.
As your moderator, it is my job to carefully guide conversation with skilled, active listening and gentle probing. Your commitment to an environment of intimacy will optimize the participant’s psychological comfort and trust, making the qualitative exchange ever more productive and valuable, money well spent.