The interview guide is not as important a document as most people think. Most if not all qualitative research would be improved if researchers stopped focusing on the guide, and focused more on the research questions.
Many qualitative researchers have had this very same experience: the client wants to add too many questions focusing too narrowly on their product. They are afraid to have open-ended, general questions for fear they won’t get the insight they’re looking for. They insist on structuring the interview guide to only see a tiny slice of the customer experience.
The result is a narrow understanding of the overall customer experience, which fails to provide deep insight.
This week I was reminded again why it’s more important to spend more time on research questions than on the guide itself.
I have the good fortune of having very informed, sophisticated clients. Just this week, in two separate meetings with two separate clients, we had the very same conversation about the details of the interview guide. I’m lucky enough that my clients agree with me, that the interview guide itself is not the most important output — it’s the final report that matters.
But they, like many of us, have other stakeholders to whom they are accountable. We collaboratively discussed how to handle questions from these stakeholders when they want to add innumerable questions to the interview guide.
This is how I typically handle this issue.
- Help the client understand the difference between a response and analysis: Many clients have been trained by their research providers that customers are the source of insight. They are not; research analysis is where insight comes from. I often give clients the example of “No one ever asked for a Post-it note” to show that we cannot put the burden of thinking onto customers. We still have a job to do after they talk to us.
- Create a separate document of research questions: When your client insists they want to know why someone uses a competitor’s product, you can record that question in a “research goals” or “report outline” document. The client will learn that you intend fully to answer that question, but that the research participant isn’t responsible for answering it.
- Show the gaps in current customer knowledge: I often like to ask clients what they know about their customers. They usually start by saying “a lot” but when you delve deeper, it turns out they don’t know much beyond their immediate product space. What keeps her up at night? Would she drive a Volvo or a Hummer? Is she interested in book clubs? They often have no idea because their research has been narrow. I then show them that knowing if she likes book clubs will help them reach her better.
- Put the consumer in the centre: It’s all well and good to say to your clients, “Trust me.” But chances are, they’re going to need some more evidence. The best way to do this is to put the consumer at the centre of every project, and not the product. You can use past projects to show clients what you’ve managed to achieve with open-ended questions. You can demonstrate that narrow product answers is no substitute for deep understanding. But you can only do this if make the consumer’s own experience the main research question. Product fit into the consumer’s world (or perhaps they don’t). In everyday life, people don’t run around thinking about products. Deep insight comes from this starting point.
Truly relevant questions may appear as only tangentially related when crafting the guide. It’s our job as researchers to show how general questions are always valuable.