Going to The Market Research Event in Orlando October 22nd through 25th? We will co-present, with our client Mutual of Omaha, “Gaining Knowledge from Experience”. The session will take place at noon on Monday, October 23rd.
Join us for this presentation! Or email us at email@example.com to get together during the event.
Not all those who wander are lost.
– J.R.R. Tolkien
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These dog days of summer give us New Englanders a chance to experience some of life’s most calming outdoor pleasures – you know, the ones that those of you who live south of the Mason-Dixon line get to enjoy 9 months out of the year!
The similarities between qualitative research and an afternoon sail occurred to me during a recent day on the water, described in this month’s issue of CSR’s newsletter, Research With a Twist, titled, “Come Sail Away”.
Come Sail Away
When friends invited me and my husband Dan to join them on their boat for an afternoon sail, concluding with the opportunity to watch the July 4th fireworks from their harbor mooring, we couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. That afternoon and evening, while cruising Cape Cod Bay and relaxing at the mooring, and aided by a boat drink (or two), I ruminated on the common experiences of sailing and qualitative researching:
Getting there is (at least) half the fun
Even if you have never been on a boat, you are likely aware that sailing to a destination might be the slowest way of all transport modes to get there (possibly excepting swimming, and even then, Michael Phelps might have something to say about that). But sailors don’t sail to get someplace quickly. They prefer sailing because it allows for conversation (ever try talking in a cigarette boat?) and contemplation, and takes skill. Sailors are finely attuned to their boat, the wind and the water. While the destination is certainly important, sailing the boat is the essence of the experience. The sailor constantly adjusts course, trims sails, checks navigation instruments, and adapts to changing conditions along the way.
Quite like a well-conducted in-depth interview, I would say. Like the sailor who knows what objectives he or she needs to accomplish (such as getting to a certain point and with the boat still intact) but not precisely what route will be best, the talented in-depth interviewer knows what questions he or she needs answers to, but seldom precisely how the interview will achieve those goals. Skilled qualitative interviewers enjoy the challenge of steering the conversation towards the necessary results, while taking the time to allow for the specifics of someone’s experience or gently steer it away from the sandbar of too much detail that is very much off-topic.
A direct course isn’t always the fastest route to a destination
As noted, sailing will nearly always guarantee a slower arrival at the intended destination than using other transportation modes. As I learned that afternoon, the direction of the wind also matters. Boats can’t sail directly into the wind, and we had to tack our way back to the harbor. When we tried to sail a more direct course, the boat slowed down. When we “fell off the wind”, our speed picked up but the distance to our destination increased. It was an art and a science to find the course that optimized our speed back to the mooring (or Velocity Made Good – I learned a bit about sailing that day). Sailors enjoy – if not, actively seek out – opportunities to maximize their speed and adapt to the changing wind to ensure progress along the way.
Practiced qualitative interviewers also use tools to confirm they are making their expected progress. Teasing more information out of the terse participant, or managing the attention of the garrulous, all while keeping to an explicit time and content commitment, requires the same focus on staying the course.
A great way to develop new perspectives
As we traveled across Plymouth harbor into Cape Cod Bay and back, I was impressed by the way so many views changed when seen from offshore. The coastline looks very different, and often the most common landmarks are unrecognizable from the deck of a boat. Looking down from that deck to the water, it is striking how imprecise one’s depth assessment can be (at least in New England waters – the turquoise clear waters of the Caribbean are a different matter, or so I am told). Watching fireworks from behind the launching barge instead of from land offered some subtle differences in the experience.
There is no better way to understand someone else’s perspective than to hold an open-ended conversation with him or her. CSR’s interviewers often discuss how fascinated they are with the diverse point of views shared by the executives we interview every day. In fact, most of them agree that it is the aspect of their roles that they enjoy the most: learning how dozens of study participants will respond to the same set of questions, concepts, and problems in vastly different ways.
Here’s the Twist: The world doesn’t lack motorized vessels that will efficiently transport us directly from point A to point B over the water. Nor does it lack research firms with processes and procedures for the quick resolution of simple questions. But, like the sailor who seeks understanding, challenge, and a different perspective, all of us at CSR especially appreciate the time, knowledge and thoughtful approach necessary to conduct an insightful in-depth interview; and that guarantees smooth sailing on our qualitative research engagements!
Mixology (Putting Research into Practice)
Here are three ways that CSR’s talented interviewers conduct conversations that take full advantage of opportunities to maximize exploration and discovery while achieving time, content and budget objectives.
Probe for examples. Most of CSR’s work is conducted in a B2B environment, and thus, the vast majority of our interviews are with executives, senior-level decision-makers, distributors, brokers and the like. These individuals have many things in common, and, particularly, well-formed opinions that they are not afraid to share. When these executives tell us how unhappy they are with a particular vendor, or share their delight at how our client treats them, we nearly always ask follow-up questions for specifics. The stories we collect serve multiple purposes. Not only do they illustrate the point that the speaker was originally trying to make, they often provide examples of good and bad ideas originating with competitors or other industries that our client can leverage.
Manage the conversation: Certainly it is critical for interviewers to watch the clock to ensure that interview goals are achieved within the time promised to the participant. CSR interviewers have also been trained how to gently direct a conversation so as to keep within expected time limits, such as moderating the pace of the conversation, acknowledging when questions have been answered out of their expected sequence, and anticipating when a participant has shared as much as he or she can (or is willing to) about a certain aspect or topic.
Express no judgments: Over our thirty-plus years of conducting qualitative interviews, we have learned that the best interviewers are often the least expressive. While it is tempting to acknowledge participant feedback with enthusiastic comments like, “That’s great!”, or “I never thought of it that way”, this kind of encouragement sometimes leads to a subconscious attempt on the part of the participant to share ideas that will please the interviewer, rather than honest and unbiased responses. We have found that an interviewer’s neutral approach (“Thank you for that”) is often the most successful at eliciting new perspectives and diverse opinions.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.
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