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An inconvenient Ruth: Qualitative research time management

July 3, 2012

ClockI’ve got two key things that I bang on about when it comes to qualitative research.  One is don’t be scared of silence, and the other is don’t inconvenience your respondents.  It sounds like such a silly little thing, but starting and ending your focus groups or depth interviews on time makes such a difference to people.

I believe it is vitally important to make sure that the people who kindly give up the time to take part in a research project are not inconvenienced any more than necessary.  We need to keep people interested in getting involved in research and we’ll never do that if the research that they do annoys and inconveniences them.

And actually we’re bound by the Market Research Society code of conduct to get this right.

B.34 Members must ensure that Respondents are told the likely length of the exercise including the start and finish time.

Not only that, but there’s no harm in being thoughtful. That’s just the right thing to do.

I would recommend:

  • Don’t be late.  Obviously.  That’s a common courtesy.  Be wherever you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there.
  • Don’t be early.  This one is hard for some people.  But people don’t know what to do with you if you’re early.  You’re in their way, the room might not be ready, they might be in the middle of something else.  If you said you’d phone someone, call them bang on the time you told them you would.  If you’re going to someone’s office or if you’ve booked a room, do not be more than five minutes early.  Otehrwise you are simply in the way.
  • Do what you need to do to start your focus group or interview on time.  If you expect there to be messing about at the start for any reason (getting hold of the right person on the phone, admin and form filling, getting a cup of tea) build that into your time planning so you don’t have to compress the main event.
  • Finish on time.  Always always always.  Do not let a research session run on any longer than you said it would.  People have other things to be doing, and they’ll be getting antsy and irritable if it goes over time anyway so there’s no point in keeping them.

Most people think they can do this.  Many people don’t do this.  This stuff isn’t as easy as it sounds, in fact when I’ve trained people in qualitative fieldwork this is the bit they struggle with.  The kind of people who get into research in the first place tend to find it easy enough to get people talking, but doing this in a sufficiently structured and organised way so as to start and end on time is much harder and a skill that most people have to learn.  I think it is because conducting qualitative research is a lot to juggle.  You have a lot to keep in your head at once, thinking about what your client wants and what the respondent just said and what you might ask them next, and how you need to do all of this without voicing your own opinion.  You want to get the most insight as possible out of the people you are talking to.  And with so much going on, time management seems to be the thing that goes out the window first.

Top tips for managing time and inconvenience:

  • Plan a detailed (but flexible) discussion guide / interview schedule, breaking down what you want to ask into manageable 5-15 minute thematic chunks.
  • Calculate realistic start/end times based on your plan (or plan a realistic research session based on your start/end times!)
  • Write times against the sections of your plan, so you know what time you need to hit each milestone.
  • Explain at the start of a research session that you have a few things you’d like to cover, so that the respondents know that you might need to cut conversations short to move them on to another subject.
  • Make sure you can see a clock or watch at all times during the session, and keep an eye on it so you know where you should be in your plan.
  • Understand your priorities for discussion, so you know which discussions you need to cut off, which you can allow to run on, and which you must in no circumstances miss out.
  • Start to wind things down when you’re 5-10 minutes from the advertised end time, to allow for any last minute venting.
  • Make sure your respondents leave happy.  The only time to let things run over is if some sort of catastrophic #fail has resulted in you or your respondents crying or shouting in the final five minutes.  I’d advise strongly against letting that happen too, by the way!

And with practice this all looks seamless and the respondents never need to know you’re doing it…

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 1:26 pm

    “Make sure you can see a clock or watch at all times during the session, and keep an eye on it so you know where you should be in your plan.”

    I know this probably goes without saying, but it helps if you can look at the timepiece without your respondents realising it – if they see you looking at your watch constantly you may appear rude. Sitting opposite the wall clock or keeping a clock/watch on the desk to glance at may be ways of avoiding this.

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