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Why I sometimes have to ask stupid questions

September 24, 2013

2012-01-05Sometimes when I’m doing interviews or focus groups I find myself cringing at the questions I ask, because I know the respondent is going to think I’m a right idiot for asking.

This happens when a respondent says something along the lines of:

  • I love to have an ice cream on a hot day.
  • Going to see a comedy show makes me happy.
  • I enjoy spending time with my children.

… and then stops talking.

The seemingly dumb question I then ask is some variant of ‘why?’.

As I say it, I cringe.  And the respondent looks at me like I’m the stupidest person in the world.  It breaks the flow a bit, and I hate it, but it has to be done.

The problem is that the respondent feels that they and I have a perceived intimacy between us, and a perceived shared culture and experience.  This is false, but I will have put a lot of effort into making the respondent feel comfortable and this is a side effect.  The respondent thinks I know all about ice cream and comedy and family.  And they are usually correct.  I probably do.  But this makes them think that they don’t need to explain why they said what they said.  In an ordinary conversation this shorthand would be sufficient for me to understand what they are getting at.

But qualitative research is not an ordinary conversation, and my perceptions are irrelevant when I’m the researcher.

It isn’t relevant that I know what I think about ice cream and comedy and family.  I need to be sure that I understand what the respondent thinks about ice cream and comedy and family.  Our views may differ.  I need to put my assumptions aside, and come at this with my neutral hat on.  I need to ask why to ‘I think bunnies are cute’ just as much as I would ask why to ‘I think bunnies are creepy’.

And not only do I need to understand the respondent’s feelings on an issue, but I need to hear their feelings in the respondent’s own words.  They have to say it.  Because words are data, and if I fail to collect the data I have nothing to analyse and nothing to use to write my report or feed back to my client.

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