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Making an abnormal situation feel normal in qual

February 25, 2014

2012-01-20Qualitative research (i.e. focus groups, depth interviews) does not lend itself to normal conversations.  The researcher has an agenda.  They have things that their client needs them to ask, and it is important that they hear the answers back from the respondent in their own words.

Qualitative research is thus in many ways extremely regimented and entirely one sided.  The researcher asks the questions and the respondent gives the answers, in a way which allows the respondent to tell their story without being distracted or influenced by the researcher.

To achieve this:

  • The researcher should appear neutral.
  • The researcher should not chip in with their own anecdotes or experiences.
  • The researcher should not offer their own opinions.
  • The researcher should not make or show any judgement about the answers given by the respondent.

This is very different from a normal conversation.

Normal conversation

Person A: Could you tell me about your dental hygiene regime?

Person B: Well as soon as I get up I brush my teeth.

Person A: Really?  I do mine after breakfast, don’t you do yours after breakfast?

Person B: No, before.  Do you think I should wait until after breakfast?

Person A: Well doing it after breakfast means your teeth are clean for work and your mouth doesn’t taste bad all morning.

Person B: Oh, maybe I should change?

Research interview

Researcher: Could you tell me about your dental hygiene regime?

Respondent: Well as soon as I get up I brush my teeth.

Researcher: So what’s your process on a typical day?

Respondent: Well I brush my teeth for a couple of minutes, however long until the brush beeps.

Researcher: Mmm hmm.

Respondent: It is one of those ultrasonic ones.  Then I use mouthwash.

Researcher: OK.

Respondent: And some days I floss, or use an intradental brush.

Researcher: And why do you do it that way?

Respondent: Well habit…

Researcher: [Nods]

Respondent: …but my dentist says my dental hygiene is good, and I didn’t need a scale and polish last time I went for a check up, so I must be doing it right.

Basically in an ideal interview or focus group, the researcher should take control but say as little as possible.  This is all well and good, but it is important that the researcher creates an environment where the respondent wants to share their thoughts as fully as possible.  This is tough when the conversation is entirely artificial and one sided.  But, it is possible to do things to make the artificial situation feel more natural:

  • The researcher should dress and act in a way which does not intimidate the respondent.
  • The researcher should use active listening such as nodding and make encouraging noises.

Without wishing to sound patronising or offensive here, the idea is that the respondent feels that they are so fascinating that they do not notice that the researcher is not actually joining in.

I think the best way to do this is to genuinely be fascinated by the respondent.  And honestly, yes, I do believe that people are usually fascinating.

But as a researcher you’re at work and you have plenty to be thinking about during an interview which can distract you.  You need to be keeping an eye on the time, and making sure you squeeze in everything that your client needs you to squeeze in, and ensuring your questions are open and not leading…  This being the case, I am a big advocate of planning planning planning before I moderate.  I bring together all sorts of experience and good practice to create an interview schedule or discussion guide which will allow me to steer the conversation on the day.  I’ll have a document in front of me which allows me to see the key topics I need to cover, in a logical order which I expect to guide the respondent into a coherent narrative, through using some pre-prepared broad and open questions, at the same time giving me a good idea of how I’m progressing against time.  (Click here for a random example from the web if you’d like to see what this looks like).  Personally, I also prefer to audio record the sessions and take no notes.

This all means that I can concentrate on what the respondent is actually saying rather than having a racing mind freaking out in the background about what I’m going to say next and how I’m going to stop the respondent going off on a tangent and whether I’ll be able to finish on time.

It is the researcher’s ability to suppress their inner monologue whilst still getting the job done which makes the conversation appear more natural and which makes their interest in the respondent appear more genuine.

When this works well, it works really well.  I think it is because it is so irregularly that individuals are given half an hour to be allowed to share their thoughts without judgement or interruption that (dare I say it) some respondents even find the process therapeutic.

Even if they are just talking about toothpaste!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014 10:21 am

    Great blog – the link to a moderation guide doesn’t appear to work however…


  2. February 25, 2014 10:34 am

    Thanks! Must have gone since I wrote this… updated with a different one.

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