Research: The Art of Conversation

One of the best techniques for gaining rich insight about a brand, product, service or website is to engage in conversation with the audience.  Whether you're conducting and moderating focus groups, in-depth interviews, triads, diads or any other kind of qualitative research, you're going to need to master the art of conversation.


A conversation goes way beyond simply asking a pre-determined list of questions.  A list of questions only goes so far – it gets you the answers to those specific things you have written down.  A conversation is far more revealing.  Conversation-based research allows you to get insight into questions you didn’t even know you needed to ask!  It minimizes assumptions that we have as marketers and allows us to analyze the core essence of the brand, product, service or website. 


How do we converse? 

Conversation-based insight is just like a regular conversation in the way that to some folk it comes easily, and to others it’s a challenge.  That’s okay, it just takes practice.  The hardest part about using conversation as a research technique is how we as marketers need to subtly guide the conversation. 


The unique qualities of a conversation can work for and against us.  An organic conversation can not only foster truthful and revealing insight into the topic at hand, but it can also get out of control quickly and start wandering down channels of irrelevance.

Here’s how to get the best out of conversation based-research.


Prepare your core questions

Although the goal is to encourage and foster a natural conversation, we still need to develop key lines of questioning.  These core questions represent the general goals of the project.  In fact, we use prompts instead of questions and then develop the conversation around those prompts. 


For example, a prompt could be, “uncover emotional state after seeing ad.”  Our conversational questions could include:

  • So, you just saw that ad – what are you thinking right now?
  • You were shaking your head a little while watching that, why?
  • How do you think other folk will feel after seeing that

From these prompts we can further expand and drill-down.  Remember, the art of conversation isn’t just about asking questions and getting answers.  You HAVE to inject a social atmosphere into the conversation.  It’s okay to laugh in order to make the respondent feel relaxed and encourage more dialogue.  You can use body-language like the raising of your eyebrows to show the respondent you’re listening and you’d like them to expand.  You use these social cues to get more information, but not to influence their responses.   


Think like an investigator

When uncovering rich data, you really have to think strategically and you always have to bring you’re “A Game.”  Investigators are extremely good at not only listening, but paying attention to what’s being said at all times.  People often say things and then later contradict themselves later in the conversation and this is when investigators start cross-referencing the conversation in an effort to uncover the real truth of the matter.

While your goal isn’t to trip anyone up and haul them to jail, employing an investigative attitude is a great mentality when conducting conversation-based research.  Obviously, to get a respondent to speak about contradictory statements you’re not going to use an accusatory tone, but more of one of curiosity.  “Kristen, I totally get what you’re saying.  This ad made you feel angry…so earlier you mentioned it was funny.  How do those two things relate?”


Be prepared to reel things back in

The whole point of conversational research is to encourage something which is natural and organic.  However, when employing this technique, it is relatively easy for the respondent to start talking about things which are off-topic.  That’s okay, you just need to know when to reel things in or when the trip down the rabbit hole is actually going somewhere.  Again, curiosity is your best asset. 


“So, you were talking about the ad, and how it made you not want to buy their product, how does that fit in with your sister’s dog, Charlie?”  If it does relate to Charlie somehow, the respondent will explain at that point.  If not, you can laugh and then redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand.


Use props

To have a conversation, one of our goals is to put the respondent at ease.  We do this with the tone of the conversation, of course, but we can also use simple props to help foster effective, organic research.


Perhaps we can move the research out of the board room and into the lounge.  Maybe add some subtle ambient noise in the form of music.  A pot of coffee, donuts and other drinks are a must for morning interviews – but don’t forget to help yourself, too.  No-one wants to feel like they’re the only one eating!


When we’re interviewing people about the user experience, we always have a laptop or tablet to hand.  “Hey, I think I know the part you’re talking about – is it here?”  We’re using these things to make our conversation richer and more informed.


Strength in numbers

If our topic of research doesn’t rely on confidentiality or sensitive topics, we find adding more people to the mix can really help and further promote the conversation.


Oftentimes, with two respondents or small groups of people, the respondents can generate a conversation among themselves which, with subtle guidance, can be very revealing.  In fact, we see respondents becoming curious with one another’s answers and taking on the role of moderator from time to time.  It’s great!


However, you still have to have an investigative mindset and be aware of when one respondent might be influencing another’s answers.  “Dave, it looks like you’re agreeing with Kristy right now, but earlier you said you didn’t understand the message.  What’s changed?”

The tone in which you ask questions about contradictory answers is especially important when interviewing more than one person, because you don’t want to create any suggestion of ridicule or mistrust.  Anecdotal comments can work in your favor, “my wife says I change my mind all the time…did you change your mind or are you just looking at this a little differently now?”


Final Thoughts

We can all agree, there is an art to producing and sustaining a productive research conversation.  We will leave you with this: your approach is going to vary from conversation to conversation.  Humans are a dynamic species, and while one approach will work for one person or group, it won’t for another.  Adaptation is key, and do not be surprised if you have to dramatically change tact to get the information you need – that’s normal.


If all this sounds like a headache - don't worry, your friendly Oklahoma City-based research company has you covered!  If you need help with any kind of qualitative research, simply contact us.  We'd love to have a conversation with you (see what I did there?)!



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Posted by EvolveKev

Kevin is all about research. Qualitative, quantitative, UX, you name it. When he's not researching, he's to be found laying down beats in his studio and hanging out with his dogs (and wife). Woof.

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