Part 2: The qualitative research process – fluffy techniques
This article is part of a series by Katie Harris, principal at Zebra Connections (if you missed the other parts, start here).
Let me count the ways
Following on from my last post, there’s no right way to ask a question per se. There are actually many right ways to ask a question. I’ll talk about these in more detail in a moment. First I’m going to discuss the many wrong ways to ask a question.
The wrong ways
You may be familiar with some of the following heinous qualitative research crimes:
- Asking leading questions
- Asking closed ended questions
- Asking vague questions
Why are these wrong? Because leading questions ‘lead’ people to a particular answer, closed ended questions can end the discussion prematurely, and vague questions elicit vague answers that have little grounding for interpretation.
Well, theoretically. But all is not what it seems. An experienced moderator might use any of these types of questions purposefully, and with excellent effect:
- A leading question often works well to test a hypothesis, or as stimulus in itself, to get the conversation going
- A closed ended, or vague question can provide a foundation to open the discussion in interesting and new ways
They’re all part of the qualitative researcher’s toolkit and used in a timely and purposeful way, can add tremendous depth to the discussion.
The right ways
There’s no doubting that less experienced moderators may unintentionally ask too many questions the wrong way (and end up with useless output). But the point I want to make here is that the right way to ask a question is 100% context dependent. It depends on the subject, the timing, the group dynamics, etc. Sometime the right way to ask a question is to use what some might (and some do) call a fluffy technique.
Useful qualitative research output has two defining features; depth and clarity. And perhaps surprisingly, this is where those fluffy techniques come into their own. They’re an efficient way to get depth and clarity.
An example, asking the same question in two different ways, will help to explain what I mean.
Q: Does Brand X have an image problem?
There are 3 possible answers to this question; Yes, No or I don’t know. Some clarity yes, but not much depth there. None of these answers are very helpful in terms of understanding anything about the possible image problem.
Let’s ask the same question, but in another way:
Q: If Brand X came to life as a person, what kind of person would they be? What kind of music would they listen to? How would they take their coffee? etc.
I can understand that to someone who hasn’t had much experience with qualitative research, the above line of questioning may seem somewhat fluffy.
Allow me de-fluff it.
As noted, the second question is just another version of the first. But the answers will be quite different.
Asking the question using this ‘fluffy’ approach delivers answers in 3D. And then following up, down and sideways on the answers with Why? Why? Why? helps to build a rich, relatively holistic picture of Brand X’s image. Critically, it also provides a context for interpretation.
The above technique is called personification. It’s just one example of a fluffy technique: there are many more in the qualitative toolbox. When used appropriately, fluffy techniques really deliver the goods. Research participants love them: they’re fun and engaging and something a bit different. Researchers love them because they enable deeper understanding of attitudes and perceptions, and thus greater insight.
Effectual fluff. Neat huh?