How STRONG are Your Questions?

By Donna Taglione, Vice President


I sometimes start the beginning of a focus group or IDI by saying “at the end of this session, I hope you don’t feel like you just finished having a conversation with a two-year old – Why? Why? Why?” This usually gets a chuckle from participants – especially if they have small children at home. But, seriously, what’s so wrong with asking people why? Why do they buy one brand vs. another? Why do they like or not like a certain product (or ad)? Why do they do the things they do? Isn’t that what we’re hoping to learn? Isn’t this discovery the ultimate purpose of market research?

Why Not Why?

Marital counselors have been known to tell couples “never” ask ‘why’. Why you ask? Psychologists are quick to note that asking why can sometimes put the responder on the defensive and, quite frankly, people are not as willing to respond to what can feel like an interrogation tactic. In this scenario, ‘why’ is a conversation killer. Does the same hold true for qualitative research? It sometimes can.

As an experienced moderator, I know first hand how easy it is to have ‘why’ be the first probing question that pops in your head (and sometimes out of your mouth). We even write why/why not probes into our guides! Sometimes these answers provide depth letting us feel like we just peeked behind the curtain in Oz but sometimes all we’re doing is starting a series of whys. We ladder from the easiest or top-of-mind answer to – several whys later – a more insightful reason or, on the flip side, an exasperated “I don’t know.”

So why is why so hard for consumers at times? For starters, most people don’t think about why they do the things they do every day. They just do them. So most moderators, myself included, don’t just ask the question each and every time – we’re a little more coy. We might ask: “Tell me more about that?” or say “Interesting …keep going.” It takes a thoughtful approach to question writing in your mod guide to work around the ‘why’ trap.

Naomi Henderson, founder of RIVA and author of Asking Effective Focus Group Questions describes what I call the ‘why trap’ as: “asking a series of questions (even if only one in the series includes the word why) gets consumers into a mindset of ‘I ask, you answer’ rather than responding and interacting with the moderator and one another.” In this context, the discussion path often depends on the next “why” and is not a result of communication, interaction, and dialogue.

While why can often be the most appropriate probe to a consumer response, it shouldn’t be the fall back response or the easy probe for every answer.

Whys closest friends – How and What if?

So if why isn’t always the best choice (just sometimes the easiest), what kind of questions should we be asking? Questions author Warren Berger (A More Beautiful Question) says some of the most successful people ask – What if? How? and, of course, Why? In his book, Berger shows how “questioning can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities.” “What If” is one such “beautiful question” as it allows creativity to enter the conversation and gives the respondent permission to agree or disagree with the premise posed by the question.

In Dr. David Forbes’ new book, The Science of Why, he provides details on “uncovering, understanding and targeting the emotional motivations that drive the actions of every consumer.” “How” is a great question to bring Forbes’ idea to life. Asking someone “how” they do something rather than “why” they do it gets at underlying behaviors – not the reason for the behavior. Both “how” and “what if” are great ways to get below the surface and explore the rationale a typical consumer may have trouble articulating.

The art of questioning is a popular topic and many might be wondering how to ask the questions that get to deeper meaning. But in the real world of focus groups and IDIs or in-home interviews, there are no “right” ways to ask questions and/or probe answers. It’s up to the moderator to make the consumer feel at ease from the beginning of the conversation and to ask questions that follow a natural conversation flow.

Journalists follow an age-old mantra of “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?” and “How?” Any one of those questions can be a thought starter if asked in the proper context.   More open-ended in nature, these simple one word questions encourage more expansive answers than closed-ended questions which can result in easy “yes” or “no” responses.   Closed-ended questions certainly have their purpose and place, but moderators know first hand that open-ended questions encourage more conversation not just nodding and/or hand raising.

But with all this talk about proper questions, it is important to remember that, sometimes, the moderator’s most powerful tool isn’t another question. It’s a pause in the conversation. A few second lull (that often times feels a lot longer than it really is) provides an opportunity for someone else in the group to remark on a previously stated observation with their own twist. A good group discussion is not based on how many questions the moderator asks. A good discussion is based on how often the moderator can sit back and listen to the conversation taking place all on its own and not always question why.