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Sensitive and Complicated Subjects: A Tough Nut to Crack for Qualitative Researchers

Sensitive and Complicated Subjects: A Tough Nut to Crack for Qualitative Researchers

iModerate Author

Jun 25, 2012

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It is our job as qualitative researchers to encourage consumers to open up and reveal their true thoughts; that is what leads to real insights. For many topics, questions can be asked in a somewhat straightforward manner and yield reliable results. Often times however, the topic being covered is a bit more sensitive or complicated. With issues such as price, political policy, or healthcare, it can be difficult to really unlock the full story from a consumer. There are also studies which deal with issues of a personal nature that can be difficult for consumers to discuss with friends and family, let alone strangers.

Since iModerate specializes in online one-on-one conversations in real time, we are very cognizant of this challenge and have honed in on techniques that can elicit insightful responses in these situations. Our team of qualitative specialists has worked to find the most effective line of questioning that helps the respondents feel comfortable enough to openly discuss almost any topic. I asked this group to share some of their best techniques, which they’ve developed from their experiences…

Simplify the issue
Many of the topics we cover can be complicated by nature, but it often helps to ground the respondent by encouraging them to start thinking about things in a simple fashion. One way to do this is to ask the respondent, “How would you describe this topic to a 7-year-old?” This helps us gain insight into how the respondent views the issue or topic at its core, and that’s extremely important. We can then continue with the conversation by building on that. It’s a simple premise, but it works incredibly well.

Set up hypothetical situations
Over the years, we have found that consumers are often hesitant to provide candid responses out of fear that they will be revealing their own views. For this reason, we try to set up hypothetical situations so the respondent doesn’t feel that they’re giving out any personal information. Once we’ve set the scene, we can ask the consumer what they notice first/most about the situation and let the conversation build from there. By setting up hypothetical scenarios and providing key pieces of information, we allow the respondent to share their true thoughts through the situation. The use of vignettes is not a new concept in the world of research (Janet Finch performed a study that examined just that – http://soc.sagepub.com/content/21/1/105.abstract) but we find that it is very effective in approaching subjects in a non-threatening way.

Use stimuli and ask respondents to react
Sometimes words alone may be difficult to react to, so, when applicable, we like to push stimuli (like a video, or an image) and have the consumer react to what they just saw. As we all know, a picture is worth 1000 words, and in research its function as a real conversation starter makes it invaluable. Rather than just ask consumers what they liked or didn’t like, we can start with “What did you first notice about the ad?” or “What stuck out to you?” Our moderators can then follow up with “How did that make you feel?” and gain a better understanding of the true reaction to the topic at hand.

Ask the respondent to apply personification
One of our qualitative specialists’ favorite lines of questioning involves personification. Whether it’s a brand or a character, we like to get a sense of how the consumer would personify that object. Asking “What would Brand X be like at a party” or “If Brand Y was a celebrity, what celebrity would it be?” may seem silly, but individuals we speak with really grasp the concept, and this approach often yields some of the most insightful feedback.

These techniques, along with the anonymity consumers are afforded in our online one-on-ones really help us get to the true thoughts of consumers. Remember, qualitative research isn’t just about asking questions. It’s about finding a specific avenue and approach for each study, audience, and topic, that allows consumers to open up, so you can have meaningful, honest conversations.

iModerate Author

  • Good advice here, Amer. I hope researchers will be especially diligent in understanding voters’ opinions on these complex issues in an election year — will be crucial to get people talking!

Our research work with iModerate over the past several years has developed into a true partnership. Their unique fusion of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in a single study has offered new insights into key topics and markets of interest for our organization, which in turn, we are able to quickly turn into action steps. They are flexible, responsive, and extremely engaged in the entire project process, from conception and design to final data processing and delivery. They have even gone above and beyond by volunteering their time, resources, and expertise to assist with a special target market project on women. iModerate has their finger on the pulse of the research industry and consistently provides creative suggestions and solutions to enhance our current work. This ultimately allows us to provide our leadership with the strategic insights and opportunities that helps us to advance the common good.

Kristin Thomsen, Manager, Market Research, United Way Worldwide