How to Conduct a Research Interview

Sometimes you just need to take matters in your own hands when it comes to conducting research. You don’t always need to spend a lot of money to get the insights needed, as we have previously discussed in our article on how to right-size your research.  In some cases, you just need a handful of qualitative interviews to get the needed information.

Assuming you already have your objective and target audience identified, next is to conduct the interviews. We personally prefer to conduct them over the phone than in person. It helps in scheduling and we’ve found that it minimizes time spent on discussing topics that may stray from the objective. Here are a few guidelines on how to conduct your interviews:

Start with establishing a good relationship with the respondent. This is all about breaking the ice, and getting your respondent comfortable with speaking.

  • Establish personal contact early on.
    • Refer to the person by name and be sure to thank her for participating.
    • Confirm how long it will take and that you plan to stay on time.
  • Help the respondent feel relaxed from the beginning.
    • Simple humor tends to work here.  Seriously, even talk about the weather.
    • Ask her to tell you a little about her role and responsibilities in the organization (for a business), or her family (for a consumer).
  • Win the respondent to your side.
    • Let her know you are dependent on her to inform you about her world because she is the expert.
  • Create an environment where anything the respondent says is ok.
    • There are no right or wrong answers, and that you are simply looking for her opinion.


Don’t lead the respondent

It’s very tempting to lead the respondent down a certain path.  This is particularly the case as an employee of the company who knows a lot about your product or service.  Ask each question in a very open manner without any opinion.

Do Ask:  

  • What do you think of XYZ Company's service?

Do not ask:  

  • XYZ Company prides itself on its service, what do you think of the service?
  • What do you think of XYZ Company’s service?  Everybody has been saying it’s great.

Don’t be defensive if the respondent says something you don’t want to hear.  Simply note the statement and follow-up with clarifying questions if you would like.  Do not try to explain why it is or why that perception is incorrect.  This is not a debate, regardless of how incorrect their perception of your company may be, stay objective and note the response.


Ask only one question at a time

In everyday conversation we ask multiple questions of someone at once.  In research, you want to take your time and only ask one question. Asking multiple questions is natural. It’s how we normally have conversations, such as, “How was your dinner party?  Sorry, I missed it.  Did you get the turnout you expected?"

  • Ask one question at a time.  Then wait for the respondent to answer before moving on to your next question. It may seem awkward at first, but it’s the best way to get accurate answers.
  • Become comfortable with pausing. The urge will be to fill the silence with another question or comment.  Wait a few seconds – they will respond.
  • If they ask you a question, answer it back with what do you think it should be or what would you like it to be?  For example if they ask, is the XYZ product available online or only in stores?  You would say, what would you like it to be?


Avoid “Why?”

Based on responses you are receiving throughout the interview, you may want to probe deeper to get a better understanding of an answer.  If so, try not to ask “why.” It puts people on edge and seems like a test or that you are challenging their answer.  Softer ways to get a better understanding of their answer include:

  • Help me understand.
  • What are the reasons for that?
  • Tell me more.
  • Can you elaborate on that?
  • What was the thought process behind that?
  • Could you explain a bit more?

Good luck, and have fun with it.  Interviews can provide a wealth of insights you just can’t get any other way. If you have any questions or would like to discuss more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.





Demographics Are Outdated

Using demographics to identify and target your audience is increasingly ineffective.

While demographics still have value, they shouldn’t be the sole or primary criteria for identifying your audience and determining the best message to deliver. As our reliance on demographics fades, so too is the effectiveness of classifying people in broad categories, such as Gen Xers and Millennials.

Demographics alone won’t tell you the most important thing you need to know about your audience, which is what they value. The emphasis on understanding what people like and how they share experiences creates new tribes and new ways to segment your audience.

During a study we conducted for a financial institution that wanted to attract Millennials, it became clear that how they felt about money and savings had largely to do with whether or not they lived with their parents. A 21-year-old working her first job and sharing an apartment with roommates has more in common with a 35-year-old in a similar situation than a peer living at home with mom and dad. This is common sense, but it is surprising how companies continue to use generic targeting schemes based on the faulty premise that everyone born between the early 1980s and 2000s will respond as a single homogeneous cohort. Trust me, I’ve seen enough RFPs come through.

This coming together around common values is related to how we access content, increasing urbanization and the growing popularity of authentic brands aligned with our values.

Our ability to access content anywhere at anytime, along with social media platforms that let us share that content, create new opportunities to interact with like-minded people — often in ways that shatter demographic boundaries.

In a 2014 interview, BBC Radio’s George Ergatoudis said, “If you look at the list of the 1,000 favorite artists for 60-year-olds and the 1,000 favorite artists for 13-year-olds, there is a 40% overlap, and if you take 30- to 39-year-olds and 13- to 19-year-olds, over 50% of their favorite artists are the same.” Can you imagine listening to 60% of the same music your parents or grandparents did when you were 13? I validated this when my 14-year-old son said he listens to Green Day, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Cool.

Our increasingly urbanized society allows us to interact more closely while being exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas and experiences. According to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study, urban populations are growing by 65 million people every year — that’s seven new Chicagos a year, a mind-blowing statistic.

This growth leads to increasing economic spend, and brands that play on this global stage respond, not based on demographics, but in shared value experiences and by meeting individual expectations. This is why Starbucks has no stated demographic only target audience; it has created environments that allow people to share experiences. The company understands its power comes from how consumers feel when they interact with it. And when they love it, they will share it. Starbucks is one of the most popular brands shared on social media; it has more Instagram tags than Apple, McDonald’s and Coke combined.

Living in a society that allows us to connect with people and ideas in ever-expanding ways, virtually and physically, lets people more fully express themselves as individuals. Knowledge, technology and choice allow freedom of expression to blossom. It’s why consumers flock to brands that allow them to express who they are or who they want to be. We see this in fair trade coffee, Tesla and handmade crafts on Etsy. Brands allow consumers to do what they want, how they want, while feeling good about themselves. The Swedish clothing company Uniforms For The Dedicated has launched an initiative called the Rag Bag. It allows customers, once they take their new clothing out of the company shopping bag, to turn the bag inside out and place a donated item inside. Once reversed, the bag turns into a printed and pre-paid package that can be sealed and dropped in the mail. It effectively renders shopping guilt-free, even virtuous.

To more precisely target and meet the needs of your audience, look well past the demographics.

They are important, but to be truly effective in your marketing, study audience psychographics. Understand what they value, how they feel about your category, what is important to them and, above all, stay authentic. Like the old adage goes, say what you mean, and do what you say – and never stop listening to and studying your audience.

Can You Trust Your Mind?

1962 was a peak year in market share for GM, with 52% of the U.S. car market.  Today they stand at 18%.  The decline was not sudden nor should it have been unexpected. There were rumblings of change all around them, beginning with the rise in oil prices in the 1970’s, but they were ignored. By the 80’s they finally realized that the Japanese could not only make better cars, but also make them more efficiently, and they were popular with the U.S. market. What took the leadership so long to realize this? Part of the answer is the mental models they operated within. 

Peter Seng, in his book, “The Fifth Discipline”, defined mental models as, “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the worlds and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effect they have on our behavior.” This is not new. The idea of mental models was first postulated by the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896.

The assumption under which GM functioned were never written down, but, the following were obtained from interviews of retired former senior GM executives:

1.      GM is in the business of making money, not just cars

2.    Success flows from rapid adaptation, not technological leadership (automatic transmission was last major innovation)

3.    Cars are primarily status symbols:  people want to upgrade

4.    The U.S. car market is isolated from the rest of the world

5.    Fossil fuels (oil) will remain cheap and abundant

6.    The government is an enemy and so are unions

7.    Planned obsolescence works (quality less important)

8.    Efficiency of mass production beats other approaches

9.    Bigger is better – we can manage anything

Imagine how these filters and perceptions of the world affected the decisions GM was making. Mental models are subtle, yet very powerful. And not all models are bad, in fact, they help us organize and navigate our lives. For the most part, they have helped us survive. The issue is that they can influence our behaviors without us even being aware. In fact, they can at times cause a collective herd mentality that in the case of GM, had disastrous effects. 

What are the unwritten rules or mental models in your company? It’s the stuff you talk about that is not in your employee handbook, or the bits of wisdom you provide to new employees to help them adjust to your culture. Are the mental models of your most senior executives different from the rest of the staff? How are your individual or corporate wide mental models affecting your decision-making? How are they possibly blinding you from growth opportunities, competitive threats, or changes in your target audience purchase patterns?

Take the time to reflect and write down your unwritten rules – whether in your company or in any other aspect of your life. Question them. How do you know them to be true? Are they helping or in actuality, limiting beliefs? Share your mental models with others in your company and look to get to the data behind them and see if they can really stack up or if they are just assumptions that filter your thinking and actions.

Being consciously aware of your mental models and intentionally managing them can not only free up your thinking to new possibilities, but also shed light upon blind-spots.