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Karen Faith: Research, Strategy & Creative

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How To Not Interview

An intro to qualitative methods for regular people.


As you may already know, what people believe they value is not always what their choices would indicate. For example, I might be a customer who believes my primary business objective is quality, because I want to believe that about myself, but when I make purchasing decisions, it would appear that I value saving money over anything else because I consistently buy the cheapest thing every time I can. 

That said, it is too easy to jump to the conclusion that one should analyze market data and appeal to the behavioral driver alone. Not so. If I believe I am a quality seeker, I need a choice which allows me to maintain that belief while providing me with low cost. That means it needs to be the cheapest but feel like the best. Both values are important. 

How to get these two kinds of information is, not surprisingly, a blend of art and science. Here are some recommendations for "interviewing" that produce more actionable data:

Don't ask questions
In the same way that the presence of a chair invites a person to sit, a question - even a very well written question - partially composes a response. Instead of asking, "why did you purchase this brand of coffee?" you might simply state, "I noticed your choice of coffee." The statement initiates a topic without leading. The person may reply any number of ways, such as, "oh, my wife won't drink anything else" or "there was a special at the Jewel" or "do you like it? I've never tried it before, I was in a rush and it was the first one I saw." Each of those responses reveals the reason for purchase as well as a whole lot more about the customer's values and lifestyle. Meanwhile, any one of those people, if asked directly, may have said, "brand" or "cost" or "quality" because that's what they believed they valued, or what they believed you were looking for. 

Allow uneasy silence.
Another possibility is that a person doesn't know how to respond to the coffee statement. It's not a question so they may not feel prompted to reply. There could be silence and it could get awkward. Let it. The important part is to let your research subject break the silence. They may break it by changing the topic or by sharing a bit about their relationship to coffee or anything else. They are most likely to break it by introducing small talk, leading you to their comfort zone, but the longer the silence is, the more likely it is that their mind has gone elsewhere. Where and how far it went will always tell you more about who they are and how they think than if you fill the silence to keep things cozy.

Ask for advice.
One of the most effective ways to build rapport and to learn about a client or a customer is to ask their advice, *sincerely, about something they are familiar with. Whether it is a professional area of expertise or a personal hobby, when you ask for advice you honor their credibility and wisdom, and they are likely to respond generously, even if they don't mean to. Just ask, and then notice how they reply. Do they respond by asking a focusing question about your intentions and needs? That's a good sign that they value research, are purpose-driven, and budget their time and money wisely. Do they start by telling you a story about a wild mishap that taught them a lot? That indicates a strong value of personal experience, exploration, and a desire to learn and share. Similarly, someone who is stingy with their trade secrets may not realize they are giving away much more, by revealing that they feel threatened by competition, value authority, and see the world in terms of "us and them." 

*It's important to note that you should never "fake" asking for advice. Insincerity is the herpes of the business world. 

Share your burdens.
Asking someone to reveal their weaknesses is like asking them to get undressed under a flood lamp. It can make them feel vulnerable, insecure, and overexposed, more often leading them to be defensive and save face instead of opening up and letting you see their spots. Instead, let them know where you feel your business is at risk or what things you wish you could improve on your team. Trust is like money: you have to give some to get some. 

Don't be nosy.
It is impossible for a person to hide their values. Values are communicated with every choice, every action. Learning to read a person's values is simply a matter of paying attention. It doesn't take much digging to see below the surface, and the surface itself can be pretty rich. Look at the symbols your research subject has chosen to place around them. What is his screensaver image? Does she wear a logo pin? What is on display in the company foyer? These are identity choices - announcing the things they believe about themselves. Now observe the way he makes his coffee, the way she receives a guest, the steps the company takes to approve a project plan. These are process choices - revealing the values that shape their behavior. It's all there. Prying is not only unnecessary, but likely to shut your subject down. 

A sample non-interview

With these things in mind, I have taken a set of “interview questions” from a client project and outlined alternative ways to collect and enhance the intelligence.

"What are your specific needs/business objectives? How would you rate them in order of importance?"
Where the company believes it's needs and objectives are isn't always where they really are, and besides, this perception will change depending on who you talk to. Assuming that you are talking to the relevant decision maker, listen to him or her tell you about a regular day in the office. (I mean literally ask, "how are things going today?" or "what is new in the office?") S/he will mention in that tiny monologue the topics that are foremost in his or her mind - new projects, current imbalances, culture and environment. Listen not just to what you are told but HOW you are told. The importance rating will be clear.

"What are key risks or challenges in your business?  Why?"
Sincerely and conversationally share your own business challenges and wait for your customer to commiserate, empathize, advise or challenge you. This will tell you what their challenges are, but will also tell you about their attitudes toward others and where they stand on the collaboration/competition scale.

"What is your vision for the next 1-5 yrs?  What are you hoping to accomplish?  Why?"
What do you know about where this company was 5 years ago? Simply mention the change or growth that you've noticed and see where they take you from there. "It seems like you've invested a lot in expanding the sales department since 2008..." It shows them you've done your homework and invites them to adjust your perception if they feel you aren't seeing the whole picture. They'll probably also tell you if the vision has changed since then and where they soon hope to be.

"What are ways we can better help you achieve those goals?"
Once you hear where they want to be, make a suggestion instead of asking for one. Find an opportunity to help and bring it up. If they don't think it's helpful, they'll tell you, and then they'll tell you (either directly or indirectly) what will work better. 

In general, this style of conversation is based on a plus/plus model rather than a minus/plus. You give and they give, instead of you ask and they give. It changes the dynamic and places you in a position of generosity and leadership rather than one of need and submission.


When you do get around to asking questions, do it well. Below are some pointers for better asking:

Avoid hypothetical questions. For ex., “if you had a food processor, would you have used it?” Ask about their actual experience. "Have you ever..." or "Did you..." It’s the only thing they can truly answer.

Resist superlatives. For ex., “What was the hardest part of the onboarding process?” Superlatives can feel difficult to answer. Just ask them for an example of something that was difficult, not “the most difficult.” The relevant experiences will come out.

Don't ask them to do our work for us. For ex., “What do you think we could do to inspire you to choose our brand?” Not only is this a strange and leading hypothetical, we don’t want to jump into solutions before we’ve understood the challenges. Just ask them for their experience and let it simmer.

Ask for specifics, not interpretations or generalizations. For ex., instead of saying, “what do you think most people do in this situation?” You might ask, “have you ever known someone in the same situation? What happened?”