Empathy, or the ability to understand or experience the feelings of another, is inherent in human interaction. As researchers, we are most concerned with the cognitive side of empathy, or the processes involved when trying to know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. When focusing on understanding why users are attracted to or avoid certain products or services, the research interviewer must be skilled in getting at the person’s underlying motivations. Techniques such as empathic listening, where you restate what you just heard to encourage a more in-depth answer, or following up with repeated “why” questions in empathic laddering, are proven strategies to reveal meaning in your participants’ answers. Understanding that empathy is a two-way street, however, can turn a skilled interviewer into one that is able to generate higher quality insights for a particular brand. Too often the interviewer is concentrating so much on getting deeper information from others that their own role in the empathic exchange is ignored.

Image via Flickr by Sean MacEntee

For good quality user research, it’s important that the interviewer experience the tasks or products firsthand. This may seem like an obvious first step, but it is all too often underplayed or done in a “going through the motions” way, especially as researchers become more seasoned and/or the products and services that they’re testing are similar to previously researched ones. It is crucial to put yourself in the place of those that you are asking to perform specific actions as a baseline technique for understanding personality differences. Without carefully examined firsthand knowledge, moments of “I didn’t think of it that way,” could get lost or dismissed when analyzing responses, especially when smaller sample sizes don’t tend to produce clear trends that could make singular answers more relevant. The old “been there, done that” attitude can be a detriment to understanding the qualitative data you collect.

Also, how you are perceived in asking the questions, can have unintended impacts on the types of answers you get. Are you unintentionally influencing your participants with encouraging or discouraging body language? Do your facial expressions match the types of questions you ask? Are you using engaging eye contact appropriately? Training for researchers must include these questions, beyond the obvious goals of understanding the individual participants.

Self-awareness is crucial for effective data collection in face-to-face interviews, whether in a lab setting or remotely moderated. In-house mock interviews or preliminary supervision for novice interviewers are good ways to hone these skills and be on the same page for consistent data collection. Researchers must constantly be aware of their own effect on the interview process and try to mitigate any negative consequences that may skew the data or just diminish any useful quality.  In a lot of ways, interviewers are the key instruments for qualitative research in marketing. As with any science, any data you collect is only as good as the instruments you use.

Jason Fly contributed to this article.





Also published on Medium.