marisa morby

Asking better questions: Tips for getting clarity from participants

When running research calls, your insights will only be as good as the goals you set and the questions you ask. I want to take some time to talk about how I approach research calls and get more context and clarity from our research participants.

How I approach research calls

I go into all research calls pretending that I don’t know anything at all, and because of that I need the participant to tell me exactly what the mean, need, or want. It can feel kind of silly to ask people to rephrase things or explain them differently at first, but generally people enjoy giving examples, explaining context, and giving you great background information once you open them up a little bit.

By taking the approach of a new student trying to learn something from your research participant, you allow them to be the expert while you're the listener trying to understand.

As an example, let's say you work for an ice cream company and you're doing research to understand what people like or don't like about your ice cream.

You've got a participant that says, "I don't really like your chocolate ice cream, but your pralines and cream is great!" That's not helpful feedback because it doesn't help us learn. If we stopped getting feedback there, our suggestion to the product team would be... people don't like our chocolate ice cream, we should stop making it.

But that's probably not the whole story. We need to understand the context. We need to know why.

So, I want to know what it is about ice cream they don't like so that we can ensure it's not just about the flavor. What is it that they don't like about the chocolate ice cream. Is it too creamy? Too sweet? Too bitter? Doesn't taste like real chocolate? Are they thinking about a particular experience they had with our chocolate ice cream (like they made really bad chocolate shakes one day) and just extrapolating that out to the chocolate ice cream as a whole? There are so many questions!

Following up and diving into this more will help you get better insight that you can actually use.

How to follow up... using the dreaded silence

If someone has just nixed an entire flavor from your ice cream company, you might be panicking to figure out what to ask next. But really you just need to dive deeper into what the person said so that you can get context, clarity, and understanding.

These are the top 3 follow up questions I use to tide me over and give me time to prep for deeper follow up questions:

The goal is to keep them talking until you find that little golden thread of info you can pull on a little more. You'll know you've found it when they say something that evokes both an emotion and a basis for that emotion. Something like, "I don't like your chocolate ice cream because it has chocolate chips in it and it's too bitter." Now you've got a thread to follow up on! Do they think something else in the ice cream would be more tasty? Do they want something simpler? Once you find the golden thread, then you can dig deeper to get to the root of their needs and wants.

I hope these three questions and reframing your conversations help you as much as it's helped me as I've learned to ask better questions over the years!