How to ask the right questions
1/30/14 / Leo Lewis
There is more to qualitative research design than meets the eye. Much should be taken into account in developing a questionnaire designed to elicit in-depth qualitative feedback from research participants. For the sake of brevity, I’ll hit on a few conceptual highlights.
For starters, a researcher will consider the background and context for the research project. This includes:
- Overriding research question (in-line with research objective): This can serve as a kind of compass to which all questions can point. For example, if it’s a customer satisfaction-type objective, then all questions should elicit responses that in some way inform a client’s understanding of this as well as possible actions to take.
- Audience: Even with a target respondent audience that has similar characteristics, there will still be subpopulations. If we’re talking with a group of home remodelers about a building material and some have recently completed a project while others are going to in the near future, this will impact how questions are framed so that they are relevant to all.
Then, keep in mind function and form for a qualitative questionnaire.
- Function: A primary function will be to elicit candid and in-depth responses. Questions are generally designed in an open-ended fashion to encourage explanation and reasoning for answers (versus simple “yes” or “no” or other closed-ended responses). However, there may still be well-timed, strategically placed “pulse-checking” questions that are helpful to uncover where consensus and main themes in responses may lie (especially in a group research setting).
- Form: The number of questions should be the right amount to allow for in-depth feedback, and for an opportunity for a moderator to probe within the allotted timeframe. Typical questionnaires may cover four to five high level topic areas. In sequencing, topic areas may go from broad to narrow, and then questions within topic areas also generally go from broad to narrow.
Now, you’re ready for question design. As mentioned, questions must be properly and logically sequenced, but a few general question types may include the following:
- Exploratory: These are generally open-ended questions designed to invoke unaided responses. Thus, these tend to be more “big picture” and “top of mind” and capture attitudes, opinions and perceptions very well. (e.g., What are your first thoughts when you hear the term _____?; or, What would a library of the future look like?)
- Explanatory: These are questions that prompt the audience to respond to some kind of stimulus. This could be reactions to a product, concept, marketing message or positioning statement, creative piece, etc. These may also gather more in-depth or “why” explanations to first-phase quantitative findings, such as survey findings. Word games or list ranking-type exercises can be fun and informative here in group sessions. Again, these questions effectively capture attitudes, opinions and perceptions.
- Behavior: Although observational, real time or experiential research methods may assist in understanding behaviors the best, researchers may still make behavioral queries in more controlled research settings such as online or in-person focus groups or interviews. Surprisingly, these questions are sometimes more difficult questions to answer than those asking about attitudes or opinions. When asking about behaviors, questions may encourage specific examples and stories in order to illustrate actual decisions or choices. “How” versus “what” questions may also stimulate respondents’ recall or intentions related to their behaviors. Finally, some simulated exercises may work well as the closest thing to actual observation.
In summary, qualitative questionnaires can look pretty simple when finished, but a lot of thinking and consideration goes into proper design.