5 Steps to a Better Qualitative Research Experience

Corporate market researchers are doing more with less. Along with fewer resources comes an increased need to provide action-focused insights and create more value for internal business units. Delivering better, more actionable insights (even when resources are constrained) requires focus and solid partnerships. Over the years I’ve realized five research project steps that can be taken to improve the research experience. They also help deliver a better product internally, in a way that allows time and resources to be used most effectively. This article focuses on qualitative projects, as that is where I do the bulk of my work as a consultant, but they work for quantitative projects as well.

Step 1: Know Your Customers
The first step to a better qualitative experience is to know your customers. As a corporate researcher, your customers are not the company’s customers. Your customers are the internal business people you support. When considering your internal customers, you should know:

  • Their personality
  • How they want you to interact with them
  • What is motivating them
  • What they are up against
  • What they need to be successful

Know their personality
While you could ask your client their Myers Briggs personality type, it’s probably better to use common sense to help understand their personality. Do a quick assessment. Is your internal client open to new ideas (or closed to them)? Are they predisposed to planned or spontaneous behavior? Is he/she easy going and cooperative, guarded, nervous or confident? Use the answers to help decide how you can meet your client where they are.

Know how they want you to interact with them
A moment of time can make life easier. Ask your internal client how they prefer to interact. How frequently do they require project updates – weekly, daily? Do they prefer to schedule meetings in advance or as needed? Do they plan on contributing to the discussion guide or do they expect it to be completed without their input? Taking a few minutes to understand your client’s needs at the beginning of a project can help organize your workload so you can deliver what they want; when and how they want it.

Know what motivates them
You need to have an understanding of your internal client’s motivation in relation to each specific qualitative research project. Are they requesting the research because there is a real need for it? Are they ultimately responsible for the program, product or effort that the research is supporting? Are they requesting it because their manager, or their manager’s manager, wants it done? Knowing these answers can help you understand their perspective better and help avoid fighting battles you cannot win.

Know what they are up against
While you understand the general business culture that you work within, you need to know the culture that surrounds each project that comes your way. Take into consideration the political issues that exist around each project, who the key stakeholders are, how the stakeholders feel about the project, the issues, and business situation for each project.Again, this information can help you avoid fighting losing battles.

Know what they need to be successful
It’s imperative that you know how to make your internal client successful around a specific qualitative project. Make sure to ask what they need in order to succeed in their role. Some questions to consider asking are “What would a home run be for you?” or “What would success with this project look like to you?” These questions may also help you better understand the motivation and politics surrounding specific projects.

Step 2: Plan Time According to the Project’s Value
Allocating effort to the project based on its intrinsic value will help you figure out how much of your resources to spend on each project. Every project has an intrinsic value: The value based on all tangible and intangible factors. It’s basically the value of the project to the business and to your role in its success.

Some qualitative projects are conducted to make the business smarter or to help the company make important decisions. Others are less action and decision-oriented. Some never have their implications acted on.

When a project has serious and deep implications for the business, it should be a higher priority, and therefore have more effort allocated to it. When a qualitative project is less action and decision-oriented, it should be a lower priority and be allocated less effort. Here are examples of both types:

Higher priority: A business needs to understand how their customers feel about a new competitor that might become a real threat to their business.

Lower priority: A department wants to cover itself while making a change. They really aren’t interested in the results from a decision and action-perspective. In fact, they indicate that “the train has already left the station” when discussing changes that were suggested from the research.

The point is, think about the value of each project to the business and focus your efforts accordingly. This is not about cutting corners. It’s about being clear regarding the importance of the project for the business overall and allocating your time appropriately.

Step 3: Collaborate for the Best Answers
Collaboration offers the best solutions and can make you more successful in your role. This is important, among other reasons, because it can help overcome any biases you may bring to the project.

Even well intentioned corporate researchers come to a project with a certain perspective. Perhaps they believe they know exactly what their internal clients need to be successful without asking. Maybe they believe that only one data collection method will work, they know what specific questions to ask, or they already know how the respondents will think or behave.

Ideally, researchers are supposed to be impartial, but let’s face it: You are also human. You have beliefs and ideas that come from your experiences. These beliefs and ideas lead to viewing things in a certain way. Your way of approaching a business problem may be successful, but it may not be the easiest, most efficient or effective approach. The same answer to business questions can emerge through very different lines of questioning and from different qualitative techniques. There is never just one way of approaching an issue.

Coming to a research project with preconceived ideas on any level can be detrimental to the success of it – or at least make things harder than they need to be. Don’t expect to instantly have all the answers for research projects that come to you. Seek collaboration, teamwork, and partnership with others. Rely on your internal clients, colleagues and qualitative research partners to help discover alternate paths, options and ideas. Relying on others can help you build relationships, which is the backbone of business success.

Collaboration also helps identify new tools and approaches that might yield better responses or collect the needed information more easily. Research partners are particularly valuable here. Qualitative partners should be up on the latest techniques and technologies available for data collection (such as eye tracking glasses, discussed on page 78 of this issue of Alert!). They should stay current on the latest research coming out of social sciences and other related areas – like mindfulness and neuroscience. Using their expertise in these areas allows you to design a research project that gets the information needed, uncovers hidden gems of information, and does so in a way most likely to engage the consumer and your internal client.

Step 4: Communicate Throughout the Research Process
Talk about the project with your qualitative partner before, during and after the research. Communication is key throughout the process.

Before: Obviously you need to let your qualitative research partner know the issue and research objectives before the research starts. This is important because it allows your partner to recruit appropriately, develop the best questions, identify the right data collection methodology and projective techniques, and assign the research.

Beyond sharing the business issue and research objectives, you must also share your needs and challenges (as well as those of your internal clients and the company), as they relate to the specific project and business issue. Sharing this information will help your qualitative research partner focus their efforts and support you better as they develop the research, participate in meetings, and write reports. While developing and sending a research brief may seem like communication; remember it is only a one-way communication, so it’s of limited value.

During: Review what you are learning as you are learning it. Start speaking with your research partner about new learning partway through the field portion of the research. Use this time to identify important emerging information. Evolve the questions being asked during the remaining qualitative sessions to dig further into the important areas.

Some corporate researchers feel uncomfortable changing the question flow in the middle of a qualitative project. Remember, qualitative research is not about numbers. Often, adding new questions or evolving the stimuli as the research progresses gives you a better final solution. For example, in a project that focused on building an online resources tool, early fieldwork identified three core types of users. Because the three groups were identified early, questions were added to the later rounds of research that provided a better understanding of each type. By the end of the fieldwork, the internal client knew who the types were, how to find them and how to engage them.

After: Immediately after the research, you should conduct a debriefing with the qualitative partner (and potentially the internal client). This will help to focus the findings, know what your internal client found useful and interesting, and call out critical information. Focus on specifics of the research report so it can be developed in a way that will be most useful for your internal clients.

Keeping the lines of communication open and focused during the entire qualitative research project will lead to an easier experience for you, a better final report and a better solution for your company.

Step 5: Consider the Output Going In
Consider what you’ll really need at the end of a project – before it even starts.

When you tell your research partner early in the process what type of output you really need, you allow them to support you more effectively. Think of the output as any final deliverable you’ll need to effectively share what you learned within your organization.

Often clients tell their research partners they need to use a specific template for reporting, which is important; but thinking beyond that is going to make your life easier in the long run. Think about who the audience is, what they need and how they are willing to engage. Consider larger questions, e.g. when working on bringing segments to life, you might need to create video vignettes that everyone in the organization can access – or you might create a poster that can be shared.

If you aren’t sure what the goal is for output, think about the broader application of the research to the business need and brainstorm ideas with your research partner to come up with engaging, meaningful ways to communicate your message and look good internally.

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