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In many respects, we are in the business of understanding why customers do the things they do. Asking someone a “why” question suggests that you want them to describe a behavior or the rationale behind a behavior. Customers are generally poor at self-reflection; stated behavior (and rationale) is often at odds with reality.
I’m still baffled at the number of times qualitative research is used to understand behaviors. It’s not designed for that. It is good at understanding POBAs (perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes) – and that’s all. If you want to understand behavior, then employing an observational technique or analyzing behavioral data is best. (Most have heard of this nugget, but during hurricanes the sales of Strawberry Poptarts® increase seven-fold. Walmart has proven this with their sales data. If, though, you asked people in a focus group what food products they buy to prepare for an impending storm, Poptarts® is unlikely to register.)

Knowing that people are generally poor at answering “why” questions, why is still frequently used in that setting? It shouldn’t be.

Our years of experience, research consultants, and even brain science point to the limitations of “why” questions. “Why” questions often force short, rational answers that require further probes. Those secondary probes break up the participant’s internal dialogue (the part we really want.) If the question had been asked differently, fewer probes are needed and participants get beyond top-of-mind feedback more quickly. Better questions rarely start with “why” – it’s more effective to ask:

  • What factors played into your decision to…?
  • How did you form that viewpoint?
  • What drives your thinking about…?
  • When you do x, what do you say to yourself about it?
  • Tell me more about the situation that led you to think this way.

Studies have also shown that avoiding questions that start with “why” increase the perception of the interviewer as an active listener – an essential skill for qualitative research. Carefully designed questioning actually increases the overall engagement and productivity of study participants.

The next time you are in the role of interviewer, keep these lessons in mind.  Face-to-face dialogue is not designed to fully understand behaviors. And, if you really want to understand POBAs, avoid asking someone “why.” Trust me: it’s easier said than done.

Acknowledgements: “Secrets of a Master Moderator” by Naomi R. Henderson, RIVA Training Institute

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