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Crafting Careful Qualitative Questions

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By Naomi R. Henderson

Fruitful discussions start with powerful questions.


Traditional focus groups have four distinct stages: intro­duction, rapport building, in‑depth investigation and closure. A key moderator task is to frame good questions that get below top of mind and help clients see and experience the world of consumers in each of those stages. 

The role of any question in a focus group is to elicit infor­mation that helps reach the study objective, and every ques­tion should be on the path toward that goal. Consider a study about catalog shopping. In the introductory stage the ques­tions are meant to give a snapshot of the lives of respondents.

"Who lives at home with you?"

"What are your hobbies or free time activities?"

"How many catalogs came in the mail this week so far?"

Moderators need to be like neurosurgeons cutting into the brain: They need to know exactly what area of the gray matter they are working on.

When the moderator moves into the rapport-building stage, questions in this session should be easy to answer and allow respondents a chance to flex their answering muscles.

"What factors make you keep a catalog to look at again later?"

"Catalogs come in small formats [size of Reader's Digest] or larger [size of a Time magazine]. Which size is your preference?" And for what reasons?

When the session moves into the in‑depth investigation stage, the questions tend to become more precise and specific. In this stage, each question should clearly support the study objectives and ideally build on the other questions.

"Are any items or factors missing from the catalogs you like?"

"See this foldout page format? What are your thoughts about this layout?

There are no readily available, preformed answers for any of the questions above. As long as the questions support the study objectives, and can be answered, they are appropriate. The degree to which each question produces a rich body of data that can be analyzed is the measure of the value of that question.

Questions for the closure stage are typically general in nature and are meant to close down the conversation:

"What advice would you give companies that regularly send catalogs to consumers?"

"Tell me about any new insights about catalog shopping that you are taking away from the discussion today?"


Drawbacks of Poor Questions

Poor questions exact a price, sometimes a very dear one, and the research can suffer in a number of ways:

  •  Study objectives are not realized.
  •  Respondents don't have enough opportunities to deliver perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes
  •   Respondents get bored.
  •   Respondents talk, but don't really answer the questions.
  •  Client sends in lots of notes in an attempt to focus the lines of questions.
  •  Moderator is under a lot of stress and must "pull teeth" to get data out of respondents.
  •  Clients feel their needs are not being met.
  • Qualitative research gets a bad name, which pushes clients to rely only on quantitative measures.

So what is the best way to ensure that none of this hap­pens? Careful crafting of effective qualitative questions on the part of the moderator. Moderators need to be like neurosur­geons cutting into the brain: They need to know exactly what area of the gray matter they are working on when they ask questions and manage group dynamics.

Good focus group research requires several key elements:

(1) a clear purpose statement, (2) the right respondents, (3) a trained moderator, (4) an appropriate research setting (a safe place for communication) and (5) the right questions. Of these five areas, the last one has the most impact on the success of the session.

The Power of Effective Questions

In the soft brightness of fluorescent lights, eight respon­dents wait earnestly for the focus group session on catalog shopping to begin. Each of the eight receives more than 10 catalogs and spends more than $100 each month on items from catalogs. The moderator gives a clear statement of purpose: "We are here tonight to talk about catalog shopping and to look at an idea for a new catalog format." General guidelines for participation are given and disclosures are made about taping and the one‑way mirror. Respondents introduce themselves, and the moderator easily builds a genial, warm rapport with the respondents. (Note: In these scenarios, the moderator's questions are in italics.)

Scenario One

The moderator asks the first research question:

"Why do you shop from catalogs?"

One participant answers, "Because it is convenient."

"How is it convenient?"

"It saves time—time you would spend driving to the mall."

Another respondent says, "Because there are more choices."

"More choices than what?"

"Than what you can find in the mall or in department stores."

"I just like the idea of having the world's goods just a phone call away and the books themselves are fun to look at!"

"Fun, how?"

"You know, you get a cup of good coffee, look at your catalogs. That's a form of entertainment."

On the surface, the question and follow‑up probes produce responses that may help achieve the study purpose. Some­times respondents add on comments to ones made by another participant. It certainly sounds like a focus group discussion. In addition, the original questions meet qualitative research standards of asking easy, non-threatening questions at the outset of a focus group.

However, if the moderator continues down this path of questioning, what evolves can set a "tone of inquisition," and the focus group will soon fall into an "I ask, you answer" pat­tern, rather than one that allows respondents to interact more spontaneousl and reach for answers below "top-of-mind." The hallmark of a good focus group is respondents regularly talking to each other, without shielding their reactions

Scenario Two

The scenario would develop differently if the moderator began by asking the following:

"What role do catalogs and catalog shopping play in your life?"

"I can't wait to get home to see what new ones have come, I love looking at all the items and marking the pages. For me it is a wish book that I can use to make my wishes come true."

Another respondent takes off on a tangent: "While I like cata­logs, I'm feeling inundated these days. If you order something, they put your name on other lists and then you get these strange catalogs with items you would probably never buy."

Yet another respondent takes a different tack: "Yeah, but sometimes you get to see some catalogs for things that you would never see otherwise."

The respondent who first spoke up says, "That's the thing about catalogs. They are convenient and you get all these wonderful options, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing."

Another respondent says, "They are an important part of my life. Talk about convenient! I can't get out to the malls as eas­ily as I used to. With two kids under six, catalogs are my sal­vation. I can give great gifts that take only minutes to choose and I get some unusual things that you can't find at the mall.

From one short question, the responses continued like a tennis match–a true interactive qualitative research process.

Analyzing the depth of the answers to the initial ques­tions in the two scenarios, it is clear that the Scenario Two questions produced a waterfall, with many opportunities for respondents to provide rich detail for clients.

Given the constraints of focus group research (two‑hour time frames, the need for relatively equal air time for respon­dents to answer all questions, and multiple client issues to cover), it is critical that every question in a focus group be an effective question.

The challenge for researchers is crafting every question carefully so the best use is made of qualitative research tools. It is my wish that this article provides concrete examples in how to do that.

Naomi R. Henderson is CEO of RIVA Market Research and RIVA Training Institute in Rockville, MD (

AMA Spring 2010

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