Responses that go beneath the surface from study participants to gather valuable information for forming accurate insights.  Asking questions about what we want to know seems pretty straight forward.  Truth is, how those questions are asked has a significant impact on the quality and accuracy of the responses.  In other words, question-asking is not as simple as it seems. There’s an art to it.

People in niche markets have unique and specific perspectives.  That’s what niche markets are all about.  Which means everything about your product, messaging, and channels of communication have to be spot-on.  When your target is that small, your aim better be good if you want a bull’s eye.  

Here are some question-asking pitfalls to be aware of:

Don’t Ask Why 
“Why do you like candy?’  “Why do you go to movie theaters?”  Obvious responses lead to obvious insights.  Do you really want to spend money on learning things like, “Because candy is sweet” or “Because the screens are big”?   In addition, people often don’t really know why they like, feel, or perceive something.  Those answers tend to lie beneath the surface of our awareness.  And even if there’s an awareness of a deeper resonating reason, it’s often difficult to accurately explain it.  Ever had trouble finding the words to capture what you think or feel?  Welcome to the club.  

Keep the Focus Off the Participant
Generally speaking, we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves in front of others.  We also don’t want to answer a question in a way that risks portraying ourselves in a bad light. First questions often have responses that stem from that question.  “What do you typically give your children for dinner?”  Good chance a mother is unlikely to say “McDonald’s” or “Chef Boyardee with a Coke”.  She may worry a response like that would make her look like a bad mother.  It’s more likely the response will be geared to a dinner that sounds healthy.  Unfortunately for accurate data, the real reason might be that getting her child to eat anything even slightly resembling a healthy food usually ends in a tantrum and tears.  After a long day, what parent has the energy for that?  It would be better to ask, “What do your children typically want for dinner”. It takes the focus off her as a mother, and shifts it to her children as children. It also won’t take her responses down a path that continues to avoid being seen as a bad mother.

Show Don’t Tell
Because of the Curse of Knowledge, we forget that other people may not know the same things as we do.  For instance making oatmeal. “Tell me how you make oatmeal.”  Someone who has made oatmeal many times, will unintentionally give vague or incomplete information.  In addition, because  we can’t unlearn what we know, it’s  difficult to fully explain how we do something.  To get a response that fully captures certain kinds of information, have people show you how they do something.  You’ll find that showing is infinitely better than telling.

Avoid Yes/No Questions
Do you like dogs?  “No”.  “Are organic foods good for you?  “Yes”.  Not very revealing, is it?  Nothing wrong with a Yes/No question for starters.   Just make sure you ask follow-up and probing questions.  And, when it comes to those follow up or probing questions, remember – avoid asking “Why”.

Don’t Expect Words to Capture Feelings
It’s difficult to for us to explain our feelings to others.  Sometimes it’s hard for someone to go beyond “it makes me feel good/bad”.  Feelings usually aren’t that simple.  For example, “Describe your feelings when you finally lose those last 5 pounds”.  Don’t be surprised by a simple answer like “It makes me happy”.   There’s more to those feelings than meets the eye, and you’ll need to dig a little deeper to discover them.

Don’t Be Uncomfortable With Silence
It’s called “holding the space”.  It means giving someone the time they need to answer.  He or she may need a little to think.  Thoughtful answers translate into thoughtful insights. Of course fill the space if someone displays discomfort with silence.  But sometimes you might be the one that’s uncomfortable with a few moments of silence while the other person is busy thinking about what he or she wants to say.  Either way, avoid peppering study participants with questions one right after the other. Give them time to think.

Some Helpful Solutions to Common Question-Asking Pitfalls

    • Think about questions in terms of who, what, where, and how. Also, think of action words for the beginning of your question such as “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?”  Make list of those words so you don’t have to search your mind for them later. Bear in mind most of these words begin with, for example, give, describe, show, etc. Inn other words, unless you want a yes/no response ( however there are times when that’s exactly what you want to know), ask a question in a way that can’t be answered with a simple “No”. 
    • Pictures say a thousand words, so there are times when responses are expressed better visually.  This technique is particularly well suited for questions that involve feelings.
    • If you’re uncomfortable with holding the space for an answer, practice in every day conversation.  Train yourself to wait a few moments in silence.  For those us who find conversational silence difficult, here’s a helpful exercise. Place your index finger vertically across your lips and nod your head in a way that looks like you’re listening. Placing your finger across your lips will help to you keep from filling those few moments of silence with your words.  

Practice Makes Perfect

For people who are passionate about shooting bow and arrow, when those niche enthusiasts hit a bullseye, they say “money”.  So, when it comes to a niche market research study, pay attention to how you ask questions.  Practice your question-asking skills in everyday conversation. Learn to do it well, and you’ll be saying “money” too.