qualitative research

One-on-One Interviews Create Partners in Decision-Making

One-on-one interviews share the same concept as management by walking around – turning interviewees, employees and stakeholders into partners in critical decision-making.

One-on-one interviews share the same concept as management by walking around – turning interviewees, employees and stakeholders into partners in critical decision-making.

Management by walking around and talking to front-line workers was made famous by Tom Peters. The concept boils down to making employees – or any stakeholders – a partner in the decision-making process.

That same inclusionary concept is embedded in the research techniques of one-on-one interviews and community roundtables. Stakeholders are interviewed or participate in a group discussion to inform decision-making, whether it’s for a business, project or major initiative. 

Too often, research is dismissed as interesting, but not imperative. Just as Peters demonstrated the power of management engagement with workers, one-on-one interviews and roundtables perform the same role by giving decision-makers relevant, timely findings to inform their decisions.

In our world, we say no communications plan is strategic unless it is based on solid research. The same holds true for business plans, policy initiatives, marketing and messaging.

CEOs and managers would be wise to take time to meet with the employees they oversee to learn what they know and apply to inform management decision-making.

CEOs and managers would be wise to take time to meet with the employees they oversee to learn what they know and apply to inform management decision-making.

You may know what you want to say, but you should know what people are willing to hear first. That insight can shape how and where you say your piece. It also can influence who says it.

Given how important knowing in advance the attitudes of your target audience, it is surprising how often research is thrown overboard because it is costly, time-consuming and “unlikely to reveal anything new.” That short-sighted, overly self-confidence perspective has come back to bite many executives, marketers and politicians in the bum. It is an unforced error because one-on-one interviews are one of the least costly and most effective types of qualitative research.

Peters counseled his corporate client executives to get “up close and personal” with their subordinates, especially workers who interface with customers, but have no institutional channel to relay what they discover. Peters also recommended top executives work full shifts with the production staff so they could see first-hand working conditions, process snags and wasted motion. His goal: To create horizontal relationships that allow a free-flow of information.

Trained researchers have the skill to coax insight out of people they interview or whom they moderate in a group discussion. Researchers start with a set of questions designed to spark a conversation, which can expand beyond answering a question to provide invaluable context and perspective. Interviews and group discussions also offer visual clues about emotive reactions to certain issues, words or imagery.

Interviewees, especially if assured they won’t be quoted directly, are typically very forthcoming. After all, most people like to be asked their opinions. They appreciate the chance to answer questions and explain their answers.

Reports based on one-on-one interviews or group discussions don’t contain percentages because this is qualitative, not quantitative research. You are getting their views expressed in their words. The actual words interviewees use are just as important to hear as their answers to the questions.

Executives are hired because they are expected to know how to run their respective organizations. However, many decisions stretch the knowledge or experience of top executives. They need fresh, relevant information to inform the choices they must make. One-on-one interviews and group discussions can provide the information and insight executives need for smart, collaborative decision-making.

 

Design Websites From Your Viewers’ Eyes

If you want to drive more eyeballs to your website, talk to the people who view it to find out what attracts them, what they look for and how they look for it.

If you want to drive more eyeballs to your website, talk to the people who view it to find out what attracts them, what they look for and how they look for it.

The role of websites continues to evolve, but what hasn’t changed is the need to design websites for the viewers that click on them. Research plays a pivotal role in learning what attracts viewers to a website, the content they want when they arrive and they like to access it. 

Analytics tell part of the story, especially what pages gain the most views and sustain interest. While that gives you a clue about website content and design, it doesn’t flesh out the viewer persona. The best way to discover the needs and preferences of individual viewers is to interview them.

This kind of qualitative research doesn’t require a formal survey. You need a few basic questions to explore what a target viewer looks for on your website, how it could be packaged for ease of access and suggestions for content. You also want to find out what drives them to go to your website, so you make that access as seamless as possible.

Because websites have become engagement hubs for organizations, there are often more than one type of viewer persona for you to interview. How young eyes view your website versus older eyes can make a huge difference in what you place on a page. Make sure to chat with a reasonable sample of each viewer persona group to obtain a well rounded perspective and tailor your questions to each viewer person group.

The insight you glean from interviewing viewers is invaluable to determine the most effective architecture, navigation, content and look and feel of your website. This is a very different approach than laying out a website map and looking for great images.

Finding the desired functionality of a website from the perspective of viewers and designing to that functionality is the most reliable way to ensure the website does its job, whether it’s marketing products or services, sharing resources or providing useful information.

Contemporary websites tend to be more visual with less text. Information is packaged rather than forcing viewers to search for it via drop-down menus. Viewers appear comfortable with scrolling down a home page to find what they are looking for, but they want a one-click journey to that information. Websites, even ones with video content, need to load quickly and be optimized for mobile devices. Those broad guidelines provide the frame for the website you create. Viewer insights inform the choices you make in terms of visual assets, navigation tools and content packaging and placement.

For organizations with multiple viewer personas, the design challenge is more complex. However, that complexity is easier to address if you are following the advice of people who view, use and rely on the website.

Website redesigns offer a great moment to rethink – or think about for the first time – how to inform your internal audiences. Employees are a critical website viewer persona, which also may have varied interests and content needs. Content creation for a website should take into account how it can repurposed or promoted in internal communications vehicles that can range from an enterprise system such as Yammer or Slack or an intranet.

Refreshing your website is never ending, not a one-and-done exercise. While that may seem like a pain, talking regularly with your website audience should be viewed as a pleasure. If you tie a website refresher to viewer contacts, you will keep your website on point – and your business on track.

Examples of Viewer-Centric Website Design

Here are three examples of websites that reflect a viewer-centric design and navigation strategy. These examples, plus 12 more, were singled out by HubSpot. Click each image below to see full-size views of the websites. 

The Dropbox website makes a difficult task seem simple through the simplicity of its design. It answers the viewer questions of “How does it work” and “How hard is it to use.

The Dropbox website makes a difficult task seem simple through the simplicity of its design. It answers the viewer questions of “How does it work” and “How hard is it to use.

The White House website looks like a news site, which is its purpose. The site is constantly being upgraded with fresh content.

The White House website looks like a news site, which is its purpose. The site is constantly being upgraded with fresh content.

The Basecamp website uses colorful, friendly looking illustrations to explain what it is and why it is useful to businesses as a project management tool. Notice the website’s scrolling design, with several places to respond to the website’s call to action – using the product for 60 days for free.

The Basecamp website uses colorful, friendly looking illustrations to explain what it is and why it is useful to businesses as a project management tool. Notice the website’s scrolling design, with several places to respond to the website’s call to action – using the product for 60 days for free.

Why Representative Samples Really Matter

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

A favorite story involves meeting with a client interested in promoting first-time homeownership. I mentioned the need for market research. No problem, the client said, we have that covered. I was handed the research summary and, as a matter of habit, jumped to the page about the telephone survey sample. It was very revealing. 

More than 50 percent of the respondents were 65 years or older. They were the majority of people who answered the phone and were willing to spend 15 or 20 minutes talking to a stranger about owning a home. Unfortunately, they weren’t the people the client had in mind as first-time homebuyers. 

Survey data is worthless unless the sample of who you interview reflects the audience you seek to reach. The sample in my client’s survey would have been terrific if the subject was reverse mortgages. It stunk as a reflection of who to address potential first-time homebuyers. 

Conversations between clients and research professionals must start with who to interview. If you have the wrong sample, the answers you get from the questions you pore over won’t matter a lick. 

Too often, the question of who to interview is glossed over. Sometimes the most obvious sample goes overlooked. When I was a lobbyist, a client hired me to “fix” his message that wasn’t gaining any traction with legislators. I started by interviewing about a third of the legislature, including virtually all of the lawmakers on the committees that were most engaged on my client’s issue. 

The interviews produced a wealth of insight. My client’s issue had latent support, but needed to be explained and demonstrated in a far different way. Lawmakers basically wrote the script my client and I used to lobby them. And it worked. 

Representative samples are harder to achieve for a mix of reasons. For example, increasing numbers of people don’t have landline phones and, if they do, they shield themselves from unsolicited calls with Caller ID. It takes a lot more calls, at greater expense, to collect a representative sample. Market research must cope with growing segmentation, which adds extra layers of complexity in selecting the right group of people to survey. 

The value of representative samples goes beyond quantitative research. Focus groups must be representative, too. And why would you do a customer satisfaction intercept survey for Nordstrom by interviewing people coming out of a rival department store? Representative samples matter in public opinion polling. A poll of New York voters wouldn’t be all that useful in projecting election results in Indiana. 

Despite the difficulty, solid research is grounded on good samples. Who you talk to matters if you want findings that mean something for your marketing.  

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Speaking Your Audience's Language

Listening and learning how to speak to your target audience is critical to success. Focus groups can help – a lot.Choosing the right word in an advertisement, direct mail solicitation or advocacy piece can make all the difference. Qualitative research is arguably the best way to inform your word selection.

Creative departments come up with campaign themes, phrases and visuals that can be exciting and evocative. But in the eyes and ears of the intended audience, they can be misunderstood or simply confusing.

If your audience doesn't get your message, that's what should get you excited. Excited enough to find out how they interpret your words and images — and what words and images would convey the message you want to get across to them.

That's a job for focus groups. They provide a place to assess your language from the vantage point of your audience. Sometimes, the meaning of your material is clear with a minor tweak. Other times, your message is muddled by the words and images you select and requires a major makeover.

Ego bruising aside, knowing that your words and visuals connect with your audience is worth the effort. It is definitely worth the expense when compared to the vast sums you could waste on advertising that misses its mark.

Focus groups also can provide clues on choices of spokespersons and communication channels. Your words may be right on, but your spokesperson is a turn off whom people don't trust. You may have the right message, but the wrong channel, where your audience doesn't visit.

Speaking the language of your audience is not a constant thing because language changes. Words that had one meaning decades ago may have a whole new meaning or connotation now. Or a word that once was in favor may be out of favor because of its association with a negative event or personality.

Understanding how your audience talks, especially about you and your products, is critical for you to talk effectively to them. Concentrate on what you mean to say and how to say it. Your words matter.

The Conversation Survey

An intentional series of one-on-one conversations can be a great source of information and insight. Even though it is among the cheapest forms of research, conversation surveys often are only an afterthought.

Unlike telephone or online surveys that center on questions with multiple-choice answers, one-on-one conversations are based on open-ended conversations. The whole idea is to start a conversation, not get an answer.

Skilled researchers guide the conversation through a series of pre-determined questions, but allow the conversation to find its own parameters and depth. Skillful conversation guides know how to keep the conversation going without skewing it in any particular direction by inserting their own views.

A Valuable, Overlooked and Inexpensive Research Tool

Many organizations shy away from research because of cost. That overlooks a valuable and affordable research technique – one-on-one interviews.

This qualitative research tool, sometimes called executive interviews, has many applications, such as:

  • Assessing internal alignment on objectives;
  • Gathering a representative sample of views from targeted external audiences, such as the media; and
  • Testing telephone or online survey questions;

Here are six smart things to know about one-on-one interviews.