One of the questions I hear a lot when talking to clients about their business questions and research needs is, “How do you know you’re going to get the information we’re looking for?”
It’s a reasonable question, one that I would certainly ask if I were a client about to invest in research, and it’s also one that I love answering, because it’s a great way to help clients understand why we at iModerate are unique in the way we think about qualitative research.
So what’s my answer?
I tell them that several years ago, we collaborated with colleagues in academia to design an approach to asking questions that would let us do better research. We knew that with the rapid growth in online tools and the overload in the amount of research consumers were being asked to complete, asking the right questions was more critical than ever. And we knew that these factors meant it was going to be increasingly important to make sure that our questions were asked in a way that aligned with how consumers think, feel and make decisions in their real lives.
The result of this collaboration was an approach we call ThoughtPath. Drawing on three fundamental theories of cognitive psychology, ThoughtPath was an experiment that proved transformative in the quality of input we get from respondents. And today, nearly seven years later, we still use it in the work we do every single day.
How does it work? Well, at the most basic level, ThoughtPath lets us write questions and sequence them in a very specific way that aligns with how consumers’ minds work. It allows us to connect with respondents and get in their mind space more quickly. This in turn gets them “in the moment” of a previous experience, gives them the mental tools they need to accurately and evocatively describe their thoughts about a brand, and keeps them talking long enough to deliver both top of mind and more carefully considered feedback.
Why is that important? The payoff for these carefully architected questions is simple but hugely important — richer, more actionable information for our clients. For example, we note significantly less respondent confusion when we write questions using ThoughtPath. And when it’s easy for respondents to know what you’re asking of them, they feel more confident, which pays off in the form of clearer responses with more focus and less repetition, as well as more precise, differentiated, and detailed answers to related questions.
What does that look like? Good question, and one that we asked ourselves too. Even though we know ThoughtPath works, we also wanted to prove it, so we ran a study using one of two different discussion guides with the respondents — one developed with ThoughtPath and one with more traditionally worded and organized questions. We picked a somewhat touchy topic, feminism, because it’s exactly the kind of thing it can be hard to get people to speak honestly about.
What did we find?
- For big picture questions like trying to get respondents to define a feminist, ThoughtPath was very effective at creating a framework for respondents. Rather than having them start from nothing and asking point blank “What is your definition of a feminist?” we started with a question around how society defines a feminist. This allowed them to take more of a guess, without feeling that they might be judged for a “wrong” or insensitive answer. This technique was especially effective with male respondents.
- When nuance is important, ThoughtPath also stood out in ensuring that respondents moved beyond the obvious. In both discussions we asked respondents to describe a feminist champion, but only those who were asked questions using ThoughtPath moved their responses past career success to broader ideas like a woman who can do/have it all (family, career, etc).
- For topics that feel abstract, grounding a respondent in their own personal experiences can help them find traction to answer the question. We found that men, in particular, were much more successful in describing a feminist when we used a ThoughtPath question asking about someone they know personally.
Overall, the results of this experiment confirmed what we already believed to be true: that there is a real, measurable difference in the quality of insight we gather when we apply ThoughtPath to our questioning. And this validation helps us answer even more confidently when we have clients ask that question I mentioned at the beginning: “How do you know you’re going to get the information we’re looking for?”
We know because we know how people think and how to get them to tell us about it. It’s as simple as that.