The Decline of the Conversation

A client who was new in their role called me recently to say they were confused because a moderator on our team was not asking questions in the same order during each in depth interview they conducted. They told me ‘You know, it feels like it’s a conversation rather than research.’ It took me a moment to process this before I calmly replied, ‘Thank you for the feedback, it sounds like they’re doing exactly what a qualitative research consultant is supposed to be doing!’.


Undermining Value

In recent conversations with some of my counterparts at the Qualitative Research Consultants Association Virtual Summit, I realized there’s a somewhat disturbing trend. Many have noticed that clients’ lists of objectives are becoming exceptionally long and varied. This results in discussion guides that are so full, the interview feels somewhat robotic with no room to generate empathy with the participant, and no room to explore what participants really think and feel. While we understand clients are being challenged to do more with less, this trend of cramming in as many objectives as possible into a project has potential to greatly undermine the value of the qualitative research.


Empathy requires space

One of the main goals of conducting qualitative research, whether it’s marketing research, user experience research, human centered design research, is empathizing. That’s deeply understanding the customer (or your target) as a human and seeing situations from their perspective.


Think about someone you know well (or feel you understand on a human level). Chances are you’ve had some in-depth conversations to get to know more about who they are and what makes them tick. You don’t rush through a list of ‘get to know you better’ questions with friends. Doing that would seem unnatural and would likely make the friend feel like you were putting them under a microscope. The same is true in research!


I’d like to share some elements that we’ve found make for a great conversation (personal and business) that creates empathy:

  1. Ask open-ended questions:

    • Most people love to talk about themselves. When you ask open-ended questions about the other person, you let them control what they want to talk about. While you might very likely have an agenda, or things that you want to address, starting by hearing what the other person wants to talk about – the context – can be incredibly revealing. Getting people to talk about themselves helps us avoid being conversational narcissists – if you haven’t heard this expression before, we wrote a whole blog post about this topic!
    • Further, we often have blind spots or assumptions (because we don’t know what we don’t know). Letting the other person take the lead can help uncover these blind spots.
    • Many UX researchers use the acronym TEDW to remind them about open-ended questions. The acronym stands for:
      • Tell me about… (or Tell me about that if you want them to elaborate)
      • Explain what you mean by…
      • Describe…
      • Walk me through…


These types of questions can result in rich stories which are incredibly valuable to helping us understand human behaviour.


  1. Establish trust:

    • In some cases, trust is already established based on your relationship, but be conscious of this when you’re talking to someone who you don’t know well or are meeting for the first time.
      • Share the reason for the conversation. If you need to talk to an employee about something important make sure to tell them about that so they feel prepared. When we schedule research interviews, we tell people as much as we can (without biasing them) about what to expect when they come to the interview so that they enter the ‘room’ (even if it’s virtual) feeling prepared and comfortable.
      • Making eye contact is a great way to establish rapport and trust. Some people like to take notes during an interview. Why not try just having the conversation and relying on your recording or transcript instead of taking notes in the moment? It’s so much more authentic and engaging.
      • Going a level deeper than eye contact is to mirror the other person’s tone and mannerisms (in a natural way). This demonstrates you’re engaged and actively listening to them.


  1. Consider the environment (time and space):

    • If you want to have a deep conversation, a loud bar with standing room only might not be optimal. Set aside the time when you won’t have interruptions, turn off your phone notifications. If you have a set amount of time let the other person know at the start of the conversation so you don’t have to abruptly end it.


  1. Actively listen:

    • When you are actively listening, you’re not thinking about what to ask next. You’re engaging with what the other person is saying and making the speaker feel heard and validated. You do not offer your own opinion and above all you are not judging.
    • When you are actively listening you look for the opportunities to ask the speaker to ‘tell me more’ or ‘help me understand that better’ or ‘describe how that made you feel’.


Having deep human conversations can be incredibly rewarding for all those involved. Practicing having deeper conversations using these points above will help to make you more empathetic. And research shows us that moving beyond small talk with strangers, while it might be uncomfortable at first, actually makes people feel good!


Hopefully as you think about how to have more meaningful conversations and the importance of them, it will become clear that if your brand can’t have a conversation with your customers, how can you possibly expect to have a relationship?

There is hope!

Competing objectives, trying to do more with less are issues that are not going away. We likely will continue to see qualitative researchers being asked to create or follow discussion guides that have 45 questions for a 30-minute ‘in depth’ interview (don’t be surprised if we push back on this!).


Thankfully, there is still hope! We recently worked with another client who appreciated that we proposed only 4 questions/themes in our 45-minute discussion outline for a highly exploratory/generative project. This ended up being one of the most interesting and deeply insightful projects we worked on last year. Participants were incredibly engaged I could have talked to each of them for hours. I came away feeling like I had been given a precious gift by each of them, the gift of a deep, meaningful conversation.


Note this article was published by Quirk’s Media on March 7, 2022.