The qualitative research field introduces moderators to a myriad of topics – which is what I love most about this job.
On every project, I learn something new about human nature and consumer dynamics, and refine my methods for drawing rich insights from respondents may initially be hesitant to share their true behaviors and authentic feelings.
My first moderating assignment was to explore consumer language around the use of personal lubricants. Yikes! Talk about a category where respondents may be reluctant to open up. The client would leverage our insights to organize and label the drug store shelf, helping consumers navigate this highly personal shopping experience.
For this project, I spoke with women and men, younger and older, about their use of lubricants and other sexual aids. The conversations were intense and sometimes raw, as respondents shared the reasons they purchase and use these products – to address health issues and/or for pleasure. Participants who opened up on a topic most had never discussed with anyone but their intimate partner or physician.
Since then, I’ve spoken with teen girls about yeast infections, men across the country about constipation, disabled people about unemployment, enlisted soldiers about personal debt and, plus-sized women about chaffing in the folds of their skin. These normally private subjects are perhaps my most rewarding projects, as respondents are reassured to know other people share their experiences, and grateful to be heard without judgement. Meanwhile, my clients learn how to clearly and sensitively communicate with consumers about products and services that relieve physical, economic and/or emotional distress.
On intimate topics such as these, it’s most critical to design the research in a way that encourages respondents to relax and speak freely.
With this in mind, Elevated Insights’ set-up for such projects always includes:
- Smaller group sizes – we’ve found that a group format often works even better than one-on-one interviews, as participants can be encouraged to share more deeply when they hear others describe similar experiences. A genuine rapport is easier to develop in a relatively smaller group, as respondents feel less exposed, and have time to fully share their thoughts. An exception, where one-on-one interviews may be more productive, is for topics where shame may be involved – e.g. bankruptcy, multiple divorces, mental illness/suicide.
- In-person sessions – a moderator’s first inclination may be to conduct online research, given that consumers today seem so willing to expose themselves online. Certainly, online is the appropriate choice if you need geographic distribution and/or for low incidence rates. Otherwise, we actually prefer in-person sessions for highly personal topics, as we find it easier to develop rapport/intimacy, and to observe body language that helps us read between the lines.
- An even number of respondents – while universal behaviors and points-of-view are often revealed, sometimes two respondents will share a common experience that is not understood by others in the group. Many feel uncomfortable if that ‘other’ is only one person – making a group of three sometimes awkward (‘two against one’). Thus, our preferred group size for intimate topics is four.
- Single gender groups – women usually feel more comfortable discussing personal topics with other women, and men with men (especially issues particular to their gender). Although I’ve found that males will open up to a female moderator who employs an especially non-judgmental style – respondents who may be inhibited by ego can take an instructive approach, allowing them to preserve their pride as trust is established.
- No friend groups – perhaps ironically, our choice is to conduct research on sensitive topics among strangers rather than among respondents who know one another. The ‘anonymity of the group’ allows participants to speak more freely, knowing they aren’t being judged by someone they know, and that everyone’s stories will remain confidential to this discussion. With this in mind, we usually do not recommend recruiting friend pairs or friend groups, and double-check (as usual) during our live, in-person re-screening to ensure that none of the respondents are previously acquainted. An exception may be made for teens, who, depending on the subject, usually feel more comfortable opening up with a supportive friend.
- Transparent recruiting – once qualified by a recruiter, potential recruits are told they will be discussing the topic at hand in a small group of people like themselves, with a professional female/male moderator, in a confidential setting that will be video recorded but used only for internal research purposes. Respondents confirm they are comfortable speaking openly in such a setting before being invited to participate. Then before the research, I may personally reach out to participants by phone to address any concerns they may have, and begin to establish rapport.
- Pre-work – as with any subject, respondents seem to arrive more ‘warmed up’ when they’ve had time to get their head around the topic at hand. A homework assignment that has them thinking before the research may be especially worthwhile in these instances. Also, presenting or referring to pre-work during the groups provides stimuli for encouraging what may start out as an uneasy discussion.
- Professional support – Elevated Insights’ qualitative team recently moderated sessions among domestic violence survivors. Our client was concerned that conversation about participants’ past traumas might trigger painful emotional reactions, so arranged for a professional counselor to be on-hand, sitting just outside our circle. Respondents were told at the beginning of the session that they should feel comfortable stepping out any time they needed a break and that the counselor was available to provide support. (In fact, research participation is always voluntary, and respondents should feel free to step out from, or leave any group at any time they desire.)
When executing research on highly personal subjects, Elevated Insights recommends:
- A living room setting – traditional conference room set-ups can be intimidating, and physically uncomfortable for some respondents. To ensure a relaxed environment that encourages personal conversation, we prefer a more homey, human setting with comfortable sofas, colorful pillows, and a coffee table for drinks and snacks.
- An extended intro – less experienced clients may ask to limit time spent on introductions so they can hear more directly about the research topic, but this is not the occasion to cut the warm-up short. For intimate topics, we design our discussion guide to allow extra time in the beginning for all of us to get to know one another and to establish a comfortable rapport. If possible, schedule longer groups when you have a lot to cover – perhaps 2-1/2 rather than 2 hours so the discussion is less rushed at the beginning and throughout.
- Matter-of-fact moderating – there’s no point in dancing around the subject. To normalize the subject and break down barriers from the beginning, I immediately state the topic of the research using frank language, thank respondents for their willingness to share whatever is on their mind, and assure them that this work will help my client address the needs of many people in similar circumstances. Made aware from the beginning of the session that they are together with people in like circumstances (‘issue homogeneity’), respondents will more quickly relax and open up.
- No judgment zone for respondents – we always let our groups know there are no right or wrong answers, ask them to speak up especially when they feel differently from others, and request that they ‘agree to disagree’ when opinions diverge. To clearly establish the ‘no judgment’ zone in what may be a more emotional conversation, we may use more casual language than is typical – for example, telling them not to worry about using profanity (‘Shit, I curse, too!’). We use non-judgmental affirmations even more frequently to show that we’re truly listening, including ‘That must have been hard,’ ‘Thank you for sharing that,’ or a simple ‘Mmmhmmm.’
- No judgment zone for the moderator – a Caucasian woman myself, I recently moderated groups of African American and Hispanic respondents, exploring subtle ethnic differences in women’s attitudes towards their skin. Before getting too deep in the conversation, I asked for their patience as they ‘taught’ me about their cultures, and apologized in advance for any missteps I might make. The women clearly appreciated this transparency, understood I had the best of intentions, and ultimately provided rich insight into their heritage and cultures in relation to skin.
- Guarding the rabbit hole – once rapport is established, we’ve found that some respondents are so grateful to be heard in a judgment-free zone by people with shared experiences, that they go into more detail than is necessary (or more than we have time for). To avoid respondents taking the group down the proverbial rabbit hole, we let the group know during the intro that we do not need to hear every detail of their experiences. This assures participants that they are not required to recount what may have been upsetting or traumatic experiences, and also sets up the moderator for greater control – i.e. allowing them to gently redirect the conversation if someone goes on too long, or to carefully probe further if they think it would be useful to learn more.
- Easing into it – again, clients may be anxious for the discussion to ‘get to the point,’ but I find the conversation will ultimately go deeper if it begins on a less personal level. If you eventually want to talk about sex, start discussing their relationships in general. If the topic is elimination habits, begin with questions about respondents’ overall morning routine.
- Breaking the tension – use your observational awareness skills to note when/whether participants need a break. They may get quiet, wring their hands, avoid eye contact, fidget in their seat, etc. In this case, allow a pause to smoke, use the restroom, stretch their legs, grab a snack, and return to the discussion. Laughter also helps break the tension – when appropriate, inserting humor into a tense conversation can do wonders to help the group recover from an awkward moment.
- Extra empathy – a professional approach is essential, but so is a personal touch. Consider employing a quiet pause to show respect for an especially intimate revelation, a warm smile with eye contact, a pat on the shoulder as you move around the room, and of course a box of Kleenex on the table. I’ve teared-up during some of this work, and am not shy about reaching for a tissue myself.
Moderating on intimate topics is a privilege – participants open up to us about sometimes upsetting experiences and distressing thoughts. A considered approach to this research can yield rich insights for clients who get to know their consumers in a profound way, as well as for respondents who build connection with people who share common interests.
Do you have other ideas on how to inspire intimate insights? Does your team need help understanding consumers in especially personal space? If so, I hope you’ll be in touch.