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The Do’s and Don’ts of Market Research Interviewing

Lizzie Combs
Lizzie Combs

A stranger sliding into your DMs is one thing, but what if a stranger asked to read your private messages on dating apps and social media, plus all your texts, while recording your screen? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what we convinced 30 people to do for a recent study.

Our client came to us with the idea. They’re building a new product related to messaging, and wanted to know more about how people use different apps to communicate. They weren’t interested in public posts; they wanted to see the juicy stuff—direct messages, where real communication happens. Over the course of a month, I spent 30 hours conducting one-on-one interviews with study participants, dissecting their conversations to find product insights for our client.

It was an unusual mission, but the do’s and don’ts I learned along the way can help anyone conduct more effective market research interviews.

How We Did It

Like most things in the age of coronavirus, our interview process relied on Zoom. Each participant joined my call on both desktop and mobile: On desktop we could see each other clearly, and on mobile, they screen-shared so I could watch them open apps, click conversations, and scroll. I recorded our sessions so I could review them later (of course, we got permission to do this.) Even though we were discussing pretty intimate stuff, people have gotten comfortable with Zoom, so I suspect it will continue to be a useful interview tool even after the pandemic ends.

Do: Prepare, Then Improvise

Before I began the interviews, I created a list of questions: How do you like to use this app? What makes you message someone on this app? What do you talk about? These questions served as my guide for each interview.

I use the word “guide” intentionally. This wasn’t a script; it was a jumping-off point. Each interview took unique turns, and each participant had quirks. In order to uncover meaningful insights, I often found myself following a surprising line of thought, asking questions that I hadn’t anticipated beforehand, or simply saying “oh, tell me more.”

Do: Take Notes (with Timestamps)

I can’t stress this enough: take good notes. Write everything down, even things that don’t seem important in the moment. You may not know what information is valuable until long after interviews end.

Here’s a bonus tip from Part and Sum strategist Anath: Include timestamps in your notes. Hear something interesting? Note the time. Later, you can go back to your recording and quickly find the exact moment you need. After dozens of hours on Zoom, you won’t want to spend hours scrubbing through recordings. Trust me. Timestamps became my best friends.

Do: Go Old-School

I’ll have to plant a tree to make up for it, but I printed my notes, and I’m not sorry. Having them on paper helped me organize a ton of information, especially as I transitioned from interviewing to synthesizing what I’d gathered.

First, I pulled out all the pages related to key themes and compared them side-by-side. I sorted and re-sorted participants into customer personas. I highlighted, underlined, drew arrows, and scribbled. There’s something about the physical act of flipping through pages that brings clarity in a way that Google Docs simply can’t.

Do: Stay Flexible

Despite your numerous reminder emails, people will bail on you. And despite your well-written instructions and helpful how-to videos, people will join the call on one device and not the other, often with 15% battery. There’s only one thing to do: Roll with it. Plan ahead for logistical snafus. Set aside time for rescheduling, and remember to relax your shoulders.

Don’t: Forget the “Why”

This comes from Part and Sum strategist Emily, who once had to review a study that wasn’t conducted well. The interviewers marked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on what participants did, but moved on before finding out why they made those choices.

Yes or no answers can be helpful if you’re running a quick survey, but in-depth interviews have to go further. If you aren’t asking “why?” or saying “tell me more about that,” you’re missing out on rich insights you can’t get from a survey.

Don’t: Make Logistics Complicated

If I could go back and do this study again, there’s one thing I’d do differently. During interviews, I asked participants to email me their Venmo handles so we could send an honorarium for their time. Once they did, I pasted the handles one by one into a Google Sheet. Then I tagged my boss. Then he Venmoed people. The process seemed simple when I thought of it, but after a couple dozen interviews, it started to feel cumbersome (for me) and slow (for participants).

Next time, I’ll Venmo everyone during the interview and ask to be reimbursed. As you’re planning your interview process, think through each step and see if the logistics can be simplified. Even cutting out two or three steps can make a difference when you’re juggling a lot of names, emails, and files.

Don’t: Fear the Garbage Can

My college costume professor Margaret had a motto: “Nothing is precious.” (Yes, I was a theater arts major.) You might spend hours sketching a character design, only to find a fatal flaw once rehearsals start. You might have an idea that you can’t wait to bring to life, and then a week later, an even better idea might surface. In other words, create things you’re proud of, but hold them loosely.

It’s a good rule for theater majors and for marketing strategists.

At first, I logged off each Zoom call excited about a brilliant conclusion I thought I’d found. I imagined the cool graphs I’d make, and how impressed the client would be. But as time went on, some of my conclusions turned out to be irrelevant. Insights evolved and a narrative emerged, which meant trimming information in the name of clarity. In the end, one of my beloved graphs wound up in the trash. Did it hurt? A little, but it was the right thing to do.