Ride on... Cycling's lessons for effective market research interviewing

Like most kids, a bicycle was my first step to independence and freedom. Growing up, it connected me with friends, new experiences and exploring my surroundings.

I’m one of those people who kept cycling when I became an adult — perhaps to maintain that independence, certainly to remain active, but also for the many lessons cycling has taught me over four decades. And I think many of these lessons apply to daily living, and certainly to my work in qualitative research.

There are four basic principles from cycling that I apply to qualitative research implementation, whether one-on-one interviews, on-line communities or any of the many ways we interact with respondents:

1. Hey moderators… it’s not a sprint to the finish line!

For most of the bike rides I’ve taken in my life, there is a beginning and end. I’ve had a few that ended-up on the ground, and once in an ambulance, but the goal is to reach the finish.

And of course, this applies to our work with respondents. Smart moderators know that the skill goes beyond putting one’s head down and ploughing forward. We have a route map (or discussion plan to follow), and hopefully very clear and aligned objectives. But it’s not enough to complete the ride without making it a successful journey. We must select useful detours and less ridden roads in terms of probing and exploration. Sometimes the best course can be to go backward in an interview, group or online community to help respondents understand their own emerging thoughts and perspectives… and better ways to articulate them. Other times, new direction or unplanned in-the-moment creative exercises can help bring it all into focus.

2. Things hurt sometimes, but keep on pedaling

Lactic acid hurts. So do some market research interactions. They can hurt to watch, and certainly hurt to moderate.

Some of the most insightful conversations I’ve ended-up having as a moderator have been with respondents with whom most would have thrown-in the towel. The type of individual that some might label a “bad respondent” and, to be frank, a waste of time. If we give up on these “difficult people,” what are we choosing to potentially ignore? A key insight? A clear customer need? Great researchers can navigate the bumpy roads presented by the difficult people and maximize their value.

3. Measure

Even with the best GPS tools and a pretty good knowledge of my local geography, I still get lost on some rides. The same can happen in market research engagements.

To avoid becoming lost and clients sharing that same feeling, moderators must self-assess as they implement, whether during an individual interview, or across the course of the project.

Start in the moment:

Where am I now?

Whether it’s 40 minutes, or after the first of 3 European markets, taking stock of the situation sets-up the ability to make course corrections and maximize success.

Inside interviews:

Assess what is occurring — both in terms of learnings, but also interpersonal dynamics between respondents. As a moderator, what have I achieved? Where is the respondent in terms of mindset, buy-in, fatigue, engagement?

Across the project:

Visualize the project journey as it is happening and be able to help clients plot exactly where we are in that process. Where are we with the core questions, momentum of learning, how things are fitting together, what story is emerging?

Next the focus is on what remains of the ride:

Where am I going?

This is where great moderators earn their reputations and business.

Inside interviews:

Managing variables — what still needs to be accomplished, what can this particular respondent or interview dynamic provide to move us closer to success?

Across the project:

Expertly gauge what has been accomplished and what gaps remain.

4. Maintenance

I ride as much as I can. I commute to work, and I ride hard on the weekends. I keep training, and I make sure my cycling equipment is up-to-scratch and current.

Market research moderators who strive to be at the front of the pack are always growing. They’re honing skills on-the-job, experimenting and trying new ways of exploring. The job should never feel completely “done” and that there can be better approaches, smarter questions, more effective techniques. So, training, development and continuous improvement are at the core of the best researchers who are never satisfied with status quo.

Qualitative can have some fast turns, tricky descents and tough hills to climb. But it’s worth the ride!

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