Alternatives to Asking 'Why?'

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Focus Groups, Qualitative Research


Robert Relihan

By Robert Relihan, Senior Vice President

Recently I was discussing my approach to interviewing and questionnaire design with a group of young researchers. Quite casually, I said, “‘Why’ is the kiss of death.” The statement seemed self-evident. When you ask someone “why,” you invite rationalization. You invite a backward looking, canned response. You invite a description of how the person thinks he or she should feel.

I immediately recognized the quizzical expression on the faces of my audience, and I heard their anxiety in their questions afterwards. The whole purpose of what we do is to discover “why” — why consumers buy certain products, why they like certain categories, why they engage in certain behaviors. Certainly, we have to ask them. They and I all know marketers who will not believe something unless they have heard a consumer actually say it.

What are the alternatives? Well, anything that involves a bit of misdirection, any question that is off-target enough disguises its intent to ask why. For example:

  • What makes that important to you?
  • Describe it for me.
  • Tell me a story about the last time you used that or did that.
  • If you want to know why someone likes or uses a brand, ask what makes the category involving.
  • Conversely, if you care about why someone uses a brand, ask her when she came to be involved in the category.
  • What other activities or brands make you feel the same way?

The list is endless.

The point of all these approaches to the question of “why” is that they relieve the pressure on the individual and open their horizons. They ask for descriptions or stories which have the potential of being richer in detail. And, in that detail are the answers we seek.

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