Advancements in interviewing technologies: Bringing confidence to qualitative

I should admit my relationship with quantitative research: It’s complicated. As a corporate researcher, I liked how quickly quantitative research results were received. A conversation I faced frequently as a corporate researcher was the general validity of qualitative research, but there seemed to be little doubt in anything that had a percentage next to it. If it had a letter indicating significance, even better. I believe, however, the business’s confidence in quantitative research was not immediate. In fact, it probably took a generation or two of CEOs and CMOs for it to really take hold. It probably took an army of highly-qualified statisticians who also excelled in marketing and branding.

When companies started transitioning to the 21st century (like really leveraging the Internet), quantitative researchers were right behind them. They started doing online surveys, leveraging panels and providing results at lightning speed (well, at least compared to paper surveys).

Of course, qualitative research is still around and widely employed. But as research timelines get shorter and budgets get smaller, we (as researchers) have gotten smarter about how to stretch our dollars. In our relentless pursuit of making research (regardless of method) the trusted source for each business initiative, we’ve turned to quantitative methods even when we knew qualitative research was a better option. We did this because we knew the company would take it more seriously.

Some companies have the luxury of employing a two-pronged approach (Phase 1: qualitative; Phase 2: quantitative) to achieve depth and confidence, but many do not.

We think it’s time to start thinking about qualitative research differently: How can make our CMOs and CEOs feel as confident in qualitative research as they do in quantitative research? How can we leverage technology to talk to more consumers, more quickly, without losing our sense of quality? The answer, we believe, is with new technologies and a fresh look at how communication has changed over time.

Evolving to text-based communication

How communication evolves over time should also impact how we conduct research. Text-based interviewing (chats, instant messaging, texting, etc.) has received criticism over the years. But just as technology has changed, the way we communicate has too. It may have started with the keyboard, with the Internet, with blogs, with Microsoft Word, with Myspace or an online dating Web site. We may never know. But I do believe Facebook and texting made self-expression through text-based communication the new norm; it changed how we use technology to communicate, to self-express, and the relationships we have.

Quester’s role in the advancement of interviewing

Quester’s founder, Dr. Charles Cleveland, believed that people’s words reflect patterns that are the result of attitudes. Those attitudes, if they can be discovered, are much more revealing than the answers to standard surveys. During his time, this made him different from other corporate researchers, whose data often are based on surveys that use multiple-choice questions that are easy to quantify. The problem with multiple-choice questions, Cleveland always said, is that a lot of communication is based on nuances, and preselected choices eliminate nuances.

Over 35 years ago, Dr. Cleveland had an idea that he believed would change the way we view research. The tools he sought to develop were based on linguistics and statistics. He would eventually spend about 25 years teaching computers to conduct interviews that would go on to make qualitative research more efficient, more widely available and with a higher degree of confidence than ever experienced.

Researchers trained by Dr. Cleveland when Quester was still conducting traditional methods of interviewing are still guiding research at Quester today. Their intensive training with Dr. Cleveland regarding interviewing techniques and linguistic analysis is passed down to new analysts, who learn to actively listen to what respondents say.

The two pieces of technology developed have been coined as “Socrates” (a conversational simulator) and “Aristotle” (a natural language analysis tool).

Technology as an unbiased interviewer

Socrates is an online conversational simulator designed by the Quester team of IT and computational linguists that facilitates conversational topics and multiple-choice, true-false and short-answer questions. Like a human interviewer, Socrates is able to engage a person in a conversation by using topics of conversation rather than just asking questions. “When was the last time you had trouble with your car,” is a question. “Tell me about the last time you had trouble with your car,” is a topic. Topics generate natural language conversation.

Socrates is then able to “listen” by scanning the text-based, natural language response to the topic and probe to gain a full understanding of the person’s thoughts and feelings on the topic. Socrates probes for elaboration, definition or clarity, using processes based on psychiatric interviewing techniques. Closed-end questions can be integrated into the conversation as well.

Socrates is being used successfully in projects today that would have normally required face-to-face or telephone-based interviewing and can deploy qual across a larger sample so statistical inference can be determined.

This interviewing process creates natural language that contains clarity and depth, the kind of responses that allow Aristotle to generate knowledge from the text.

Technology as a data analysis tool

Aristotle software is able to break natural language down into its component parts while still maintaining the meaningful relationship between the parts. Our technology helps us identify the representative conversations among a representative population but it’s up to our linguists to identify the deep-rooted meanings behind the words people use. Based on the scale of language we are collecting, we are then able to report frequency of language and key ideas across the language – with confidence to that frequency that isn’t normally associated with qualitative findings.

The human component

Quester believes that new technologies are only as good as the people using them. While our technology helps us talk with more people at one time and it helps to find representative ideas or themes, it doesn’t understand what people are saying; that’s up to our linguists – who are experts in listening (not hearing) and analyzing language (not text).

Yes, listening is different than hearing. Hearing is what your ears do. Listening is what you do in your head. Quester believes in the power of words and language as a mediator between deep-rooted thoughts, feelings, opinions, perceptions and experiences. We are closely studying word choice, meaning behind the word choice, the context in which the respondent places the language, even the order in which words are chosen. For example, the subject/verb/direct object construction of a sentence as an expression of motivation is telling: “I will buy this brand of fruit snacks” is a much stronger expression of motivation than “People might like that,” which is distancing language. That’s not the kind of finding you’re likely to uncover from text analysis word frequency counts or an intent-to-purchase score – but it is the kind of thing that will have an impact on how comfortable you might feel with the concept you are creating.

And of course, since Socrates would have probed on both of the responses (“Tell me more about what, specifically, you saw in the concept that leads you to say you will buy this brand of fruit snacks”), Quester’s analysts can pinpoint the language that did and did not resonate with respondents – providing depth and direction in areas that would have otherwise been missed.

In short…

Executives everywhere are latching onto the value that research can bring to their organizations. But they have also been conditioned to believe that multiple phases are needed to feel confident in the results. There is a company that is willing to challenge the status quo of qualitative research; a company that believes strongly in the power of language and confidence.

Just as quantitative research advanced to the 21st century, we believe the time has come that qualitative research do the same. Instead of debating between surveys with forced-choice responses and focus-groups, let’s rely on the individual experiences of people to understand their perspectives more deeply. This can only be done with one-on-one conversations.

With help from proprietary state-of-the-art technologies, we can be geographically representative, we can quantify the ideas that come from conversation and our trained linguists can study the nuances of language. Using classic psychiatric interviewing techniques and language analysis, we aren’t changing the rigor or the insights that we’ve come to expect from qualitative research; quite simply, we’re making it fast and we’re making it reliable.

Bringing confidence to qualitative and innovation to insight. Quester.

About Quester

Quester believes in challenging how qualitative research is viewed. We believe it’s time that researchers have confidence in their qualitative research. Unlike other qualitative research firms, we conduct and analyze hundreds of one-on-one conversations at a time to understand people and groups. Employing psychiatric interviewing techniques, Quester’s technology guides respondents to tell stories that shed light to the human psyche. Quester is a non-traditional qualitative research firm that marries the brilliance of linguists with the efficiencies of technology to deeply understand thoughts, feelings, opinions, perceptions and experiences.


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