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6 tips to refine your qualitative research questions

At its core, exploratory qualitative research deep dives into specific topics while gathering as much context as possible. Participants, under normal circumstances, don’t explicitly talk about the “why” behind their behaviour, and more often, they might not even be aware that they are behaving a certain way. In these cases, direct questions are not necessarily helpful in finding the root of a certain issue that the study is attempting to shed light on.

Using the correct question type in the right situation becomes very important. Icebreakers, for example, are fun and laid-back questions to start a researcher-participant conversation. They can range from the simple “tell me about yourself” to trivia-type questions which can tap into the imagination. The answers can be very telling on what tone to take with the participant.

Anecdotal, narrative questions (such as “tell me about the last time you tried to buy something online?” or “how did you get to the checkout page?”) are also a very important part of ethnographic interviews. The aim here is to get the participant talking, recalling an incident or an experience, and describing in their own words how something happened or how that something affected them. Again, answers can be very short, which means the question should be reformulated to ensure the participant feels engaged. This type of question is very helpful for exploring an experience and for trying to understand user pain points.

Tone and language are also essential. This is a conversation, and it should flow like one. Let the participant speak: it’s okay to go off on tangents, as long as there is time. If the researcher appears to strictly follow a guide, while the participant is still answering, the research will feel more like an interview than a natural conversation.

However, not all qual research is exploratory. In the later stages of product development, for example, researchers usually need a lot more structure when it comes to asking questions. This allows the researcher to be able to compare the answers of all participants and validate patterns of findings. Researchers must distinguish which is the right approach that will efficiently meet the needs of the study.

Our 6 tips to refine your qualitative research questions

  1. Ask non-leading questions: avoid indicating any answers in your questions.
  2. Ask interesting questions that allow for a detailed opinion. Keep probing, if you don’t get a detailed answer, either ask “why” or “how” or rephrase your question.
  3. Clarify! If you do not fully understand an answer, ask the participant to rephrase it. Pay attention to the words used, and probe by asking “what do you mean by that?” Sometimes the vocabulary being used is also part of the answer!
  4. Let the conversation flow, do not appear to be reading off questions and do not cut off the participant if they go off on a tangent.
  5. Make yourself vulnerable by sharing – a conversation goes two ways, feel free to bring something to it too but do not take over the spotlight.
  6. Build up the conversation – the more you talk and connect with the participant, the more they are likely to share. You need to know when to ask which type of question to get the best response. Leave the tough questions for later when you’ve formed a rapport.


By keeping in mind these tips and considering the ‘hows, what’s, and whys’ behind your research objective, you will not only refine your question style but add to the quality of the present and future research study results.

Refining questions might be tricky but global research doesn’t have to be. The expert team at Savanta has put together 13 Golden Rules of Global Research to help you to connect with audiences from all corners of the planet. Download the guide here!

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