Field Journal: Lessons from the other side of the tracks

There’s the former drug addict who turned her life around and lives to tell her story. She’s chosen to do good in the world by fostering two girls. There’s the former homeless man who continues to scratch and claw for his next meal. He tells us how he stretches each dollar; it’s creativity at its finest. There’s the young single mom who works crazy hours, takes care of her kids and home singlehandedly each day with a bright, effervescent smile. She teaches us about perseverance. And how to get a six-year old to eat peas after a 14-hour workday. These are people’s stories, real stories.

There’s an art to getting people to open up. It’s a little bit like dancing with a stranger – maneuvering through the initial awkwardness, getting into a rhythm of give and take, staying on beat or on-task without being overly rigid, and getting to where you can flow through a discussion naturally and effortlessly.

However, when you’re interviewing people who have lived life, a punch in the gut kind of life, the dance changes. It beckons macro-economics and psychology, not just market research. It makes you consider your own story -- how little you’ve truly lived in the world and been overwhelmed by it. While our objective in this project was to understand and better market to the fast-growing value consumer segment, we also learned about humanity and its unyielding determination.

Through this journey we’ve learned some lessons worth sharing on how not to be perceived as paternalistic or insensitive. Qualitative research is much more than asking questions and getting responses. So the next time you’re in the field, keep this list in mind, particularly for a lower socio-economic audience:

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  • Take the content down a notch. We all love simplicity, but talking with child-like inquisitiveness, goes against our instinct to put ourselves above others or at least be equals. Be authentically humble in your words.
  • Create time and space for story and experience. Show that you’re not just interested in answers to questions, but want to come alongside them, at an experiential level. Ask about the people in their pictures. Ask about their pets. Ask about their favorite meal or activity and then go do it with them.
  • Don’t feign empathy. We really don’t get what people have been through. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t avoid the elephants in the room. So don’t skirt around people’s economic or personal issues. Let’s use inquisitiveness as an enabler and ask what keeps people up at night and how they feel about these things. Care, but don’t act like you understand.
  • Find areas where they can be the expert and then find common ground. Let him or her lead you into what they know and love and find ways to connect with their expertise.
  • Create privacy and intimacy. Turn off the camera if you have to. Stop taking notes. Work alongside them to solve a problem they face. Play with their kids. Just be human.