Photo of toddler gazing at mom with quizzical look for blog post - why do qualitative research?

Why Ask Why?

March 16, 2022

Why is it cloudy today? Why did that man yell? Why can’t I have ice cream for breakfast? Anyone who has been around a toddler has endured the never-ending barrage of questions.

They don’t do it to test our patience. Asking “why” is a sign of curiosity, and allows toddlers to figure out how the world works. Understanding increases their sense of security and confidence, so these questions are important.

Why do qualitative research? For insights on a question adults might wonder about, read on.

Obsessed by numbers

As technology has been embedded into every facet of our lives, the ability to measure just about anything has become ridiculously easy – and ubiquitous. Unlike toddlers, technology is good at asking what, not why.

Information gathered on social networks is counted and fed into algorithms to deliver each of us a curated view of what advertisers believe we want most. It’s hard to argue that this level of “engagement” has been a net benefit for society.

In recent seasons, AWS has partnered with the National Football League to break down real-time data from games into its Next Gen Stats. They claim that “machine learning” brings fans new insights into the game. When a physically gifted player runs down the field and catches a perfectly thrown ball for a touchdown, does it really matter that he was running 22.13 miles per hour? Does this increase appreciation for the six points on the scoreboard?

Not everything that counts can be counted

Don’t get me wrong, we can learn a lot from analyzing the numbers. But just because something is quantifiable doesn’t mean it’s relevant – or useful. In 1956, V. F. Ridgway, an Ivy League academic, published a paper criticizing the measurement mantra. His argument can be paraphrased as: “What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it.”

He’s not wrong.

Measuring “what” is generally easier. Analytics are neat and tidy. They look objective and scientific, leading to “data-driven decisions.” And counting numbers leaves little room for debate or discussion like those pesky “why” questions.

Knowing what happened, or how many people completed a defined task, is just the tip of the iceberg. To understand why it happened, or why people behaved the way they did, unlocks insights that can change lives for the better.

Find your why

Many companies are focused on selling the features and benefits of their products. They believe, apparently, that consumers are rational shoppers (despite the lack of evidence). In reality, what motivates people the most is an emotional response to a company’s vision – its brand.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. – Simon Sinek

In his popular TED Talk, Find Your Why, Sinek points out that Apple’s appeal doesn’t come from selling personal computers. It’s from ‘thinking different’ and challenging the status quo. AirBnB isn’t just a company offering short-term rentals. It’s connecting people so that they can be at home anywhere.

In a similar vein, the chair of a university fundraising campaign once told me: “People don’t give you money because you need it; they give you money because they think you can make a difference.”

The most successful organizations lead with the clearest human need – why should I care? And to understand that, you need to know why your audience thinks and behaves the way they do – not just what they do.

The benefits of qualitative research

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data to understand perceptions, motivations, or experiences. It allows you to fill in knowledge gaps, and adjust inquiries based on a person’s response.

If you ask someone what they are cooking, they might answer: “Red beans and rice.” It’s a fact, stated simply. There is no more to know.

If you ask them why they are cooking that, they might answer: “Because I’m hungry.” or “Because I’m a vegetarian.” or “To feed my family.” or dozens of other reasons. Each of those answers prompts additional questions, and deeper understanding.

Whether you’re conducting more formal focus groups or brief one-on-one interviews, qualitative research should provide directional insights. After defining your audiences and objectives, as few as 5-6 well-chosen people can deliver useful, focused feedback. As you proceed, a second round of outreach will help confirm or refine developing concepts.

Qualitative research works best when it’s an iterative process, revealing more than just what or how many.

Curiosity leads to empathy

Only when you know why, can you determine what must be done. Audience insights eliminate surprises and allow you to proceed with confidence.

Like toddlers who seek to understand why things are the way they are, an insatiable curiosity about our grown-up world leads to better design and better outcomes.

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Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter

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